Cultural Cohesion, p.47Clive James
In this respect, there is a curious contrast between Eliot and Ezra Pound.
With Pound, Wilson was like Tallulah Bankhead faced with a tricksy production of Maeterlinck: he wasn’t afraid to announce, “There’s less in this than meets the eye.” With Eliot, he was bold enough to say that things were simpler than they appeared at first blush. Both these judgements were backed up by a deep learning which had nothing to fear from either man, by a sense of quality which knew how to rely on itself, and by a seriousness which was not concerned with putting up a front.
There is no need to go on with this part of the argument. It’s more merciful simply to state that Wilson’s entire critical corpus will go on being read so long as men are prepared to read widely and well. His strategy of using magazines—first The New Republic, later The New Yorker—as shipyards in which to assemble books was triumphantly successful. He is the ideal of the metropolitan critic, who understood from the beginning that the intelligence of the metropolis is in a certain relation to the intelligence of the academy, and went on understanding this even when the intelligence of the academy ceased to understand its relation to the intelligence of the metropolis. When Wilson called the Modern Language Association to order, he performed the most important academic act of the post-war years—he reminded the scholars that their duty was to literature.
For Wilson literature has always been an international community, with a comprehensible politics of its own. He learned languages not just out of passionate curiosity but out of quasi-political purpose, becoming acquainted with whole literatures in the same way that a man who carries an international passport proves himself a part of the main. As late as the mid-1950s Wilson was apologizing for not having done enough in this line: he has always been a trifle guilty about failing to get interested in Portuguese and Spanish. But to a chastening extent he had already made himself the universal literatus, and in the later decades of his life we find him becoming increasingly conscious that this is his major role—if he has any significance in the realm of action, then this is it. Modesty has never been among Wilson’s characteristics, but a certain diffidence does creep in, of which the quietism and resignation of Upstate are the logical culmination. The central paradox of Wilson remains unresolved: he has put himself above the battle, inhabiting an empyrean of knowledge by now fundamentally divorced from an unworkable world. The paradox was vicious from the beginning, becoming more and more so as modern history unfolded in front of him. Wilson was a born internationalist in literature and a born isolationist in politics, and there is a constant tension between the achieved serenity of his literary judgement and the threatening complexity of his self-consciousness as an American.
A patrician individualist by nature, Wilson was automatically debarred from running with the pack. His radicalism in the 1920s and 1930s had a decisive qualitative difference from any Marxist analyses currently available: it was elitist, harking back to the informed democracy of the American past, and therefore on a richer historical base than the hastily imported European doctrines which bemused his contemporaries. Wilson’s reports on Detroit are as devastating as Marx on the working day, but the intensity is the only connexion. Wilson was revolted by industrialism’s depredations—if the ecological lobby ever wants to put a bible together, there are sections of The American Earthquake which could go straight into Revelations—but the revulsion was just as much on behalf of what America had previously been as on behalf of what it might become. Marxism is future-directed metaphysics: Wilson’s thought was bent towards the literary recovery of the estimable past.
Making no commitment to communism, Wilson was never compelled to scramble away from it, and he maintained his dignity throughout the 1930s. By 1940 he had completed his analysis of the revolutionary tradition in Europe and published it as To the Finland Station. In the final paragraph of that book, he declared it unlikely that the Marxist creeds would be able to bring about
a society in which the superior development of some is not paid for by the exploitation, that is, by the deliberate degradation of others—a society which will be homogeneous and cooperative as our commercial society is not, and directed, to the best of their ability, by the conscious creative minds of its members.
America went to war again, and again Wilson was isolationist: as with the First World War, so with the Second, he saw no point in America becoming involved. He was still explaining such phenomena by market pressures and the devious conniving of Big Business—it was a Fabian position, never much altered since he first picked it up from Leonard Woolf.
Wilson has difficulty in understanding how irrational forces can be so potent. In Europe Without Baedeker and A Piece of My Mind he came close to holding the Europeans collectively responsible for pulling their own houses down in ruins about their heads. It was the high point of his isolationism, further reinforced by a commitment to the American past amounting to visionary fervour. In his admiration for Lincoln we find Wilson getting very near the mysticism he spent a lifetime scrupulously avoiding. Finally he found an historical base solid-seeming enough to justify the relieved rediscovery of a Platonic Guardian class. “To simplify,” he wrote in A Piece of My Mind (1957),
one can say that, on the one hand, you find in the United States the people who are constantly aware . . . that, beyond their opportunities for money-making, they have a stake in the success of our system, that they share the responsibility to carry on its institutions, to find expression for its new point of view, to give it dignity, to make it work; and, on the other hand, the people who are merely concerned with making a living or a fortune, with practising some profession or mastering some technical skill, as they would in any other country, and who lack, or do not possess to quite the same degree, the sense of America’s role.
That was as far as he got: the Republic he loved began to be overwhelmed by the Democracy he had never been sure about, and in the new reality of the 1960s he found himself taxed but unrepresented.
In Upstate Wilson is faced with the ruins of the American Dream, and appears to be forgetting what we are bound to remember: that the fragments can be built with and that this fact is in some measure due to him. The intellectual community which is now fighting for the Republic against its own debilitating tumours was to a considerable extent his personal creation. That Americans of goodwill, in the midst of wearying political confusion, can yet be so confident of their nation’s creativity is again in a large part due to him. As Christian Gauss was to Wilson—master to pupil—Wilson is to nobody: nobody he can see. He now doubts the continuity he helped to define. But, beyond the range of vision now limiting itself to Cape Cod and Talcottville, there will always be young men coming up who will find his achievement a clear light. He is one of the great men of letters in our century.
Times Literary Supplement, 1972
Contributions to the TLS were still published anonymously, so I can claim the foregoing essay as a labour of love. Though Arthur Crook was editor at the time, the review was commissioned by his literary editor Ian Hamilton, who sensibly demanded some cuts: the typescript was at least another thousand words longer than this. I wish I could say that among the material excised was a more thorough discussion of Wilson’s politics. While I had no sympathy with Marxism myself, I still felt that Wilson had a right to his. This allowance, however, had I made it more explicit, would have been impossible to square with the assertion that he was “proof against metaphysics of any kind.” Marxism is metaphysics, and it was precisely its most metaphysical aspect that Wilson clung to longer than he should have done—the idea that capitalism depended on the degradation of the working class. It was an historicist view, and since historicism is inimical to a sense of history, it meant that Wilson went on undermining one of his own salient virtues until the end of his life.
But I can congratulate myself on getting the main point across: Wilson’s scope came from a real appreciation for the whole of human achievement, and not just from the
There were several other vulnerabilities on points of style, but in those days either the literary world was more civilized or else I had fewer people out to get me. If a quotation in French was appropriate, it could be got into any of the leading magazines. Today if I even mentioned Montaigne, let alone quoted him, it would go into the clippings file as prima facie evidence of pretension. But there are errors of tone I shouldn’t have made even at the time. It strained for effect, while retreating from the consequences, to write that Wilson’s mind generated enough power “to illuminate the average city.” It should have been “to illuminate a city” or else nothing: the rule with a metaphor is to focus it or drop it, but never soften it. For “intelligent men” I would now, of course, put “intelligent people.” I don’t think that my use of the old form made me a male chauvinist, any more than my current use of the sanitized form proves that my male chauvinism has been conquered: but unless they make grammatical nonsense such changes pay off in the belligerence they avoid, and might even do some good. To the suggestion that I should have figured all this out in advance I can only concede that I lacked the conscience, or at any rate the consciousness—which luckily the upcoming phalanx of latter-day feminists would successfully make it their task to arouse.
The reader will be relieved to hear that the later afterthoughts in this reissue [of the book named after this essay—C. J.] won’t be as expansive as this one. This was the essay, however, that set the tone not only for a book, but for a career—a career that some of my mentors regretted I did not pursue further, and some of my detractors still condemn me for abandoning at the temptation of fame and filthy lucre. My best answer was, and is, that although I admired Wilson’s performance I saw no reason for other people wilfully to repeat it, always supposing that they had the means: these things have to be done from the seat of the pants, not from calculation. Among Wilson’s many great instinctive virtues was his capacity for bringing the same intensity of imaginative engagement to the vaudeville stage as to grand literature, so when I came to take the reviewing of television as a serious commitment I had his example to back my case. I would have gone ahead anyway, because I was in vaudeville. For me, the heavy stuff was the side issue. I was just glad that Wilson was good at it. He made literary achievement approachable even as the gathering force of academic industry threatened to drive it irretrievably far away—an antisocial mechanism which he was the first to isolate, analyse and warn against. Like most men who grow up without fathers I have had my heroes. Wilson is just one of them but he has never faded. I have everything written by and about him on a shelf six feet long. If his diaries had been published at the time, the original manuscript of this piece might have been twice as long and even more elegiac. The reader will scarcely need telling that it sounds like an obituary. It was, but I managed to get it done while the great man was still alive to read it. I just didn’t want to let him get away with feeling unfulfilled at the end of his life, as if his example had meant nothing, when for so many of us it had been an inspiration.
The Metropolitan Critic, 1994
IT IS OF A WINDINESS:
Much praised in the United States, Pentimento deals mainly with people other than its author, but there is still a good deal of Lillian Hellman in it—possibly more than she intended—and it’s hard not to think of the book as finishing off An Unfinished Woman, a memoir which was inundated with laurels but left at least one reader doubting its widely proclaimed first-rateness. Meaty details about Dorothy Parker, Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Dashiell Hammett were not quite compensation enough for a garrulous pseudotaciturnity—distinction of style, it seemed to me, was precisely the quality An Unfinished Woman had not a particle of. The very first time Hammett’s drinking was referred to as “the drinking” you knew you were in for a solid course of bastardized Hemingwayese. The drinking got at least a score more mentions. There were also pronounced tendencies towards that brand of aggressive humility, or claimed innocence, which finds itself helpless to explain the world at the very moment when the reader is well justified in requiring that a writer should give an apprehensible outline of what he deems to be going on. Miss Hellman was with the Russian forces when Majdanek was liberated. It struck me, as I read, that her account of her feelings, though graphic, was oddly circumscribed. She had vomited, but in recounting the fact had apparently failed to realize that no physical reaction, however violent, is quite adequate to such a stimulus. What we needed to hear about was what she thought, and it appeared that what she thought was, as usual, a sophisticated version, decked out with Hem-Dash dialogue, of “I don’t understand these things.”
On a larger scale, the same applied—and I think still applies—to her reasoning on the subject of Soviet Russia. She comes over in these two books—implicitly, since her political views have mainly to be pieced together from more or less revealing hints—as an unreconstructed and unrepentant Stalinist. There is no gainsaying her consistency and strength in such matters, even if those qualities are founded in some primal injury to the imaginative faculty. She was brave during the McCarthy era and has a right to be proud of never having turned her coat. Nevertheless it is impossible to grant much more than a token admiration to a professional clerical who can go on being “realistic” about Russia in the sense (by now, surely, utterly discredited) of believing that the Terror was simply an aberration disturbing an otherwise constructive historical movement. The “I don’t understand these things” syndrome came in depressingly handy whenever she wandered on to the scene of an event about which she might have been obliged to say something analytical if she had. She was well regarded in Russia, was even there during the war, and met a lot of people. Her reporting of character and incident couldn’t help but be interesting. Nevertheless, one felt, she missed out on the fundamentals. On the day she was due to meet Stalin, she was told he was busy. Shortly after which, she recorded, Warsaw fell. The implication being that Warsaw was what he was busy with. But for some reason it just doesn’t cross her mind to give an opinion on the fundamental question—which remains a contentious issue to this day—of whether Stalin was busy liberating it or not liberating it: whether, that is, his first aim was to liberate the city or else to delay liberation until the insurrectionists of the ideologically unacceptable Uprising had been wiped out by the Germans.
Lillian Hellman was an early and impressive example of the independent woman, but she never completely forsakes feather-headed femininity as a ploy, and her continuing ability not to comprehend what was going on in Russia is a glaring demonstration. In a section of An Unfinished Woman dealing with a later trip to Russia, she finds herself tongue-tied in the presence of a Russian friend. We are asked to believe that her own feelings about the McCarthy period were welling up to block her speech, just as the Russian friend’s experience of the recent past had blocked hers. The two communed in silence. That this equation was presented as a profundity seemed to me at the time to prove that Lillian Hellma
Still, it shimmered with stars. Parker and Hammett, especially, shone brightly in its pages. There are some additional facts about them scattered through Pentimento (Hammett’s name is omnipresent, as you might expect) and in a section on the theatre and related performing arts we hear about Edmund Wilson, Theodore Roethke, Tyrone Guthrie, Samuel Goldwyn and Tallulah Bankhead. Just as she was good on Parker’s decline, she is good on Bankhead’s: Hellman’s grandes dames go down to defeat in a flurry of misapplied talcum. Roethke features as the falling-down drunk he undoubtedly was most of the time. Lowell gets a mention. It’s all good gossip, and all helps.
The bulk of the volume, however, is devoted to memoirs of non-famous characters from Miss Hellman’s past. The transatlantic reviewers seem to have convinced themselves that this material is pretty quintessential stuff. We learn from Richard Poirier, quoted on the blurb, that it “provides one of those rare instances when the moral value of a book is wholly inextricable from its immense literary worth, where the excitations, the pacing, and the intensifications offered by the style manage to create in us perceptions about human character that have all but disappeared from contemporary writing.” I certainly agree that the perceptiveness, such as it is, is closely linked to the style. What I can’t see for a moment is how trained literati can imagine that the style is anything less than frantically mannered and anything more than painfully derivative.
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