Frank Kermode

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1255

[Rahv's] criticism has strength rather than ingenuity, eloquence rather than wit. He mimics nobody, preferring his own voice with its certainty of timbre and its dynamic range (loud but controlled in polemic). Consequently he collects well, keeps well. To me, a critic with virtually nothing in common with him …,...

(The entire section contains 1255 words.)

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[Rahv's] criticism has strength rather than ingenuity, eloquence rather than wit. He mimics nobody, preferring his own voice with its certainty of timbre and its dynamic range (loud but controlled in polemic). Consequently he collects well, keeps well. To me, a critic with virtually nothing in common with him …, the weight of [Literature and the Sixth Sense], its clarity and certainty, are extremely impressive. Apart from anything else, it was no small achievement to go on doing unfashionable things, to follow one's own road, when American criticism, for virtually a generation, was headed in a quite different direction. It called for sobriety and patience, for a sense of vocation and a sense of history.

"The Sixth Sense" is a sense of history; Nietzsche said that the development of historical insight in the modern epoch constituted what was virtually a new faculty of the mind, a sixth sense. Rahv values the possession of it, and thinks it unfortunate that America ("Amnesia") lacks it. This lack explains not only his quarrels with American literature and its critics, but his repeated attempts to supply historical schemata for general use. In doing so he is using the sixth sense, and, as he himself observes, his ways of doing so derive in part from an early training in Marxism. They also derive from a slightly later experience, the exercise of detecting the cant and lies of the party-liners. And there isn't the least doubt that Rahv has retained not only "a measure of social and ideological commitment" but also "a certain kind of realism" and "a polemical tone." The mind that cut away the pretense and the political opportunism from the concept of proletarian literature (this in a brilliant essay of 1939) is still at work and in the same way in the latest piece reprinted here, "On F. R. Leavis and D. H. Lawrence."

In this essay Rahv is questioning certain central judgments made by a critic in whom he finds much to admire; the authority of Leavis's critical personality would naturally attract him, and he also approves the English critic's saying that to be interested in literature implies other interests….

But his respect for Leavis only adds to his puzzlement when he reads that critic on Lawrence. Leavis finds Lawrence to be "a marvellously perceptive critic." Rahv allows him some percipient remarks, but remembers how silly Lawrence is about Dostoevsky, about Chekhov, about Flaubert, Mann, Proust…. But Leavis will not admit that there is even an element of petulant rant or of irresponsibility, just as he ignores almost entirely the huge quantities of irrationalist, neoprimitivist thinking and preaching in Lawrence. Now this seems to Rahv both strange and damaging. He observes that Leavis dismisses Lady Chatterley's Lover as a novel "the normal Lawrence" would have known to be bad, though in his book he had asserted that there is in Lawrence "no profound emotional disturbance, no obdurate major disharmony." Having decided that Lawrence is wholly healthy, wholly "makes for life," he is involved in difficulties and apparent contradictions of this kind.

It is typical of Rahv that he then proceeds to explain categorically why, in his view, Lawrence does not "make for life": his views on marriage and orgasm are unhealthy, he failed very often to use that "intelligence" for which Leavis constantly praises him. But this forthrightness doesn't proceed from a personal animus against Lawrence, and Rahv defends him from the charge, made by Russell and many others, that his doctrines had affinities with Fascism…. It is true, though, that Fascists found no use for Lawrence in their propaganda, and Rahv's realism is of the kind that rejects political implications when they have no practical consequence.

Nor would he (as one who always has the counterrevolutionary work of Dostoevsky in mind) want to deny the value of Lawrence's novels because they are affected by an uncongenial ideology. As it happens, he does believe Lawrence's novels went wrong after Sons and Lovers, finds them to be spoiled, not by a world view he doesn't share, but by their surrender to propaganda. I happen to think he is wrong, at any rate about the next two after Sons and Lovers—The Rainbow and Women in Love—and perhaps he should have re-examined them. There are novels he can't be bothered with, and abruptly dismisses without a fair statement of reasons: Between the Acts, like Women in Love, he makes little attempt to understand. But this failure, thought it indicates his limits, doesn't invalidate the central argument of this very characteristic essay.

It's chiefly so in its extreme explicitness. You always know from what angle he is looking, and his points when made stay made. In the early days this power to tackle head-on the very questions serious readers were troubled about must have been very exhilarating. And although the existence of literature in a political world was his first concern, he was always capable of independent judgments that might have been, but weren't, clouded by doctrinal presumptions. On James, during the James revival, he is admirably just and perceptive; he knew how to make room for Kafka, whom he introduced to the American public by an act of criticism that has lost none of its force. Above all, he knew and said exactly what he was doing; his comments on American literature are a good illustration of this. (p. 31)

[Rahv] has never accepted isolationist literary history; the criteria of foreign books and civilizations are always relevant. The tone of his remarks is consequently, but beneficially, sour. For example, he sees American literature as having been constricted by a poverty of experience, with Emerson and Hawthorne as the best instances of this; there followed a liberation movement, an attempt to make the expressive means comparable with the expansion of material wealth. The champions were, among others, Dreiser, Anderson, Lewis, Cabell, Mencken, Millay. But somehow they pushed too hard; or anyway, no stable condition of expressive liberty was reached. What happened was that "the dear old American innocence" was naïvely inverted; there was Wolfe, and later, commercialized license. Of a literature that is in, and truly knows, the real world, there was none. The technical force of Pound is the concomitant of silliness; the creative power of Faulkner dissipates itself in obscurity.

That was the view of 1940. Later he continued to lament the impoverishing remoteness of American intellectuals from political power, defending the avant-garde against McCarthyism and a general embourgeoisement of American life. The avant-garde, on which all depended, must be kept pure of kitsch, independent of mass culture. The disappointment of such hopes shows not only in the irascible handling of a later avant-garde, but in the scheme he provides of American literature since the Thirties. There are three stages, roughly the political Thirties, the formalist, neo-Christian Forties and Fifties, and the swinging Sixties, in which everything comes home to roost.

I don't think that this gloomy picture is the work of a critic who is too European. He may be too American. As he himself says, the great theme of American fiction is disappointment with "the discrepancy between the high promise of the American dream and what history has made of it." This is, after all, a great theme, and it has got out of fiction into the streets. Certainly, and very expressly, it is Rahv's theme. (pp. 31-2)

Frank Kermode, "Critical List," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1970 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XV, No. 3, August 13, 1970, pp. 31-3.∗

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