The events of the Thirties are sufficiently remote to be “historic” while at the same time sufficiently near to be discussed among people—some of them still not old—who participated in them. They are therefore a wide-open subject for research. Today, moreover, they interest the young in America and Europe, some of whom feel that there is a parallel between the political-moral issues of that decade—in which politics seemed suddenly concerned with choices between life and death, civilization and barbarism—and issues such as those of Vietnam, racism, and the manipulation of the society by vast military and industrial interests today. Some young people begin to feel that they live in a society influenced by powers—such as those in the Thirties that permitted the Fascists to strangle the Spanish Republicans—which can be met only by their totally committing themselves to an equally all-inclusive counter-political activity.
It is scarcely surprising then that there is a steady flow of books about the attitude of intellectuals to politics in the Thirties. Two outstanding examples, about English and American writers during the Spanish Civil War, are Stanley Weintraub’s The Last Great Cause and Katharine Bail Hoskins’s Today the Struggle (which is exclusively about the English writers).
Both these books, covering much the same ground, are in their ways helpful and interesting. Stanley Weintraub has the advantage that he relates the unfolding events of the war with the parallel activities of the writers. Miss Hoskins consigns the issues of the war to a somewhat thesis-like Appendix. However, in keeping the events separate from the literature she allows herself room for a thorough discussion of some writers and their works: for example, her account of the changes of Wyndham Lewis’s political front (surprising they are, too), and her excellent analysis of his novel largely concerned with Spain, The Revenge for Love.
In the main, these authors simply illustrate the stated attitude of the writers toward the war without venturing far beyond this. Although they give some biographical information, they do not—as Peter Stansky and William Abrahams did in their remarkable book, Journey to the Frontier, about Julian Bell and John Cornford—go into matters of class, education, and upbringing, or of literary relationships, which influenced—sometimes unconsciously—the attitudes of the writers. An exception is Stanley Weintraub’s discussion of Hemingway’s attitudes during his Spanish visits. (Hemingway also receives much intelligent attention by Cecil Eby, in his Between the Bullet and the Lie, which I will discuss later.) Hemingway went to Spain as a war correspondent hypnotically drawn to wars but also having a great love of Spain.
He was not a communist, but whole-heartedly supported the Republic, toward which his attitude was benevolent and rather paternal. He interested himself greatly in the personalities and the activities of International Brigaders. He had a strong disagreement with his colleague John Dos Passos in Valencia. Dos Passos had shown excessive concern when he discovered that his friend and translator José Robles had been shot as a spy. Hemingway cannot be fitted into any category describing the motives of writers for taking sides over Spain. So when he writes about Hemingway, Mr. Weintraub seems to lean less heavily than in other chapters on information obtained from books, and to be seeking his own conclusions.
To give an example of an inadequacy in the approach of these authors, let me consider the question of the relations of the “right-wing” pro-Fascist writers with the left-wing anti-Fascist ones. Both authors have chapters in which they record that, among others, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, and Roy Campbell (violently pro-Franco) were rightist (though Eliot announced during the Spanish Civil War that he “preferred to remain isolated, and take no part in these collective activities”). On the face of it this gives the impression of there being two writers’ parties, one of the left, the other of the right: the division being qualified by the fact that T. S. Eliot, as a director of Faber and Faber, published much of the poetry of the leftist poets. But this political division is cut across by the fact that Auden, Day Lewis, MacNeice, and Spender felt nothing but admiration for the poetry of Yeats and Eliot, by whom they were influenced.
On account of this there was more division between them and a slightly younger group of left-wing writers than between them and these older “right-wing” writers. The poets of the “Auden generation” admired Eliot “this side of idolatry”; and to meet Yeats in a London drawing room in the Thirties was, for them, to meet a god. But to a more completely politicized younger generation Yeats was a reactionary, and Eliot a poet who, having had an insight into the decadence of bourgeois Western Civilization, failed to draw the conclusion that it must be succeeded by revolutionary communism.
These distinctions may seem oversubtle, but for today’s young generation interested in the Thirties, they may be important because they have to do with the fact that among writers, within the general orthodoxy of anti-Fascism, there was a conflict between literary and political dedication. Sometimes this conflict was an inner one taking place within the mind of a writer himself.
Mr. Weintraub and Miss Hoskins rightly pay much attention to Auden’s poem “Spain,” a political poem supporting the Spanish Republic. However, neither of them discusses his “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” (January 1939), which is almost as much an epitaph on Auden’s political commitment during the Thirties as on Yeats himself: “Poetry makes nothing happen…in the valleys of its saying…it flows south….” And “mad Ireland hurt you into poetry…,” which is to deny that Yeats’s poetry had any influence over Irish politics (which Yeats believed it did). Poetry is a stream running deeper than the events with which the political executives tamper and the poems of the poets—whatever their surface disagreements—meet by those waters. Mr. Weintraub and Miss Hoskins probably feel that “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” being written in 1939, does not belong to the period they discuss. The point is though that it expresses the underlying feelings about poetry which Auden certainly had even while he was writing “Spain.”
According to Miss Hoskins, it is unfortunate that since the poets of the “Auden generation” wrote so little before the Thirties, one cannot know what their attitudes would have been if there had never been Fascism. It is a pity she leaves it at that. In fact, Auden, Day Lewis, MacNeice, and Spender all published volumes before they became involved in Thirties’ politics. Moreover a good deal has been written about their attitudes when they were Oxford undergraduates. Although one cannot take the opinions of such young men very seriously, nevertheless it is symptomatic that—apart from a rather dutiful acceptance of pacifist socialism—they were unpolitical, indeed anti-political, and above all completely opposed to the idea that there was any connection between politics and literature.
Their generation inherited attitudes which were the aftermath of the First World War. Important among these was a profound contempt for politics. The politicians were the cynical old men who had sent the young men into the trenches of the Western front. So the true “fathers” of this generation were not the older generation of the England of neurotic colonels and imperialist flag-wavers, but the rebellious sons of the 1914-1918 generation who had been sent to fight in the trenches—or who had been pacifists—and who were cynical about all politics and all politicians: Wilfred Owen, the Robert Graves of Goodbye to All That, E. M. Forster, and (as an outsider) D. H. Lawrence. They regarded T. S. Eliot as a poetic revolutionary, who in The Waste Land—that poem which insulates the decadent Western civilization from all idea that it might be saved by politics—expressed a poetic consciousness creating, against a background of social despair, a poetry unhampered by any social or political involvement. A very similar end-game view of civilization is conveyed by Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and Homage to Sextus Propertius, and in much of D. H. Lawrence (where the orgasm of a Lady Chatterley and her game-keeper is offered as the alternative to social revolution), in A Passage to India, and in books that reached us from America—E. E. Cummings’s The Enormous Room and Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle.
So the “Auden generation” grew up in an atmosphere of enforced social despair, cultivated and productive of late blooms, like Rimbaud cultivating his hysteria. To a considerable extent this remained their attitude during the Thirties. They certainly felt the attraction of seeing all contemporary literature as, wittingly or unwittingly, playing a role in a political drama written by History, of interpreting every contemporary work as revolutionary, reactionary, or escapist. But perhaps more than they were aware, they had mental reservations which prevented them from taking the political interpretation of literature altogether seriously. They never succeeded in turning themselves into ideological Marxists (any more than Edmund Wilson in his Thirties’ writing succeeded in this). These poets considered their poems of political consciousness second string to work judged by values of imagination which they regarded as self-justifying without reference to outside events. Even when writing political Gebrauchs-literatur, they were glad to point out that most of their writing had no political design on the reader. MacNeice—more than the others—could not write about politics without giving the impression—in the work itself—that he did so with curled lip.
And the corresponding generation in America had, surely, a basically apolitical attitude.
So long as there was in Europe no government whose declared intent was to suppress art and intellect, freedom of speech, and all political opposition, the writers whose values were non-political and exclusively literary could believe that the decline of the West was a condition within which a Silver Age living culture might function—an irreversible process, like the Fall of Rome. But with the rise of Hitler the tiger of inhumanity moved into the waste land. It was the murders and vandalism and suppression of liberal freedoms which forced the non-political Thirties’ generation into politics—the writers whom Stanley Weintraub calls the non-combatants.
The slightly younger generation, of the combatants, had a different attitude. Stansky and Abrahams relate how John Cornford, reading The Waste Land when he was still a schoolboy in 1935, interpreted it as a declaration of the bankruptcy—not of “the West”—but of capitalism. He could see it in this way because, by 1935, “Fascism” seemed a single front with Hitler at the center, but whose flanks were the governing classes of England, France, and even America. With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and the signing of the Non-Intervention Agreement those who connived at the Fascist intervention in Spain included not only conservatives like Stanley Baldwin, but also Roosevelt and Léon Blum.
Today, looking back at the Thirties across the gulf of the “war against Fascism,” one finds it difficult to see the idea of the young that the democracies were part of the same capitalism as Hitler, other than as an example of the group paranoia which sometimes affects young generations. Above all, the America of the New Deal and of Roosevelt’s frequent anti-Nazi growlings seems anything but pro-Fascist. However, Cecil Eby corrects the impression that the Roosevelt administration gave comfort and secret aid to the American Volunteers in Republican Spain. On the arrival of the first American volunteers in Spain, Cordell Hull cabled instructions to the American consul in Barcelona that American nationals in the Brigade should be given none of the protection—not even if they deserted and wished to leave Spain—accorded to American citizens. These instructions were—with very few exceptions made on grounds of mercy—carried out, and in the later stages of the war young American deserters were being hounded by Brigade security agents, without being able to claim protection as American citizens.
Yet Ernest Hemingway gave a special showing of his film Spanish Earth at the White House, to Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt, on July 8, 1937.
A more fundamental distinction than that between combatants and non-combatants who were nevertheless committed anti-Fascists was that between convinced communists and fellow travelers. Members of the “Auden generation” tended to be fellow travelers partly for personal reasons to do with their background, but mainly because they had already formed in their own minds sets of values which were not capable of being converted into communist ideology. When confronted by Fascism and the Spanish Civil War they assented to the communist answer because it was, to all intents and purposes, the most effective one given. They found themselves living in a world in which the democratic powers—all democratic freedoms being threatened—behaved like sleeping dogs. But they hardly doubted that, if roused, the democracies would defend their freedoms. The slightly younger generation who had been converted to communism and had “gone over to the proletariat” saw themselves in a very different world: one in which there was only communism and capitalism, and where Fascism was simply the most rabid, unconcealed, and violent release of the forces of capitalist imperialism.
The small left-wing magazines of the decade are full of controversy which consists, for the most part, of the communists attacking the fellow travelers. Mr. Weintraub and Miss Hoskins neglect this literature which throws light on what is perhaps the matter of most lasting interest about the attitude of writers toward Spain: an examination of conscience among modern writers as to what should be their attitude toward the ideological conflict which divided the modern world. Both authors refer to the answers given to a Left Review questionnaire, Authors Take Sides, but they do not describe the magazine, its contents and its place, in the running fight between party-line and fellow-traveling writers. Here, as with other periodical literature of the decade, an opportunity seems to have been missed.
They do discuss one minor classic of party line literary criticism. This is Caudwell’s Illusion and Reality, in which this brilliant young critic (whose real name was Christopher St. John Sprigg) attacks bourgeois literature as “illusion” and defends communism as “reality.” He bundles together D. H. Lawrence, Wells, Proust, Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, Wasserman, Galsworthy, and Hemingway (to whom, elsewhere, he added Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot, and E. M. Forster) as (here I quote the excerpt given by Miss Hoskins):
men who proclaim the disillusionment of bourgeois culture with itself…[but are] not able to wish for anything better or gain any close grasp of this bourgeois culture whose pursuit of liberty and individualism led them into the mire…. [They are] pathetic rather than tragic figures, for they are helpless, not because of over-whelming circumstances but because of their own illusion.
John Cornford, in periodicals, wrote along the same lines, attacking members of the generation slightly older than himself. It was Nazism, in the first place, and, following it, the Spanish Civil War, which had dramatized for them this picture of black and white, the world divided into sheep and goats, with pathetic liberal rabbits in between. One could not save one’s soul or one’s art in such a world, one had to take sides in the struggle, have both forged in its fire.
At the same time it would be wrong to think of the phase of anti-Fascism which Cornford, Caudwell, Ralph Fox, and others represent—and in which they remain forever fixed by their deaths, as though cast in bronze—as Stalinism. They got their ideas from Marx and Engels and when they looked abroad they saw not Moscow but beleaguered Madrid. They had souls of a very untainted ideology and bodies of courage. They were not bureaucrats and they belonged to the International Brigade at that time when, although there was communism, there was also no saluting. They were individualists, and in defending Madrid gave the Republican cause, in its international aspect, much of its personal character.
I should emphasize that although they had sacrificed their writing (apart from the few poems they were able to write at the front) for “the struggle,” they did not think of themselves as renouncing literature. To paraphrase the gospels, they thought that the poet who loseth his poetry shall find it. And even if he did not find it—if he lost his life, that is—he could console himself with the reflection that it was impossible anyway to produce good work “under capitalism.” (This was the moral of The Waste Land just as much as of Illusion and Reality.) Self-immolation in action meant that one might be destroyed: but then, with the victory of the proletariat, a new culture would rise phoenix-like from the ashes. The word “new” in New Signatures, New Country, New Writing, etc. has, faintly, this connotation. Sam Levinger, a young American volunteer killed in Spain, gropingly expresses this thought:
Those who charge the guns will be remembered,
And from red blood white pinna- cles will tower.
A cliché of the Thirties was the opposite pairs, capitalism-death, communism-life. There was also an image of new life springing immediately from the life-death confrontation. The cause itself could be identified with death so long as death was merged in new life. As Edward Upward’s protagonist, the tutor in Journey to the Border, reflects, addressing himself, in a passage quoted by Miss Hoskins:
…in capitalist society there is no future for poetry or for anything worth while. There is no future for anything except tyranny and death…. Only the workers can save the things you value and love. All that is gentle, generous, lovely, innocent, free, they will fight to save. And in the end they will win. There will be a time of harshness and bitter struggle, but out of it will come flowers; splendor and joy will come back to the world. And life will be better than it has ever been yet in the world’s history.
There is a vision of the transcendence of personality, of the incarnation of the cause in the flesh and blood and nerves of the fighter dedicated to it, in Cornford’s lines:
Then let my private battle with my nerves,
The fear of pain whose pain survives,
The love that tears me by the roots,
The loneliness that claws my guts,
Fuse in the welded front our fight preserves
Men like Cornford, Caudwell, Ralph Fox, Julian Bell, and the young American James Lardner—all of whom were killed in Spain—conformed, in the fusing of their lives into their deaths, with the classical idea of tragedy at its purest: the ideal which the hero represents projected as idea into the world at the moment of his death.
How curious to reflect that, despite all the cynicism, brutality, and boredom of politics in our time, nevertheless it is radical politics which have produced the modern tragic martyrs and heroes—even when the protagonists were, on occasions, murdered by the side to which they had dedicated their lives!
It was implicit in the Nazi movement that all who opposed it would be annihilated, turned to ashes like the books burned by the SS thugs. The furthest secret of Fascist rule was the nameless human being—reduced to being a number—tortured in a prison cell.
A deep underlying motive of some anti-Fascists, including even those who considered themselves scientifically communist, may have been the felt need to share the fate of the anonymous victims, to identify themselves with the agony of those who had been deprived of their names.
During the Second World War, Simone Weil starved herself by refusing to eat more than she reckoned to be the ration of a prisoner in a concentration camp; and in Spain during the Civil War, she shared the life of the poorest people. Orwell lived “down and out” in London and Paris, and then in the home of unemployed workers in the North of England (much as James Agee lived in 1936 in the house of a typical sharecropper’s family in the South). In Spain he fought as a soldier on the anarchist Catalan front. For Orwell, joining the working class was not ideological (adopting a proletarian point of view which, in fact, very few of the proletariat shared), it meant living the conditions of life of the workers.
Orwell was fascinated by totalitarian politics, and he had some special insight into the ways in which men’s minds could be conscripted and controlled by the central authority in the police state. The liquidation of his anarchist comrades of the Trotskyite POUM in Barcelona, to which he bore witness, followed by the skillful propaganda campaign denouncing them as fascists, foreshadowed the methods of Big Brother which he described in 1984.
The basis of his animus against the communisant left-wing intellectuals was that they were fellow travelers, leading leisured lives, who approved of communism (which for him, after the liquidation of the POUM, had become identical with Fascism) without experiencing its methods, any more than they had experienced the life of the proletariat. The real reason for his famous denunciation of a line by Auden in “Spain,” “The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder,” was not that he seriously considered Auden to be putting forward a program of mass slaughter, but because he felt that unless a man had witnessed political murder, he should not write poetry about it.
It is significant that, despite his hatred of communism, Orwell did not attack the communists who fought in Spain, who were of course far more ideological than the “parlor pinks.” He did not do so because the fact that they had experienced the conditions from which they derived their views—and had indeed, many of them died for them—silenced him.
What strikes one in all this is a certain mystique about a terrible experience which is the ultimate reality of modern life: a horror that, if experienced, will probably destroy you, but about which it is frivolous to make literature, if you have not experienced it.
The Spanish Civil War crystallized this feeling that the final reality—of Fascism, capitalism, and, finally, of Stalinism—was an incommunicable terror. The writers who fought in Spain had submitted to its testing, even if they were destroyed by it.
Ernest Hemingway’s position was close to this, though exceptional and sui generis. He went to Spain with the declared intention of writing about it. But no one was so foolish as to think that he had to submit to the test of the ultimate reality of the conflict in order to do so. He was the notorious exceptional case of a kind of War Horror Expert whose qualifications were already public knowledge. He was expected to write about war because war was his obsession. To him it was a pure condition of being, transcending even his loyalty to the Republican side.
Having him in Spain was like letting Edgar Allen Poe into a small cellar containing one mad cat. He had passed all the tests already, faced the horrors, died the deaths. The only test, Spain did offer was to ask Whether He Was Still Up To It, a question probably of greater interest to himself than to anyone else. He passed easily. When he read at Carnegie Hall, to the Second American Writers’ Congress, a text about war, he left no doubt that he was speaking about the ultimate reality—Captain Ahab personally addressing the real white whale—an experience by comparison with which the Cause had shrunk into being mere occasion. Mr. Weintraub quotes from this speech:
…It is very dangerous to write the truth in war and the truth is also very dangerous to come by. I do not know which American writers have gone out to seek it…and when a man goes to seek the truth in war he may find death instead. But if twelve go and two come back, the truth will be the truth and not the garbled hearsay that we pass as history. Whether the truth is worth some risk to come by, the writers must decide themselves. Certainly it is not [? sic] more comfortable to spend their time disputing learnedly on points of doctrine. And there will always be new schisms and new fallings off and marvellous exotic doctrines and romantic lost leaders, for those who do not want to work at what they profess to believe in, but only to discuss and maintain positions, skillfully chosen positions with no risk involved in holding them. Positions to be held by the typewriter and consolidated with the fountain pen. But there is now, and there will be from now on for a long time, war for any writer to go to who wants to study it.
The reality of the Cause which is fought for here seems to have disappeared into the war itself, which becomes the ultimate reality.
War’s ultimate reality was also of course a test of qualities of human behavior which Hemingway took to be those of the real person. There goes along with this a view that people who go to wars should not complain about what they find there: hence Hemingway’s quarrel in Spain with Dos Passos for being discomfited because one of his friends was shot as a spy. In the collection of four stories and a play called The Fifth Column recently published, there is a curious story called “The Denunciation” in which Hemingway as the thinly disguised narrator—who is also a well-known writer—seems to accept responsibility—perhaps as an object lesson to Dos Passos—for getting someone shot.
The scene is a Madrid café called Chicote much favored by its clients, to which the writer goes one afternoon. An old waiter comes over to him and, pointing out a guest at another table, says he is a Fascist spy. The writer at once recognizes the man as a certain Delgado whom he knew before the war, and with whom he had been on very friendly terms. He takes it for granted that Delgado is a Fascist spy, for he had met him among friends who held extremely reactionary views, and he had once, after a hunting party, won in a bet a sum of money which he knew Delgado could ill afford, but which he cheerfully paid up.
The waiter wants advice: Should he denounce Delgado? The writer at first hesitates and experiences some contemptible scruples of the literary man, but then encourages the writer to do so. The waiter telephones the police, and the writer, feeling a bit squeamish about the prospect of seeing his old friend arrested in front of his eyes, goes back to his hotel from where, later on, he calles Pépé, a friend who is in the Seguridad, to ask whether they have picked up Delgado. Pépé says yes, it all went off smoothly and Delgado will be shot tomorrow. The writer asks Pépé a favor: to tell Delgado that it was he and not the waiter who denounced him to the police. The story ends with the writer reflecting that doubtless Delgado had gone to Chicote’s because all the clients at that café had a kind of special feeling about the place. “So I was glad I had called my friend Pépé at Seguridad head-quarters because Luis Delgado was an old client of Chicote’s and I did not wish him to be disillusioned or bitter about the waiters before he died.”
The moral of this seems to be that in a war one should yield up one’s friends to the secret police with a good grace and without fussily demanding that before being shot they should be tried. The ending has a conceited smugness which to my mind makes even a famous First World War story of Rudyard Kipling yield place to it in any competition for the most morally repugnant story ever written. Rudyard Kipling’s story is about a dear old English spinster in the employ of a family whose son has been killed on the western front, who goes out into the garden and shoots dead a wounded German pilot whose machine has crashed nearby. The spinster lady at least has the excuse that the pilot, given the opportunity, would have killed her. But in Hemingway’s story there is not even any evidence beyond the waiter’s and the writer’s opinion to prove that Delgado was a spy. On such evidence as Hemingway provides, Delgado might equally have denounced the writer, for having hunted and taken bets and frequented aristocratic company before the war.
“The Denunciation” is obviously a story with a moral, horrid as it is. Yet in another story, “Under the Ridge,” where Hemingway is using his experience and his imagination and not preaching toughness, there is a truth which undermines any moralizing. “Under the Ridge” is an extremely vivid account of a battle in the midst of which the narrator visits a part of the front where there are various kinds of troops, some of them anarchists. He has a conversation with an Extremaduran who is extremely hostile and surly, and mistakes him for a Russian. Soon after this he notices a Frenchman get up with a very serious expression on his face and simply walk away from the front, behind the lines. A few minutes later the Frenchman is followed by two leather-jacketed military policemen. The soldiers notice this and tell the narrator how a boy called Paco who deserted this front was brought back by the Russian police and as an example shot at the very spot from which he had deserted. The writer suddenly thinks that the Frenchman “could walk out of battle not from cowardice, but simply from seeing too clearly: knowing suddenly that he had to leave it: knowing that there was no other thing to do.” Comparing these two stories I can only conclude that when Hemingway was justifying war and toughness, he could be maudlin with a hideous inverted sentimentality, but that when he was simply observing and experiencing, war did move him to truthful observation and deep imaginative insight.
The war did, at any rate, challenge writers with itself, as that into which the issues had become metamorphosized, so that it became trivial to discuss the issues, or even to take sides, if one was not fighting in it. It also exercised other pressures on writers who took sides, to adopt attitudes which, while favorable to the cause, were perhaps less conducive to good literature. An example is the denunciation of André Gide by Russian and other writers at the Writers’ Congress held in Madrid, in the summer of 1937. On returning from an official visit to the Soviet Union Gide had published his Retour de l’urss, the journal in which he criticized the excessive adulation of Stalin in Russia and reported criticism of the regime which certain Russians, who had bravely sought him out, had communicated to him. An internationally famous writer standing up in the hall and pointing in the direction of the University City (where there were the Fascists), said that he deplored Gide’s book because it would be received with applause by those who were firing shells at Madrid from over there.
At the same congress there was a further example of the kind of pressure brought on writers when Ludwig Renn (Arnold Vieth von Golssenau), who was commander of the Thaelmann battalion of the International Brigade, declared that the contemporary writer’s role was “no longer to make stories but to make history.” To which one should have replied “Speak for yourself, sir!” However much one admired the courage of Renn and of others who said the same kind of thing, there was a need during the Thirties to refute heroic philistines, to refute even Thomas Mann, when he made his famous observation that “In our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms”—a remark which produced from W. B. Yeats a retort which at least has the merit of putting in a word in defense of frivolity:
How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
But Thomas Mann also made a remark (not quoted by Mr. Weintraub or Miss Hoskins) which seemed to me, living then, more to the point: “Karl Marx must read Friedrich Hoelderlin.”
All attitudes, even of those who gave their lives, seem abstract though, when one turns to the confusion, the multitudes of attitudes, which was the fighting itself. Reality is far more complex than the little thing we call truth, which is, usually, the individual’s attempt to impose meaning on, or to wrestle it from, his experience. So to turn from reading about the attitudes of the writers to Spain, to Mr. Carl Eby’s devastating picture of the American Volunteers of the Lincoln and Washington Battalions, is to turn from the sense people tried to make out of the war to the senselessness itself.
Carl Eby’s book is about the approximately 3,200 American volunteers who, at intervals, came to Spain, of whom roughly half lost their lives. Although Mr. Eby limits himself to writing about matters which are relevant to the American volunteers, in fact what he provides is a picture of the Spanish Civil War in miniature, in which attention is fixed on the Americans, but the surrounding circumstances fall into place. I do not think any book has been written which is a more vivid evocation than this of life on the Republican side in all its aspects—the fighting, the international brigades, the Russian presence, the focus of international interest on Spain, and the life of journalists and visitors in Madrid, Valencia, and at the front.
The American Volunteers—arriving a bit later than the Franco-Belge, the Slavs, the German refugees, and the British—nevertheless took part in all the major battles of the war—the defense of Madrid, the battle of Jarama, Belchite, Brunete, Teruel, Corbera, etc. Trained in haphazard fashion, inadequately armed, for the most part badly officered—and with those outstanding leaders they produced occupied as much with having to obey or trying to resist the imbecility of the higher command as with fighting—they were routed on several occasions; and on others, in which they greatly distinguished themselves, as at Brunete, in the occupation of Belchite, the crossing of the Ebro, and the appalling fighting at Teruel, their advances and momentary victories resembled the movements of one who, thinking he has jumped high, succeeds in putting his head into the noose.
In this, of course, they were simply living the military history of the Republic, which, as Mr. Eby makes very clear, was doomed—not so much by the incompetence of the military leaders, as by the quantity and directive efficiency of the aid given to Franco by the Germans and Italians, greater than that supplied by the demanding Russians.
The Lincoln Battalion was part of “B” Division of the International Brigades, which was commanded by General Gal (or “Gall”), “the most mysterious—and by far the most incompetent—of the International general officers in Spain.” (He was a non-Russian Slav, a refugee in Stalin’s Russia, who tried to win spurs in Spain, but who only succeeded in getting himself recalled to Russia, where he was shot.) Soon after the Americans arrived at the Jarama Front they took part in the offensive to seize Hill 693, called Pingarron, which was a high point between the Jarama and Tajuña rivers. In the mind of General Gal, this hill constituted what Herbert L. Matthews, the New York Times correspondent, called “a fetish of position.” It had to be taken (and wasn’t). The Americans—many of them with only a few hours target practice as training before they went into action—were ordered to attack under dominating fire aimed at them from a commanding height.
“Within ten minutes the attack had ceased. It had not been halted by official order; it had simply been crushingly stopped. At the end of the day, of four hundred members of the Lincoln Battalion only eighty remained effectives.” Of these, “large groups” attempted to desert, but they were disarmed by White Russian emigrés and put on trial in a large cave, the prosecution demanding, allegedly, that every tenth man be shot, and the rest sent to a labor battalion. Luckily for them, the trial was interrupted by “General Pavlov,” commander of the Soviet Tank Corps, who whimsically and peremptorily sent the tribunal packing.
After this catastrophe the remnants of the Lincoln Brigade, reinforced by new arrivals, spent some months in the comparatively static line of the Jarama front. During these months they were changed from being a demoralized mob to an army approved by Hemingway: “They have become soldiers. The romantics have pulled out, the cowards have gone home with the badly wounded…. Those who are left are tough, with blackened, matter-of-fact faces, and after seven months, they know their trade.”
Between the Bullet and the Lie is a brilliant book, the result of immense research but never oppressed by it. Mr. Eby seems to have visited every front of the war and he has brought to life the conditions in which the volunteers fought, their emotions, the characteristics of their commanders and political commissars (“comic stars”), the landscape at the front, with the dead lying between the lines, the periods of terrible activity and of boredom or relief, the occasional leaves taken to Madrid, the moment of triumph and of defeat, the desertions, with a clarity which makes one feel one is living these things. He makes bold judgments about the leaders, and I suppose that some of his portraits of them are highly controversial, especially his scathing description of Joe Mallet and his less than enthusiastic portrayal of Major Robert Merriman (supposedly the model for Hemingway’s Robert Jordan). His hero is Steve Nelson (“by all odds the most effective leader of the Americans during the Spanish war”). He can be extremely funny, as in his account of the three days’ visit of Virginia Cowles (the London Sunday Times correspondent) to General Gal’s headquarters.
Christopher Caudwell thought that D. H. Lawrence, in common with other bourgeois writers, although seeing through the hypocrisies of bourgeois society, was himself trapped in illusion, because he did not choose communism as the answer to the evils of capitalist society. Caudwell, Cornford, Fox, and other writers in the International Brigades were consciously choosing reality and rejecting the illusion of bourgeois freedom, when they fought in Spain. One can almost believe that with them theory and action—or inner truth and outward event—coincided during those weeks of fighting for Madrid when the “bourgeoisie” had revealed itself as the violent external enemy and when the freedom for which the people were fighting was one with what their people’s army represented.
But if these young communist writers had survived, they would have seen the liquidation of the POUM, the shooting of many of their comrades by André Marty, the growing stranglehold on the Republic of the Stalinists. If they had failed to see these things, or had supported party line rationalizations of them, and if they supposed they were still fighting for an external cause which corresponded to their inner conviction, then they would have been in a state of illusion regarding the people’s freedom which they supposed communism to represent, just as much as or more than that of a D. H. Lawrence. Therefore, having chosen communism, what weapons of the intellect or imagination did they carry which would cut through the communist illusion?
Perhaps they were mistaken in thinking that because bourgeois freedom is illusory, then the writer living in a capitalist society is incapable of being free. For there is illusion under capitalist society and also under communist society. But beyond the illusion which is a condition of any society, perhaps it is possible for the writer to have a freedom which, though subject to the conditioning of the society, is in some respects capable of penetrating beyond those conditions. This is the freedom which Orwell insists on in 1984: the freedom of refusing to agree that two times two make five, whatever the society may say, of insisting that a lie is a lie is a lie, however much political exigencies may require that one pretend a lie is the truth.
Maybe the writer is almost entirely conditioned by the society in which he lives, but yet he may retain a pin-point of consciousness, observing prose truth or creating imaginative poetic truth which is human, independent, and judging. In having this of course he represents the independent consciousness which is also present in his neighbors, and which may take other forms, such as demands for scientific freedom. But whereas such consciousness is incidental to their work, with him it is his artistic vocation. Thus today there is perhaps a common cause of consciousness between certain writers in Russia and Eastern Europe, who resist the surrounding illusion of their form of society and look at reality, and certain writers in America.
September 25, 1969