John P. Sisk

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 638

[A book like Literature and the Sixth Sense,] ranging as it does over a period in our cultural life so marked by change at all levels, could be a useful record even if its insights and judgments were no longer especially relevant. Rahv himself accedes to this record-value in his decision to reprint his essays without substantial changes, and so delivers himself to the whimsies of the Zeitgeist. But what continually struck me as I reread pieces I had not read for years was how well they stand up despite the fact that they carry the imprint of their particular times and occasions. This is especially true of the splendid synoptic essays on Hawthorne …, Henry James's heroines …, and the introductions to the short fiction of Tolstoy … and Kafka…. It is hard to imagine an America in which "The Cult of Experience in American Writing" … will not be a prime critical resource. It takes little imagination to transpose "Proletarian Literature: A Political Autopsy" … into terms the beginning 70's can understand and profit from—consider this remark, for instance: "At that time the party saw the revolution as an immediate possibility, and its literature was extreme in its Leftism, aggressive, declamatory, prophetic." The earliest piece in the book, the 1936 review of Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, is still a model of critical procedure for those who because of passionate commitments are unable to distinguish between poetry and belief—or are unable to see that one of the greatest services a critic can perform for politics is to curb its tendency to acquire literature. (p. 90)

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To be for Eliot, even with Rahv's qualifications, is to court conspicuous enemies. He swells their ranks by referring to Jean Genet as a moral idiot, by admiring Orwell, and by refusing to accept F. R. Leavis's estimate of D. H. Lawrence, or Hugh Kenner's estimate of Pound's Cantos, or John Aldridge's estimate of Norman Mailer, or Maxwell Geismar's estimate of Henry James, or Leslie Fiedler's estimate of William Burroughs. No doubt for many Rahv is simply a once-influential critic who is no longer with it, who has missed the wave of the future. And they would be correct after their fashion. He is, I suspect, as little impressed with wave-of-the future notions as Orwell was, having gotten his dose of skepticism from the same medicine cabinet. To be with it, to swing, as he makes clear in his 1965 piece on Mailer, is to take the fickle moods of a permissive and self-deluded time at their own evaluation—an assignment for a publicist, not a critic. If he sometimes seems unduly pessimistic in his estimation of the swinging 60's, the reason is not the conservatism of age, and certainly not failure of nerve, but moral seriousness combined with that tragic sense that once led him to quote with approval Freud's conviction that "renunciation and suffering are not to be eluded by the race of men." Such sentiments are unacceptable in many quarters, especially to those who, entranced with the vision of an outward-bound counter-culture, want their Freud filtered through Norman O. Brown.

In any event, opponents anxious to find signs of deterioration in this critic had best avoid his 1968 essay "On F. R. Leavis and D. H. Lawrence." Here, it seems to me, the intellectual vigor, the discriminate generosity, and the ability to keep a firm grasp on the line of argument while ranging over great expanses of literature were never more impressively on display. Criticism of this sort is exciting to read even when one does not agree with it, and not least because it demonstrates the possibility of redeeming the time with meaning, but without underestimating or belittling the forces that threaten it. (pp. 91-2)

John P. Sisk, "The Critical Moment," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 49, No. 4, April, 1970, pp. 89-92.

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