Talk by WSWS arts editor David Walsh

The political and theoretical sources of The Sky Between the Leaves—Part 2

WSWS arts editor David Walsh gave a talk in Detroit recently to SEP members and supporters to mark the publication of The Sky Between the Leaves. This is the second part of two. Part 1 was posted January 27.

To illustrate the attack on the real as the basis for art I would like to take an example, the 19th century novel and specifically the work of Charles Dickens, the author of many remarkable novels between 1836 and 1870. I would like to demonstrate how Marxists and others in an earlier period regarded his artistic work in contrast to how contemporary “left” theory, or significant sections of it, views it.

2012 was the bicentennial of Dickens’s birth. He was a tremendously popular novelist at the height of his fame. And he remains one, deservedly so. According to researchers, his A Tale of Two Cities (1859) has sold more than 200 million copies, making it the best-selling novel of all time, in any genre.

Dickens was an immensely honest, searching and scathing critic of many aspects of society, as well as an endlessly lively, amusing chronicler of life itself, in all its dimensions. Dickens introduced a new, plebeian element—modern street life, popular city life—to the novel, and literature was never the same.

His enormous contribution to culture was appreciated by the most perceptive minds of his time. The most perceptive mind of that epoch belonged to Karl Marx, who in 1854, in the New York Tribune, included Charles Dickens, along with William Makepeace Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell, in that “splendid brotherhood of fiction-writers in England, whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.” (“The English Middle Class,” 1854)

The great Russian literary and social critic, V.G. Belinsky (1811-1848), a socialist and opponent of tsarism, one of the predecessors of Plekhanov, Lenin and Trotsky, wrote along similar lines, in 1847:

“We can point to the novels of Dickens which are so deeply permeated with the sincere sympathies of our time but which nevertheless represent excellent works of art.”

Belinsky used Dickens’ work as an example of the objectivity of artistic truth. Plekhanov and Voronsky derived a great deal from this conception, as we do.

“It is said that Dickens’ novels were responsible for improving the educational system in England where everything was based on merciless floggings and the barbarous mistreatment of children. What is wrong, we ask, if Dickens in this case acted as a poet? Are his novels any the worse aesthetically? This is an obvious misunderstanding: people see that art and science are not one and the same thing, but they do not see that the difference between them is not at all subject matter, but merely the way in which that matter is treated. The philosopher speaks in syllogisms, the poet in images and pictures, but both say the same thing. … One proves and the other shows, but they both convince, the one by logic, the other by pictures.” (“A View of Russian Literature in 1847”)

The Northern Star, the newspaper of the Chartist movement, the revolutionary movement of British workers at the time, hailed Dickens as “the champion of the oppressed.” Edwin Pugh, in Charles Dickens, Apostle of the People (1908), claimed Dickens for the working class as an “unconscious socialist.”

There is no need to make such claims, which are exaggerations, but it merely goes to prove how socialists and progressive-minded people of that age thought of Dickens, an enemy of oppression, the abuse of children, the debtors’ prisons, the workhouse, the legal system, hypocritical, self-satisfied and cruel bureaucrats and officials, and an ally of the young, the poor, the suffering.

The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who admired Dickens greatly, said of him: “He loves the weak and poor and always despises the rich.” (Dickens remained a favorite writer in the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution.)

In 1912, to mark 100 years since Dickens’ birth, the German Marxist Franz Mehring, after whom we named the publishing company that has put out The Sky Between the Leaves, wrote a perceptive essay in honor of the English novelist, which includes this comment:

“The nerve-shattering life of the city was the real spirit of his [Dickens’] artistic creation. He knew that life in its heights and depths; with wonderful penetration he grasped its social types and embodied them in living figures, many of which are still popular in England and beyond England as well. Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller [in The Pickwick Papers, 1836] compare in fame with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. His heart, even when he was a celebrated dinner guest of Ministers of State and a close friend to all the famous names of England, was with the poor and unfortunate from whose midst he had, by his huge strength of spirit and life, raised himself to brilliant fame. No one could feel more deeply for Nature’s stepchildren, the blind, the dumb, and the deaf, nor more deeply—and this says even more—for the stepchildren of society. Even bourgeois aesthetes said of Dickens, partly in accusation, partly in wonder, that he never confused in his sympathy for the working classes crudity, criminality, immorality, or filth.”

The influential American critic Edmund Wilson, during the years, in the late 1930s, when he was most influenced by Marxism, and Trotsky in particular, commented:

“It is difficult for British pundits to see in him the great artist and social critic that he was. … [Dickens] was nevertheless the greatest dramatic writer that the English had had since Shakespeare, and he created the largest and most varied world. …

“Dickens is almost invariably against institutions: in spite of his allegiance to Church and State, in spite of the lip-service he occasionally pays them, whenever he comes to deal with Parliament and its laws, the courts and the public officials, the creeds of Protestant dissenters and of Church of England alike, he makes them either ridiculous or cruel, or both at the same time.” (“Dickens: The Two Scrooges,” 1941)

How does modern “left” criticism, on the other hand, treat Dickens and the 19th century novel generally? To a large extent, with incomprehension and ill-concealed hostility. Dickens, for example, is not someone who can be enlisted in the service of sexual and gender politics, into “post-colonial studies” and so on—so he is automatically suspect. His popularity with masses of readers, English-speaking and otherwise, including the less educated, “the great unwashed,” also makes him a dubious character. And the realist novel and literature as a whole are widely treated in “left” academic circles as means of manipulation and accommodating the population to bourgeois domination.

Two examples from two prominent figures:

“Literature is a vital instrument for the insertion of individuals into the perceptual and symbolic forms of the dominant ideological formation, able to accomplish this function with a ‘naturalness’, spontaneity and experiential immediacy possible to no other ideological practice.” ( Criticism and Ideology, Terry Eagleton, 1976)

“The novel plays a significant role in what can be called a properly bourgeois cultural revolution—that immense process of transformation whereby populations whose life habits were formed by other, now archaic, modes of production are effectively reprogrammed for life and work in the new world of market capitalism.” ( The Political Unconscious, Fredric Jameson, 1981)

Inspired by the postmodernist Michel Foucault in particular, D.A. Miller, an American academic, in The Novel and the Police (1988), sets about countering the argument that the realist novel represented anything subversive or inherently emancipatory. Instead, such novels, according to Miller, work primarily as a technology of discipline, to create an internal policeman.

Miller writes, “Few of course would dispute [!] that, with Dickens, the English novel for the first time features a massive thematization of social discipline …” (If no one disputes this in Miller’s circles, and that may well be true, it speaks to their intellectually dwarfish character.)

“This book [Miller’s book] attempts to redress the ‘positive’ achievement of nineteenth-century fiction …”

“It could be argued that, despite or by means of its superficially hostile attitude toward bureaucracy, a novel like [Dickens’] Bleak House is profoundly concerned to train us … in the sensibility for inhabiting the new bureaucratic, administrative structures.”

And this, along the same lines, from Edward Said, the late Palestinian critic, an intelligent man, but influenced by the same wrongheaded conceptions.

“Some of the most exciting recent criticism … shows the novel generally, and narrative in particular, to have a sort of regulatory social presence in Western European societies. …

“In the main, though, the nineteenth-century European novel is a cultural form consolidating but also refining and articulating the authority of the status quo. However much Dickens, for example, stirs up his readers against the legal system, provincial schools, or bureaucracy, his novels finally enact what one critic has called a ‘fiction of resolution.’” ( Culture and Imperialism, 1993)

Audrey Jaffe in Vanishing Points: Dickens, Narrative, and the Subject of Omniscience (1991), applies the theories of various postmodern figures (Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and Foucault) to argue that the “omniscient narration” in Dickens “belongs to a series of cultural phenomena through which the gaze—and, more generally, knowledge itself—is coded as white, male, and middle class.”

One commentator (Laurence W. Mazzeno, in The Dickens Industry: Critical Perspectives 1836-2005, 2008) notes that most modern female critics “have not been positive about Dickens’s treatment of women,” and later remarks that “By the late 1980s it became customary for feminists to expose Dickens’s essentially patriarchal and demeaning view of women.”

One could go on … and on. In any case, it would be no trouble to come up with a thousand similar, equally sterile examples.

These so-called “left” positions are profoundly false and reactionary. One could point to all sorts of failings in Dickens, which have a largely historical and almost unavoidable character, but to suggest, as Miller and company do, that the dominant effect of his work is to accommodate the reader to the status quo is reactionary idiocy and anyone who reads the novels in an objective manner, and not like a petty bourgeois professor attempting to show off, would recognize that. Fortunately, the average reader over the years has had more in his or her head than the professors.

It is truly absurd. “Dickensian England” and “Dickensian London” have entered the English language as phrases identified with official hypocrisy and cruelty, and the wretchedness of the slums and the conditions of the masses. These “left” intellectuals are a million miles from the population, past and present.

I think the following passage from Nicholas Nickleby, published in 1839, in which Dickens describes his central character’s reaction to an especially degrading and demeaning situation he finds himself in, as an assistant at a dreadful school where boys are beaten and starved, is valuable as a summary of the writer’s own attitude toward British social reality in general and his place and responsibility within it. It should be the attitude of the serious artist or intellectual in general toward the existing social order that attempts to make use of him or her.

“The cruelty of which he [Nicholas] had been an unwilling witness, … the filthy place, the sights and sounds about him, all contributed to this state of feeling; but when he recollected that, being there as an assistant, he actually seemed—no matter what unhappy train of circumstances had brought him to that pass—to be the aider and abettor of a system which filled him with honest disgust and indignation, he loathed himself, and felt, for the moment, as though the mere consciousness of his present situation must, through all time to come, prevent his raising his head again.” ( Nicholas Nickleby, 1839)

In fact, Dickens held a far healthier, more radical attitude toward society than our contemporary “left” professors, who long ago gave up, if they ever had such a perspective, on the possibility of changing or even seriously protesting against contemporary injustice.

Since we are currently engaged in a campaign in defense of the Detroit Institute of Arts, I can’t resist citing the comment of William Valentiner (1880-1958), longtime director of the DIA, in regard to the American painters James McNeill Whistler and Winslow Homer. He contrasts the latter favorably with the former, because Homer’s “art arises from greater depths, embodies the broad masses of the people.” No major public figure in the arts in America or Europe speaks like this any more.

The “left theory” industry at present is a large publishing-academic-media machine, which transfers, on a global scale, many, many millions of dollars from universities, foundations, think tanks, research institutes, unions, billionaire philanthropists and so on to professors, editors, journalists, consultants and the like. Many prestigious careers and comfortable incomes are made from “cultural theory.” We are deeply hostile to this industry.

The specific conception that art and literature are merely, or primarily, congealed ideology has thoroughly dominated literature and art departments and academic journals for decades. And continues to do so. The inimitable Jameson, for example, asserts in his new book, The Antinomies of Realism (2013), “If it is social truth or knowledge we want from realism, we will soon find that what we get is ideology.”

While Bruno Bosteels, one of the rising stars of the anti-Marxist left, in Some Highly Speculative Remarks on Art and Ideology (2012), refers to the “minimal gap that separates art from ideology” and asks, “Could not artistic freedom … serve as the quintessential model for the ideological inscription of individuals into the existing social structures, rather than as their much-flaunted political subversion?”

These views, which pass for and are falsely identified with “Marxism” in the minds of many, go essentially unchallenged and unquestioned, except by us. Trotsky responded 90 years ago to this sort of subjectivist reduction of art to ideology—admittedly enunciated by healthier elements—in his famous speech on “Class and Art” (1924), a reduction that he said only made “one spread one’s hands in helplessness.”

Trotsky pointed out in that discussion that we will continue to “recommend [the poet Alexander] Pushkin to the worker” because “the expression that Pushkin gave his feelings is so saturated with the artistic, and generally with the psychological, experience of centuries, is so crystallized, that it has lasted down to our times.” The great artist’s efforts have an objectively truthful, enduring quality that goes beyond his or her class, historical prejudices. The complacent “left” philistine of our day, for whom the “broad masses of the people” and their problems count for nothing, is entirely closed off from this understanding. “In works of art,” he or she, in Trotsky’s phrase, “ignores that which makes them works of art.”

Voronsky elaborated magnificently the attitude of the Marxists toward the honest artist and his or her inevitable limitations:

“There can be no doubt that subjectively each genuine artist tries to depict the reality of life. He experiences the greatest happiness if he is certain that he has succeeded in doing so. It is also true that there are critics, and they have by no means become extinct in our times, who naively assume that the artist is engaged only in advancing his own ideas and is not worried about the reality of life. But there is no less doubt that, in depicting the reality of life, the artist sees this reality through the prism of the thoughts and feelings of his class. Objectively he introduces the ideas of his class, and nearly always does so unconsciously.

“Under the influence of these thoughts and feelings he reproduces the reality of life only to the degree that these thoughts and feelings allow him to. There are instances when the reality of life is rendered very one-sidedly, there are times when it is completely distorted, and there are times when this reality emerges sharply and clearly. The last instance usually happens if the artist reflects the thoughts and feelings of a class which is flourishing, or of a class which is on the rise, in short, of a class which at a given historical moment most clearly expresses the general interests of society as a whole, the interests of a movement forward. …

“The critic … must always explain: to what degree reality is objectively and precisely reproduced in the given work; whether artistic discoveries have been made in the work, and which ones; how one can explain the correctness or incorrectness of what the artist has done in depicting the ‘reality of life’; what falsehoods he has introduced due to his class subjectivism, or, on the contrary, to what degree class feelings and thoughts have helped the artist find ‘reality’; what is the relative social weight of these feelings and thoughts; how are they transmitted in the work of art, and so forth.” (Voronsky, “On Art,” 1925)

This is the general conception that guides our work on critical efforts.

The views of Eagleton, Jameson, the various feminist critics and company on art are so impoverished and impoverishing. Art becomes, in their treatment, this mere secretion of ideology, which hides far, far more than it reveals of the world. It is an attitude that suggests fear of and hostility toward art. One really wants to ask, after reading their views, why would any thinking person, any worker who doesn’t have a lot of time to spare, waste his or her time on Shakespeare, Tolstoy, George Eliot or anyone else? At best, he or she might come to understand the ideology of a particular social layer at a particular time and place, but nothing new or eye-opening about life. It’s a horrible and debilitating approach.

This is not our view. We see art as something based in life, replenished by life, oriented toward life, that also encourages and propels people, that outrages and astonishes them, that inspires and moves them, and teaches enormously important, indispensable things about the world.

I would like to conclude with this wonderful quote from Trotsky. The enlightening and socially destabilizing role of art is understood best by the great Marxists:

“It is well that there is art in the world as well as politics. It is well that the potentialities of art are as inexhaustible as life itself. In a certain sense art is richer than life, for it can both overstate and understate, lay on the bright colors thickly or resort to the opposite extreme and content itself with the gray crayon, can present the same object in all its varied facets and shed a variety of light upon it. There was only one Napoleon—his reproductions in art are legion.” (“A Masterly First Novel: Jean Malaquais’s Les Javanais,” 1939)

I hope you find the book interesting.