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The Daily Worker - April 10, 1956
The Current Scene

Ethics and Criticism

Howard Fast

On vacation this past summer, my wife and I spent an evening with one of the editors of Time Magazine; and in the course of talking about this and that, I remarked upon the curious blanket of silence which greets the literary work of any and every member of the left. I held that whether there was agreement or disagreement with what we had to say, there was a certain obligation on the part of literate observers to admit of the existence of our work.
This position I held, not out of petulance or hurt vanity, but because the man of the left speaks out of an already old and noble tradition; because the man of the left propounds a point of view already ascendant among a billion of mankind; and because even if we are admittedly the enemies of the lords of Madison Ave., we could not be dissolved into nothingness by a mystique of silence. I proposed that here were opposing parties who placed their goods in the market-place, for all comers to behold, assay, purchase or reject; and where was the confidence of the apostles who dared not even whisper of our existence?

* * *

It was in the way of a challenge, and the editor of Time – even admitting to some surprise – responded. I had a new book of short stories ready to appear. "Send it to us," he said, "and we will review it." In all fairness, he did not qualify the proposal with any promise of honesty or objectivity in the undertaking; and when finally the book did appear and I sent Time one copy, they cheered me by promptly asking for two additional copies. I am afraid I over-estimated my powers of literary persuasion, for I envisioned the editors of Time handing the books around and discussing them as they journeyed to and from Fairfield County. Perhaps they did, for the review, when it finally appeared, was certainly a daisy. In 20 years of reading book reviews, I cannot recall another one that teemed with such energetic hatred, that denounced with such malignant bitterness, that cursed, damned, and spat upon a book with such unbounded joy.
In fact, the sheer anger of the review was more than any book deserved, right or left, nor would the files of this paper, since its first day of publication, offer a worthy competitor. It is true that no other paper to whom the book was sent – with the exception of the left – even noted receipt; yet I cannot help thinking that Time Magazine did its democratic duty too zealously, and I would imagine that the House of Luce would experience a degree of security that might allow it to admit that occasionally a left-winger fashioned a decent paragraph. I doubt that such an admission would shake the pillars of capitalism.

* * *

This is of course, only incidental in a process that is part of our time; and to a degree, it has gone beyond a situation that might be described as a total separation of ethics and criticism. I have had occasion to remark, in this space, on the quilt of silence that enveloped Sartre when he espoused the international peace movement; yet it was not simply a political rejection of Sartre that took place. There was an equally violent reaction to the clarity, sanity and precision of meaning that appeared in Sartre's work. In America, criticism, where it is not a cheap fraud, readily purchased by advertising money, has become a cult – a cult of mysticism and confusion.
Now it has long been quite fashionable to attack the left as being separate from that "objective" position which is worn as a badge of virtue by the ruling forces in American criticism; yet I think the record will show that the left has been more consistently objective and honest than the right has. No one can be truly objective, for even God Himself, we are told, makes judgment in moral terms of right and wrong; and so long as any concept of right and wrong exists, objectivity will be a relative thing.

* * *

Mr. Luce and his publications are naturally biased; the properly believe in the world of Henry Luce, and they have shown at times that their respect for the truth is secondary to their desire to defend that world. That Howard Fast fails to share their regard for their domain would be news to nobody; but their skittish and hysterical behavior indicates that perhaps they themselves are not too certain of the values they propose to live by. And any truly objective observer would have to ask himself how it is that we on the left can calmly examine the product of the non-left, judge it with some degree of fairness, praise what is good and indicate what to us is bad – whereas those on the right can only meet our product with silence or screaming denunciation?
Such a question would be very much to the point. For years and years, we have been told that we have nothing of any value to say, that our ideas and behavior are un-American, and that in our blundering efforts, we are so transparent that a child could see through us.

* * *

But if that is the case, would it not make sense to deal with us forthrightly and openly – and give the American people the choice of accepting our product or casting it on the scrapheap? It is part of the history of literature that a bad book cannot survive honest and intelligent criticism. Why, then, are the right wing critics afraid to review our books – yes, and afraid even to mention them or their authors?
Or could it just be that the ethics of criticism are no different from capitalist ethics in general – that is, wedded to injustice and guided by expediency? And could it just be that what we have to say is so overwhelming in its truth and logic that it can only be met with silence or falsehood?