restricted access A Commentary (Jan 1933)
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508 ] A Commentary The Criterion: A Literary Review, 12 (Jan 1933) 244-49 Writing from a country in which communistic theories appear to have more vogue among men of letters than they have yet reached in England, I have recently looked at two books which discuss the relation of literature to social affairs.1 One is not very new; Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution was first published in translation in 1925, and has since become a text-book for revolutionary litterateurs. The other, Mr. Calverton’s Liberation of American Literature, is pretty fresh from the mint.2 The former is much shorter and of course more important. It is natural, and not necessarily convincing, to find young intellectuals in New York turning to communism , and turning their communism to literary account.3 The literary profession is not only, in all countries, overcrowded and underpaid (the few overpaid being chiefly persons who have outlived their influence, if they ever had any); it is embarrassed by such a number of ill-trained people doing such a number of unnecessary jobs, and writing so many unnecessary books and unnecessary reviews of unnecessary books, that it has much ado to maintain its dignity as a profession at all. One is almost tempted to form the opinion that the world is at a stage at which men of letters are a superfluity . To be able therefore to envisage literature under a new aspect, to take part in the creation of a new art and new standards of literary criticism, to be provided with a whole stock of ideas and of words, that is for a writer in such circumstances to be given a new lease of life. It is not always easy, of course, in the ebullitions of a new movement, to distinguish the man who has received the living word from the man whose access of energy is the result of being relieved of the necessity of thinking for himself. Men who have stopped thinking make a powerful force. There are obvious inducements , besides that – never wholly absent – of simple conversion, to entice the man of letters into political and social theory which he then employs to revive his sinking fires and rehabilitate his profession. There is no such obvious reason why a man like Trotsky should take the trouble to pronounce upon the literature of revolution and the literature of the future; the only reason that occurs to me in reading his book is that he may have been exasperated by the futilities of previous Russian writers [ 509 A Commentary (JAN) upon the subject. He is certainly a man of first-rate intelligence, expressing himself in a rough and ready metaphorical style, and he utters a good deal of sound sense. Most of his book is devoted to the criticism of authors whom I have not read, and who I imagine have not been translated and never will be; but as an antidote to the false art of revolution his treatise is admirable.4 The faith of Trotsky, however, in the possibilities of Marxian literature, has about it something very touching – still more touching than that of Mr. Calverton. The early champions of the Christian Faith, one remembers, often adopted a very different attitude towards literature and art in general. No attempt was made to conciliate or to seduce the literary world. Eminent literary conversions were not then received with a burst of applause because of their advertisement value. Classical authors fared more hardly than any dead writers are likely to fare in reputation under the rule of Marxian criticism ; and the fathers of the young Church did not feel any pressing need for literature and art as evidence of the truth of Christianity. Those manifestations followed in due course. They are never likely to reappear any more quickly than they did then. Trotsky is quite aware – more aware than his compatriots seem to have been before he wrote his book – of the difference between literature written in and for a period of revolution, and literature produced by a people which has gone through a revolution, and he seems to understand that the first is unlikely to have any permanent value; but he seems to feel, in common with other communists, an impatience for the latter to appear.5 I can agree with Mr. Trotsky up to a point. “The proletariat,” he says, “has to have in art the expression of the new spiritual6 * point of view which is just beginning to be...