Writers and Revolution: The Fatal Lure of Action.
by Renee Winegarten.
New Viewpoints/Franklin Watts. 377 pp. $1250.
The thesis of this book is stated concisely on p. 321: “The modern era since the French revolution has witnessed a strange confusion between the world of literature and that of political revolution, a confusion from which ultimately the latter has gained what the former has lost.” Every epoch constructs for itself a calendar in which there was a Year One, and the 19th-century Romantics (whether political or artistic) sited their Year One at 1789, as we site our infinitely darker beginnings at the blood-red eclipse of 1914. The first “revolution” in the modern sense was 1789. Before that there had been risings of the downtrodden, there had been struggles between rival power groups, but nothing powered by the quasi-mystical concept of Revolution, the turning of a wheel stuck fast in mud. So Mrs. Winegarten’s survey necessarily begins there. Before that point, plenty of people, and writers, had been radical: Milton chose to write about Eden and the losing of Paradise because he identified with a party that wanted to struggle free of the past and begin the world again from a position of amnesiac innocence. But none had been revolutionary, because the concept did not exist.
After 1789, it existed with a vengeance, becoming for many an absolute that took over from the (to them) discredited absolute of an anthropomorphic religion. (It does not seem to be discredited for Mrs. Winegarten, if I interpret correctly pages 312-13). Like all absolutes, it repels some people and irresistibly attracts others; or attracts and repels individuals at different stages of their lives; or engulfs them, never to be released. What Mrs. Winegarten offers is a diagnosis, accompanied by case histories. A long string of major writers passes before us, all of them at some stage paying homage to the revolutionary god. Blake, Wordsworth, Heine, Lamartine, Baudelaire, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, D. H. Lawrence, Malraux, Orwell, are just some of the examples she works out for us. Between the poles of Blake and Victor Serge they are all strung out—Blake, who after an intense phase of revolutionism that sprang more from his apocalyptic millenarianism than from infatuation with any political system, declared in later years: “I am really sorry to see my countrymen trouble themselves about politics. If men were wise, the most arbitrary princes could not hurt them. If they are not wise, the freest government is compelled to be a tyranny”; and Serge, who ate, drank, and breathed revolution, who renounced the individual life, who freely admitted that his generation, born to be the worker-ants of history, were “interchangeable,” who went to Russia, was savagely maltreated in one of Stalin’s concentration camps, was rescued by pressure from Western (“bourgeois”) literary opinion, and died in Mexico still singing hymns of “confidence in mankind and the future,” as expressed in the revolutionary ideal.
Clearly in the case of a man like Serge we are dealing with spiritual illness. A political system cannot, by itself, bring heaven down to earth, and to give one’s life to the illusion that it can is merely to admit a failure to face the real complexities of life. A revolutionary is a bull in a china shop, determined to smash all the finest pieces on his way to attack the shoddy goods that are admittedly on prominent display. Only it is not china he is smashing, but people. Mrs. Winegarten remarks the significant similarity between the secular and the religious fanatic, pointing out that men are as ready to murder and torture each other in the name of the ideal human society as they once were in the name of God.
Within this framework, Mrs. Winegarten has many perceptive things to say about the underlying reasons. Why have so many writers fallen for the lure of revolutionary action, some of them to commit violence, all of them to make excuses for it or openly extol it? The individual relationship to violence, of course, varies like everything else; all the way from Orwell, who was prepared to take up arms (“You can only love your enemies if you are prepared to kill them under certain circumstances”) but despised the condoning of murder by “the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled,” to Sartre, who seems never to have developed beyond the nasty-clever little boy who invents philosophical reasons for pulling the wings off flies.
After nineteen chapters, Mrs. Winegarten has a somber and incisive epilogue in which she does not fail to note the central paraadox that the revolutionary ethic is the child of Western civilization, that is, of a civilization overwhelmingly bourgeois, whose highest achievements have nearly all come from the bourgeoisie and whose laboring masses ask nothing but to become bourgeois in their turn. After closing the book, one is left with a number of speculations. How much, for instance, does the anti-bourgeois ranting of these children of the bourgeoisie, generation after generation of them, represent an emotionally necessary shadow-play, a ritual tribute to Gog after which they can settle down comfortably in the shadow of Magog? To let off steam is a primal human necessity; men who live blameless sexual lives meet every evening to tell each other dirty jokes, and sleek porpoises gamboling in the tank of the société de consommation gather to talk about bombs on the Left Bank. Only the isolated neurotics, the Ulrika Meinhoffs and the Bridget Rose Dugdales, carry these fantasies into fact. (Third World insurgents are another matter; they are interested not in fancy theories of revolution but in forcing the “developed” nations to move over and give them a chance at the trough.)
It will have emerged by now that I think Mrs. Winegarten’s book very good. The case histories are so deftly done, the quotations are selected with such a judging eye, and the lucid, civilized writing is a pleasure to read. Particularly since, all the time one is reading, one is mentally constructing another book, the mirror-image of this one, which would marshal an equal number of writers who have not felt the fatal lure of the revolutionary ethos. Mrs. Winegarten, for obvious reasons, picks out those writers who did feel it. The nearest she gets to an exception is Turgenev, whose interest in revolution developed into a flirtation but never to an affair, let alone a marriage. In one of the ablest essays in the book, she analyzes his dilemma; Turgenev “was in the vulnerable position of those who remain true to their own inner divisions, however disconcerting these may be, and who succeed in pleasing scarcely anybody, perhaps least of all themselves.”
Turgenev is, so to speak, Mrs. Winegarten’s low-water mark; of all the writers she deals with, he was least involved in revolutionary theory, most able to see through its damaging simplicities. But of course if we journey on from Turgenev we find a whole world of writers who had no truck with it. All the way from a comic-paper reactionary like Evelyn Waugh to a complex conservative like T. S. Eliot, whom she mentions only glancingly, to Chekhov, to Tolstoy, for God’s sake!, to Whitman (a case she might have analyzed interestingly), to Balzac, to Yeats. . . . The only danger lurking in this excellent book is that it might give to the hasty reader the idea that literary people are somehow more apt to swallow the revolutionary bait than just people, period. In fact, some are and some aren’t, like anyone else. What bait did Osip Mandelstam swallow, or Thomas Mann, or Arnold Bennett, or William Faulkner? Behind Mrs. Winegarten’s book is the diagram of its anti-self, a book on how successfully some writers have seen through this kind of claptrap; but of course so urbane, so erudite, and so balanced a critic knows that already.
Since Mrs. Winegarten is pretty firmly convinced that the revolutionary ethos is hostile to the life of the imagination, her book tends on the whole to show how writers have been damaged, or managed to avoid being damaged, by their involvement with revolution (though occasionally, as in the case of Byron, she acknowledges it as an important fuel). Have there been no writers anywhere, one wonders after closing the book, whose work has been energized and lifted up by revolutionary sentiment? Mrs. Winegarten would probably reply that such lifting-up was at best only temporary, and followed by a heavy drop.
Perhaps the most lasting impression left by Writers and Revolution is the sheer diversity of the imaginative talents that have, at some stage in their lives, been drawn to this magnet. Among the many examples necessarily crowded out of a selective book on a large theme, my favorite would be Tennyson. When the Spaniards rebelled against Ferdinand VII and the Inquisition, a fund was taken up by sympathizers in England, and two young Cambridge men journeyed to a mountain hideout in the Pyrenees to hand the money over to the rebel leaders. The two young men were Tennyson and Arthur Hallam. The future author of Idylls of the King and Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington, accompanied by the man whose death was to inspire In Memoriam, engaged in the financial equivalent of gun-running! Revolutionary sentiments, like all sentiments, make strange bedfellows; Mrs. Winegarten’s book is a mind-sharpening commentary on it all.