Politics and Literature Overviews - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

George Orwell

SOURCE: "The Frontiers of Art and Propaganda," in My Country Right or Left: 1940-43, The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, Vol. II, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1968, pp. 123-27.

[Orwell was an English essayist, journalist, and novelist whose worksincluding the novels 1984 and Animal Farm—frequently covered political issues. In the following, which was originally broadcast on the BBC Overseas Service in 1941, he argues that English literature beginning in the 1930s sacrificed aesthetics in favor of political didacticism.]

I am speaking on literary criticism, and in the world in which we are actually living that is almost as unpromising as speaking about peace. This is not a peaceful age, and it is not a critical age. In the Europe of the last ten years literary criticism of the older kind—criticism that is really judicious, scrupulous, fair-minded, treating a work of art as a thing of value in itself—has been next door to impossible.

If we look back at the English literature of the last ten years, not so much at the literature as at the prevailing literary attitude, the thing that strikes us is that it has almost ceased to be aesthetic. Literature has been swamped by propaganda. I do not mean that all the books written during that period have been bad. But the characteristic writers of the time, people like Auden and Spender and MacNeice, have been didactic, political writers, aesthetically conscious, of course, but more interested in subjectmatter than in technique. And the most lively criticism has nearly all of it been the work of Marxist writers, people like Christopher Caudwell and Philip Henderson and Edward Upward, who look on every book virtually as a political pamphlet and are far more interested in digging out its political and social implications than in its literary qualities in the narrow sense.

This is all the more striking because it makes a very sharp and sudden contrast with the period immediately before it. The characteristic writers of the nineteen-twenties—T. S. Eliot, for instance, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf—were writers who put the main emphasis on technique. They had their beliefs and prejudices, of course, but they were far more interested in technical innovations than in any moral or meaning or political implication that their work might contain. The best of them all, James Joyce, was a technician and very little else, about as near to being a "pure" artist as a writer can be. Even D. H. Lawrence, though he was more of a "writer with a purpose" than most of the others of his time, had not much of what we should now call social consciousness. And though I have narrowed this down to the nineteen-twenties, it had really been the same from about 1890 onwards. Throughout the whole of that period, the notion that form is more important than subject-matter, the notion of "art for art's sake", had been taken for granted. There were writers who disagreed, of course—Bernard Shaw was one—but that was the prevailing outlook. The most important critic of the period, George Saintsbury, was a very old man in the nineteen-twenties, but he had a powerful influence up to about 1930, and Saintsbury had always firmly upheld the technical attitude to art. He claimed that he himself could and did judge any book solely on its execution, its manner, and was very nearly indifferent to the author's opinions.

Now, how is one to account for this very sudden change of outlook? About the end of the nineteen-twenties you get a book like Edith Sitwell's book on Pope, with a completely frivolous emphasis on technique, treating literature as a sort of embroidery, almost as though words did not have meanings: and only a few years later you get a Marxist critic like Edward Upward asserting that books can be "good" only when they are Marxist in tendency. In a sense both Edith Sitwell and Edward Upward were representative of their period. The question is, why should their outlook be so different?

I think one has got to look for the reason in external circumstances. Both the aesthetic and the political attitude to literature were produced, or at any rate conditioned, by the social atmosphere of a certain period. And now that another period has ended—for Hitler's attack on Poland in 1939 ended one epoch as surely as the great slump of 1931 ended another—one can look back and see more clearly than was possible a few years ago the way in which literary attitudes are affected by external events.

A thing that strikes anyone who looks back over the last hundred years is that literary criticism worth bothering about, and the critical attitude towards literature, barely existed in England between roughly 1830 and 1890. It is not that good books were not produced in that period. Several of the writers of that time, Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope and others, will probably be remembered longer than any that have come after them. But there are no literary figures in Victorian England corresponding to Flaubert, Baudelaire, Gautier and a host of others. What now appears to us as aesthetic scrupulousness hardly existed. To a mid-Victorian English writer, a book was partly something that brought him money and partly a vehicle for preaching sermons. England was changing very rapidly, a new moneyed class had come up on the ruins of the old aristocracy, contact with Europe had been severed, and a long artistic tradition had been broken. The mid-nineteenth-century English writers were barbarians, even when they happened to be gifted artists, like Dickens.

But in the later part of the century contact with Europe was reestablished through Matthew Arnold, Pater, Oscar Wilde and various others, and the respect for form and technique in literature came back. It is from then that the notion of "art for art's sake"—a phrase very much out of fashion, but still, I think, the best available—really dates. And the reason why it could flourish so long, and be so much taken for granted, was that the whole period between 1890 and 1930 was one of exceptional comfort and security. It was what we might call the golden afternoon of the capitalist age. Even the Great War did not really disturb it. The Great War killed ten million men, but it did not shake the world as this war will shake it and has shaken it already. Almost every European between 1890 and 1930 lived in the tacit belief that civilisation would last for ever. You might be individually fortunate or unfortunate, but you had inside you the feeling that nothing would ever fundamentally change. And in that kind of atmosphere intellectual detachment, and also dilettantism, are possible. It is that feeling of continuity, of security, that could make it possible for a critic like Saintsbury, a real old crusted Tory and High Churchman, to be scrupulously fair to books written by men whose political and moral outlook he detested.

But since 1930 that sense of security has never existed. Hitler and the slump shattered it as the Great War and even the Russian Revolution had failed to shatter it. The writers who have come up since 1930 have been living in a world in which not only one's life but one's whole scheme of values is constantly menaced. In such circumstances detachment is not possible. You cannot take a purely aesthetic interest in a disease you are dying from; you cannot feel dispassionately about a man who is about to cut your throat. In a world in which Fascism and Socialism were fighting one another, any thinking person had to take sides, and his feelings had to find their way not only into his writing but into his judgments on literature. Literature had to become political, because anything else would have entailed mental dishonesty. One's attachments and hatreds were too near the surface of consciousness to be ignored. What books were about seemed so urgently important that the way they were written seemed almost insignificant.

And this period of ten years or so in which literature, even poetry, was mixed up with pamphleteering, did a great service to literary criticism, because it destroyed the illusion of pure aestheticism. It reminded us that propaganda in some form or other lurks in every book, that every work of art has a meaning and a purpose—a political, social and religious purpose—and that our aesthetic judgments are always coloured by our prejudices and beliefs. It debunked art for art's sake. But it also led for the time being into a blind alley, because it caused countless young writers to try to tie their minds to a political discipline which, if they had stuck to it, would have made mental honesty impossible. The only system of thought open to them at that time was official Marxism, which demanded a nationalistic loyalty towards Russia and forced the writer who called himself a Marxist to be mixed up in the dishonesties of power politics. And even if that was desirable, the assumptions that these writers built upon were suddenly shattered by the Russo-German Pact. Just as many writers about 1930 had discovered that you cannot really be detached from contemporary events, so many writers about 1939 were discovering that you cannot really sacrifice your intellectual integrity for the sake of a political creed—or at least you cannot do so and remain a writer. Aesthetic scrupulousness is not enough, but political rectitude is not enough either. The events of the last ten years have left us rather in the air, they have left England for the time being without any discoverable literary trend, but they have helped us to define, better than was possible before, the frontiers of art and propaganda.

Irving Howe

SOURCE: "The Idea of the Political Novel," in Politics and the Novel, Horizon Press, 1957, pp. 15-24.

[In the following essay, Howe finds politics to be a "violent intrusion" in literary art and seeks to examine the effect of such political ideas when writers insert them into a text.]

"Politics in a work of literature," wrote Stendhal, "is like a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, something loud and vulgar, and yet a thing to which it is not possible to refuse one's attention."

The remark is very shrewd, though one wishes that Stendhal, all of whose concerts are interrupted by bursts of gunfire, had troubled to say a little more. Once the pistol is fired, what happens to the music? Can the noise of the interruption ever become part of the performance? When is the interruption welcome and when is it resented?

To answer such questions one is tempted to turn directly to the concerts, anticipating those rude disharmonies—they will form our subject—which Stendhal hints at but does not describe. And in a moment we shall do that: we shall examine a number of major novels, each of them shaped and colored by a dominant variety of modern thought, to see what the violent intrusion of politics does to, and perhaps for, the literary imagination. But first, a few speculations.

Labels, categories, definitions—particularly with regard to so loose and baggy a monster as the novel—do not here concern me very much. Whether a novel may be called a political or a psychological novel—and it is seldom anything more than a matter of convenience—seems rather trivial beside the question, why does a particular critic, bringing to bear his own accumulation of experience, propose to use one or the other of these labels? What is it that his approach is to make us see more clearly? What mode of analysis does the critic employ, or what body of insights does he command, to persuade us to "grant" him his classification, in the sense perhaps that one "grants" a builder his scaffold?

When I speak in the following pages of the political novel, I have no ambition of setting up still another rigid category. I am concerned with perspectives of observation, not categories of classification. To be sure, distinctions of genre can be very useful in literary analysis: they train us to avoid false or irrelevant expectations and prepare us, within fluid limits, to entertain proper expectations; they teach us, if I may cite a familiar but still useful example, not to expect a lengthy narrative about the deeds of a hero when we read a lyric poem. But we are hardly speaking of genres at all when we employ such loose terms as the political or the psychological novel, since these do not mark any fundamental distinctions of literary form. At most, they point to a dominant emphasis, a significant stress in the writer's subject or in his attitude toward it. They may, that is, be convenient ways of talking about certain rather small groups of novels.

I stress this empirical approach—this commitment to practical criticism—because it has been my experience that a certain kind of mind, called, perhaps a little too easily, the academic mind, insists upon exhaustive rites of classification. I remember being asked once, after a lecture, whether A Tale of Two Cities could be considered a political novel. For a moment I was bewildered, since it had never occurred to me that this was a genuine problem: it was, I am now sure, the kind of problem one has to look for. I finally replied that one could think of it that way if one cared to, but that little benefit was likely to follow: the story of Sidney Carton was not a fruitful subject for the kind of inquiry I was suggesting. Pressed a little harder, I then said—and this must have struck some of my listeners as outrageous—that I meant by a political novel any novel I wished to treat as if it were a political novel, though clearly one would not wish to treat most novels in that way. There was no reason to.

Perhaps it would be more useful to say that my subject is the relation between politics and literature, and that the term "political novel" is used here as a convenient shorthand to suggest the kind of novel in which this relation is interesting enough to warrant investigation. The relation between politics and literature is not, of course, always the same, and that too is part of my subject: to show the way in which politics increasingly controls a certain kind of novel, and to speculate on the reasons for this change. The chapters on Stendhal and Dostoevsky contain a far heavier stress upon the literary side of things than do the chapters on Koestler and Orwell. And, I think, with good reason. In a book like 1984 politics has achieved an almost total dominion, while such works as The Possessed and The Charterhouse of Parma cannot be understood without using traditional literary categories.

Having cast more than enough skepticism on the impulse to assign literary labels, I want now, in the hope that it will not seem a merely frivolous sequel, to suggest the way in which I shall here use the term "political novel." By a political novel I mean a novel in which political ideas play a dominant role or in which the political milieu is the dominant setting—though again a qualification is necessary, since the word "dominant" is more than a little questionable. Perhaps it would be better to say: a novel in which we take to be dominant political ideas or the political milieu, a novel which permits this assumption without thereby suffering any radical distortion and, it follows, with the possibility of some analytical profit.

Let us for the moment assume a vastly oversimplified schema for the genesis and growth of the novel. Several kinds of prose writing converge to form the novel as we know it, among them the picaresque tale, the pastoral idyll, the romance, the historical chronicle and the early newspaper report. The most important of these is probably the picaresque tale, which flourished during the era in which the bourgeoisie was proving itself to be a vital class but was not yet able to take full political power. Largely good-natured in its moral tone, and often a lively sign of social health and energy, the picaresque novel, through the figure of the rogue-hero, obliquely suggested the new possibilities for social mobility. In acts of sly outrage the rogue-hero broke through the conventional class barriers while refraining from an explicit challenge to their moral propriety; his bravado thus came to seem a mocking anticipation of the regroupment of social strata which would soon take place in the nineteenth century. At the same time, however, the picaresque novel reflected the capacity of society to absorb the shocks of the bourgeois revolution. The atmosphere in which the rogue-hero moved was expansive and tolerant; society had room for his escapades and felt little reason to fear his assaults upon its decorum; in a curious, "underground" way he expressed the new appetite for experiment as a mode of life.

From the picaresque to the social novel of the nineteenth century there is a major shift in emphasis. Where the picaresque tale had reflected a gradual opening of society to individual action, the social novel marked the consolidation of that action into the political triumph of the merchant class; and where the rogue-hero had explored the various levels of society with a whimsical curiosity (for he was not yet committed to the idea of life within society), the typical hero of the nineteenth century novel was profoundly involved in testing himself, and thereby his values, against both the remnants of aristocratic resistance and the gross symbols of the new commercial world that offended his sensibility.

Once, however, bourgeois society began to lose some of its élan and cohesion, the social novel either declined into a sediment of conventional mediocrity (as, frequently, in Trollope) or it fractured in several directions. The most extreme and valuable of these directions were the novel of private sensibility, raised in our time to a glory of achievement and a peak of esteem that is without precedent, and the novel of public affairs and politics, which might be warranted in feeling a certain sibling rivalry. . . .

The social novel has always presupposed a substantial amount of social stability. For the novelist to portray nuances of manners or realistically to "cut a slice of life," society must not be too restive under the knife; and only in England was this stability still significantly present during the first half of the nineteenth century.

The ideal social novel had been written by Jane Austen, a great artist who enjoyed the luxury of being able to take society for granted; it was there, and it seemed steady beneath her glass, Napoleon or no Napoleon. But soon it would not be steady beneath anyone's glass, and the novelist's attention had necessarily to shift from the gradations within society to the fate of society itself. It is at this point, roughly speaking, that the kind of book I have called the political novel comes to be written—the kind in which the idea of society, as distinct from the mere unquestioned workings of society, has penetrated the consciousness of the characters in all of its profoundly problematic aspects, so that there is to be observed in their behavior, and they are themselves often aware of, some coherent political loyalty or ideological identification. They now think in terms of supporting or opposing society as such; they rally to one or another embattled segment of society; and they do so in the name of, and under prompting from, an ideology. [Howe writes in a footnote: I am quite aware that in practice it would often be impossible or not very useful to draw a sharp line of distinction between the political and social novels as I have here described them. Many novels—for example, George Eliot's Middlemarch—would seem to straddle the two categories. But I think it is worthwhile making the distinction analytically even if one recognizes that there are few examples of the "pure" type.]

To see this most clearly we must turn to France where Stendhal, though he wrote only a few decades after Miss Austen, was already marking the death of an era. In France, which had known a bourgeois revolution both abrupt and violent, all social contradictions were sharper and the consciousness of them more acute than in England. Through his novels Stendhal repeatedly declared that the hero, having been deprived of an arena for his talents and energies, must break his way into—and then through—society by sheer force of will. Decades before the world realized it, Stendhal's novels announced that the age of individual heroism was dying, the age of mass ideology beginning to appear.

The political novel—I have in mind its "ideal" form—is peculiarly a work of internal tensions. To be a novel at all, it must contain the usual representation of human behavior and feeling; yet it must also absorb into its stream of movement the hard and perhaps insoluble pellets of modern ideology. The novel deals with moral sentiments, with passions and emotions; it tries, above all, to capture the quality of concrete experience. Ideology, however, is abstract, as it must be, and therefore likely to be recalcitrant whenever an attempt is made to incorporate it into the novel's stream of sensuous impression. The conflict is inescapable: the novel tries to confront experience in its immediacy and closeness, while ideology is by its nature general and inclusive. Yet it is precisely from this conflict that the political novel gains its interest and takes on the aura of high drama. For merely to say that ideology is, in some sense, a burden or an impediment in a novel is not yet to specify its uses—is not yet to tell us whether the impediment may be valuable in forcing upon the novelist a concentration of those resources that are needed to overcome it.

It would be easy to slip into a mistake here, precisely the mistake that many American novelists make: the notion that abstract ideas invariably contaminate a work of art and should be kept at a safe distance from it. No doubt, when the armored columns of ideology troop in en masse, they do imperil a novel's life and liveliness, but ideas, be they in free isolation or hooped into formal systems, are indispensable to the serious novel. For in modern society ideas raise enormous charges of emotion, they involve us in our most feverish commitments and lead us to our most fearful betrayals. The political novelist may therefore have to take greater risks than most others, as must any artist who uses large quantities of "impure" matter; but his potential reward is accordingly all the greater. The novel, to be sure, is inconceivable without an effort to present and to penetrate human emotion in its most private, irreducible aspects; but the direction in which the emotion moves, the weight it exerts, the objects to which it attaches itself, are all conditioned, if not indeed controlled, by the pressures of abstract thought.

Like a nimble dialectician, the political novelist must be able to handle several ideas at once, to see them in their hostile yet interdependent relations and to grasp the way in which ideas in the novel are transformed into something other than the ideas of a political program. The ideas of actual life, which may have prompted the writer to compose his novel, must be left inviolate; the novelist has no business tampering with them in their own domain, nor does he generally have the qualifications for doing so. But once these ideas are set to work within the novel they cannot long remain mere lumps of abstraction.

At its best, the political novel generates such intense heat that the ideas it appropriates are melted into its movement and fused with the emotions of its characters. George Eliot, in one of her letters, speaks of "the severe effort of trying to make certain ideas incarnate, as if they had revealed themselves to me first in the flesh." This is one of the great problems, but also one of the supreme challenges, for the political novelist: to make ideas or ideologies come to life, to endow them with the capacity for stirring characters into passionate gestures and sacrifices, and even more, to create the illusion that they have a kind of independent motion, so that they themselves—those abstract weights of idea or ideology—seem to become active characters in the political novel.

No matter how much the writer intends to celebrate or discredit a political ideology, no matter how didactic or polemical his purpose may be, his novel cannot finally rest on the idea "in itself." To the degree that he is really a novelist, a man seized by the passion to represent and to give order to experience, he must drive the politics of or behind his novel into a complex relation with the kinds of experience that resist reduction to formula—and this once done, supreme difficulty though it is, transforms his ideas astonishingly. His task is always to show the relation between theory and experience, between the ideology that has been preconceived and the tangle of feelings and relationships he is trying to present. This he does in a number of ways: diseased and intimate emotion twisting ideology into obsessional chimeras, as in Dostoevsky's The Possessed; ideology fortifying emotion for an heroic martyrdom, as in Malraux's Man's Fate; ideology pure and possessed strangling emotion pure and disinterested, as in Koestler's Darkness at Noon; and emotion fatally sapping the powers of ideological commitment, as in James' The Princess Casamassima.

The greatest of all political novels, The Possessed, was written with the explicit purpose of excommunicating all beliefs that find salvation anywhere but in the Christian God. "I mean to utter certain thoughts," wrote Dostoevsky, "whether all the artistic side of it goes to the dogs or not . . . even if it turns into a mere pamphlet, I shall say all that I have in my heart." Fortunately Dostoevsky could not suppress his "artistic side" and by the time his book reaches its end it has journeyed through places of the head and heart undreamed of in his original plan. But whatever else it does, The Possessed proves nothing of the kind that might be accessible to proof in "a mere pamphlet." For while a political novel can enrich our sense of human experience, while it can complicate and humanize our commitments, it is only very rarely that it will alter those commitments themselves. And when it does so, the political novel is engaged in a task of persuasion which is not really its central or distinctive purpose. I find it hard to imagine, say, a serious socialist being dissuaded from his belief by a reading of The Possessed, though I should like equally to think that the quality and nuance of that belief can never be quite as they were before he read The Possessed.

Because it exposes the impersonal claims of ideology to the pressures of private emotion, the political novel must always be in a state of internal warfare, always on the verge of becoming something other than itself. The political novelist—the degree to which he is aware of this is another problem—establishes a complex system of intellectual movements, in which his own opinion is one of the most active yet not entirely dominating movers. Are we not close here to one of the "secrets" of the novel in general?—I mean the vast respect which the great novelist is ready to offer to the whole idea of opposition, the opposition he needs to allow for in his book against his own predispositions and yearnings and fantasies. He knows that his own momentum, his own intentions, can be set loose easily enough; but he senses, as well, that what matters most of all is to allow for those rocks against which his intentions may smash but, if he is lucky, they may merely bruise. Even as the great writer proudly affirms the autonomy of his imagination, even as he makes the most severe claims for his power of imposing his will upon the unformed materials his imagination has brought up to him, he yet acknowledges that he must pit himself against the imperious presence of the necessary. And in the political novel it is politics above all, politics as both temptation and impediment, that represents the necessary.

Abstraction, then, is confronted with the flux of experience, the monolith of program with the richness and diversity of motive, the purity of ideal with the contaminations of action. The political novel turns characteristically to an apolitical temptation: in The Possessed to the notion that redemption is possible only to sinners who have greatly suffered; in Conrad's Nostromo and Under Western Eyes to the resources of private affection and gentleness; in Man's Fate to the metaphysical allurements of heroism as they reveal themselves in a martyr's death; in Silone's Bread and Wine to the discovery of peasant simplicity as a foil to urban corruption; and in Darkness at Noon to the abandoned uses of the personal will, the I so long relegated to the category of a "grammatical fiction." This, so to say, is the "pastoral" element that is indispensable to the political novel, indispensable for providing it with polarity and tension; but it matters only if there is already present the public element, a sense of the rigors, necessities and attractions of political life.

The criteria for evaluating a political novel must finally be the same as those for any other novel: how much of our life does it illuminate? how ample a moral vision does it suggest?—but these questions occur to us in a special context, in that atmosphere of political struggle which dominates modern life. For both the writer and the reader, the political novel provides a particularly severe test: politics rakes our passions as nothing else, and whatever we may consent to overlook in reading a novel, we react with an almost demonic rapidity to a detested political opinion. For the writer the great test is, how much truth can he force through the sieve of his opinions? For the reader the great test is, how much of that truth can he accept though it jostle Aw opinions?

In the political novel, then, writer and reader enter an uneasy compact: to expose their opinions to a furious action, and as these melt into the movement of the novel, to find some common recognition, some supervening human bond above and beyond ideas. It is not surprising that the political novelist, even as he remains fascinated by politics, urges his claim for a moral order beyond ideology; nor that the receptive reader, even as he perseveres in his own commitment, assents to the novelist's ultimate order.

Philip Hanson

SOURCE: "Antibourgeois Anger: Notes on Fiction as a Guide to a Political Sentiment," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 82, No. 3, Summer, 1983, pp. 235-45.

[In the following essay, Hanson attempts to locate the difference between genuine "social conscience" and "political sentiment" as they are expressed in twentieth-century novels.]


The political objectivity of fiction compared with that of social science is remarkable. The political economist or social philosopher speaks almost always in a single voice and continues to feign a detached and judicial tone even as he moves from evidence to (contentious) interpretation. He may do the decent thing and signpost his transitions from "is" to "ought." He will probably present, in the course of his argument, points of view opposed to his own. Nonetheless, his own preferences almost invariably become apparent—and usually sooner rather than later. Most social philosophizing is therefore a monologue without drama or conflict; the reader knows that he is being addressed by an advocate who is out to win a case. The novelist, on the other hand, can give persuasive expression to conflicting views. It may not even become clear to the reader which view the writer favors. Sometimes the writer himself does not know; politically, many novelists have been turncoats, floating voters, and "Don't Knows."

So far as politics is concerned, novels that do best are those that depict political sentiments. For political ideas the best sources are the partisan social...

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