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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 9, No. 4 April 17, 1946

Literature and Social Content

Literature and Social Content

What should a writer write about? The individual in society or in the universe? A full view or man should include both of these aspects. Shakespeare is perhaps the greatest example of this; the histories examine man as a social animal, the tragedies as a cosmic individual. In the twentieth century Eliot has attempted the same thing. "The Waste Land" and "Murder in The Cathedral" have tremendous social implications; the "Four Quartets" concern themselves with the problem of the individual as a creature in universal time.

Probably undue emphasis on any one of these aspects produces unbalanced and inadequate work; unless of course one regards man as either entirely a social animal or entirely a cosmic being; and it is being wilfully short-sighted to do this.

But it is one thing to give social content a rightful place in a writer's data; it is a very different thing to lay down the precise form this social content shall take.

Many people, for instance, would see no call to social action in Eliot's poems, simply because he is a Christian rather than a Marxian Socialist. Auden, we gather, is acceptable because he was once a communist; Spender because he wrote anti Franco poems about Spain; but not so Eliot because he sees man as a creature with a mind as well as an appetite. The further many "socially" conscious literary critics go, the more absurd they become. First they would deny that man is a cosmic being, and claim that he is a social animal with only productive and consuming ability; the final impudence is to assert that anything they can't understand is, by hypothesis, incomprehensible.

Let there be social content by all means, but for literature's sake let it be more than a cry for higher wages.