To the Editor:
At the end of her article, “Literary Revolutionism” [June], Renee Winegarten states that the “present passion for revolution as a means of salvation for society and for the individual requires more precise scrutiny than it has received hitherto.” Unfortunately, Miss Winegarten’s own essay adds nothing new and certainly nothing precise to our understanding of the passion she purports to deal with. Like all hostile commentators (and Miss Winegarten’s tone leaves no doubt as to where her sympathies lie), she falls back on facile generalizations derived from psychology and religion. Writers who advocate revolution or who believe in the possibility of radical social change are, she tells us, either romantic misfits confusing their “frustrated yearning for inner spiritual change with the desire to change the world,” or secular prophets in search of an absolute to fill the “area left arid by the decay of religion.” We have heard this kind of explanation (the God that failed, etc.) far too often not to find it tiresome. Miss Winegarten’s originality has been simply to extend it, making it apply not only to Communist intellectuals of the 1930’s but to anyone, from Byron on, foolish enough to consider the contemporary world less than a desirable place to live in. (Her remark on Régis Debray’s book, Révolution dans la révolution?, it must be noted, is in extreme bad taste. To imply that Debray was being merely “ingenious” in choosing the title for his book is to dismiss rather lightly the work of a man who has lived according to his words to a far greater degree than any armchair moralist. And what, incidentally, shall we say about Miss Winegarten’s own title?)
The relationship between literature and revolution in our time is a complex problem that deserves thorough and unbiased examination. Why intellectuals at certain historical moments turn to revolutionary politics; why some choose the Left and others the Right (a possibility Miss Winegarten never considers); why and how a revolutionary rhetoric more often than not blinds its practitioners to political realities and why today many brilliant thinkers nevertheless subscribe to such a rhetoric; what impact a writer’s ideological commitment has on his work as a creative artist—these are questions that any serious appraisal of “literary revolutionism” must deal with. It is not by adopting, as Miss Winegarten does, a tone of scornful disapproval that we shall get any closer to an understanding of a phenomenon that has gripped men’s imagination for two centuries.
Susan Rubin Suleiman
Department of French
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . In her article, Renee Winegarten declares, twice, that George Orwell loved cruelty in his secret heart. She says that he was a revolutionary romantic, and she cites a passage of his which seems to condone murder for the sake of a friend. She also mentions Orwell’s later reference to that passage, but omits the fact that Orwell did not repeat the idea of murder for a friend. Miss Winegarten likewise utterly ignores the fact that Orwell insisted on the truth concerning atrocities committed in the name of the revolutions he supported, and that he considered irresponsible all those who dismissed disquieting information concerning cruelties committed by their allies as lies and propaganda.
I do not wish to decry Miss Winegarten’s essay: it is written in the best Orwellian tradition, and is thus of great value. This makes it all the more regrettable that she should punish his memory so.
To the Editor:
. . . Modern politics requires three particular assumptions: 1) youth is the repository of morals; 2) the golden age is just around the corner; . . . 3) we are living through an age of unique crisis. . . .
The “golden age” motif is not new in fiction or in religion, but it is, I think, new as the dominant motif of politics (by new, I mean post-French Revolution). It is the sense of imminent dissolution and secular redemption which releases political energy today. After all, living from crisis to crisis can hardly be dull. Moreover, democracy as we practice it requires and forges a relationship between a crisis-consciousness and its politics. Simply put, a politician must have a cause in order to promote votes for himself. Since he must fight for his position, he must have something to fight with. Causes stimulate issues and crises; these crises in turn create other crises; and finally what started out as political strategy becomes reality. . . .
A good deal of this analysis of the modern politician was stimulated by Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending, which is a more expanded and historical treatment of Renee Winegarten’s ideas. . . .
Miss Winegarten writes:
One is often astonished by the passion one can arouse. Susan Suleiman over-hastily deduces from my “tone” that I am a rabid reactionary, writing with antiradical bias. To attribute to me the idea that the great writers who have been attracted by the concept of revolution are “romantic misfits” is a gross distortion. If she will read me dispassionately, she will note that the authors who “sometimes confuse their frustrated yearning for inner spiritual change with the desire to change the world” are specifically surrealists and those of anarchist tinge. Moreover, my contention is that it is perfectly possible to consider the existing world far from ideal without believing that revolution is the sole panacea for all ills. I cannot see how my very mild remark about Régis Debray’s pamphlet is in “bad taste” (mild, in relation to a man who has written, “Who will not help to kill the killers?”). Sincerity and the readiness to suffer martyrdom for one’s ideals are not, alas, a proof of the rightness of one’s reasoning. But apparently it is of today’s revolutionary heroes, rather than of the dead, that nothing but good must be spoken.
Clearly I have written my own essay and not the one Susan Suleiman would have me write: its purpose was to draw attention to a tragic paradox that becomes daily more glaring (and that is not, as far as I know, discussed in Professor Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending). One additional clarification: I do not favor the disparagement of George Orwell which I believe is fashionable in some circles, and I am horrified that Joseph Agassi should imagine I intend disrespect to his memory. That he finds my essay “in the best Orwellian tradition” I regard as the highest compliment. But it seems to me that the second reference to the Italian militiaman still idealizes fierceness along with innocence. Orwell was a complex figure, and it is not by glossing over the complexities that we do justice to him or to the standards for which he strove.