William Barrett

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[Philip Rahv's break with Communism marked the real beginning of his career as a literary critic]. Starting in 1939, and then through the 1940's, he wrote some solid and really first-rate essays in literary criticism, which still remain the best memorial to his powers of mind and sensibility. One of the remarkable things about them too was the degree to which his Marxism had receded into the background. In fact, he had not given up his beliefs; when pushed in conversation, the Marxist formulary would come out as flat and dogmatic as ever; but in his literary criticism, and much to its benefit, he seemed to look the other way. The god of Marxism had not died for him, it had simply withdrawn—and, as it turned out, only for a while. Nevertheless, when the faith of a believer recedes over a fairly long period, we sometimes expect that there may be a new readjustment at length. The surprising thing is that when Rahv's Marxist faith was reborn in the 1960's, it came back with the same simple and point-blank ferocity it had possessed in 1932 and 1934. (p. 42)

If Rahv's most memorable pieces of writing were done as a literary critic in relative independence of his political convictions, it might seem odd that I have begun this revaluation of him by plunging him so immediately and deeply into a political context. But, even as critic, Rahv was very much part of his actual world. To attempt to distill out the literary criticism, and regard it as something apart, would not give us a proper idea of his importance. To compare him, for example, simply as a literary critic with someone like Edmund Wilson would be both bizarre and belittling. Yet if we look at the comparison from another direction, the result may not be so belittling. It may come as a rather shocking paradox at first, but I think the claim might reasonably be defended that in his own particular way, and over a certain period, he probably had a more powerful influence than Wilson. True, his output was very, very slender in comparison, and he reached only a tiny fraction of the audience Wilson did; but his influence was more strategically located—on young intellectuals who went on to teach or write about literature themselves and who, though they might not have followed him to the letter and might even have found themselves very much in opposition, nevertheless took from him a certain direction in their own thinking, and thus propagated something of his influence.

Of course, this influence was inseparable from that of Partisan Review in its earlier and more vital days, but then we have to remember how much he himself shaped the line of that magazine. In his own view, each of his critical pieces, whatever intrinsic points it might make, was intended to reinforce the general attitude of mind for which the magazine stood and which he thought should be that of all intellectuals of our time. The word "line" may have an ominous ring here, which in the present case we ought to dismiss. Rahv did have a taste for power, and there were those who referred to him as aspiring to be a kind of cultural commissar. But though he relished the feeling of power, he would have been too indolent, had a socialist revolution taken over, to become a successful commissar. That would have required too much of his labor and his time, and drawn him away from what he preferred to do—which was to read books and from time to time comment upon them. That he loved literature was indeed one of his redeeming merits. There is, however, a perfectly legitimate sense in which a critic may seek to define a "line" with regard to any subject or author he is exploring. He wishes, after all, to establish some judgment that, even if it does not claim to be definitive, nevertheless marks out a path along which he wants to lead his readers. And it is because Rahv was so conscious of his public role, I think, that he has the critical virtues he does: his ability, at his best, was to bring together conflicting claims and strike some sort of judicious, sometimes even judicial, balance between them.

Consider, for example, the well-known essay "Paleface and Redskin," which explores the polar opposites in the American tradition…. The essay still stands up, as valid as when it first appeared in 1939. Of course, there remains the further question as to what might deepen our American life so that we could get beyond the impasse of these opposites. But that investigation would require from the critic the kind of beliefs and temperament, and indeed a commitment of feeling toward America, that Rahv did not have.

In a similar vein, of striking a delicate and perceptive balance, there is the fine essay, "Attitudes Toward Henry James," of 1943. Written during the Henry James boom, the essay had a dual function: on the one hand, James had been for years a neglected writer and it was necessary to bring him before the public and establish his claims of greatness, but, on the other hand, one had to avoid the excesses of the more rabid enthusiasts who would elevate James to a position he did not quite fit. And, once again, Rahv strikes the intelligent and judicious balance, and, moreover, with a gracefulness and delicacy of touch somewhat unusual for him. He had a tendency, when not careful, to slip into being heavy-handed; but here some of the polish and civility of James himself had rubbed off on him. However, when he returned to the same theme almost thirty years later, in "Henry James and His Cult" …, he had indeed become heavy-handed and doctrinaire with old age. As his political views became more simplistic, his literary perceptions had become cruder; and in general his later writings show his powers to be declining. The subtleties of the later James now elude him. The instances with which he attacks the later novels seem to me singularly unconvincing and in some cases rather obtuse. (pp. 43-4)

But it was the Russians, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, who most deeply engaged him both as man and critic. On the face of it, the choice of these two as his favored authors, the ones on whom he expended his deepest critical energies, was rather a strange one for Rahv, since both writers hold that human life, without some central religious conviction at its core, is bankrupt…. Tolstoy—with his overwhelming simplicity and directness—was his ideal of what a writer should be. Though Rahv was a professed champion of modernism …, nevertheless he was really uncomfortable before some of the complex experimentations of the moderns, and he put up with them only as a matter of principle. With Tolstoy, however, he was at home; and his essay on the Russian master, "The Green Twig and the Black Trunk," is the most beautiful piece of writing he did, and to my mind one of the best short introductions to Tolstoy as a writer. But even in so fine a study one senses certain ideological limitations of the critic before his subject. Rahv insists on what he calls Tolsoy's rationalism, and this is accurate so far as it applies to that author's direct and literal—sometimes, indeed, literal-minded—approach to things, and to his rejection of the Russian Orthodox Church. But if we are to paste the label of rationalist on Tolstoy, what then are we to make of his My Confession, a work which in fact Rahv personally prized, but which is, if anything, a testimony to inadequacy of reason? This short sketch, part autobiography and part essay, remains one of the most powerful human and philosophic documents of the 19th century, and quite central to our understanding of Tolstoy. And what do we get from it if not the picture of Tolstoy like a caged lion, pacing his cell back and forth from corner to corner, shut up in the prison that his reason implacably builds around him and from which it provides no exit? And Tolstoy is quite categorical as to the means of deliverance: only through the common and ordinary feelings of humankind, not through reason, is it possible for the individual to grasp the meaning of life and to experience the bond with the lives of others. But Rahv's own intellectual program did not assign any important place to feeling.

In the case of Dostoevsky, the differences between critic and author, in temperament and point of view, are so marked that one can only believe Rahv was held by the fascination of the opposite. He wrote five essays on Dostoevsky, more than on any other writer, and at the end of his life was supposed to be putting together a book on the great Russian. In the early essays he is able to contrive some intellectual scheme—the fable of the Grand Inquisitor, for example, is read as an analogue of Stalin's tyranny—that keeps the mind of the ideologue busy while the sensibility of the critic can go to work; indeed, it is something of a miracle that, given the critic's own intellectual assumptions, he could nevertheless come up with as many penetrating perceptions as he does. But this makeshift procedure does not work so well as he goes on: he misses the central point of Crime and Punishment, which is the hero's absolute dissociation of intellect and ordinary feeling (a point on which Rahv had made himself deliberately and programmatically blind). And in the final essays, the heavy hand of the Marxist ideologue takes over more and more, and Dostoevsky's vision of human brotherhood is looked upon as a kind of anticipation of socialism. The problem which Dostoevsky raises here is the old one of the relation between the reader's beliefs and his capacity for appreciation—a question that T. S. Eliot and I. A. Richards used to debate in the case of Dante. One does not have to believe in the Russian Orthodox church to appreciate Dostoevsky, but one does need to have enough sympathy with the religious attitude to enter into his characters at any sufficient depth. It will not do to speak superficially of his "psychological" interest as if he were presenting us with a clinical collection of abnormal cases. The point about his abnormal cases is that each is, in however grotesque and distorted form, an individual soul seeking salvation. (pp. 44-5)

But there is another and more intimate aspect of Rahv's relationship to Dostoevsky that provokes my curiosity. When one has immersed oneself in any author very long, one sometimes has the uncanny feeling that he as writer is gazing back at you as reader, and this is particularly so when his vision is as penetrating and disquieting as Dostoevsky's…. Did Philip Rahv ever feel the Dostoevskian gaze staring back at him, looking through the defenses of his critical mind into the depths of his soul? And what would it have found? I think it would have discovered the nihilist lurking there.

For Rahv was a nihilist, perhaps the most outspoken in his own peculiar fashion that I have ever known. He had an abysmally low view of people and their motives, and usually found their alleged ideals bogus or unconvincing. He was, however, a nihilist who could enjoy himself, for he was not insensitive to pleasures. He relished his own creature comforts immensely; and when he was in a good mood, he could exude joviality. But of the deeper satisfactions of life, or what ordinary people take such satisfactions to be, he had found none that he trusted…. [Rahv's] nihilistic diatribes did not get into his writing; there he was taken over by his persona, the public role of judicious critic that was his to fulfill; but in his private conversations he let the destructive impulse reign free and unchecked…. The satisfactions in life that meant most to Rahv, I believe, were those of the ego, of fame, rank, prestige. All is vanity, says the nihilist, except my own vanity; but Rahv could find no solace even there, for he knew more than most how slippery and elusive a thing reputation was in the literary marketplace, where the caprice of critics and of fashion reigns. (p. 45)

"Genius," Nietzsche once remarked, "is a will to stupidity"; and on this feature alone Rahv would certainly qualify. Nietzsche had in view a certain type of mind so intent on its own purposes that it closes the doors on other perspectives or influences that might deflect it from those purposes. It is understandable that Rahv should never glance at classical political thought—that, after all, belonged to the "bourgeois" world—but it is surprising that he never delved much into Marxist theorizing either. Most of us at one time or another had taken a crack at Marx's Capital, and some of us even managed to stumble through that heavy tome, seeking scientific underpinnings for our conviction. But Rahv never turned his mind that way; the simplest formulations were enough to satisfy him and hold him fast in his faith. The power of his mind was toward a certain concreteness, and he had not only an inability in relation to, but a positive antipathy toward, abstract ideas…. [This] habit of mind that worked well in his literary criticism did not succeed so well in the area of political philosophy, where the turning away from theoretical questions and qualifications made his thought not more concrete, but schematic and abstract.

Yet beneath the crustiness of advancing age, and the doctrinaire rigidity that had set in, something still remained of his literary tact. In [Essays on Literature and Politics 1932–1972], there is a review which I had not previously seen, of T. S. Eliot's posthumous essays, and which I expected, in view of Rahv's mood in this later period, to be a programmatic manhandling of its subject. It turns out, however, to be appreciate, finely perceptive, and gracious too. Rahv, perhaps despite himself at this period, was still too intelligent not to recognize in Eliot the supreme literary intelligence of the century. He even excuses Eliot for his religious views: "His commitment to orthodox beliefs must have answered an irresistible inner demand of his nature for a discipline to shore him up against chaos…. In this sense it was no more than an anodyne, yet we who have not suffered his pains are seldom in a position to reproach him."

But why limit such charitable tolerance to Eliot? We may not suffer his pains, but we have our own; and for each man his own pains outweigh anyone else's; so that by this same line of reasoning the right to believe should not be confined aristocratically to the great poet and critic but extended democratically to everyman—and we would end thus with a much more reasonable and tolerant view of religion than Rahv was ever intellectually willing to concede. And in such a charitable mood, which he himself for a moment advances, we may very well include Philip Rahv himself: we can humanly and charitably sympathize with the desperation, the struggle against chaos, which led him in advancing age to clutch his Marxist gods more fiercely and rigidly than ever, even if we cannot quite condone his choice of those particular gods, since they are the ones that the present generation will have to do battle with. (p. 47)

William Barrett, "Portrait of the Radical As an Aging Man," in Commentary (reprinted by permission; all rights reserved), Vol. 67, No. 5, May, 1979, pp. 40-7.


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