Robert Alter

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 737

[What is] most impressive about Mr. Rahv's criticism is its urgent insistence that the mind remain engaged with the multiplex, ambiguous data of reality despite repeated temptations to slip off into the pleasures of private fantasy, the neatness of intellectual schematisms, the security of dogma, or whatever escape route the signs of the times may point to. Mr. Rahv is at his best, then, as a critic of criticism. He exercises a surgeon's fine skill in exposing the particular failed nerve that produced each of our major literary fads—the religious revival (in the late '40s), the ascendancy of myth (in the mid-'50s, but we are not out of that Sacred Wood yet), the grand sport of symbol-hunting (an intellectual pastime of the '50s, now permanently appropriated by the academic critics), and the current quest for "inner freedom" and spontaneity of consciousness in both the creation and criticism of fiction.

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Because Mr. Rahv has such a strong sense of criticism as a responsible activity, mediating, ideally, between life and art, he is quick to raise just the right questions as to the ultimate implications of a critic's commitment to a particular method or ideology. It may have been obvious, even in 1950, that the vogue of Christianity among the intellectuals was, after Marxism, merely a turning to a new form of authoritarianism, but Mr. Rahv is able to analyze precisely the way in which Rome and Moscow are complementary escapes from the stubborn complexities of human nature. The "Utopians on the Left" assume man's innate goodness, the "Utopians on the Right," his inalterable depravity; the former position as a rationale for political action courts disaster, the latter view is "the permanent alibi of those unconcerned with justice"; both alternatives finally shirk the responsibilities of freedom.

This kind of analysis of ultimate assumptions, natural enough in a critique of belief, proves to be strikingly effective when applied to schools of literary criticism. Mr. Rahv bares the basic weakness of the so-called mythopoeic critics by showing how the pursuit of myth is a flight from history and its challenging uncertainties, for history is development, cumulative growth, while myth means timeless, cyclical repetition. Or again—both art and civilization involve a process of individuation, but myth insists on collective experience, on what is typical and unvarying rather than on what is unique. (p. 8)

The clear-headed sense of actualities that enables Mr. Rahv to produce … tonic commentary on critical extravagances also helped him to be a very good reviewer. He has a fine eye for posturing and self-deception in a writer…. But where most other critics—especially most other Partisan Review critics—would be snide or contemptuous, Mr. Rahv is remarkably fair-minded. Even his critique of An American Dream, which evoked the ire of Mailer cultists when it was published as a review, proves to be rather sympathetic toward Mailer's difficulties and hopeful about the promise of his talents. As a reviewer, Mr. Rahv shows an admirable willingness to understand each writer's special aims, but both his thought and his prose are free of the faddist cant that leads other intelligent critics to mistake the aim for the achievement.

The one section of The Myth and the Powerhouse which is relatively disappointing is the group of essays devoted to major modern authors and texts. The informed reasonableness of the other pieces is present here as well, but where that quality is an invaluable resource is considering new writing or the purpose and practice of criticism, something further seems to be required to provide really illuminating comment on often-discussed works and figures. Mr. Rahv's essays on Dostoevsky, Gogol, and Chekhov are, like everything else in his book, precise and sound, but the very strengths of these pieces are of a kind more appropriate to textbook introductions than to independent critical essays. (pp. 8, 12)

In any case, these essays are good introductions to their subjects, and Mr. Rahv's finely discriminating common sense is infinitely preferable to the practice of critics who dig the surface of a literary work to pieces in search of buried insights. Perhaps Mr. Rahv pays a price of surrendered possibilities of originality in being as carefully reasonable as he is, but with reason so rare a commodity among critics, we can be grateful to him for his gift of lucidity. (p. 12)

Robert Alter, "The Impartial Partisan," in Book Week—The Sunday Herald Tribune (© 1965, The Washington Post), October 17, 1965, pp. 8, 12.

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