Art, Nature, Politics

Richard Chase

From The Kenyon Review, Autumn 1950, Vol. XII, No. 4

I derive no doctrines about literature, or about anything else, from within literature itself, beyond the most conventional ideas of grammar, syntax, and style. My literary principles I mostly derive first from the philosophy of naturalism and then from my idea of politics.

When I feel offended or let down by an imaginative work, I can usually trace this feeling to a dissatisfaction with its relation to reality, or what I suppose to be reality. It is a question of the work’s faithfulness to my experience of the reality of nature and of life. For though the work of art is not the same as the natural world but is transmuted therefrom and becomes something else, a fault of structure within this other world of art, perhaps culpable in itself, seems to me less culpable than the betrayal or misrepresentation of reality of which, from its vantage point of otherness, the imaginative work may be guilty. Though no one would claim to know everything about the natural world, everyone can easily know a great deal about it, and the most important truths are probably the most obvious ones. The truth, for example, that experience asserts the natural world to be diverse, experimental, treacherous, genial, rhythmic, enduring, stern and definitive in its exclusions, intransigent in its conditions of struggle, and, despite its paradoxes, faithful in its adherence to certain laws. In man’s task of making society and art, natural laws may be useful, of indifferent use, or actively dangerous. What is indispensable is the perception of the qualities of natural reality and the recognition that the mind which constructs society and art (and in doing so, necessarily abstracts and denies) abstracts and denies natural reality at its peril. The peril is that the devil is a perfectionist. The power of the temptation to adopt purely human notions of rectitude and ideological finality are exceeded only by the practical power over men which such notions gain. Man’s ideas can be both more destructive and more degrading than any act of nature.

I need hardly emphasize that art, intelligence, and society cannot be maintained merely by living or thinking “in accordance with nature.” Nature is the matrix of existence to which the mind, in order to maintain its vigor, withdraws and from which it returns, and naturalism is that view of things which opens out just far enough from materialism to take full account of those strategies of opposition to death and the material universe, those detours to extinction which we call life, thought, society, and art. The mind is the child of nature, and whether the mind is an ugly duckling or a favorite son, its relation to its parent can never be any- thing but a combination of attachment and aggression. It is obvious that, like thought itself, a landscape in oils issues out of a tension of opposition to and acceptance of natural reality, and that, for example, our American society issues out of a similar relationship with the natural law of the struggle for existence.

Mr. Sidney Hook, with whose polemics I usually agree, seems to me correct when he tells us first that naturalism is not “reductive materialism” and then that it is not religion either. Naturalism, as he says, “if it is honest to the facts of experience” cannot “provide a faith to live by equivalent to religious faith . . . naturalism as a philosophy is sufficient to gratify all the legitimate needs of the understanding without yielding to the conceit that human intelligence is omnipotent and that all problems will be solved. But in recognizing the reality of the evil and the horrible in human experience, in accepting not only the finitude of man but of every other creature and power, in refusing to swallow the crude or subtle efforts to picture the cosmic order as a moral order, it cannot provide the consolation which the tender-minded must have, if they are to find their existence meaningful and tolerable.” Mr. Hook, as we see, is arguing that naturalism must make rigorous exclusions lest because of its receptiveness and flexibility it lose all clarity of outline. The literary critic, who deals perforce with the imagination and with myth, may not wish to deploy his theoretical exclusions exactly in accord with the tactic of the philosopher-naturalist. But that in his critical theory he must ultimately make them is inescapable.

As for the formal elements of art, I have to admit that these are not what first or finally interests me. I have no objection to being shown the formal elements of a poem by Donne, a play by Sophocles, a symphony of Mozart, or a poem of Yeats. But I shall probably make very little of these formal elements unless they strike me as being resonant of something else, something beyond the work of art as well as within it. I find that I respond to forms in art when they are resonant in one or more of three ways: when they are resonant (1) of the crucial and dramatic rhythms of nature and emotion; (2) of ideas (more often than not ideas relating to politics); and (3) of ritual. Any formally admirable work of art displays with dramatic clarity its close perception of the natural and emotive forms of suspense, tension, disjunction, harmony, and so forth. This does not imply a belief in what is usually called artistic “realism” or “naturalism.” Highly refined and abstract works of art, such as a Beethoven quartet or Shakespeare’s “When that I was and a little tiny boy,” may display the close connection with the forms of action of which I am speaking. Beyond the obvious technics of the verse, Yeats’s “Among School Children” becomes formally significant to me only when I begin to grasp the metaphysical ideas with which it deals. The form of the poem is a strategy for giving intellectual and emotive status to such ideas as the relation of illusion and reality. The forms of Antigone or a Mozart symphony seem to me interesting in so far as they can be understood as deriving from certain political ideas. Sophocles, Mozart, and Yeats may also be said to take their artistic forms from those modes of conduct and belief which are called manners, from a realm of form, that is, which lies between politics and ritual. In the music of Mozart, for example, I cannot help sensing a kind of pathos of history, a last vivid statement of the established modes of an old order of life already beginning to dissolve, a mixture of musical forms which inevitably brings to mind a whole universe of moral, intellectual, and political ideas. The religious poems of Donne and Hopkins, the music of Bach, seem to me formally interesting for the way in which they repeat, transmute, or reinforce the theology and the ritual of Christianity.

Having put such heavy stress on the connection between art and politics, I feel it necessary to record the obvious fact that no artist deserves to be commended for merely repeating political ideas in his poem or novel. Politics is a discipline of knowledge and action within the institutional life of man. It is one of the primary modes of intelligence, and it is not easy to come by. Shakespeare and Melville are profoundly political writers; politics has entered solidly into the substance and structure of their art. I should say that this is not so, for example, of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” This poem, to be sure, expresses a group of democratic ideas, and yet it is not deeply political. It tends toward the transcendent, the general, and the “spiritual.” Whitman’s political ideas come off the top of his mind; when his mind functions profoundly, it considers such matters as death, childhood, and the emergent imagination. Political ideas are never very far away from the profound moments in Shakespeare or Melville. The mad- ness of Lear is the madness of a disordered polity. The hanging of Billy Budd is emblematic of the tragedy of the French Revolution.

Humanism vs. Naturalism
The American university tradition of humanism has produced many prudish and complacent moralizers. It has also preserved a genuinely admirable concern with moral problems. Doubtless everyone must be a humanist in the very general sense of the word. That is, one must be aware of the past, one must cherish what is cherishable in human culture, since man must inevitably define himself and his ideas in relation to his past and to his culture.

But I do not consider myself a humanist in any sense but the most general. There is something insipid, private, and glum in the impulse to close the “uniquely human” off from nature. It shuts out the light and cuts off the streams of energy; it withers, impoverishes, and rigidifies. The cosmos is, to be sure, not moral enough, not as moral as man has to be in order to live in society. And so we must moralize. Indeed we cannot help moralizing, our minds being such a curious paradox of animal appetite and the impulse to construct or destroy modes of social behavior that they can scarcely perceive reality without simultaneously moralizing about it. The vigor of our moral ideas must be kept up. Our morality is not the same as natural law, but we may yet moralize in the manner of nature, with nature’s irony and indirection, with nature’s severity, with nature’s intransigence.

As for being academic or non-academic, I do not think of my critical position in these terms. “Columbia naturalism,” however, has made a sensible impression upon me. And I should say that this school of thought has been basically “right” whenever it has not weakened itself (as it frequently has) by having no sense of the past or by closing out of its purview of experience the tragic, the fateful, the magical, the ironic.

So far as my ideas are concerned, I have no religion. Religious feelings, which I have in a very disjointed and intellectually inconsequential way, may sometimes tincture the emotional content of my ideas but they do not form them.

Religious ideas (leaving aside the question of whether such ideas are ever true or not) do not seem to me appropriate to our problems. This is partly because the institutional forms of religion are either actively dangerous to democratic values or merely impotent, and partly because, though some religious ideas are profound and instructive beyond any illusion of neurosis, there are always other ideas as much or more to the purpose of thought and of criticism. We have to use the materials at hand; political and moral thought, though in sad condition, still lives in the United States; with the exception of a few isolated individuals, religious thought in America has had no real intellectual distinction since the 18th Century, and no profound or concrete relation to the problems of our developing democracy.

In such cataclysmic times as ours, there always appear a variety of pseudo-religions. And these have had their unhappy effect on recent criticism. The current interest in myth, for example, sometimes shades off either into a kind of elegant and reactionary mystique or into a grandiose and quasi-Stalinist culture-religion. And the emphasis on anguish, alienation and “living in history” shades off rather easily into a sort of playing around with states of the soul and a cosmic pulse-feeling, activities more religious, or, at least, religiose, than philosophic. Handled intelligently, as it sometimes is by such writers as Mr. William Barrett, the idea of alienation can tell us much about the plight of modern man and (with certain real limitations which I am not sure Mr. Barrett fully perceives) about art and society. Yet how readily ideas of alienation translate themselves into the maudlin spirituality, the existential stance at the center of the world’s anguish, the lumpentranscendentalism (as it has been finely called) of minds less clear than Mr. Barrett’s! Better enlightenment than religion, but better religion than religiosity.

Whatever the literary critic believes, he ought to take religion seriously. A refutation of its ideas does not put down religion.

        0, how this mother swells up toward my heart!
        Hysterica passio! Down, thou climbing sorrow!

Myth and Literature
As I think of it, myth properly has very little to do with religion. The study of myth, as I have said, is often misused in modern criticism by people who do not wish to profess a religion but who wish to be vaguely religious. It is also used by philosophers, psychologists, and cultural ideologues who wish to philosophize, psychologize, and ideologize badly and who find that it is easier to do so by talking about “myth” than by sticking to clearer and more dependable, if also more arduous, disciplines.

The study of myth seems to me to be valuable as the mode in which we now find it most congenial to understand the literary imagination. We must observe, however, that myth is a rather narrower category than imagination. Myth is a kind of extreme situation within literature, a kind of abnormal syndrome, wherein we discern in concentrated form many characteristics of the imagination which are not otherwise discernable.

In my book on myth, and by implication in my book on Melville, I advocated a “larger view” of the literary imagination than is now to be discovered among critics. I have certainly not meant to advocate a general intellectual regression to a “mythopoeic” way of thought. I have merely assumed that, defining myth broadly enough so that it would have relevance to the imaginative processes of all makers of fiction, from the cave man to Yeats, one might still have a critical category exact enough to assist toward a new assessment of the literary imagination. I speak of a “larger view” because the most influential current approaches to the imagination are too self-limiting for the task. This is the common short-coming of strictly “textual” criticism; of Mrs. Langer’s symbolic logic-chopping, which though suggestive is too narrowly rationalistic; and of the “Freudian” view which takes art to be exactly equivalent to dream or neurotic illusion. The study of myth will not by itself bring the literary imagination’s full order of richness and consequentiality to light. But it is a useful approach to that end.

Politics and Literature
The retreat of the intellectuals from politics has been one of the saddest spectacles of the last two decades. This retreat has been accompanied by, and is perhaps a good deal the cause of, a general softening of the will and of the critical intelligence. It is now almost impossible to conduct a meaningful political debate in the magazines. The categories of political discussion are no longer large enough to accommodate judgments of ideas; they will accommodate little more than charges of turpitude based upon some gloomily guarded notion of political correctness. It seems to me the business of the literary critic to assist in the difficult task of reestablishing politics as a comprehensive intellectual discipline.

There are many well known reasons why political thought has reached such depths of apathy and fecklessness. The overwhelming events of modern history have made it difficult to formulate relevant political positions. The nostalgia among some critics for the lost Marxist orthodoxy has undoubtedly hampered their political thought, for nostalgic ideas tend to grow thin, and “academic.” The New Machiavellianism, descending immediately from Pareto and others, has given us particular insights but has proven incapable of providing a political position, if indeed it ever intended to. I have certain instinctive sympathies with the Christian societies advocated by Eliot and the Southern Agrarians and I should imagine that it has been very good personally for the individuals concerned to have proposed these ideal societies. I think, too, that these societies can suggest to us certain ideas of style and propriety. But though style and propriety are not totally distinct from politics, I cannot see that these utopias have any real political relevance to our developing democracy.

Stalinism will be a continuing temptation for some American intellectuals, and will be more dangerous as it grows less directly committed to Stalin and Soviet Russia and crops up elusively in other forms. Just as dangerous is the growing repudiation among writers and thinkers not only of political positions but of the whole idea of politics and of society itself. As Mr. Daniel Bell has said, the strongest internal threat to American democracy is at present the “Know-Nothing” attitude of which Senator Wherry and Congressman Rankin are prime examples. Capitalist reaction of the modern American small-town variety does not try to force a political or economic system on us or to direct the course of American history to its advantage. It is utter anarchism, shot through with a dark suspicion and hatred of society, of political thought, of history, of the intellect. This is why those who are still committed to the methods of 19th Century revolutionary socialism feel so much at sea in modern politics. For those methods were strategies of revolt against well established social orders.[i] Senator Wherry and his kind have usurped this tactic (though they do not know it), and the task of the leftist is now a different one. He must bring forms of institutional order to a social scene of disintegration and chaos. He must approach social action not as if he were merely revolting against a reactionary social order, but with a broadly conceived political philosophy and an idea of society.

When I say that this “idea of society” may be described as a “mixed economy” or “mixed society,” I am simply recording what pre-eminent political writers have always told us, such writers as Aristotle, Burke, and Tocqueville. The fact that the first two of these writers were conservatives and the third a man of strong conservative sentiments is beside the point. Their conservatism is of no theoretical use to us, who look forward, who seek change, who desire to construct new institutions and demolish old ones in whatever manner will best ensure the coherence of the state without impairing our present democratic liberties and without inhibiting the emergence of new forms of protection against the infringement of these liberties.

We can no longer think of politics as a strategy of action leading to an ultimate and conclusive social dispensation. While we were waiting for the state to wither away, politics withered away instead. We must now reconstruct political theory on a large scale as we find it in such writers as those mentioned above. That is, we must see our American democracy as a mixed, a diverse, an evolving thing. Political ideas must be conditioned by the anthropological view to the extent that they can take theoretical account of religion, racial divergences, folk tradition, manners, local custom, and the way in which these phenomena operate in history. Like the healthy democratic society which it will wish to establish, our political thought must be as diverse as is consistent with unity, as flexible as is consistent with action, and as complex as is consistent with clarity. The great political writers have always been duly suspicious of intellectually reductive strategies of liberal or revolutionary action because they have always been aware of the baffling complexity of man’s institutional life. The business of the American democrat is to take from the great conservative writers not their political program but their idea of politics and not their idea of a mixed society based upon inherited class differences but the idea of the mixed society itself. And he will answer the question, How are the parts of this society supposed to be related? by replying: In such a manner as to provide a loose but efficient order within the state, to protect the civil rights of every part of the state from every other part, and from the whole, and to ensure the establishment and perpetuation of diversity in institutional life, in custom, and in thought.

And here we come back to the relation of politics to nature and to art. The political ideal I have been advancing follows laws that nature does not know and repudiates some of those that nature does know. Yet it seems to me of all political ideals to betray our experience of natural reality the least; it seems to me to be the least totalitarian of ideals and the best protection against those terrible forces in the modern world which warp the mind of man away from its natural sanity and its natural diversity of sentiment and into the forms of final madness which we call totalitarian ideology. And of course it is totalitarian ideology for which capitalist anarchy unwittingly prepares itself and us.

It may well be asked what this has to do with literary criticism. I hope that, briefly as I have set forth the above political ideas, I have at least been able to convince the reader that they are objectively conceived in concrete relationship to history and society and are not derived from an incorrigibly “literary” habit of mind. On this point I shall have to trust in the reader’s discretion and go on to say (what I have said above) that I imagine the relation of literature to life, and particularly to life in its political aspect, to be very real though also very limited.[ii] Melville, and perhaps most of the writers of his time, regarded literature as a mode of knowing, of truth-telling. I once advanced the opinion that if one had read and understood Melville one would not vote for Henry Wallace. I still believe this to be true, not because Melville in any miraculous way “foresaw” Wallace or because Wallace and Melville are in the same ideological context, but because Melville presents his reader with a vision of life so complexly true that it exposes the ideas of Henry Wallace as hopelessly childish and superficial. Literature tells us that life is diverse, paradoxical, and complicated, a fateful medley of lights and darks, and it tells us this with a dramatic forcefulness which we seldom meet outside of literature. It warns us that the tendency of modern liberal politics has been to bleed political ideas white, to deny them their roots in natural reality, to deny them their extension over the possible range of human experience. In stressing the relation of literature to life, I do not mean that the critic ought to derive programs of political action from novels and poems. That was the mistake, if also the glory, of Don Quixote. But I believe that to preserve political ideas from their self-abstracting tendency, they might well be, as Burke says, “reasonably tinctured with literature”—supposing for the moment that by “literature” we mean a particular mode of perceiving reality and supposing, furthermore, that it is not to literature that we wish finally to expose political theory but to reality itself. There is a genuine truth in the idea, explored by writers like Chekhov and Hawthorne, that art is an illusion which may traduce and destroy life. Yet the distrust of literary ideas displayed by some contemporary critics makes them sound as if they had just discovered that there isn’t any Santa Claus.

If it is true that a healthy political philosophy extends its tentacles into the realm of anthropology, the literary critic will find himself inescapably a political writer. For literature deals with moral action, with sentiment, with manners, with myth. And it is frequently true that in the action and feeling of the characters in literature, as vell as in their relation with each other, we find large social meanings which may grow explicitly political. We may even say, speaking very generally, that the subject of literature is the establishment, the disintegration, and the recouping of society. In the wrath of Achilles, the sufferings of Job, the anguish of Hamlet, the monomania of Ahab we cannot absolutely distinguish between individual and political disintegration. In the careers of Antigone, Melville’s Ishmael, or Balzac’s Eugene de Rastignac personal salvation throws off the most far-reaching political implications. One of the primary modes of criticism in the last two hundred years has been the exploration of the field of interaction between literature and politics. This field provides a kind of central position from which, in one direction, the critic can find his way into the literary imagination and, in the other direction, into the public world of man’s life. There are many other ways of literary criticism,[iii] but I do not know of any which so firmly insists that the critic should find his way fully into the real texture of the imagination on the one hand and of man’s practical life on the other. The fact that such a considerable portion of the political criticism of the 1930’s now seems inferior has become part of our disillusion. Yet this criticism was not injured by being political so much as by not being political enough. Its view of politics tended to be narrow and to be instinct with a number of unexamined and unadmitted emotional commitments which actually implied the negation of political thought. And the negation of politics by “political” critics was inevitably accompanied by their increasing inability to maintain adequate conceptions of human nature, of history, and of the literary imagination.

The critic must, of course, have his ideas of “tradition” and “culture.” He must certainly have reverence for the past. The American, whose cultural tradition is so strangely broken, may well think of the past as Burke thought of the state—as a father whose wounds we ought to approach with “pious awe and trembling solicitude.”

But we must not forget the indispensable condition of this reverence: that it must consist as much in aggressive opposition as in acquiescence. We look to the future, and we must be free of the past when the future depends on that freedom. On any other premises, a “political” view of things becomes impossible. “Tradition” in Mr. Eliot’s sense, which so glumly closes down upon the individual talent, we may safely leave to the young Danteans of the Hudson Review. The past (like several other things) is more open, more productive, more unruly, and more fatally dangerous than these pretty critics understand.

One must defend “culture”; one must defend, that is, the available artistic and moral standards. In the light of contemporary experience, the critic will perhaps wish to modify Mill’s idea that the “chief interest of the history of mankind” is the emergence of individual liberty by adding that of equal interest is the fact that human culture should ever have established and maintained itself at all. He will find very true Nietzsche’s observation about the modern “newspaper-reading demimonde of intellect” that “nothing is so repulsive as their lack of shame, the easy insolence of eye and hand with which they touch, taste, and finger everything. ” One might wish to add to Mill’s admirable plea for intellectually responsible heresy Nietzsche’s plea for “tact,” “reverence,” and severe standards. Heresy and an idea of culture are the modern critic’s best weapons against the smothering uniformity of public opinion and the totalitarian mind, the monstrous offspring of contemporary history.

Yet the defense of culture cannot constitute the whole task of the critic. For ultimately there are values less dispensable than culture—of which one is freedom. Our freedom depends upon our skill in politics. If, as I think, we have allowed politics to wither away almost to the vanishing point, our task now is to open up the category of political discussion once again. To do this we must shrug off the burden of our religiosity, our escapism, our archaism, our transcendentalizing, and our apathy. These spots of neurosis in our intellectual life have seldom been so numerous or so appealing. They present themselves to the mind as genuinely profound and inescapable crises of the human spirit. And with the pride which makes us forget how exceedingly rare and precious are the genuine crises of the spirit, we run after these plentiful chimeras, leaving will and intellect unfit for any business except to observe the debility which creeps over them.

History has made it difficult to construct particular political programs. But we can begin by reinstating in our criticism the idea of politics itself. As I understand it, this is the principal task of literary critics in our present American democracy.


[i] I speak here of the methods of 19th Century socialism. Its ideals, which were utopian and progressive, we can certainly not afford to abandon.

[ii] Perhaps I shall be known to posterity as the man who, in his zeal to correct the faults of liberals and in his confusion of life with literature, said that “Iago was a liberal.” For the record, it was someone else who said this; not I. I said that it was not silly to speak of lago in relation to liberalism. This astounding observation issued from the following train of thought. Iago is a very perceptive portrait of a certain kind of evil behavior. Certain superficial liberal writers have not understood the possible depths of human depravity. If they do attribute the possibility of depravity to human nature, they are likely to attribute it to, say, capitalists but not to liberals. Now I, Richard Chase, liberal critic, wished to make the point that if there was indeed a tendency to Iago-like depravity in human nature, then liberals ought
to stop excluding themselves from human nature, there being little evidence that they alone were happily innoculated against Iagoism. I said, furthermore, speaking more generally, that the liberal concept of human nature had sometimes been rather shallow and that if one read Othello one might conceivably come out of the experience with a somewhat more complete notion of human nature, which notion might not be entirely irrelevant to one’s thoughts about life and politics. Frankly, I am still unable to account for the startling response this rather tame pronouncement elicited from many intelligent persons.

[iii] The New Criticism seems to me admirably to have done its work. I have never felt much doctrinal kinship with this Criticism, though with many of its particular judgments and with some of its intentions, I feel a very strong kinship indeed. The “reading of a poem” has become a different, and a richer, experience because of the New Critics. And I suppose that most of us have gratefully derived from them a new sense of style and a more rigorous sense of what the understanding of literature may entail. The movement has been fortunate in its elder members. Perhaps I am only uttering a truth about all critical movements when I say that the younger members of the group (those in their twenties and thirties) are not such good critics as their elders. Are not the generality of these younger writers fatally hampered by their weak grasp of ideas? For thought they tend to substitute sensibility or a dim commitment to dogma. Wishing to establish their views in our intellectual life, they seem quite ignorant of the scope and energy of intellect which such an undertaking might involve.

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