Mark Shechner

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1065

[Rahv] was fairly unproductive as a critic: his collected writing would scarcely total more than a thick volume of occasional essays and book reviews, a scattering of uncollected editorials and manifestoes, and an unfinished book on Dostoevsky which he labored over in desultory fashion for more than thirty years. Yet the editors of [Essays on Literature and Politics 1932–1972] are quite justified in claiming that he was, in his own right, one of the finest literary critics of his generation….

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Though he wrote slowly and took great pains in the articulation of his positions, he was a formidable rhetorician who drove home his points with a pungency and directness that bespoke not only a sure grasp of situations but of the resources of English and the tactics of argument. One thing about Rahv that has been too little understood … is his immigrant's love of the English language and his skillful deployment of its rhetorical categories. Yet such expressiveness was no isolated achievement of technique but a quality rooted in the very cast of his mind: in his rationalism and his historicism. (p. 510)

[As] a writer and intellectual in search of what Van Wyck Brooks had called a "usable past," Rahv … looked upon history as the zone of opportunity, the element in which a writer could define his being, which is why literary modernism and revolutionary Marxism did not strike him as fatal opposites, for both were radical efforts to grasp the same desperate situation: the crisis of modern European social order. Thus he could honor such writers of reactionary tendency as Eliot and Dostoevsky with the same passion with which, in the early '30s, he had done homage to Lenin and Trotsky. It never dawned on him to regard criticism as a place of refuge above the fray, and even in the postwar decades when the New Criticism ascended in the academy and battle-scarred ex-Communists made their peace with the transcendental ironies of Kierkegaard, the brooding mysteries of universal alienation, and the healing benefits of psychoanalysis or religion, Rahv remained engaged and loyal to his rationalism, even if his ardor had become firmly anti-Communist, like everyone else's. He would say in praise of F. R. Leavis that the latter "was essentially right in remarking some years ago that 'one cannot be seriously interested in literature and remain purely literary in interests.'"

No one among his contemporaries was more adept at distilling from literature the play of forces impinging upon the artist's imagination, and the writers whom he embraced, like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Hawthorne and James, were men whose deep passions and contradictions implied the historical currents in which they were awash. Dialectician that he was, and his dialectical habits of thought went far deeper than the Marxism in which they were sometimes cast, he always looked for the prevailing tensions of the age reflected, and responded to, in literature. (pp. 510-11)

In "The Cult of Experience," Rahv struck a note that he would strike time and again: that America's social and intellectual life was characterized by a poverty of experience and a thinness of social and political intelligence. The historical combination of Puritanism, which had set stringent limits upon feeling and behavior, and a primitive capitalism of accumulation, which had little use for ideas, let alone an intelligentsia devoted to thinking them, had brought into being a national literature of inexperience which overvalues internal energies, underestimates social realities, often reducing them to symbolized moral landscapes, and ignores entirely social ideas.

Rahv's summary dismissal of the proletarian novel, which was ostensibly geared to the exposure of social conditions, and which Rahv had once striven to promote on that score, was that it hadn't the vaguest conception of the true inner workings of politics and was devoid of political ideas and of characters who could entertain or act upon them. Cut off from knowledge and experience, it fell back upon pure romance.

The problem with Hawthorne, he felt, was that of inexperience, registered in the perplexity with which Hawthorne dealt with, or failed to deal with, the appetites…. Of the romantic symbolists of the 19th century—Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville—he charged, "The dilemma that confronted [them] chiefly manifests itself in their frequent failure to integrate the inner and outer elements of their world so that they might stand witness for each other by way of the organic linkage of object and symbol, act and meaning." Even Henry James's clear realization that life in America was hostage to narrow conventions was the sign of his disadvantaged relation to European novelists: "While the idea that one should 'live' one's life came to James as a revelation, to the contemporary European writers this idea had long been a thoroughly assimilated and natural assumption."

Upon such a criticism of the American mind Rahv founded the mission of Parisan Review: to import the experience and thought of Europe into the American consciousness, thereby enriching it and bringing it up to date. In politics, before 1938, that meant to expose Americans to Marx, Lenin and Trotsky—afterward to the likes of Orwell, Koestler, Malraux, Berdyaev and Sartre. In literature, modernity always boiled down to Dostoevsky, his chief example of the writer immersed in and alert to all the nuances and byways of the modern crisis. (pp. 511-12)

Of all modern novelists, Dostoevsky stood in closest relation to the modern experience, which meant for Rahv as often as not the Russian example, modernity in extremis. The peculiar timeliness of The Possessed, he would argue in 1938, "flows from the fact that the motives, actions and ideas of the revolutionaries in it are so ambiguous, so imbedded in equivocation, as to suggest those astonishing negations of the socialist ideal which have come into existence in Soviet Russia." By that year the Moscow Trials had confirmed Rahv's earlier break with the Communist Party and set him resolutely on the course of anti-Stalinism that would grow into full-blown anti-communism in the 1940s when, like so many other disillusioned radicals of his generation, he reassessed his earlier revolutionism, embraced America, and uttered two cheers for democracy and capitalism. The trials also sent Rahv back to Dostoevsky in search of the historical factors that had galvanized revolutionaries with such ardor and then dealt them such a crushing defeat. (p. 512)

Mark Shechner, "Mandarin and Socialist," in The Nation (copyright 1978 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 227, No. 16, November 11, 1978, pp. 508, 510-12.

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