Marx and modern literature
Marx and modern literature
Canaan Ramezan Nia
For some critics the relationship between Marxism and literary theory is rather a vague one. The first reason, of course, is that for contemporary critics, with the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union in the late 1980's, many heard the "death knell loudly pronouncing the demise of Marxism and its accompanying political and ideological structures"(Bressler,2007:191). However, performing only a limited internet research under the keyword Marxism results in a listing of more than 20,000 sites which titles such as Marxism and Utopian Vision: El Salvador, Marxism and the National Question, Marxism and Problems of Linguistics, Re-thinking Marxism, to name only a few of them. The second reason is that Marx himself did not exclusively write a book on art or literature. Therefore, one may find only some fragmented explanations on art and literature in his letters or books. However, using Marx's philosophical assumptions, 20th century critics developed a variety of Marxist approaches to textual analysis that focus on the study of the relationship between a text, its writer, and the society that reads it. At the core of all these diverse approaches are Marx and his philosophical assumptions about the nature of reality.
As a result, we try here to outline some of his key ideas concerning literature or art generally. Indeed, Marx insists upon seeing the artist as part of a production system, not a pure and self-sufficient mind. To be more precise, it is unjustifiable for a Marxist critic to consider literary production disregarding its historical context. For any literary production is the representation of its writer's social position or consciousness. From here, it is a short step toward what we call it traditional historical approach or Hermeneutics. Indeed, Marx has no difficulty accepting this view. This methodology declares that critics should place works in their historical setting, paying attention to the author's life, the time period in which the work was written, and the cultural milieu of both the text and the author. Besides, Marx and Engels added another factor: that of the economic production. This factor addresses, for example, who decides what texts should be published, when a text should be published, or how a text is to be distributed. This added dimension "Marx believed links literature and society and shows how literature reflects society and how literary texts can reveal truths about our social interactions"(ibid:195).
For example, the alienation and reification as a social phenomenon are the main themes that can be explored later on in most modern literature about characters who are emptied from their aims and just wandering helplessly and hopelessly in search of meaning for their life: flaneur. A good example of this is Two Gallants in Dubliners. The story is about two gentlemen, Lenehan and Corley who want to meet a fallen girl to get money. According to the editor of Dubliners, Laurence Davies, the people of Florence make C sound like a breathy H with this pronunciation Corley's name comes out as Whorely. The theme of prostitution in the story under the veil of love and the money which is going to be extracted from the girl is possibility of inhumane traits of characters in the story. Such inhumane and unscrupulous behaviour of the Corley, and worse than that, the Lenehan's reliance on his friend indicates the ideology of inertia which is the direct result of bartering love with money as the very simple forms of exchange in primitive societies.
Indeed, modernist art, to some extent, grows out of a European loss of communal identity, out of alienating capitalism and constant industrial acceleration. The work of avant-garde artists was fuelled by the rise of urban living, the invention of the proletariat and the bringing together of the human with the machine. Modernity, in classical Marxism, is a double-edged phenomenon in which capitalism and the rise of the bourgeoisie eliminated feudalism and brought enormously significant forms of communication, transport and production, but also created a serially exploited proletariat which would eventually overthrow it. However, this idea was castigated by Frankfurt School and altered to a great extent. It is no wonder that the keynote of classical Marxism is optimism while Frankfurt's was pessimism. As Abraham says " The utopian philosophers of the 19th century with their peace and harmony in an advancing community had given way to a 20th century pessimism about man's ability to make and keep pledges of peace and co-operation, presuming that human society best survives within the arena of struggle and competition, violence and revolution"(ibid:27). Comparing the classical Marxism and Frankfurt's, the latter is pessimistic and deeply believes in negative force of art against capitalist society whereas the former considers the constant revolution of the masses as the ultimate liberating force of alienated and exploited workers towards freedom and democracy. "Marx believed that no matter how well a society functions in terms of its own order and structure, it was destined to turmoil and revolution until the final break of all class divisions"(ibid:29).
To sum up, we examined Marx's ideas on three levels that are related to our topic about modernism: scientific view of history, perpetual transformation, and alienation. Last but not least, Larson has very nicely outlined the basic postulates of Marxism dialectical method( it means that the subject and object, both knower and thing known, are in a continual process of mutual adaption and it is never fully completed) as follows:" 1) all the phenomena of nature are part of an integrated whole; 2) nature is in a continuous state of movement and change; 3) the developmental process is a product of quantitative advances which culminate in abrupt qualitative changes; and 4) contradictions are inherent in all realms of nature, but particularly human society"(ibid:29).
Likewise, the literary works of the time were not untouched by the social and political crisis. In other words, the rise of modernist fiction coincides with the upheavals of 20th century. "Modernists try to disrupt and fragment the picture of modern life rather than master its dehumanising mechanisms"(Selden,1993:83). For example, the recurrent use of interior monologue and stream of consciousness do not just reflect an alienated individualism, but both grasps a truth about crisis in modern society (the alienation of the individual) and enables us to see that the alienation is part of an objective social reality.
However, the scientific Marxism is challenged by other critics like Nietszcheans. They argue that the legitimacy crisis in most of the nation-states is the epistemological crisis. Furthermore, they believe that what Marxism tries to put forward is a story which attempts to be one story, for being a grand narrative. "If God has died, then there can be no one story, no one truth and certainly no scientific Marxism. If there is no objective or absolute truth then no theory, state or government can appeal to objective principles, or to appropriate state of affairs, or to consent, in order to legitimise itself"(Teichman & White,1995:72). So, some parts later, our exploration on some Nietzsche's significant ideas opens up a somehow different perspective on modernist art and literature.