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On Literature and Politics, Part II

My wife recently forwarded to me an entry from a literary blog on the subject of the CIA’s role in promoting American literary values abroad during the Cold War and its connections to The Kenyon Review. It’s a curious tale, told in Frances Stonor Saunders’ 1999 book The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. Sadly, the book promises more than it proves in its chapter entitled “Ransom’s Boys.” It’s certainly true that the CIA recruited heavily among the postwar academic establishment, including several of John Crowe Ransom’s prot??g??es at Kenyon College during the period in which he established The Kenyon Review. Robie Macauley, the Review’s second editor, apparently had a long CIA career that continued during his time as editor of the KR. During this same period, the CIA ??? through the Congress for Cultural Freedom — funded the distribution of a number of American literary journals abroad to “promote American values,” which gave a much-needed boost to the Review’s circulation and helped to sustain its international reputation. But Saunders wants to make a more ambitious argument, claiming that one can see a direct connection between the conservative political values promoted by the CIA during the Cold War and the literary values promoted by journals like The Kenyon Review. It is, in effect, the same argument made by Allen Ginsberg when he denounced “the domination of poetics by the CIA” in “T.S. Eliot Entered My Dreams,” accusing the U.S. government of promoting literary modernism as a response to the more revolutionary literary values emerging on the left.

It’s tempting to see the New Criticism as a conservative reaction to the temptations of revolutionary political engagement among American writers early in the Twentieth Century, since this theory promotes a literature that turns its back on the struggles of the moment to engage with a timeless tradition. To make this claim is to argue that the New Criticism and its literary values aren’t simply a response to politics, but are themselves a specific political stance. In fact, I make a similar argument when I teach my literary theory course: students often come into the course with the vague sense, promoted by many cultural conservatives, that “literary theory” is an obscure heresy used by leftists to distract them from the real acts of reading that emerged from the New Criticism. But New Criticism was itself a theory of literary interpretation, with its own political implications for how the reading subject relates to the text and to the broader culture. What we call “literature” in our culture is still largely defined by these assumptions.

But there’s an interesting irony here: anyone who has studied the relationship of patron and poet knows that this relationship is rarely simple. It’s safe to say that neither patron nor poet ever gets what s/he wants from the bargain they’ve struck: the poet still starves, and the patron rarely gets the wholehearted praise s/he anticipates. In fact, for a work that emerges from this relationship to be “literary,” according to the values promoted by the New Criticism, it has to resist the influence of the patron: a compliant poet who simply praises the patron without irony fails this test. The resulting poem might be interesting as an historical artifact, but it fails as a poem. For an example, we only need to turn to the poster boy of New Criticism values: John Donne. While Donne wrote poems that celebrated his patrons, those aren’t the works for which Eliot and the New Critics celebrated him. It’s the Donne of complex, contradictory desire and faith, the man “un-done” by his betrayal of a patron’s trust, who embodies the New Critics’ vision of poetry. The patron’s role may be interesting as part of the historical background of a work of literature, but the poem has to satisfy our hunger for complexity on its own, not simply as a manifestation of economic or political necessity. And while I find the history of a poet’s relationship to his or her patron fascinating as a way of understanding the poem’s origins and cultural role, I have to say that I want to agree with the New Critics on this point. Good writers always bite the hands that feed them, and not only because they’re hungry. Literature should be an act of resistance to the values of mainstream culture: by turning our attention away from the concerns of our daily lives, it makes us strangers in our own land, giving us a new perspective on the “home truths” of family, nation, and faith that social conservatives want literature to affirm. Even the poetry of landscape and rural values that many British conservatives like to think of as “typically British” ??? Wordsworth with his endless daffodils ??? represented a radical break from the economic and political values that defined British culture at the moment of its composition. Reading such a poem makes us all “outstanding villains,” in Norman Tebbit’s wonderful phrase for Salman Rushdie, which I quoted in my last entry on this subject, if only in the sense that it leaves us standing out in the fields with the true “villains” (an archaic word for peasants), whose consciousness such a poem both envies and idealizes. What could be more revolutionary? And what could be more reactionary than to celebrate this impulse nostalgically a century later?

In these terms, granting a novelist a knighthood, as the British government has recently done with Rushdie, is a mixed blessing for both the writer and the monarch. We can only hope that Rushdie will now set about proving himself an even more “outstanding villain” by writing books that unsettle those who like their writers grateful and compliant. Similarly, while it’s important to recognize the role that Cold War politics played in the history of a journal like The Kenyon Review, it’s important to do so with a sense of irony, asking what, exactly, the paymasters in Langley got for their money. Was it the final stanza of James Wright’s “All The Beautiful Are Blameless?” (“So do the pure defend themselves.”) Was it Flannery O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” with its betrayals and ironic redemptions? Was it Konstantinos Kavaphes’ poem “Waiting for the Barbarians,” which now seems so prophetic as an image of American foreign policy under the current regime? (“What are we going to do now without the barbarians? / In a way, those people were a solution.”) Was it John Crowe Ransom’s “Prelude to an Evening?” Perhaps that one more than the rest, but look at the last two stanzas of that poem, as Ransom revised it in 1963:

I went to the nations of disorder
To be freed of the memory of good and evil;
There even your image was disfigured;
Then the boulevards rocked; they said, Go back.

I am here; and to balk my ruffian I bite
The tongue devising all that treason;
Then creep in my wounds to the sovereign flare
Of the room where you shine on the good children.

While the poem’s speaker may bite back his words, it is a gesture of mercy, not speaking the terrors he has encountered in his daily journey through the world in front of his children. But the poet speaks those terrors for him. That’s the poet’s job: to speak what can’t be spoken at home. The tongue devises its treasons. And for that, we should all be grateful.

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