The Daily Worker - April 23, 1956
The Current Scene
Writing in The Nation on the subject of John Dos Passos, Maxwell Geismar makes certain important observations. They provide, I believe, a key to questions which must be faced – and which have not been faced for a very long time. The fact that I am attempting to face certain of these questions now is no more or less important than the fact that Mr. Geismar is also attempting to face them. Politically, we have stood a good deal apart; and I find it interesting that our thinking today moves in what are often parallel directions.
Mr. Geismar's observations relate to John Dos Passos new book, "The Theme is Freedom," a collection of political essays gathered from his writing over a period of almost thirty years, and Mr. Geismar is deeply disturbed by a seeming dedication to reaction, which Dos Passos work reveals. Of what he terms "the Dos Passos problem," Mr. Geismar says:
"The collapse of his (Dos Passos) belief in the Russian Revolution, the disillusionment with the methods of the Communist Party, led not only to a major revision of his thinking, but, apparently, to a complete cessation of his creative energy and his human emotions. There was a psychic wound that never stopped bleeding."
As so many Marxist critics have pointed out, Mr. Geismar recognizes that this creative death was not the singular tragedy of John Dos Passos, and he goes on to remind us that, "It is a familiar wound – the stigma of contemporary literature. It has marked and afflicted the careers of Richard Wright, of Malraux in France, of Koestler from middle Europe, and a host of others. It is a central factor in the paralysis of the American intellectuals during the last decade. Bitter ex-radicals like Sidney Hook, or constrained liberals like Lionel Trilling or romantic reactionaries like Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren, have set the tone, which is, I think, no tone at all."
Now in answer to the above, we have been all too quick to say that there is no possibility, in this particular and strange epoch, for a writer to reject communism or socialism and continue as a growing, creative force. Understanding the profound effect of politics and class on art, we have been all too ready to either praise or condemn, leaving little area for motion, rejecting complexity – an ingredient of so much fine writing – and decrying the desperate need of the writer for both independence and ethical belief.
The fact that so many writers who parted with the left went to their own destruction did not make us right; and the evidence of a handful who survived in growth, as witness Sartre and Graham Greene, should have given us considerable pause for thought. Furthermore, we should have taken heed of reaction's use of the same device, simply turning it on its head. For them too, there is no middle ground, and they demand of a writer, not that he should attempt to understand history, but that he should betray history.
If it is murderously intolerant to deny a writer avenues to the exploration of the truth and the sacred privilege of being right, then it is also destructive to deny him the privilege of being wrong and the practice of his art without the confines of a monolithic discipline. In looking at great art and writing of the past, we have made a proper association of this product with the people's march forward; but perhaps in our concentration on the creative power and gift of the people's struggle, we have lost sight of the indispensable gift they offered the artist – the gift of freedom in its fullest sense.
It has not been easy to come to the conclusion that, in dealing with art, there is no substitute for freedom, the freedom to write what one pleases, to publish what one writes, to have the fullest means of distribution open to the written product, to know that no punishment or penalty will be extracted from the writers, and to know that only the people who read him will sit in final judgment upon him; yet this is a conclusion I have come to and this is the position I must stand on.
And it must be said, painful though the saying be, that while this right – a sacred right for the artist – has been denied to the writer by those who rule in the United states, it has also been denied, for all too long, by the leadership of the Soviet Union. And it has also been denied – or at least condemned – by communist leadership in many communist movements.
Maxwell Geismar pleads that, "a writer who is concerned primarily with his art should be able to traverse this ideological abyss and keep some sort of perspective... I have never believed that the political area of a writer's thought contains the secret of his creative urge; and very often it makes no sense at all."
Of course Mr. Geismar is correct in his last statement, and anyone who believes that the political area of a writer's thought contains the secret of his creative urge, is talking sheer nonsense. A "creative urge," if you desire to designate it, is the whole man at work, all of his life and all of his experience; but perhaps Mr. Geismar is less than wholly correct when he speaks of "a writer who is concerned primarily with his art." And perhaps there is the key to our problem.
No writer worth his salt can be concerned primarily with his art; such concern would be introverted, meticulous, and even degrading. Whatever he may think, the concern of a serious writer is mankind, man in his endless and complex relationships, struggles, dreams, and hopes; and the major drive of a serious writer is to distill out of this complexity some understanding, reason and, if you will, a glimpse of that ladder to the stars which man must some day mount.
This is precisely why, when a writer takes his place with a movement or organization which is dedicated to the hope of mankind, his own allegiance becomes a sort of dedication. He is seeking the answer to all his problems of writing – which is also the answer to the problems of mankind. And above all, he is seeking freedom – the freedom to speak the truth as he comes to know it; for however he may rationalize it, he knows that at the core of his creative effort is the necessity to speak the truth as he sees the truth. Right or wrong, his necessity is not merely to create, but to create without fetters.
The writer who becomes disillusioned with the mighty world movement for socialism is bereft of hope – and without hope, he cannot wholly create. He can turn to reaction and find there money for his hire and fleshpots in plenty but hope he will not find; or he can – as a good many have – cling to his human integrity and struggle to distill some hope and meaning out of his own process of disillusionment.
If the integrity of such writers and indeed of such honest critics as Mr. Geismar is self-limiting, it is nevertheless admirable. More admirable would be, I think, a new understanding on the part of those who lead the movements of socialism – a more profound and wiser understanding of the nature of man, of the nature of art, and of the deepest needs of men and artists. If this can be achieved, the artists will turn to us, stand by us, and most importantly, make great contributions to the future of man. It is high time that we stopped castigating those who accept disillusionment and that we attempted to see what role we, as people of the left, have played in truncating the hopes and aspirations of writers.