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Feb 18, 2011

Marxism and Literature: Edmund Wilson

'He used to say that the poets were originals, who must be allowed to go their own way, and that one shouldn't apply to them the same standards as to ordinary people,' as Marx's daughter wrote of her father, a quotation which appears in 'Marxism and Literature,' an essay in The Triple Thinkers. While he wrote extensively on the relationship between political ideologies such as Marxism and Literature, he opposed any pre-formulated critical frameworks, or what he called "a process of lopping and distortion to make [the work] fit the Procrustes bed of a thesis."

Edmund Wilson’s Marxism and Literature is the ninth essay in his collection entitled The triple Thinkers comprising twelve essays in literary subjects. In this essay, the author studies the place of art and literature in the system if Didactical Materialism of Marx. The author explores the hitherto prevalent myth that art is a weapon of social, political and economic propaganda, and that it can be produced to order. As Wilson says in The New Republic: “A work of art is not technique, or set of ideas, or even a combination of both. But I am strongly disposed to believe that out literature would benefit by a genuine literary criticism which should deal expertly with art and ideas.”

He studies the influence of Marxism on literature and traces in this essay the history of Marxist literary theory as it was carried out by Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and a number of other critics.

Wilson begins the essay with the observation of Marx and his devout follower and collaborator, Engels, on the relationship of art and literature with society. He tells us that Marx was well-versed in literary theories and had drunk deep at the fount of literature. He admired Aeschylus for his grandeur, and liked the Greek Mythological figures of Zeus and Prometheus for their defiance. Marx valued the contribution of Goethe whom Engels gave the status of a “colossal and universal genius.’” Though Marx freely quoted from the plays of Shakespeare, yet he never attempted to draw from them social or moral lesions. Marx hold the opinion that the “superstructure” of higher activities such as politics, law, religion, philosophy; literature and art grows out of the methods of production, which prevail in a society at a particular time.

Marx and Angels do not have a tendency to specialize art as a weapon of change. They believed in the renaissance ideal of complete man, of his many sidedness, of the perfection which is achieved by the participation in varied activities. But Lenin who occupied a central role in the Russian Revolution of 1917, believed in such specialization. He was himself specified as an organizer and fighter. The essayist says that Lenin has tremendous administration for Tolstoy.

Trotsky, who was himself a writer, had to grapple with the problems which Marx and Marxists began to face the questions such as the “carry over value” of literature. Trotsky asserted that such terms as “proletarian culture” are “dangerous because they compress erroneously compress the culture of the future into the narrow limits of the present day.” He did not believe in the proletarian culture which would displease the bourgeois and communism. Trotsky said, had as yet communist culture, it had only a political culture. He regarded communism only a transitional phase which would ultimately lead to a universal culture. Trotsky’s view point is, thus, broad and liberal. He looked at proletarian dictatorship from the stand point of view.

We see that when Lenin died and Trotsky was exiled, and a number of voices speaking for liberalism in matters of art and culture were also silenced. Art degenerated into a mere instrument of state policy, a weapon of communist propaganda. Artistic and literary freedom died with the rise of Stalin. With the death of Gorky, the last group of liberalism in literature was gone. Wilson states that now Literature degenerated into mere journalism into mere tools of propaganda to be used nu the government for its own socio-economic purposes.

If Marxism means the use of the language of common man for the purpose of high literature, it has been seen in USA much before the communist revolution. The early American writers believed in the dignity of ordinary humanity and in the demoralization of literature. In this connection the essayist says “the country which has produced Leaves and Grass and Hucklebury Finn has certainly nothing to learn from Russia.” Wilson gives the example of American literature, produced recently, which deals with industrial and rural life from the point of view of the factory hand or poor farmer living in struggling conditions.

Towards the conclusion, the author says that the democratic values—sympathy for the poor—is not the monopolies of Marxist alone. This is a worldwide phenomenon in today’s world which is the age of common man but despite all this, Marxism still remains a force. It is not a philosophical or theoretical but also a potent force for social change. What impact Marxist vision will have on society and that in the time to come is anybody’s guess but it is an admitted fact that Marxism is a creative force.

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