[lit-ideas] Marxism and Political Correctness

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Lit-Ideas " <Lit-Ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 28 Feb 2012 09:39:11 -0800

In 1946 Edmund Wilson published an essay entitled "Marxism and Literature."
It appeared in the collection entitled The Triple Thinkers.  It is worth
considering whether modern-American "Politically Correct" English professors
are prone to errors similar to the ones Wilson criticizes.  He writes, ". .
. Marxism by itself can tell us nothing whatever about the goodness or
badness of a work of art.   A man may be an excellent Marxist, but if he
lacks imagination and taste he will be unable to make the choice between a
good and an inferior book both of which are ideologically unexceptionable."


Wilson hastens to add that it is good to throw light on the origins and
social significance of works of art.  "The study of literature in its
relation to society is as old as Herder - even Vico.  Coleridge had flashes
of insight into the connection between literary and social phenomena, as
when he saw the Greek state in the Greek sentence and the individualism of
the English in the short separate statements of Chaucer's Prologue. . .  But
if Marx and Engels and Lenin and Trotsky are worth listening to on the
subject of books, it is not merely because they created Marxism, but also
because they were capable of literary appreciation."


Wilson writes that "Marx and Engels, unlike their followers, never attempted
to furnish social-economic formulas by which the validity of works of art
might be tested.  They had grown up in the sunset of Goethe before the great
age of German literature was over, and they had both set out in their youth
to be poets; they responded to imaginative work, first of all, on its
artistic merits."  Surely we should be doing the same thing today.  We
should first of all strive to appreciate imaginative work on its artistic
merits.  Secondarily we can study these imaginative works "in relation to


Wilson warns, ". . . the man who tries to apply Marxist principles without
real understanding of literature is liable to go horribly wrong.  For one
thing, it is usually true in works of the highest order that the purport is
not a simple message, but a complex vision of things, which itself is not
explicit but implicit; and the reader who does not grasp them artistically,
but is merely looking for simple social morals, is certain to be hopelessly
confused.  Especially will he be confused if the author does draw an
explicit moral which is the opposite of or has nothing to do with his real
purport.  Fredrich Engels, in the letter to Margaret Harkness . . . in
warning her that the more the novelist allows his political ideas to 'remain
hidden, the better it is for the work of art,' says that Balzac, with his
reactionary opinions, is worth a thousand of Zola, with all his democratic
ones. . .  When Proust, in his wonderful chapter on the death of the
novelist Bergotte, speaks of those moral obligations which impose themselves
in spite of everything and which seem to come through to humanity from some
source outside its wretched self (obligations 'invisible only to fools . .
.'), he is describing a kind of duty which he felt only in connection with
the literary work which he performed in his dark and fetid room; yet he
speaks for every moral, esthetic, or intellectual passion which holds the
expediencies of the world in contempt."


Wilson writes, "The Leftist critic with no literary competence is always
trying to measure works of literature by tests which have no validity in
that field."  



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