Philip Rahv Robert Alter - Essay

Robert Alter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.

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...

(The entire section is 737 words.)