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William Blake, Poems
Stendhal, The Red and the Black
Marx, The Communist Manifesto



William Blake, Poems

One of the most extraordinary ideas in the history of literary criticism is the notion, popular a generation or more ago, that William Blake was a naïve, uneducated man, a kind of literary and artistic Douanier Rousseau, unable to grasp the refinements and complexities of any orthodox world view or any “tradition,” and so forced to make up a cranky system out of his own head. Since then the literature on Blake has grown to enormous proportions and threatens to overtake and surpass that on the more difficult books of the Bible. The old point of view, shared by critics and editors as widely disparate as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and T.S. Eliot, by almost everyone except William Butler Yeats, is completely discredited, and is held now by no serious person.

Blake was for his day an exceptionally learned man, and he was the most impressive and most durable eighteenth-century representative of a tradition older than any orthodoxy — the main line of the orthodoxy of heterodoxy. Blake survives and is read all over the world; the great French Illuminist, Saint-Martin, is forgotten by all but specialists and learned occultists. It is apposite to compare the ever-growing exegesis of Blake with that of Second Isaiah or the eighth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, to apocalypse and mystical cosmology. This is where Blake belongs. He speaks the same language, uses the same kind of symbols, deals with the same realities. It is his grasp of this tradition which gives him his power and which makes him ever more meaningful as time passes.

Blake belongs to the very small group of founders of the subculture of secession which has accompanied industrial, commercial civilization since its beginnings. He differs, however, from Hölderlin, Baudelaire, Stendhal, and other purely literary figures, in that he was able to develop a completely worked-out world view, a philosophy of nature and of human relations which could provide answers to the questions asked at the deepest — or the most superficial — levels. As the cash nexus shut down over humane culture like a net, strangling all other values but profit, the poets and novelists reacted — Blake understood.

Sade, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx, the philosophers of alienation, all to a greater or lesser degree fail where Blake succeeds. In one way or another they themselves become absorbed by the civilization they attack, and then it turns out, as their ideas are accepted, that they only caricatured the system of values they attempted to subvert. Their philosophies are each the philosophy of business enterprise hypertrophied, each after his fashion. Blake is indigestible, although I remember long ago his “Ancient of Days” was used as an advertisement for a public utility company. That bygone advertising man chose more wisely than he knew. Blake’s famous picture is not of God creating, with his compass, order out of chaos, but Blake’s diabolical principle of lifeless rationalism reducing reality to empty quantity.

Herein lies the difference. Blake knew that his age was faced with a major crisis or climacteric of the interior life. He could diagnose the early symptoms of the world ill because he saw them as signs that man was being deprived of literally half his being. His Prophetic Books may be full of cosmological powers derived from the long Gnostic tradition of the emanation and fall of creation, but he is in fact concerned with the epic tragedy of mankind as it enters an epoch of depersonalization unequaled in history. It is not surprising that the followers of Carl Jung have been amongst the most revelatory expositors of Blake. He anticipates most of Jung’s diagnosis and prescription, and shares with him the same archetypal pattern or Olympiad of key symbolic figures. The reason is not to be found in some mysterious universal oversoul or undersoul. It is simply that human brains like human bodies are much alike, and men cope with those factors of the mind, or those powers and relationships in life, that cannot be handled by a quantitative rationalism in much the same way in all times and places, and most especially in crises of the society or the individual.

Blake was not only right about the spiritual, intangible factors, the Guardians of the Soul, or the testers and judges of the Trials of the Soul in ancient mythologies, that are symbols of the struggles of the interior life and the achievement of true integration of the personality. He was also right about the external factors — the evils of the new factory system, of forced pauperism, of wage slavery, of child labor, and of the elevation of covetousness from the sin of the Tenth Commandment to the Golden Rule of a society founded on the cash nexus. A generation before the birth of Marx, and before Hegel, he put his finger unerringly on the source of human self-alienation, and he analyzed its process and consequences in a way not to be matched until the mid-twentieth century.

Blake certainly thought of himself primarily as a prophet, because he thought of the artist and the poet as so, and the poet who turned away from such a role as a traitor to mankind. Many Romantic poets since his day have claimed to be nabis, descendants of the ecstatic prophets of early Israel and uncrowned legislators of mankind. Most of them have really been concerned with themselves, with the destruction of the clerkly class in a middle-class civilization, and the loss of both privilege and responsibility by the age-old open conspiracy of the scribes . . . the disappearance of benefit of clergy. Most of them have also been quite bad poets. For one Baudelaire or Nerval or Rimbaud there have been thousands of extravagant poetasters, cheap occultists, and hypnotizers of silly girls. Blake is also a very great poet.

The Prophetic Books are certainly the greatest, the most comprehensive and profound group of philosophical poems in the English language. Only Milton’s Paradise Lost can be compared with them. Milton may be the greater poet, although that is disputable, but Blake is certainly the deeper seer. There is no question, though, but that they are difficult reading, are best accompanied with a reliable commentary, or even preceded by extensive reading in modern Blake criticism. They are an acquired taste. The best way to acquire that taste is to read thoroughly the superficially simpler poems of the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience and the early poems.

Blake’s songs are amongst the most lyrical in the language, and they are distinguished by their uncanny lucidity. They are modeled on Shakespeare’s songs, and at first sight share their simplicity, but, rather like Shakespeare’s plays, on examination they reveal an ever-unfolding complexity of meaning. It is amusing that the Age of Reason thought Blake mad, for he is distinguished by an extraordinary sanity in a world in which men like him were being driven to the wall. No other poet of the main tradition of secession from modern civilization is so lucid or so conscious of his own logic of purpose. First things come first, and second, second. Blake has a clearly defined scale of values, something Baudelaire or Hölderlin certainly did not have. This is why his simplest lyrics have levels of lucidity, like an ever deeper and deeper gaze into a clear depth which finds revealed greater content at each new level, and with each discovery enters a new qualitative realm. The Prophetic Books only spell out in action and discourse the progressive revelation of the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. An ear for the subtlest music of language and an eye for the ultimate meanings of minute particulars combine to make Blake one of the greatest of all lyric poets. But what this means is seeing plainly into the clear depths of the soul — hence the inexhaustibility of these simple poems.

[Another Rexroth essay on Blake]


The Red and the Black

“I rose and fell with Napoleon,” said Henri Beyle, who called himself Stendhal. If the Revolution put the middle class into power in France, Napoleon attempted to make it heroic and internationalize it, as the aristocracy of the Almanach de Gotha are international, and once claimed heroic virtues. The Red and the Black is the story of an inglorious Napoleon, a man of energy without a chance. Stendhal’s hero, Julien Sorel, is the Revolutionary adventurer trapped in the Restoration — as, of course, was Stendhal himself. The novelist differs from his character in insight. He is always aware that he in his youth had liberated himself from the mediocrity that oppressed him.

Philosophes and Jacobins had hoped to make the middle class intelligent and heroic. Stendhal had given up that hope. Again and again he spoke of his work as a lottery ticket that would pay off in fifty or a hundred years. No one ever wrote more masculine novels. He knew that they would be read in his time mostly by idle women — spoiled duchesses and disappointed wives of businessmen: exactly the women who destroy his hero, Julien. So the violent arrogance of The Red and the Black is a kind of seduction, an assault on the spurious chastity of its public. For fifty years he was read only by such women and by the few intellectuals who shared his sensuous scorn. Then his reputation began to grow. He took his place easily with the radical critics of modern life of the end of the century. By the hundredth anniversary of the publication of The Red and the Black he was acknowledged as the greatest of French novelists.

Hypertrophied or dissociated, the style he invented is still dominant in French fiction. Popular writers as diverse as Mrs. Voynich and Simenon have modeled themselves directly on him. More significant, The Red and the Black established the type and fixed the pattern of the novel as black comedy. In his youth Stendhal longed to be the Molière of the nineteenth century, a great comic poet. He couldn’t write proper French verse, so he thought he had failed. He had not. The Red and the Black is the first modern overturned tragedy, the first black comedy. Julien Sorel is a comic Napoleon, a Bonaparte with frayed cuffs and patched shoes, mocked in Bartholomew Fair. To the immature readers of the last century, his story was a tragedy. To men of the world who read it in the twentieth, it is a comedy, but of the grimmest sort. “The world is a tragedy to those who feel, a comedy to those who think.”

Hardly another man of letters has been as much a man of the world as Stendhal. Henri Beyle — dragoon; grocer; Napoleon’s governor of Brunswick; commissary officer on the retreat from Moscow; consul in Civita Vecchia, the port of Rome; wit of the salons of the Empire and terror of those of the Restoration; lover of actresses, courtesans, and noblewomen — this is a man to whom words were always instruments of action. So to his hero, Julien Sorel, ideas are a backwash of blocked action. He struggles to act and expresses his frustration in thought. His interior monologues are designed by Stendhal to ironically illuminate action, like the speeches of Thucydides, and never to impede it.

Julien’s thoughts are Stendhal’s irony. His own are expressed in Julien’s acts. This is what gives his narrative its extraordinary pace and intensity, unique in its time and rare in any. There had been nothing like it before in any European language except Icelandic. Others had been colloquial and barbarous unwittingly. Stendhal strove always to write in the manner of urgent speech. From his youth he studied operative prose, witnesses in court, technical descriptions, dispatches, orders, the Civil Code, the language of people who meant business with words. He is an adult writing for adults. In a letter from burning Moscow he says, “I saw things sedentary authors would not see in a thousand years.”

Everybody acts out in The Red and the Black — Julien, the hero of the armed will; Mathilde, the tragic Renaissance princess; Madame Renal, the helpless victim of a grand passion. Stendhal is very explicit in underlining their self-dramatizations. They are not, though they think they are, forced on by tragic necessity. On the contrary, their acts, including those of the final scenes, are gratuitous indulgences from which at any time they can withdraw. Their adventures are certainly sensational, but Stendhal preserves, in the face of the unbridled Romanticism of his characters, a more than Classicist imperturbability — Dumas in an iron mask. He is never the victim of his characters, never overthrown by the passions he creates. His is the armed will; he is the master of narrative Bonapartism.

In its sharp definition, breathless pace, crowded frames, melodrama, The Red and the Black anticipates the methods of the cinema — so much so that it is hard to understand why it has never been made into one of the classic motion pictures. But its characters are like so many modern people whose disasters are spread on the newspapers: they seem to have seen too many movies. As the novel progresses, their actions acquire an ever-increasing, ever more agonizing ridiculousness. Finally everything explodes in the black comedy of Julien’s pistol shots, which, like Uncle Vanya’s, kill nobody, and the novel ends in a denouement, a merciless crescendo, followed by a sarcastic anticlimax — the last role-playing of the Renaissance princess. The mercilessness is not that of tragedy, but that of the deepest comedy.

Julien Sorel is destroyed by the mean unreality of the world in which his Napoleonic campaigns of sex and ambition are planned. But he is destroyed before he starts. His battles must be fought not with armies, but with the limitless fraud of organized society. Stendhal keeps the fraudulent character of all his engagements steadily in view; this is the touchstone of all moral evaluation. The Red and the Black and his other great novel, The Charterhouse of Parma, are dramas of gamesmanship on a crooked table — one lost, the other won. “Molière,” said young Stendhal, “ridiculed the vices that corrupt society. Today we must attack the vice of the spirit of society itself.”

Fraud empties motive of content. As we follow the story and try to analyze the relationships of the characters, they recede from us and become masks which conceal appetites for power. The emptiness of their desires is the measure of their absurdity. The tale of charismatic personalities with nothing to do is the height and depth of comedy.

Stendhal could look back to the outburst of primitivism, the hour of revolt, the actual street fighting, and he identified himself with Napoleon, whose purported principles of intellectual integrity, rational imperative, honor, and the “career open to all the talents” was a freebooter’s ethic, not a class one, least of all either bourgeois or aristocratic. Bonapartism is the religion of the New Man who rose from nothing to the greatest heights in history. A generation later, Julien Sorel is only an upstart, who carries his revolution about with him as Pascal did his abyss. This does not make him a tragic figure, but his reflection, backward into history, makes Napoleon a comic one.

The Red and the Black is far more than a charade of a philosophy of history or a sociological theory. It is first of all one of the most perfectly constructed and told novels. It establishes the novel securely in the place of the dramatic poem. It is further a great personal utterance. It is not only a judgment of the history Stendhal had lived through, but a subtle and ruthless judgment of himself. “I am Julien,” he said. Like a Russian Nihilist, Julien seeks pure act and embraces the guillotine. As a man of ego and will, he struggles toward liberation from the principle of individuality. Stendhal called a term to action in the sensuous audacity of a life of planned moderation. His liberation was precisely his individuality.



The Communist Manifesto

Is Marx a classic? Most economists and sociologists today, including many serious Marxists, consider the theoretical system of Karl Marx, as a scientific structure, either a failure or no longer relevant. Yet more people live under Marxism as official state-established doctrine than live under all other orthodoxies put together. More men live in Marxist states today than had lived in all organized states from the Neolithic period to the birth of Marx.

The number of adherents to a doctrine does not make its basic documents classics. We do not consider the multiplication table or the metric system a classic. Where Marx competes with mathematics, history, to which he made his appeal, has proved his axioms, propositions, and assumptions false as a coherent system. In the economically more advanced capitalist societies, the material misery of the working class has not increased. The workers have not become more revolutionary. Economic crises of ever-increasing frequency and severity have not occurred for a generation. Laissez faire has disappeared, and even minor economic relationships are subject to government and corporation planning.

The more industrially advanced societies have been, the less their labor movements have been influenced significantly by Marxism and the more rapidly they have moved away from class conflict. The economic interpretation of history or of current events has been successful only when modified by so many qualifications as no longer to be the comparatively simple tool Marx and Engels imagined they had forged. The simple triadic structure of the Hegelian dialectic has been abandoned by all but the most naïve dialectical materialists as verbalism more sterile than scholastic logic. Even orthodox Marxists obviously think pluralistically, polyvalently, and then cast their ideas into the grammar of dialectic. In the Marxist states, the working class has not established the dictatorship of the proletariat. On the contrary, their workers have less influence on government than do those in the United States or Great Britain.

It is true that there are Marxist arguments which explain away each of these dilemmas separately. If only one or two points were apparently false, it might be possible to save the entire system by doctoring them. But when all have become so evidently dubious to the unprejudiced observer, the structure has obviously disintegrated. Marxism is not classic in the sense in which the works of Darwin, Newton, or Euclid are classic. Yet Marxism is not only enforced by law over a third of the earth’s surface; it is passionately believed in by millions who are subject to no coercion whatever.

I suppose a classic, in the common sense of the word, is a literary work that is universally accepted for its aesthetic merits, moral insight, relevance to the human condition. It is in this stricter sense that Capital or the Communist Manifesto is a classic. Significantly, as brute facts moving in the course of history have invalidated much Marxist economics as science, the defense of Marxism has shifted to the writings of the young Marx — particularly to the Economic and Philosophical Notebooks of 1844. As critics have pointed out that the socialization of production and distribution in the Communist countries has not done away with alienation but, on the contrary, seems to be increasing it even over that which prevails in the capitalist countries, the defense of Marxism has shifted to the doctrine of alienation itself. Alienation as Marx held it in his youth is an aesthetic concept, and the great documents of later Marxism are aesthetic realizations of it.

The Communist Manifesto is far from being a practicable program for today. As a friend of mine once said, Hitler immediately realized all the emergency programs of the Manifesto and in addition made May Day a legal holiday. The Manifesto is relevant because it is a symbolic criticism of values. Its appeal is of the same nature as that of a poem or play. It is a dramatic objectification of conflicts and dilemmas and denouements that are interior.

The irreducible structure of the Marxist myth is self-evidently that: a myth, a final eschatology — the Fire of Revolution, the Judgment of Proletarian Dictatorship and Terror, the Second Coming, when the Golden Age of primitive communism will return unimaginably glorified in a new kingdom of brotherly love and divinization of man.

Marx is compared to the Hebrew prophets. He is much more like the writers of apocalypse. One of the characteristics of organized Marxism is its melodramatization of life. The faithful live in a state of subjective apocalypse, an interior vision, which transforms all exterior reality, so that man seems to be, in the most trivial affairs, in boring and inefficient meetings and humdrum tasks, an active participant in the conflict of immense metaphysical entities incarnated in himself, his comrades, and their enemies.

It is impossible to understand the literature of the capitalist epoch without understanding the alienation that is characteristic of it and is shared by all its major writers. Marx, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Dostoievsky deal most explicitly with the alienation that finds symbolic expression in Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé Stendhal, Flaubert, Henry James.

The young Marx started with the assumption that all labor is alienated and that genuine self-activity liberated by revolution would be a manifold aesthetic creativity surpassing ultimately for each and every man that of the greatest artists.

On the eve of the 1848 revolutions he dropped the term, because of its Hegelian metaphysical connections. From the cash-nexus passage of The Communist Manifesto onward, alienation is identified with commodity production for the competitive market and with the moral consequences of the industrial process under capitalism, but the term itself is abandoned.

Marx’s revolution is a vision of the transformation of a metaphysical quality of the abstraction “Man.” Man the hypostasis, never each separate unique human individual, will cease to be self-alienated and become divinized in a great apocalypse in which the contradictions between all the antitheses — essence and existence, act and knowledge, form and content, being and becoming — will be consumed in a great synthesis.

The forces of classical economics are turned into the figures of Classical tragedy and the great beasts of the Hebraic visions of the end of history. The dry abstractions of “the dismal science” — constant and variable capital, labor power, surplus value, the falling rate of profit — are inflamed with irresistible moral imperative and become dramatic personalities. Scientific necessity turns into hubris and nemesis. Fallacies of scientific analysis are overwhelmed by the convincingness of the Manifesto or the great passages of Capital as objectifications of spiritual conflict. The reader is swept up and put on the stage. He becomes an actor in a plot of which the motor, the hidden all-pervading concern — human self-alienation — is the same existential absurdity that reverberates behind the clash of battle, of pride and shame, comradeship and treachery, in The Iliad, that sociological document Simone Weil called “The Poem of Force.”

* * *

A reading list for Marx is not easy to compile, because of the extreme tendentiousness of editors and translators. The best general life is Franz Mehring, Karl Marx, now in Ann Arbor Paperbacks, University of Michigan Press. The appendices are by the German Stalinist editor of the posthumous edition and are false and misleading. The best current discussion of contemporary post-Bolshevik Marxism is George Lichtheim, Marxism in Modern France (Columbia University Press). It has an extensive and reliable bibliography.

There are many editions of selected writings, the minor works, and the first volume of Capital. The complete Capital, three volumes in the authorized translation, is published by Charles Kerr. Almost everything else is published by International Publishers. The books popular with the “New Marxists” are Early Writings (McGraw-Hill). By far the best general introduction in English is Karl Korsch, Karl Marx (Wiley). It is the only one that is uncorrupted by some sort of sectarianism.

[NOTE: Korsch’s Karl Marx is online here.]


Selections from Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth) and More Classics Revisited (copyright 1989 Kenneth Rexroth Trust). Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Both of these volumes are in print and available from New Directions. Do yourself a favor and get them.

[Other “Classics Revisited” essays]





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