Denis Donoghue

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Experience is Rahv's word; it turns up on virtually every page of [Essays on Literature and Politics 1932–1972]. Sometimes he uses it to mean everything in life that the mind should encounter not by chance but by purpose and an intuitive sense of what it needs. So he speaks of "a dichotomy between experience and consciousness" as the typical American disability. But sometimes he uses it to mean 'felt life' rather than 'life's total practice,' and in that sense it is hard to see that there could be a dichotomy between experience and consciousness. I can only explain this ambivalence by saying that to Rahv experience was the grander term and that while he revered consciousness and was stirred by ideas, he knew that consciousness can be deployed in a vacuum and that ideas can easily be handled as separate objects, consumer goods. If experience were construed as felt life, it would name the only life he cared about. Consciousness in excess of experience was a menace, fashionable in several theories of literature which contrived to be persuasive to naive readers who wanted to be relieved of the chore of being serious. True consciousness would act in the service of experience, trying to understand it in its diversity and depth and latitude, and would be ready to find itself by losing itself in that understanding. In one of his last essays on Henry James, Rahv thought that James had failed to encounter "the richness, the depth, and the ultimately terrifying gratuity of man's being-in-the-world." His failure could have only one cause, the failure of his consciousness to engage with enough experience and with experience sufficiently exacting and recalcitrant to enforce a sense of that appalling gratuity.

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To Rahv, the politics of literature could be tested only in the novel and in the phase of its realism; roughly, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Proust, with Joyce as virtually the end of a great human action. Dostoevsky was crucial precisely because a reader of Rahv's persuasion would have to wrestle with him and understand him by fighting with him till dawn. Rahv fights Dostoevsky over God, immortality, Christianity, 'the sphere of the numinous,' his lurid spirituality. All of this is alien to Rahv, and to make it tolerable he has to show how deeply it consorted with the other side of Dostoevsky, his secularism and naturalism. There is no doubt that Rahv wanted to see Dostoevsky drawn over at last into a commitment to the song of the earth rather than the song of Heaven and Hell. He quotes William James as saying that "the earth of things, long thrown into shade by the glories of the upper ether, must resume its rights," and he shows Dostoevsky's genius touching that earth at last, with whatever degree of vacillation. Rahv would not have it otherwise.

This points to the only limitation in Rahv worth talking about. He was always sure that he knew what reality is, and where it begins and ends. In a rather slight commentary on Virginia Woolf's famous essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," Rahv argues that Woolf, having insisted on the inescapable presence of Mrs. Brown in any work of art, forgot her at once and left her outside her own novels. Rahv demanded that she be brought in and never again forgotten. "If literature can be said to have a permanent theme," he asserted, "that theme is precisely The Mystery of Mrs. Brown, who is a creature of many paradoxes and truly unfathomable." But he always implied that he knew Mrs. Brown very well, or at least well enough to sense in her all the things he did not know and to make his whole experience of Mrs. Brown a constituent of his own felt life. I do not mean that he thought of himself as a novelist, but that he thought he knew what form a true novelist's sense of Mrs. Brown would take. But his essays suggest that Rahv's sense of Mrs. Brown was almost willfully constricted. He assumed that she would be known in her visible attributes, her carriage, her attitudes, tones, and voice, her relations with others and her general bearing in the world. But he would not have allowed that her relation to herself might be conducted in terms of introspection, fantasy, a conviction of God's presence, or (in Yeats's phrase) a vision of "the terrors that pass before shut eyes." It may be true that Virginia Woolf was too ready to transform Mrs. Brown into pure spirit, but Rahv was too determined to keep her to strict materiality. (pp. 36-7)

The banned areas of experience, in Rahv's criticism, are those indicated by such words as abstraction, fantasy, otherworldliness and belief. But to some people, to many Mrs. Browns, these are areas of feeling they could not and would not wish to live without. Rahv is fully entitled to his conviction that "we have nothing to go on but the rational disciplines of the secular mind as, alone and imperiled, it confronts its freedom in a universe stripped of supernatural sanctions." My own conviction is that such a mind has other matters to confront besides its freedom. But let that pass. Rahv is also fully entitled to think that "the principle of realism presupposes a thoroughly secularized relationship between the ego and experience," though his own troubles with Dostoevsky make this statement bold rather than accurate. But he is not entitled to claim special tenderness for ordinary life and then exclude every form of it that happened to be alien to him. There is a certain positivism in Rahv's mind which wishes away many crucial constituents of the only form of literature he espoused, the 19th-century realistic novel.

I have done with complaining. The fact is that I cannot think of modern American criticism without finding in Rahv a constant witness to its seriousness and care. The fact the he lost interest in literature after Eliot and Joyce troubles me. True, he thought well of Bellow's Herzog and admired the Russian dissident novelists. He was sufficiently interested in Norman Mailer's work to find it a desperate symptom of hysteria at large. He seems to have no interest in literary theory, except in the few rudimentary notions which he ascribed to realism. There are large areas of literature—Virgil, Dante, Shake-speare—which he was evidently happy to entrust to others. But he exerted such pressure upon the literature he needed that his criticism amounted to a morality. He read the American novelists in the hope of discovering what forms American experience had taken and what forms it might still take. Whitman, James and Hawthorne were indeed writers, but they were important to Rahv as indicating producible forms of experience, and at the same time for the price each of them paid for his characteristic form in its limitation or its exorbitance. Faced with such a theme, Rahv could not be peevish, as he was sometimes peevish when pointing to follies in our own time. On his chosen theme, which was more fated than chosen, his criticism has the grandeur, warmth and eloquence which make it a form of literature in its own right…. It will be more than interesting to see what effect [Essays on Literature and Politics 1932–1972] will have on the political understanding of literature and the tone in which the debates are conducted. Much of the current literary criticism, as far as it discusses the politics of literature, seems to me flashy and narcissist; the contempt currently directed against history is a wretched and symptomatic evasion: the skepticism directed against language itself has become automatic, a routine attitude. So Rahv's essays, whatever their limitations, could not have come at a better time. (p. 37)

Denis Donoghue, "'Essays on Literature and Politics 1932–1972'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 179, No. 23, December 2, 1978, pp. 36-8.

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