The first of these books is a retrospective of some completeness, and contains all the literary criticism the author wants to preserve except for some work on Dostoevsky, which he is saving for a book devoted to that author. The second, consisting of essays written over the last seven years of thereabouts, is a different kind of show. Of the first we are bound to ask not only how the earlier work has kept, how it looks beside the later, but also what kind of a personality the whole thing testifies to—whether, allowing for change with the years, we can hear one voice and read one mind. And in this sense we are asking a lot more of the first book than of the second. We are judging not the skill and utility of this piece or that, but the authority and the authenticity of a life.
Some critics tend to be ventriloquial, and sound from time to time like their topics, or like other critics. Others, whatever they’re saying, retain a recognizable voice at all times: the gruff mandarinism of Empson, for example. Rahv is of this second class, and with him the continuity of the vocal tone is a reflection of a radical set of values which remains essentially unchanged. His criticism has strength rather than ingenuity, eloquence rather than wit. He mimics nobody, preferring his own voice with its certainty of timbre and its dynamic range (loud but controlled in polemic). Consequently he collects well, keeps well. To me, a critic with virtually nothing in common with him (except inability to read proof), the weight of Rahv’s book, its clarity and certainty, are extremely impressive. Apart from anything else, it was no small achievement to go on doing unfashionable things, to follow one’s own road, when American criticism, for virtually a generation, was headed in a quite different direction. It called for sobriety and patience, for a sense of vocation and a sense of history.
“The Sixth Sense” is a sense of history; Nietzsche said that the development of historical insight in the modern epoch constituted what was virtually a new faculty of the mind, a sixth sense. Rahv values the possession of it, and thinks it unfortunate that America (“Amnesia”) lacks it. This lack explains not only his quarrels with American literature and its critics, but his repeated attempts to supply historical schemata for general use. In doing so he is using the sixth sense, and, as he himself observes, his ways of doing so derive in part from an early training in Marxism. They also derive from a slightly later experience, the exercise of detecting the cant and lies of the party-liners. And there isn’t the least doubt that Rahv has retained not only “a measure of social and ideological commitment” but also “a certain kind of realism” and “a polemical tone.” The mind that cut away the pretense and the political opportunism from the concept of proletarian literature (this in a brilliant essay of 1939) is still at work and in the same way in the latest piece reprinted here, “On F. R. Leavis and D. H. Lawrence.” *
In this essay Rahv is questioning certain central judgments made by a critic in whom he finds much to admire; the authority of Leavis’s critical personality would naturally attract him, and he also approves the English critic’s saying that to be interested in literature implies other interests, “in man, society and civilisation.” These and other qualities exempt Leavis from assault when those other traditionalist followers of Eliot, the New Critics, are catching it for their formalist ways (though he distinguishes between the great originals and their epigoni as, he claims, amnesic America does not).
But his respect for Leavis only adds to his puzzlement when he reads that critic on Lawrence. Leavis finds Lawrence to be “a marvellously perceptive critic.” Rahv allows him some percipient remarks, but remembers how silly Lawrence is about Dostoevsky, about Chekhov, about Flaubert, Mann, Proust…”The truth is that as a critic Lawrence is wholly lacking in disinterestedness and…objectivity.” But Leavis will not admit that there is even an element of petulant rant or of irresponsibility, just as he ignores almost entirely the huge quantities of irrationalist, neoprimitivist thinking and preaching in Lawrence. Now this seems to Rahv both strange and damaging. He observes that Leavis dismisses Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a novel “the normal Lawrence” would have known to be bad, though in his book he had asserted that there is in Lawrence “no profound emotional disturbance, no obdurate major disharmony.” Having decided that Lawrence is wholly healthy, wholly “makes for life,” he is involved in difficulties and apparent contradictions of this kind.
It is typical of Rahv that he then proceeds to explain categorically why, in his view, Lawrence does not “make for life”: his views on marriage and orgasm are unhealthy, he failed very often to use that “intelligence” for which Leavis constantly praises him. But this forthrightness doesn’t proceed from a personal animus against Lawrence, and Rahv defends him from the charge, made by Russell and many others, that his doctrines had affinities with Fascism. I myself think this defense goes wrong, that “blood-consciousness” does have something to do with “racial…purity of blood,” which Rahv denies. It is true, though, that Fascists found no use for Lawrence in their propaganda, and Rahv’s realism is of the kind that rejects political implications when they have no practical consequence.
Nor would he (as one who always has the counterrevolutionary work of Dostoevsky in mind) want to deny the value of Lawrence’s novels because they are affected by an uncongenial ideology. As it happens, he does believe Lawrence’s novels went wrong after Sons and Lovers, finds them to be spoiled, not by a world view he doesn’t share, but by their surrender to propaganda. I happen to think he is wrong, at any rate about the next two after Sons and Lovers—The Rainbow and Women in Love—and perhaps he should have re-examined them. There are novels he can’t be bothered with, and abruptly dismisses without a fair statement of reasons: Between the Acts, like Women in Love, he makes little attempt to understand. But this failure, though it indicates his limits, doesn’t invalidate the central argument of this very characteristic essay.
It’s chiefly so in its extreme explicitness. You always know from what angle he is looking, and his points when made stay made. In the early days this power to tackle head-on the very questions serious readers were troubled about must have been very exhilarating. And although the existence of literature in a political world was his first concern, he was always capable of independent judgments that might have been, but weren’t, clouded by doctrinal presumptions. On James, during the James revival, he is admirably just and perceptive; he knew how to make room for Kafka, whom he introduced to the American public by an act of criticism that has lost none of its force. Above all, he knew and said exactly what he was doing; his comments on American literature are a good illustration of this.
Rahv’s Paleface-Redskin theory is probably too well-known for comment. The important point is that he has never accepted isolationist literary history; the criteria of foreign books and civilizations are always relevant. The tone of his remarks is consequently, but beneficially, sour. For example, he sees American literature as having been constricted by a poverty of experience, with Emerson and Hawthorne as the best instances of this; there followed a liberation movement, an attempt to make the expressive means comparable with the expansion of material wealth. The champions were, among others, Dreiser, Anderson, Lewis, Cabell, Mencken, Millay. But somehow they pushed too hard; or anyway, no stable condition of expressive liberty was reached. What happened was that “the dear old American innocence” was naïvely inverted; there was Wolfe, and later, commercialized license. Of a literature that is in, and truly knows, the real world, there was none. The technical force of Pound is the concomitant of silliness; the creative power of Faulkner dissipates itself in obscurity.
That was the view of 1940. Later he continued to lament the impoverishing remoteness of American intellectuals from political power, defending the avant-garde against McCarthyism and a general embourgeoisement of American life. The avant-garde, on which all depended, must be kept pure of kitsch, independent of mass culture. The disappointment of such hopes shows not only in the irascible handling of a later avant-garde, but in the scheme he provides of American literature since the Thirties. There are three stages, roughly the political Thirties, the formalist, neo-Christian Forties and Fifties, and the swinging Sixties, in which everything comes home to roost.
I don’t think that this gloomy picture is the work of a critic who is too European. He may be too American. As he himself says, the great theme of American fiction is disappointment with “the discrepancy between the high promise of the American dream and what history has made of it.” This is, after all, a great theme, and it has got out of fiction into the streets. Certainly, and very expressly, it is Rahv’s theme. There is, I think, no other literature or body of criticism which is consecrated to it: there is no French dream, no British Adam.
The difference between Rahv and some other critics is that he does not allow himself to be seduced into parochialism. The cost to him is that some very ambitious attempts to find the means to express the theme, and to encompass that abundance of experience for the encompassing of which, as he complains, no expressive form has been devised, are ignored or condemned. On the Sixties he is very cold; only Malamud and Bellow please him. Pynchon, who literally does encompass abundance, who follows the flight of meaning underground and makes sense of some kind out of the urban landscape, is not mentioned.
And under the censures of novelists who work too close to the limit of obscenity one hears the tones of an outraged American who wants not the American tradition—the focus on the private life—but something more public. The Ambassadors, he says in an epigram, amounts to a declaration of the rights of the private man; but there are more sonorous declarations, and American literature is deprived of them. Hence his discontent with the tradition. He also dislikes fraud, including the fraud of representing American as one of the major world literatures. But that is what he wants it to be: it is an American dream, and its defeat by history is what Rahv has the right gloomy power of mind to chronicle.
Let us, as we turn to Mary McCarthy’s book, remind ourselves that it represents the work of a much shorter period, and also the work of someone we don’t think of first as a critic. Having done so, let’s admit that it is nevertheless surprisingly different in one particular. Not that it lacks the sixth sense altogether; but it does lack a base. There is evidence of the quality of the author’s critical sense, but not of any radical set of attitudes toward literature, political or otherwise. And this is surprising because she started out in the Thirties in New York. The kind of concern for the state of the nation one found in Rahv doesn’t show through here; and although Miss McCarthy is certainly a powerful arguer too, we miss in her the forceful tone of voice that comes from a commitment often re-examined but still firm.
The book is full of jokes and squibs, not always illuminating the subject. Macbeth is “just another Adam or Fall guy.” In the essay on Burroughs we learn that “the auto-ejaculation of a hanged man is not everybody’s cantharides.” A piece on Ivy Compton-Burnett starts off: “A Compton-Burnett is a reliable make, as typical of British workmanship as a tweed of Tiptree or an Agatha Christie,” and in establishing a normal Compton-Burnett plot, describes Felix Culpa, “an androgyne bookworm” in the schoolroom, “curled up with a popular novel, the Book of Job. His sister, Maxima Culpa, is in the library; a sulphurous smell of will-burning proceeds from the grate.”
The joke is more elaborate than this potted version conveys, and it is good for a giggle; but what good does it do at the opening of a long essay? The name of Agatha Christie can only confuse what is in any case a dubious proposition; and later we are told how careful Miss Compton-Burnett was not to give her characters allegorical names. It does seem that the point was simply to let off fireworks in the opening paragraph. The famous Nabokov piece, a marvelously ingenious explication of Pale Fire, begins by calling the book “a Jack-in-the-box, a Fabergé gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem, an infernal machine, a trap to catch reviewers, a cat-and-mouse game, a do-it-yourself kit.” It is as if Miss McCarthy had decided that what analysts of narrative are beginning to call the Aperture Tagmeme (the slot for “once upon a time,” or whatever) should always have a joke in it.
This may be the best explanation for her leading off the whole collection with an essay, already printed in another collection, on Macbeth. Opening a book which contains so many fine things with this disastrous piece is hard to explain in any other way. The point is that Macbeth has a boring suburban golfer’s soul: “So foul and fair a day….” is “Terrible weather we’re having,” and so on. The point is not nonexistent, of course, but the means of demonstrating it destroy it, and seem to depend on some uncharacteristically simple assumptions about poetry, one of which happens to be expressed later in the book, when Miss McCarthy argues that it is harder to read poetry wrong than to read prose wrong, because of the meter.
Everything else is far better than this, but the shocks are not over; there is, for example, the title piece, first published in these pages, which is about Orwell. One feels Miss McCarthy could easily have taken a much more sympathetic line here, another instance of a pervasive unpredictability. Orwell exasperates her partly because he too is unpredictable, but also because he is humorless and often stupid. She is annoyed by his carelessness about his health, by his not having enough “human weaknesses” to be a novelist, and by his habit of descending—into popular literature, into the slums. His virtues, his reticences, all appear as tiresome eccentricities, and, although it was silly of him to neglect his health, “it was a blessing for him probably that he died” at forty-six.
I find this rancor inexplicable. The oddity and Englishness of Orwell seem to count against him; Miss Compton-Burnett’s are considered rather too emphatically as distinguished. Orwell is never let off. He was outraged that great houses in London were repaired during the war, when the bombed-out poor had no shelter. “But would he have organized and led a committee of the homeless to storm and occupy those mansions? If not, why rail?” It helps toward the conclusion that Orwell’s socialism was “unexamined…sheer rant.”
Orwell thought it important to win the war, and would hardly have considered inciting a riot in an embattled city; but even if this was not his principal consideration, what on earth is wrong with crying out against an obvious abuse of privilege? One notes that Miss McCarthy’s militants would have been “a committee.” A committee does not storm, it talks. The word falls queerly short of the action demanded; the effect is not wholly serious. Orwell, who did act on occasion, is a hard man to visualize on a committee anyway, very hard to visualize in the New York of the Thirties. A weird socialist-unrealist, he might as well be dead and have done with it. The essay ends with a patriotic poem of Orwell’s, written at the beginning of the First World War, and supposed, by Miss McCarthy, to clinch the whole argument: Orwell was a sort of furtive patriot. She finds significance in its having been omitted from the big collection of his work she is reviewing. Orwell wrote the poem when he was eleven years old, but you have to fill your closure tagmeme.
There are many strange things about this essay. Orwell’s determined lack of glitter, his hatred of rhetorical effect seem to provoke Miss McCarthy to special efforts in those lines. His hatred of modishness, his speaking his own mind (of course he was very often wrong) produce in this author a desire to exaggerate not only his wrongness, but the uselessness of such integrity. But the oddest thing of all is that one can’t read the essay without feeling something that isn’t stated, namely Miss McCarthy’s affection and respect; it is there even when she is sneering at Orwell for being simple about the simple life. That is why, as I said, one lacks confidence that the whole thing might not easily have been done quite differently, had glitter seemed consistent with a sympathetic view of the man.
The people who do get sympathetic treatment in this volume are mostly experimental novelists, provided they are technically very ingenious and provided they don’t belong to the nouveau roman establishment. The Pale Fire piece with the famous non sequitur at the end (“one of the very great works of the century”) is matched by essays on Sarraute and Monique Wittig, novelists who offer Miss McCarthy precisely the right opportunities. Sarraute’s arranging for the medium “to imitate itself” is a feat she never tires of contemplating and expounding. In such ways the novelist achieves an important end: “She rescues banality from itself.”
This way of talking about the new novel was instituted by Baudelaire in his comments on Madame Bovary, which Miss McCarthy herself appears, in an essay reprinted here, to be expanding, arguing that Madame Bovary was the first novel about mass-produced culture. Commentary of this kind requires attention to minute technical detail, and calls for intellectual efforts which Miss McCarthy vividly and disinterestedly puts forth. I doubt if one can yet guess at a theory underlying her analyses: at times I though she was getting close to a structuralist view of the novel under discussion as a system of vides rather than of pleins, but in commending Wittig’s book (“an accidental discovery in the laboratory of the novel”) as having moral and pedagogical utility, being so unlike the official new novel, she seems to back away from that affiliation.
Still, it is in such essays, devoted, cool, clear, and acute, that Miss McCarthy is at her best, indeed almost without rival.
But she often chooses subjects which require her to be uneasily combative: the heat of the quarrel over Miss Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem somehow parochializes the great subject by calling on the Inquisition and the police state to explain the conduct of a powerless intellectual on the other side of the argument.
The best instance of this truculence is an account of the discomfiture of Sartre at a student meeting in Paris. The question discussed was “What can literature do?” Sartre in the course of his speech remarked that he was a democratic writer—he regarded the reader as a collaborator. This unexceptionable observation, a commonplace of talk about modern fiction from James to Robbe-Grillet, throws Miss McCarthy into a rage. “Clever demagogy,” she calls it. The only reader who collaborates is the author; the others are incorrigible misunderstanders who have to be kept in line, “dominated and subjugated by the author.” And she explains that Sartre’s attitude stems from the archaic notion of commitment, which will not allow Sartre to understand the disengaged and presumably (though there are texts to the contrary) non-collaborative nouveau roman. Thus she is enabled, on purely literary grounds, to accept with satisfaction a political judgment overheard on the way out: Sartre is a reactionary of the left.
There seems here to be no real acceptance of the positions of Sartre’s opponents, only a rejection of what has come to seem an oversimple relation between literature and life. And there’s the difference from Rahv, who could never make such an outright rejection; his occupation would be gone. His splendid continuity, and Miss McCarthy’s unpredictable flashes and flares, do combine to give one a formidable impression of critical powers generated in the Thirties and surviving, in their peculiar ways, the long academic years between.
August 13, 1970