Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 14, No. 13. October 4, 1951
The Pub as a Refuge — Cut Cabbage is Part of it — The Artist's Relation — To His Audience..
The Pub as a Refuge
Cut Cabbage is Part of it
The Artist's Relation
To His Audience...
The article on this subject in a recent issue of Salient illustrated Marxist tactics in the sphere of culture. As Bryan Green pointed out it is the religion or duty of every Communist, pink or fellow traveller to many out his party's teachings—the party line. If that is involuted it can be followed on the principle that the end justifies the means. Distortion, quoting out of context and deriding things western while praising under different names their Eastern counterparts becomes praise-worthy.
Here the party line is: Western culture under the control of the U.S.A. is decadent; whereas the Soviet type culture in adapted to society and is thus immeasurably superior.
To argue for this official view N.G. begins by quoting with approval Edwin Muir: "It is good that there should be 'poetry for the people,' but there is another side to it. When Mr. Masefield proposed making use of the country public house for verse speaking and reading of prose and thus encouraging a wider appreciation of our langauge and literature in its highest forms. Mr. Eliot was disconcerted by this proposal...for if the public house is to fall into the hands of the English Association and the British Drama League, where, one must ask bluntly is a man to go for a beer?"
Oh an Excellent Fellow Traveller!
The trouble with N.G.'s use of Muir is that he doesn't say which side he is for, but we see his purpose as he tries to suggest that because Eliot asks sanctuary in a pub from long-haired intellectuals, he necessarily believes that the people cannot appreciate the best of Britain's literature. From this unfair and false conclusion N.G. moves to the statement "Eliot expands his thesis in his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture,' stating that 'the fundamental social processes...previously favouring the development of elites' but that now the opposite takes place, and culture degenerates 'because wider sections of the populations take an active part in the cultural activities.' " But N.G. dodged explaining Eliot's definition of culture and the summary of the "Notes." Instead he prefers the term out of its context and uses it as a term which could mean anything to anybody, an undefined abstraction.
It is important to know the way in which Eliot defines culture: "It includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day...Dog Races....boiled cabbage cut into sections...the music of Elgar....the reader can make his own list. The term is used anthropologically and not in the narrow but still vague manner in which N.G. uses it.
This culture, as Eliot defines it, is being destroyed not only by American capitalism as N.G. would have us believe, but by the fact that religious faith is declining more rapidly than ever before, that government planning and nursery schools are smashing the family group, that social barriers are being hurled down everywhere, and the last islands of regional diversity corrupted by mass communication and the passion for mass education.
Why this insistence on Eliot ? The Marxist realises that Eliot is the Grand Cham of contemporary poetry and critical work. He is a symbol which, if it is successfully attacked undermines the culture of the West in this century.
Religion is Culture
On this sole, unexplained quotation from Eliot N.G. bases his attack. He states: "The degree of truth in Eliot's contention is that culture in our Western world is degenerating." He does not tell us why Eliot believes this and he ignores, either deliberately or because he could not perceive it, that the fundamental theme of Eliot's, essay is: "No culture has appeared or developed except together with a religion; according to the point of view of the observer, tbe culture will appear to be the product of the religion, or the religion the product of the culture."
Now no true Marxist could recognise this or waste time discussing it N.G. avoids noticing it. Eliot believes that European culture is obviously in decline and he relates that decline to the decline of Christianity. He is not, he asserts, out to secure converts—he is simply stating a fact.
N.G.'s Definition N.G.
Once Eliot's definition has been ignored N.G. uses his own and leaves it unstated to common readers. How nice to be an egotist. His arguments are therefore unfounded and N.G. has either not read "Notes Towards a Definition of Culture," or he has read (red) it only to take quotes which, unexplained or out of context, appear to support his argument. Having ignored the full context of the Notes N.G. sneers: "Hence Eliot's view, no doubt, that Shakespeare. Milton and Shelley would be caviar to the general." But in the Notes Eliot propounds that culture no such things as lower classes, it draws sustenance from all.
This article may seem to smack of the cold war but Ls an Interesting reply to a similar article published in Salient two Issues ago. Many of the problems suggested by these two articles are Important in this and other contexts. Both articles are therefore worth reading.
Eliot—Poet of an Age of Confusion
In other attacks on T. S. Eliot and through him on other western poets N.G.'s argument is just as specious. He quotes Professor Winston Rhodes: "Imagine T. S. Eliot going, and reading his poems to the London dockers." But whose fault is this?. Must Eliot write down to the level of the widest audience? are Shakespeare and Milton appreciated by the dockers? Surely the dockers, probably through no fault of theirs, are the ones with something lacking?
N.G. may speak of "Eliot and many of his modern cobbers .... esoteric gibberings" but well educated people (even Varsity students) have appreciated Eliot's achievement. His poetry is an ideal vehicle for the expression of the "immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history." He has caught the spirit (interpreted the zelt-Geist—the spirit of your time and place as Miss Mitchison puts it) of a unique age—an age of selfdoubt, self concern and a falling away from the common cause, an age of two world wars. It would be impossible to write intensely of such a complex subject without mirroring its complexity.
Another group, in which N.G. would appear if he were not so Marxist, a group which almost hallowed Eliot's poetry was the leftish intellectuals: Day, Lewis, Macneice, Spender and others.
In Siberia—Literary Clubs ?
Eliot who had an object "my aim is to help define the word culture" confined himself to the world he knew .the world of the West N.G. has to point a moral and he therefore lectures on the superior position of the communist artist. It is not necessary to comment on the statement that "every town has its theatre, its library, its orchestra, its writers, artists, musicians."
Professor Rhodes is quoted to support censorship. The so-called censorship of literature, music and art was precisely the effective control of the reader over the writer, the audience over the artist. The control in the U.S.S.R. is made more explicit (note there are no concrete facts). "The ordinary citizen reads every notable Soviet book that appears." No comment necessary. "They talk about it, write to their papers about it, and finally invite the writer to discuss it with them.....When the controversy is at its height it is the habit of responsible Russian political organs, following a lead from cultural organisations to sum up the discussion and give judgment."
N.G. does not say so but we infer that this judgment by a political organ is final. Shades of "1984." Everything we suppose is Marxist or non-Marxist. We are reminded of another type of dictator kultur in which everything was Aryan or non-Aryan.
An Artist must Revolt
In the Soviet we see two great composers Shostakovitch and Prokovie forbidden to have opinions other than the official ones. N.G. would have us believe that official opinion is founded on public opinion but if there is intense controversy how are the officials to judge? Marx, Lenin and Stalin were not literateurs. The majority is not always right.
Ordinary people are not best suited to decide what is great art, and what is not. They have not the time nor the inclination in a complex industrial society for that wide sampling which is the basis of taste. They need education, an uplifting of standards.
The writer must be ahead of the people but he must not be trailing with them through the absurdities and unnecessary conditions of life. He must revolt. Graham Greene "would emphasise once again the importance and the virtue of disloyalty."
The Bonus System
N.G. believes with Naomi Mitchison that the only standards by which a writer in the western world would or could judge his own work were his own standards or else that of economic return. The economic standard means to them that the writer writes so that he can be understood by others. He has crossed the narrow world of individualism into the great shared world of man's experience. Here are some reasons the statement "economic standards of writing means universally appreciated writing" is nonsense.
(1) N.G. believes that the economic standard la good because it gets past the evil of individualism, But as Canon Green forcefully pointed out personality is the greatest thing we have. Precisely because man is human he is individual. Marxism of course does not admit free will and therefore lauds common experience in the mass.
(2) Why does N.G. deplore cheap and nasty American commercialised culture which is made possible and yet manage to praise the commercialism of the Soviet system where the rewards are "direct privileges of all kinds" as Miss Mitchison so nicely describes better ration cards? He has to follow the line and praise commercialism in one sphere and criticise it in another.
Miss Mitchison makes the similarity between the materialistic U.S.A. and the more materialistic U.S.S.R. philosophy clear. She says: "Let's have a look at the Soviet Union the standard here is strictly economic. If you produce what measures up well by the standard you get all kinds of Soviet privileges." Does she realise that to make an artistic creation a competition for prizes entails arbitrary judgments? The judges standard is final, and who can say it is the best? It is far better to create by your own standards as well as possible and leave the final judgment to the most capable judge—time.
The competition for better ration cards is "interpreting the Zeit- Geist—the spirit of your time and place—and that intelligibly." But we ask—interpretations must vary—will the political committee decide which is right and condemn the rest? On many occasions the writer, from Donne to Marx, has been a visionary. Will he be condemned as being out of touch with reality? Higher standards are not possible for the artist must remain at the level of popular standards.
(3) The attraction of the greatest wealth means attraction of the greatest number. To suit most tastes the product must be diluted—an evil in both distilling and art.
(4) Who is more qualified to judge what an artist has achieved and is capable of—the artist himself, who sees what might have been—or the audience who sees only the exterior result?
The Bigger the Lie?
When as a last thrust N.G. asserts that nobody gets any pleasure from western entertainment we are not surprised that there are other points in his article as absurd and as extreme. To condemn our commercialised culture and praise the economic standards of the east required Marxist gall and Marxist obtuseness. "For our way of life has strange values. They are based not on human minds and souls, but on hard, dirty dollars." If we substitute "art" for way of life and roubles for dollars we get an accurate picture of art in the Soviet.