The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

July 8, 2007

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---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 8 Jul 2007 18:31:49 -0400
From: moderator@PORTSIDE.ORG
Subject: Only Pinter remains

Only Pinter remains

British literature's long and rich tradition of
politically engaged writers has come to an end

By Terry Eagleton,,2120880,00.html
Guardian (UK)
July 7, 2007

For almost the first time in two centuries, there is no
eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared
to question the foundations of the western way of life.
One might make an honourable exception of Harold
Pinter, who has wisely decided that being a champagne
socialist is better than being no socialist at all; but
his most explicitly political work is also his most
artistically dreary.

The knighting of Salman Rushdie is the establishment's
reward for a man who moved from being a remorseless
satirist of the west to cheering on its criminal
adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. David Hare caved in
to the blandishments of Buckingham Palace some years
ago, moving from radical to reformist. Christopher
Hitchens, who looked set to become the George Orwell de
nos jours, is likely to be remembered as our Evelyn
Waugh, having thrown in his lot with Washington's
neocons. Martin Amis has written of the need to prevent
Muslims travelling and to strip-search people "who look
like they're from the Middle East or from Pakistan".
Deportation, he considers, may be essential further
down the road.

The uniqueness of the situation is worth underlining.
When Britain emerged as an industrial capitalist state,
it had Shelley to urge the cause of the poor, Blake to
dream of a communist utopia, and Byron to scourge the
corruptions of the ruling class. The great Victorian
poet Arthur Hugh Clough was known as Comrade Clough for
his unabashed support of the revolutionaries of 1848.
One of the most revered voices of Victorian England,
Thomas Carlyle, denounced a social order in which the
cash nexus was all that held individuals together. John
Ruskin was the great inheritor of this moral critique
of capitalism; and though neither he nor Carlyle were
"creative", they influenced one of the mightiest of
English socialist poets, William Morris. In Morris's
entourage at the end of the 19th century was Oscar
Wilde, remembered by the English as dandy, wit and
socialite; and by the Irish as a socialist republican.

The early decades of the 20th century in Britain were
dominated by socialist writers such as HG Wells and
George Bernard Shaw. When Virginia Woolf writes in
Three Guineas of "the arts of dominating other people
... of ruling, of killing, of acquiring land and
capital", she places herself to the left of almost
every other major English novelist.

Not all rebukes were administered from the left. DH
Lawrence, a radical rightist, denounced "the base
forcing of all human energy into a competition of mere
acquisition". Possession, he thought, was a kind of
illness of the spirit. High modernism, however
politically compromised, questioned the fundamental
value and direction of western civilisation. The 1930s
witnessed the first body of consciously committed left
writing in Britain. Taking sides was no longer seen as
inimical to art, but as a vital part of its purpose.

In the postwar welfare state, however, the rot set in.
Philip Larkin, the period's unofficial poet laureate,
was a racist who wrote of stringing up strikers. Most
of the Angry Young Men of the 50s metamorphosed into
Dyspeptic Old Buffers. The 60s and 70s - the second
most intensively political period of the century -
produced no radical of the status of a Brecht or
Sartre. Iris Murdoch looked for an exciting moment as
though she might fulfil this role, but turned inwards
and rightwards. Doris Lessing was to do much the same.

It was left to migrants (Naipaul, Rushdie, Sebald,
Stoppard) to write some of our most innovative
literature for us, as the Irish had earlier done. But
migrants, as the work of VS Naipaul and Tom Stoppard
testifies, are often more interested in adopting than
challenging the conventions of their place of refuge.
The same had been true of Joseph Conrad, Henry James
and TS Eliot. Wilde, typically perverse, challenged and
conformed at the same time.

The great communist poet Hugh MacDiarmid died just as
the dark night of Thatcherism descended. Rushdie's was
one of the few voices to keep alive this radical
legacy; but now, with his fondness for the Pentagon's
politics, we need to look elsewhere for a serious

There are a number of factors in such renegacy. Money,
adulation and that creeping conservatism known as
growing old play a part, as does the apparent collapse
of an alternative to capitalism. Most British writers
welcome migrants, dislike Tony Blair, and object to the
war in Iraq. But scarcely a single major poet or
novelist is willing to look beyond such issues to the
global capitalism that underlies them. Instead, it is
assumed that there is a natural link between literature
and left-liberalism. One glance at the great names of
English literature is enough to disprove this

Terry Eagleton is John Edward Taylor professor of
English literature at Manchester University


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