Raymond Rosenthal

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1031

During the past week men have slogged their way through malarial jungles, sweated in steaming asbestos factories, groaned beneath the burden of their own flesh and the age's injustice. I have spent the same period reading David Caute's novel, The Decline of the West …, and I am sure that my attendant anguish and pain have at the least equalled theirs.

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Caute writes a peculiarly thick, heavy-breathing, rodomontade prose, and I am a slow reader. I have thus savored each of his inimitable prose ornaments, his thoughtful metaphors, with the care and intensity which I should imagine every writer would like to receive from every reviewer. I know Mr. Caute, in any case to the extent that he has revealed himself in this very long and prolix book, know him so well that I may presume to resort, I feel with ample justice, to that contempt which is often the concomitant of familiarity.

But first of all there is Caute's story. He has taken the facts of the recent Congo troubles … to fashion a kind of adventure story, full of tortures, sexual escapades, ideological discussions, riots, high-level intrigue, and apocalyptically harrowing death and destruction. Its form falls somewhere between Gone With The Wind and Man's Fate, borrowing indiscriminately from both these novels their feeblest and most meretricious features.

From Gone With The Wind he purloins his glamorous heroines and heroes…. Flanking these figures of blatant romance and cheap fiction are a host of white and Negro characters who, in their varying responses to the crisis in the Congo, embody Caute's conviction that the West is through and all of us, white and Negro, are stumbling toward a lurid blood-bath in which ideas and emotions will fuse to justify the most terrible crimes.

Caute's borrowings from Man's Fate are less evident and certainly less successful than those from Gone With The Wind. Malraux's ability to dramatize ideas, to give flesh to ideological motivations and make them an integral part of his drama; would seem to be beyond Caute's powers. All that he can manage in this sphere is a lifeless aping of the original. The story stops, the character steps forth, and we get a sophomoric lecture which shows that Caute has boned up properly on his sources, yet is quite incapable of any ideas of his own. He is incapable because, although he would seem to be passionately devoted to the cause of African independence, he does not merely want to be a partisan; he also wants to be profound, without any of the equipment for profundity.

What one detects finally is a distinct dislike, almost a hatred, for writers like Malraux and Camus, who not only have original ideas but also passionate convictions which they expressed with beauty and force in their imaginative works. Caute has read these works and has undoubtedly inwardly despaired; he could never do anything as clear and powerful. So he turns on them with a kind of feline nastiness. If one reads his book carefully, as I have, one finds all sorts of imitations of Malraux side by side with underhanded, disobliging references to him.

It is a curious phenomenon and worthy of some thought. Caute has his arch-villain, Soames Tufton, saying things that sound just like Malraux in his worst, most fustian moments. He also puts Malraux's words, hazily combined with Spengler's orotund pessimism, into the mouth of his mercenary-torturer, André Laval. But at the same time that he makes these intimations about Malraux's cultural pronouncements, their role as an ideological justification for neo-Fascism in Europe and Africa, he writes a novel which, in its grisly, cheap mixture of sex, politics and the sexual politics of torture, would be utterly antipathetic to Malraux's imagination, however romantically suspect its roots may be. Indeed, one may comb Malraux's novels without ever finding the kind of rhetoric, the hysterical wallowing in violence and torture, that appears in almost every paragraph of Caute's book. (pp. 20-1)

Caute has fashionably radical views. And, in his sincere desire to help the Africans in their struggle for independence, or at least to illuminate their struggle, he has written this huge, explanatory novel. There are many things one could say about it: hurtful, damaging things which might somehow percolate through the carefully nurtured hysteria and apprise him of the dubiousness of his proceeding. But I shall limit myself to one simple point, which seems to have escaped the other reviewers….

[In one passage a young Congolose] girl is being tortured with a wine bottle. Why she must go to the hospital quickly can be surmised. The whole torture scene can be surmised, in fact. It is not represented. And not because Caute feels some compunction or squeamishness; he can be quite explicit when he wants. No, the reason for his reticence lies firmly planted in his style and approach to experience. If he had said that the bottle was of such-and-such a shape, that it was shoved into such-and-such an orifice, and it produced the following, surgically depicted wounds, he would escape being regarded as a pornographer of violence, which he is, and would at one blow lose his style and his whole reason for existence as a novelist. The curtain must be drawn over such brutally detailed facts, for without that curtain Caute would not be able to enjoy the tortures with quite the same hysterically intense a pleasure. What's more, these pleasures are achieved for the loftiest possible reasons; the novelist is telling us what goes on in the mind of a torturer with a special history and background. He is very scientific about that, very detailed; but when it comes to what actually happens, he is very vague.

This is the hallmark of all debased romanticism. It can be found everywhere today, in the movies, in cheap fiction, in the comic books. It is Caute's distinction to have introduced this peculiarly disgusting brand of pornography into supposedly serious fiction. I consider it a desecration of the real sufferings and aims of the African people. (p. 21)

Raymond Rosenthal, "The Politics of Style," in The New Leader (© 1966 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. XLIX, No. 22, November 7, 1966, pp. 20-1.

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