Philip Rahv might seem to be a figure of purely local and circumscribed interest. He was, with William Phillips, co-founder of Partisan Review in 1934, and thereafter continued as an editor of that magazine during the following two decades. His activities were thus confined to a particular area, and in his own person he might serve as a prime example of what has come to be called the New York intellectual, a member of a special circle—a “coterie” figure, as it used once to be stigmatized. Yet during the time of his editorship, and particularly the first two decades, he was at the center of most of the intellectual currents that flowed through and around New York, which is to say the currents that were to prove most significant for the nation as a whole. American memories, however, are very short-lived: the 1960’s, for example, chose to forget entirely that the preceding generation had gone through an experience of Marxism from which something might have been learned. A recent collection of Rahv’s writings, Essays on Literature and Politics 1932-19721 serves as a timely invitation to remembrance; and memory, in this case, should prod us to ask, not only about his formal performance as a literary critic, but about the man himself and his times and what they may have to teach us.
I had just begun to ponder such questions when something in the current press caught my attention and made them seem far from academic. A piece in Newsweek by George F. Will rang some obscure bell of remembrance and I found myself looking back into an old review by Philip Rahv. Will’s piece appeared in January 1979, and Rahv’s in Partisan Review in the fall of 1952. Thus between them there is a stretch of twenty-seven years of history, which in the aspect they both share has a consistency so ominous that it may be worthwhile to explore the comparison for a moment.
Will’s title is “Fear of Facing the Truth,” and the particular fear he deals with is that of the “American political class” to face the reality of Soviet intentions. By this time, so his argument runs, the official misreadings of Soviet moves—always in the direction of giving the Russians the benefit of the doubt—are so numerous and well documented, and so often contrary to the evidence provided by official intelligence sources themselves, that Will can only conclude that the failure must lie—not in our intelligence capacities—but in the desire of the “political class” to disbelieve in the evidence of intelligence. “When people are so wrong for so long on the same subject, in the same direction, the failure is not of intelligence but of will. For such people, ignorance is a strategy. Their problem is not in finding the truth, but in facing it.”
Will does not identify the harborers of this fear of reality except as the “American political class”—presumably including both elected and unelected officials. But this characterization is surely too sketchy and incomplete. This American political class, after all, does not come from nowhere. Its thinking is nourished by certain roots in the prevalent culture, and its attitudes are drawn from the prevailing climate. What, then, is this part of the American mind that leaves it persistently unwilling to believe the worst about Russian intentions?
It was the sense of these questions that must have stirred my memory and led me to look back for an answer in something Philip Rahv had written a quarter of a century earlier. There Rahv was reviewing Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, and the particular unwillingness to face reality in that case was the fear of confronting the kind of facts that Chambers had brought forward in his allegations against Alger Hiss. A large part of the American nation simply refused to believe the evidence that Soviet intelligence, in the persons of officials like Harry Dexter White and Alger Hiss, had been able to penetrate to the top layers of the United States government. Rahv does not, like the journalist George Will, pin this refusal of reality upon a particular class or group. Instead he follows Chambers himself in attributing it to the “Popular Front Mind” that dominated American life “for a whole decade, if not longer, at the very least between 1938 and 1948.” Just as this “Popular Front Mind” had made possible the infiltration into government in the first place, so now it recoiled in anguish and unreasoning anger when the facts were disclosed. And here Rahv’s own words are powerful, to the point, and very well worth recalling:
The importance of the Hiss case was precisely that it dramatized that [viz., the Popular Front] mind’s struggle for survival and its vindictiveness under attack. That mind is above all terrified of the disorder and evil of history, and it flees the harsh choices which history so often imposes. It fought to save Hiss in order to safeguard its own illusions and to escape the knowledge of its own gullibility and chronic refusal of reality.
This is excellent, but still one may wonder whether the “Popular Front Mind” may not be too narrow a characterization of the force that was operating around the Hiss case. And here some conversations with Rahv at that time may have a bearing. He talked out his pieces as he was engaged in writing them. They took possession of him; he could write nothing from the top of his mind, even fairly trivial things, and thus was incapable of the journalistic facility for which he sneered at, but secretly envied, his former colleague on Partisan Review, Dwight Macdonald. It was as if Rahv’s whole being, his body included, conspired in the process of getting out his essays, as he grunted, cajoled, and fulminated them into shape. And in the midst of the birth-throes of this particular piece, I remember his remarking to me one day: “The liberals now dominate all the cultural channels in this country. If you break completely with this dominant atmosphere, you’re a dead duck. James Burnham has committed suicide. And Sidney Hook is practically going the same way.” Burnham, having been a leading Trotskyist, had deliberately and openly changed his whole political philosophy and taken a sharp swing to the Right, so that he expected to be cut off from liberal channels. But Sidney Hook, author of two of the early classics in English on Marxism, remained what he had always been, a resolute Social Democrat who insisted on preaching the evils of Russian Communism to the benighted American public, no matter if the underhanded accusation of McCarthyism would be made against him. And, of course, the slurs were made, and they hurt Hook, though they did not stop him: he had to tell the truth as he saw it, however unpopular his public image became.
Thus, to speak of the “Popular Front Mind” might somehow cushion the blow Rahv was striking and make it possibly a little more acceptable to liberal readers. But even if one accepts the strategy behind this choice of phrase, particularly amid the pressures of that situation, one can still quarrel with it as an accurate description. It seems in fact too narrow to fit the peculiar and pervasive phenomenon at work here. For those young people fresh out of college in 1952 who took up the cause of Alger Hiss simply as the automatic and spontaneous liberal response, the memories of the Popular Front, if they were there at all, were hardly alive and vigorous enough to account for their partisan passion. Nor would the influence of the Popular Front explain all those people in subsequent years who flocked to Hiss’s banner with scarcely a glance at the evidence. To ascribe the reaction in the Hiss case to the Popular Front is to confine the whole matter too narrowly to certain circles around New York or Hollywood that were more conscious of their purposes, more deliberately of the Left, and fundamentally Marxist in conviction. True, the attitudes of the Popular Front did mold liberal attitudes in the late 1930’s; but if the liberal mind was thus shaped for a certain period, it is in fact a phenomenon of much broader scope and much more deeply in the American grain—particularly in its disposition not to see the “disorder and evil of history”—than would be gathered from its temporary union with the Popular Front.
But whatever we call it—the mind of the Popular Front or the liberal mind—the important thing is to take note of the fact itself: to recognize that a certain attitude of the American mind has been continuously and potently with us for a long time; that this same attitude of mind that turned its back in panic on the evidence against Hiss is now at work in our “political class” and makes it turn away from the evidence of Russian intentions. And the words that Rahv used in the case of Hiss’s defenders may be suitably transcribed for the mind at work in our present “political class”:
That mind is above all terrified of the disorder and evil of history, and it flees the harsh choices which history so often imposes.
And if both writers, Rahv and Will, are here speaking to the same point, if it is the same continuing reality that prompts the indictment of both, then we have also here to recognize that we are dealing with a major and massive fact of American history in our lifetime—and one with perhaps fateful consequences. And the fact that Rahv spotted it a quarter of a century ago should be enough to end once and for all any idle notion that he, as a New York intellectual and an editor of a “little” magazine, was involved merely with the internal squabbles of a coterie.
There is a further point in beginning with this particular review by Rahv because it foreshadows an eventual change in the direction of his political attitudes. He did not expressly attack liberals on this occasion, though they were plainly to be included under the intent of his indictment. Was this the beginning of a retreat on his part? One can explain it as strategy: he had a point to make, about the recoil of the intelligentsia before the evidence against Hiss, and he wanted to make it in a way that might still get through to those liberal readers who might not yet be frozen in their prejudices. At the same time, it was necessary to detach the issues in the Hiss case from the McCarthyism of the period—which Rahv did in a companion piece to his review of Chambers. But thereafter the weight of his emphasis began to shift in this latter direction. As the 1950’s went on, the targets of his attack gradually shifted and he began to drop sharp words about “anti-Communism” and “anti-Communists” whenever the occasion presented itself. This was puzzling behavior at the time, since his whole political life up to that point had been a long and gallant war against Stalinist Communism (the only Communism we knew) and against Stalinizing and fellow-traveling liberals. It was also somewhat distressing, for some of these “anti-Communists” whom he now belittled had been his comrades-in-arms during those earlier battles. Nevertheless, his disparagement of anti-Communism continued during the 1950’s, and then in the following decade he took the next step and became a leftist in the fashion of that period. Hitherto, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, he had fought against the dominant trend, but now in the 1960’s he had turned about and was running with the pack.
How did this change come about? It makes an interesting case study in the radical sensibility of our time.
One advantage of the present collection is that it reprints some incidental and minor pieces that have no great intrinsic merit but allow us to follow the steps in Rahv’s political development. And as we pick our way through them, that development is seen to have a clear and tidy shape: it moves in a large circle that returns exactly to its point of origin. Thus the first period, illustrated by two pieces from the Communist-party magazine, New Masses (1932), and its paper, the Daily Worker (1934), shows us the young Rahv as a straightforward party-line scribe; and anyone who knows only Rahv’s later literary essays will come upon them as a shock. When Rahv sat down to write them, Delmore Schwartz once remarked, he simply put on a uniform. In the middle of the 1930’s there came his break with the Communist party and the launching of the new Partisan Review. It was not an easy thing in the intellectual atmosphere of New York in those days to bring out a magazine that was systematically critical of the Soviet Union, and we all owed a debt to the courage and vitality of its young editors, who included, besides Rahv and William Phillips, Dwight Macdonald, Mary McCarthy, and F. W. Dupee. To the young people of my generation, either in college or academic life, they brought a radical but unregimented voice that was needed.
The influence of Trotsky had been personally decisive in leading Rahv to break with the Communist party. But the figure of Trotsky also curiously distorted his perspective on the Russian revolution. Trotsky was the brilliant and charismatic figure, the rightful heir of the revolution who had been dispossessed. Consequently, if the revolution had turned out badly, that was because it had been captured by one evil individual, Stalin. The fixation upon the personal drama prevented Rahv from reflecting on the nature of revolutions generally and on the dynamics of power they bring with them, such that they usually end badly and only turn up worse monsters than those they abolish. That Trotsky in his dealings with the American Trotskyists showed no very great democratic leanings, did not particularly affect Rahv. When James Burn-ham, then an active Trotskyist, declared that socialism was not to be viewed as the inevitable outcome of the dialectic but as a “moral ideal” to be freely pursued, he was abused unmercifully by Trotsky. The notion that “moral ideals” should be put before the forces of history was anathema to Trotsky, the rigid Marxist, and he promptly read Burnham out of the party. (Dwight Macdonald, too, was coarsely rebuked for some similar peccadillo.) Trotsky’s behavior was generally high-handed and authoritarian, and gave no reason to believe that, had he assumed power, the revolution would have gone any differently from the way it did. No matter, so far as Rahv was concerned; Trotsky had delivered him from the jaws of Stalinism and would thereafter remain a hero in his eyes.
His break with Communism also marked the real beginning of Rahv’s career as a literary critic. Starting in 1939, and then through the 1940’s, he wrote some solid and really first-rate essays in literary criticism, which still remain the best memorial to his powers of mind and sensibility. One of the remarkable things about them too was the degree to which his Marxism had receded into the background. In fact, he had not given up his beliefs; when pushed in conversation, the Marxist formulary would come out as flat and dogmatic as ever; but in his literary criticism, and much to its benefit, he seemed to look the other way. The god of Marxism had not died for him, it had simply withdrawn—and, as it turned out, only for a while. Nevertheless, when the faith of a believer recedes over a fairly long period, we sometimes expect that there may be a new readjustment at length. The surprising thing is that when Rahv’s Marxist faith was reborn in the 1960’s, it came back with the same simple and point-blank ferocity it had possessed in 1932 and 1934. Beside his edgings in that direction, in his persistent baiting of “anti-Communists” during the 1950’s, which I have already noted, there was also the profound impact of the death of Stalin in 1953. Rahv was so fixed upon Stalin as the diabolic figure who had corrupted the revolution that he could not help believing that the death of the dictator would now restore the revolution to its pristine purity, and he began to look longingly for any least sign of liberalization in the Soviet regime. And even when, in his last years, he spoke of the necessity of a “political revolution” in the Soviet Union, he seems never to have imagined that such a revolution, if it were indeed to bring about liberty, would not so much have to complete as to sweep away the work of the October revolution.
Still, when one has noted these connecting links by way of a transition, his reversion to his original Marxist-Leninist faith was so stark and simple-minded—as if he had learned nothing in the intervening years—that it remains startling. It would be too easy, however, to attribute the relapse merely to a change in the times: the 1960’s went leftist, and Rahv was swept along in it. After all, he had battled the Zeitgeist in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and conceivably he could have done so again. No; the source of the change has to be traced to deeper and more personal wellsprings in the man himself.
If Rahv’s most memorable pieces of writing were done as a literary critic in relative independence of his political convictions, it might seem odd that I have begun this revaluation of him by plunging him so immediately and deeply into a political context. But, even as critic, Rahv was very much part of his actual world. To attempt to distill out the literary criticism, and regard it as something apart, would not give us a proper idea of his importance. To compare him, for example, simply as a literary critic with someone like Edmund Wilson would be both bizarre and belittling. Yet if we look at the comparison from another direction, the result may not be so belittling. It may come as a rather shocking paradox at first, but I think the claim might reasonably be defended that in his own particular way, and over a certain period, he probably had a more powerful influence than Wilson. True, his output was very, very slender in comparison, and he reached only a tiny fraction of the audience Wilson did; but his influence was more strategically located—on young intellectuals who went on to teach or write about literature themselves and who, though they might not have followed him to the letter and might even have found themselves very much in opposition, nevertheless took from him a certain direction in their own thinking, and thus propagated something of his influence.
Of course, this influence was inseparable from that of Partisan Review in its earlier and more vital days, but then we have to remember how much he himself shaped the line of that magazine. In his own view, each of his critical pieces, whatever intrinsic points it might make, was intended to reinforce the general attitude of mind for which the magazine stood and which he thought should be that of all intellectuals of our time. The word “line” may have an ominous ring here, which in the present case we ought to dismiss. Rahv did have a taste for power, and there were those who referred to him as aspiring to be a kind of cultural commissar. But though he relished the feeling of power, he would have been too indolent, had a socialist revolution taken over, to become a successful commissar. That would have required too much of his labor and his time, and drawn him away from what he preferred to do—which was to read books and from time to time comment upon them. That he loved literature was indeed one of his redeeming merits. There is, however, a perfectly legitimate sense in which a critic may seek to define a “line” with regard to any subject or author he is exploring. He wishes, after all, to establish some judgment that, even if it does not claim to be definitive, nevertheless marks out a path along which he wants to lead his readers. And it is because Rahv was so conscious of his public role, I think, that he has the critical virtues he does: his ability, at his best, was to bring together conflicting claims and strike some sort of judicious, sometimes even judicial, balance between them.
Consider, for example, the well-known essay “Paleface and Redskin,” which explores the polar opposites in the American tradition—the cult of raw experience, on the one hand, and, on the other, the overgenteel pursuit of high culture without roots in the native soil. These points, or suggestions of them, had been made many times before and by numerous critics; but no one had brought the matter so compactly together as Rahv and placed it in judicious focus. The essay still stands up, as valid as when it first appeared in 1939. Of course, there remains the further question as to what might deepen our American life so that we could get beyond the impasse of these opposites. But that investigation would require from the critic the kind of beliefs and temperament, and indeed a commitment of feeling toward America, that Rahv did not have.
In a similar vein, of striking a delicate and perceptive balance, there is the fine essay, “Attitudes Toward Henry James,” of 1943. Written during the Henry James boom, the essay had a dual function: on the one hand, James had been for years a neglected writer and it was necessary to bring him before the public and establish his claims of greatness, but, on the other hand, one had to avoid the excesses of the more rabid enthusiasts who would elevate James to a position he did not quite fit. And, once again, Rahv strikes the intelligent and judicious balance, and, moreover, with a gracefulness and delicacy of touch somewhat unusual for him. He had a tendency, when not careful, to slip into being heavy-handed; but here some of the polish and civility of James himself had rubbed off on him. However, when he returned to the same theme almost thirty years later, in “Henry James and His Cult” (1972), he had indeed become heavy-handed and doctrinaire with old age.2 As his political views became more simplistic, his literary perceptions had become cruder; and in general his later writings show his powers to be declining. The subtleties of the later James now elude him. The instances with which he attacks the later novels seem to me singularly unconvincing and in some cases rather obtuse. He finds it “unlikely,” for example, that a woman so sophisticated as Mme. de Vionnet in The Ambassadors should fall in love with so inconsequential a young man as Chad Newsome. As if any man on whom a woman bestowed her love had first to establish his worth and rank! As if the heartbreak of the whole thing in this particular case were not that an aging woman should love in a handsome, charming, if somewhat empty youth the whole overwhelming fact of her own fading youth! But this was an area of feeling, in life and in literature, in which Rahv was not quite at home. He once remarked to me years ago, when he was my mentor in things of the world, that “Women are dopes,” referring particularly to their choice of men, and having in mind a certain woman who had taken up with a younger man whom Rahv judged to be very inferior to himself. He should have been better prepared, then, for James’s heroine.
But it was the Russians, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, who most deeply engaged him both as man and critic. On the face of it, the choice of these two as his favored authors, the ones on whom he expended his deepest critical energies, was rather a strange one for Rahv, since both writers hold that human life, without some central religious conviction at its core, is bankrupt. And on the subject of religion Rahv personally had the simple-mindedness of the village atheist. Perhaps the bond of childhood, the memories of Russian as his earliest language, held him emotionally close to them. In any case, Tolstoy—with his overwhelming simplicity and directness—was his ideal of what a writer should be. Though Rahv was a professed champion of modernism (that, after all, was one of the two key points—the avant-garde in literature and art, and Marxism in politics—with which he had launched Partisan Review), nevertheless he was really uncomfortable before some of the complex experimentations of the moderns, and he put up with them only as a matter of principle. With Tolstoy, however, he was at home; and his essay on the Russian master, “The Green Twig and the Black Trunk,” is the most beautiful piece of writing he did, and to my mind one of the best short introductions to Tolstoy as a writer. But even in so fine a study one senses certain, ideological limitations of the critic before his subject. Rahv insists on what he calls Tolstoy’s rationalism, and this is accurate so far as it applies to that author’s direct and literal—sometimes, indeed, literal-minded—approach to things, and to his rejection of the Russian Orthodox Church. But if we are to paste the label of rationalist on Tolstoy, what then are we to make of his My Confession, a work which in fact Rahv personally prized, but which is, if anything, a testimony to the inadequacy of reason? This short sketch, part autobiography and part essay, remains one of the most powerful human and philosophic documents of the 19th century, and quite central to our understanding of Tolstoy. And what do we get from it if not the picture of Tolstoy like a caged lion, pacing his cell back and forth from corner to corner, shut up in the prison that his reason implacably builds around him and from which it provides no exit? And Tolstoy is quite categorical as to the means of deliverance: only through the common and ordinary feelings of humankind, not through reason, is it possible for the individual to grasp the meaning of life and to experience the bond with the lives of others. But Rahv’s own intellectual program did not assign any important place to feeling.
In the case of Dostoevsky, the differences between critic and author, in temperament and point of view, are so marked that one can only believe Rahv was held by the fascination of the opposite. He wrote five essays on Dostoevsky, more than on any other writer, and at the end of his life was supposed to be putting together a book on the great Russian. In the early essays he is able to contrive some intellectual scheme—the fable of the Grand Inquisitor, for example, is read as an analogue of Stalin’s tyranny—that keeps the mind of the ideologue busy while the sensibility of the critic can go to work; indeed, it is something of a miracle that, given the critic’s own intellectual assumptions, he could nevertheless come up with as many penetrating perceptions as he does. But this makeshift procedure does not work so well as he goes on: he misses the central point of Crime and Punishment, which is the hero’s absolute dissociation of intellect and ordinary feeling (a point on which Rahv had made himself deliberately and programmatically blind). And in the final essays, the heavy hand of the Marxist ideologue takes over more and more, and Dostoevsky’s vision of human brotherhood is looked upon as a kind of anticipation of socialism. The problem which Dostoevsky raises here is the old one of the relation between the reader’s beliefs and his capacity for appreciation—a question that T. S. Eliot and I. A. Richards used to debate in the case of Dante. One does not have to believe in the Russian Orthodox church to appreciate Dostoevsky, but one does need to have enough sympathy with the religious attitude to enter into his characters at any sufficient depth. It will not do to speak superficially of his “psychological” interest as if he were presenting us with a clinical collection of abnormal cases. The point about his abnormal cases is that each is, in however grotesque and distorted form, an individual soul seeking salvation.
The same problem presents itself also in Rahv’s fine essay on Kafka. Here again, the critic seems to have gone out of his way to find an author who is a stumbling block to his own Marxist ideology—unless you are willing to come out with the old stupidity that Kafka is merely describing the horror of life under capitalism. Moreover, Kafka presents the problem of art and neurosis in an acute form, since the neurotic elements are patent and widespread through his work. Rahv attempts to solve the problem by coming up with the tag that Kafka, more than a neurotic artist, succeeds by becoming “the artist of neurosis.” This is a clever ploy, but it leaves unanswered the question of what neuroses are significant in a work of art and what makes them significant. A writer like Iris Murdoch, for example, can lead us through a whole gallery of neurotics; and much as we may admire the intelligence and skill of their author, we reach a point where her characters begin to bore us: we wish they would take their seamy little neurotic tics out into the garden and bury them. We can hardly speak of neuroses in Kafka on that level. Kafka was a man with a strangely dislocated vision and a vast and unappeased spiritual longing, and it is the conjunction of these qualities that gives the nuclear image of his fables their disturbing power. Dostoevsky was both a greater writer and a more completely realized man, and therefore more consciously and explictly in possession of his own religious motif. And that motif is central to his whole work: his characters hunger for a personal salvation that no secular institution or arrangement of society can bring. And unless we as readers can share that longing to some degree in our own imagination, we do not fully respond to him as a writer.
But there is another and more intimate aspect of Rahv’s relationship to Dostoevsky that provokes my curiosity. When one has immersed oneself in an author very long, one sometimes has the uncanny feeling that he as writer is gazing back at you as reader, and this is particularly so when his vision is as penetrating and disquieting as Dostoevsky’s. Poor Delmore Schwartz, for example, who was constantly reading some part or other of The Brothers Karamazov, always felt the eye of Dostoevsky upon him. Sometimes he would read aloud, with quivering voice, certain passages that expressed his own unsatisfied religious longings; at other times, stung by remembrance of some outrageous behavior of his own, he would shout out with Dostoevsky, “What a scoundrel I am!” Did Philip Rahv ever feel the Dostoevskian gaze staring back at him, looking through the defenses of his critical mind into the depths of his soul? And what would it have found? I think it would have discovered the nihilist lurking there.
For Rahv was a nihilist, perhaps the most outspoken in his own peculiar fashion that I have ever known. He had an abysmally low view of people and their motives, and usually found their alleged ideals bogus or unconvincing. He was, however, a nihilist who could enjoy himself, for he was not insensitive to pleasures. He relished his own creature comforts immensely; and when he was in a good mood, he could exude joviality. But of the deeper satisfactions of life, or what ordinary people take such satisfactions to be, he had found none that he trusted. “People talk so much about love,” he snorted at me once. “There is either Christian love or sexual love. Do they mean Christian love? Who’s capable of that? And as for sexual love—that only brings more tensions and anxiety.” These nihilistic diatribes did not get into his writing; there he was taken over by his persona, the public role of judicious critic that was his to fulfill; but in his private conversations he let the destructive impulse reign free and unchecked. Schadenfreude was one of his favorite words; and he delighted to spot this joy in destruction as it masqueraded in others, but he had a more than generous dose of it himself—indeed, so frankly and openly so at times that it was almost engaging. When Delmore Schwartz, Clement Greenberg, and William Phillips, who at the time were all associated with him on Partisan Review, confronted him one day with the accusation that he had been dissecting their characters much too openly in the wrong places, and demanded to know, “Why do you do it?,” Philip rather stopped them in their tracks by answering blandly, “Analytic exuberance.” (That phrase, incidentally, became one of the treasured bits in Delmore’s collection, launching him into giggles whenever he trotted it out privately. “Analytic exuberance,” Delmore would say, “Philip Rahv’s euphemism for putting a knife in your back.”) The satisfactions in life that meant most to Rahv, I believe, were those of the ego, of fame, rank, prestige. All is vanity, says the nihilist, except my own vanity; but Rahv could find no solace even there, for he knew more than most how slippery and elusive a thing reputation was in the literary marketplace, where the caprice of critics and of fashion reigns.
These dark outpourings were not confined to his black moods, frequent enough in any case, but were the regular run of his conversation even when he seemed cheerful. One occasion comes back sharply to mind, because there was a hearer present less inured to the ways of his pessimism and therefore more sensitive to its utter bleakness; and also because something Rahv said at one moment was to turn out prophetic of the last act of his life that was to mystify friends and foes alike. My wife and I were sitting on a bench in Washington Square, relaxing in the sunshine of a lovely spring day, when Rahv happened by and joined us. He seemed to be in a good mood, visibly enjoying the weather, and very soon in his own forceful way had taken over the conversation. But as he launched himself on the full tide of his eloquence, he struck his usual vein and before long was wreaking a trail of destruction about him right and left. His particular theme this time was the tepidness and lack of conviction in the whole American scene. And suddenly he had shot out, with a different and more yearning voice, “I wish I were in Israel. At least, people there believe in something.” This was in the late 1940’s, when Israel was struggling for statehood, and the heroism of that struggle had evidently touched some deeper and less cynical part of his being. Presently, having exhausted his topics of lamentation, and perhaps his hearers too, Rahv cheerfully said goodbye and left. My wife, who had seen him only on more formal social occasions and was unprepared for this destructiveness of his casual talk, looked aghast: “He leaves the whole world black after him,” as if he had suddenly banished the brightness of the spring day. She shuddered: “How does he live with himself?”
How does he live with himself? Well, he was young, just pushing forty at the time, with enough exuberance and energy to feed his conflicts, and with enough that was going on in the literary scene, however he might sneer at it, to keep mind and hand busy. But the question—how does he live with himself?—was one that kept coming back to me when I tried to imagine him in his later years at Brandeis, where he had gone to teach toward the end of the 50’s, alone, visibly aging, and—according to my informants—more somber than ever. His wife had perished in a frightful accident. He remarried, but the marriage was unhappy and very short-lived; and he was left in a loneliness beyond any he had ever known before. How did he live with himself? Given his views of human beings and human life, what solace could he find against loneliness and encroaching death? I think it is not hard to find an answer to these questions. He did have something to interpose between himself and the void: a simple-minded, complete, and sustaining faith, his Marxism, which had never left him and into which he could now relapse completely. That containing framework was with him in his first reviews in the New Masses in the early 1930’s, continued unchanged though it was pushed into the background during the 1940’s and 1950’s, and then in the 1960’s came very decidedly into the forefront again. During those intervening years he performed a prodigious labor of self-education, polishing and sharpening his literary perceptions, but he never turned these critical energies of mind upon the dogma of his own Marxism. That would remain as it had always been, a simple and comprehensive explanation of the world, above all unquestioned, so that it could have the redeeming stability of religious faith. It even permitted him to be saved such as he was, to put it in the old Quaker fashion: for he could be redeemed and still continue as the person he was, railing in his atrabilious humor at the evils of this world because he had faith in a better one to come.
Thus these questions of deepest personal attitudes bring us back to the political questions with which we began this memoir.
Moreover, these personal attitudes, if we pursue them far enough, turn out to be central to the whole question of socialism itself. What we think human beings are like, what we imagine their moral capacities to be, are surely not questions irrelevant to the kind of social order we would devise for them; and political philosophers from Aristotle to James Madison have insisted on the initial consideration of human nature as a central concern for social theory. The paradox in Rahv was that he had the lowest possible view, indeed a kind of Swiftian pessimism, about human beings together with a utopian faith in socialism. How do you put the two together? How can they be put together? How can a nihilism about human life be joined with a utopian politics? The simplicity of his Marxist faith would say that people were bad because society had made them bad: they were petty, mean, and vicious because they lived under a capitalist order. (I doubt that Rahv, the perceptive reader of novels and constant observer of people, ever really believed this fairy tale; when he was launched on one of his dissections of some person we knew, “capitalism” was never an explanatory term he made use of to expose particular foibles of character.) Socialism, then, would change human nature, and people would become or be made to become virtuous. But surely such a profound transformation could not come overnight; and during that interregnum between human corruption and its socialist redemption, what would prevent the corrupt elements from taking over the new order and even continuing permanently in the saddle? This problem becomes all the more apposite if we consider, among the more questionable aspects of our questionable human nature, the fierceness of the power drive that can take possession of people whenever given the chance. But on the problem of power Rahv thought only in fits and starts, sometimes in intense spasms, but he never put his thoughts consistently together.
Thus he was much taken by George Orwell’s 1984 when it first appeared in the late 1940’s, and particularly by the bitter and startling words Orwell put into the mouth of the police chief O’Brien: “Power is not a means; it is an end. . . . The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.” As Rahv never wrote from the top of his head, so he never read in that fashion either; if a book took hold of him, he carried it explosively and oratorically into his conversation. The effect could be contagious and engaging, though sometimes one’s ears were a little deafened. He read or recited O’Brien’s speech at me several times, and then added grimly: “That’s the real truth about power, but people don’t want to admit it.” There was even a certain satisfaction in his tone, as if here for a moment mendacious human nature had let the mask fall and admitted the truth about itself.
But if this be the truth about human nature, then it is very bad news indeed for socialism. The socialist arrangement of society requires at the least an extraordinary concentration of power simply that government may take over the whole economy; and given the drive to power for power’s sake, what under this setup can keep the impulse to power from running amok? Rahv had never pondered Madison on this point: that a chief aim of government, besides securing what powers it needs in order to operate, is to limit those powers as a safeguard against the possible usurpation of power. (Incidentally, it is interesting in our present context to notice that Madison based his point here on a certain pessimism about human nature: “If men were angels, government [viz., with its limitations upon power] would be unnecessary.”) The best bulwark against the fearful lust for power in some individuals is to maintain plural and competing centers of power, which are hardly possible when the economic and political sectors are under a unified command. But Rahv remained innocent of such theoretical questions, as he remained innocent of political theory generally; indeed, he chose to remain innocent.
“Genius,” Nietzsche once remarked, “is a will to stupidity”; and on this feature alone Rahv would certainly qualify. Nietzsche had in view a certain type of mind so intent on its own purposes that it closes the doors on other perspectives or influences that might deflect it from those purposes. It is understandable that Rahv should never glance at classical political thought—that, after all, belonged to the “bourgeois” world—but it is surprising that he never delved much into Marxist theorizing either. Most of us at one time or another had taken a crack at Marx’s Capital, and some of us even managed to stumble through that heavy tome, seeking scientific underpinnings for our conviction. But Rahv never turned his mind that way; the simplest formulations were enough to satisfy him and hold him fast in his faith. The power of his mind was toward a certain concreteness, and he had not only an inability in relation to, but a positive antipathy toward, abstract ideas. When, for example, his exploration of the Russian writers drew him toward Existentialism, he deliberately sought me out for some conversations on the subject, but I would notice that past a certain point of abstractness his mind would immediately turn off. And he was right in this—right for his own purposes: he had his own antecedent perceptions, and he wanted simply to gather whatever might give them further resonance and depth. But this habit of mind that worked well in his literary criticism did not succeed so well in the area of political philosophy, where the turning away from theoretical questions and qualifications made his thought not more concrete, but schematic and abstract.
Yet beneath the crustiness of advancing age, and the doctrinaire rigidity that had set in, something still remained of his literary tact. In the present collection there is a review which I had not previously seen, of T. S. Eliot’s posthumous essays, and which I expected, in view of Rahv’s mood in this later period, to be a programmatic manhandling of its subject. It turns out, however, to be appreciative, finely perceptive, and gracious too. Rahv, perhaps despite himself at this period, was still too intelligent not to recognize in Eliot the supreme literary intelligence of the century. He even excuses Eliot for his religious views: “His commitment to orthodox beliefs must have answered an irresistible inner demand of his nature for a discipline to shore him up against chaos. . . . In this sense it was no more than an anodyne, yet we who have not suffered his pains are seldom in a position to reproach him.”
But why limit such charitable tolerance to Eliot? We may not suffer his pains, but we have our own; and for each man his own pains outweigh anyone else’s; so that by this same line of reasoning the right to believe should not be confined aristocratically to the great poet and critic but extended democratically to everyman—and we would end thus with a much more reasonable and tolerant view of religion than Rahv was ever intellectually willing to concede. And in such a charitable mood, which he himself for a moment advances, we may very well include Philip Rahv himself: we can humanly and charitably sympathize with the desperation, the struggle against chaos, which led him in advancing age to clutch his Marxist gods more fiercely and rigidly than ever, even if we cannot quite condone his choice of those particular gods, since they are the ones that the present generation will have to do battle with.
And something else, something more human than literary, seems to have remained for him. As a final act, in his will he left his money to the state of Israel. As the final touch to round off his life, this gesture has puzzled many. For myself, I see it against that afternoon years ago in Washington Square, when in the midst of our conversation he suddenly spoke about Israel, and another voice, more youthful and yearning, sounded through all the cynical postures of the ideologue. I like to think that voice was still there, and at the end it broke through again.
1 Edited by Arabel J. Porter and Andrew J. Dvosin. Houghton Mifflin, 366 pp., $15.00.
2 The present collection reprints this later essay, hut omits the earlier one—which is a great pity.
As for the political selections in this volume, there is one very glaring omission, and that is Rahv's exchange with Dwight Macdonald and Clement Greenberg (somewhere around 1940) on the question of supporting the war against Hitler. This was one clear-cut case where, facing historic actuality, Rahv abandoned the rigidity of the Marxian purist and declared for the war against the Nazis. His argument there, moreover, is very pertinent to the present struggle of America with the Soviet Union.