In the summer of 1935, as Hitler’s troops were readying their occupation of the Rhineland, a group of left-wing writers gathered before a crowd of over three thousand in the Latin Quarter’s Palais de la Mutualité. Paris in June can be a swamp, and la Mutualité—a poorly ventilated theater built at the height of the Depression—was hot as ever.
Paul Vallaint-Couturier, the editor of the Communist daily L’Humanité, rose to give his speech in a bathing suit. In the auditorium were Gide and Malraux, Brecht and Musil, Pasternak and E.M. Forster—who before an audience of improvised newspaper fans and sweat-stained shirts rehearsed the arguments he later made in Two Cheers for Democracy. According to several accounts, in the middle of a speech by a German poet, the audience rose in an act of spontaneous solidarity and began to sing the Internationale.
Stendhal once called the intrusion of politics into literature “a gun shot in the middle of a concert.” In la Mutualité, any resistance to politics would have led to a gunfight. The Surrealists, Breton and Éluard, were booed off stage. A Czech avant gardist was prevented from speaking. Victor Serge, recently exiled by Stalin, was denounced. “Beware of the perils of too great faith!” Breton said over jeers and shouts. “‘Transform the world,’ said Marx; ‘Change life,’ said Rimbaud. These two… are one and the same.”
The First International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture, as the affair was called, lasted five days and its speeches tallied to several hundred pages. Its aim was to turn the cultural philistinism of the Second International on its head—to demonstrate how literature and politics were entwined—and it concluded with Gide’s spirited call to arms: his demand for a new littérature engagée to seed a world revolution.
A second congress followed in 1936. But by then the mood had dampened. Germany had occupied the Rhineland and had begun its process of “political standardization.” Dozens of Russian writers were rounded up and put on trial in the Soviet Union. Returning from a tour of the “Chosen Land,” Gide wrote with bitter disappointment: “Every morning Pravda teaches them just what they should know and think and believe.… So that every time you talk to one Russian you feel as if you were talking to them all.” “Given the situation,” as Roger Shattuck wrote in a brilliant history of the congress, “not much could come of it. At least it provided the occasion for Malraux to meet Hemingway [and for them to divide] up the Spanish War for their private novel-writing contest.”*
Politics in literature has never really been much of a gunshot. The truth is, it has never really even been much of a concert either. Novelists and poets have never really agreed on how the pen and pistol should relate—on whose politics, on which novels, on what poems. Gide and many of the Congress’ writers insisted that the novel should be a site for social criticism—a kind of hybrid of Marxist political economy and Victorian social realism that we often now call the “social novel” (or sometimes the “naturalist novel”). Breton and his fellow Surrealists believed that the radicalism of literature was found not in its ability to record the inequalities of capitalist society but in the boldness of its expression: in the ways its images and language revealed the absurdities of everyday life.
Even Malraux and Hemingway’s Spanish War epics offered a vision of littérature engagée. Central to their texts was the question: What makes one generation come of political age while another remains in its adolescence? What drives some to revolution and others to passivity? Their novels may not have committed themselves to a particular ideology but they nonetheless narrated the path toward one. Like the “political novels” of the late nineteenth century—James’s The Princess Casamassima, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Dostoevsky’s The Possessed—they documented the drama and traumas of radicalization: the heated excitement and numerous disappointments of political action.
Today there seem to be many of the first two novels—novels dedicated to sociological observation and formalist experiment—and few of the last. We still have Gide’s social novel: novels like Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom that try to excavate the moral and social architecture of what Edmund Wilson once called capitalism’s “Heartbreak House.” And we also still have Breton’s experimental fiction: those works of speculative writing, like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity, that are dedicated to a radicalism of expression.But one of the puzzles is where Malraux and Hemingway’s political novel has gone. With rare exception, contemporary American literature has limited itself to sociological inquiry or formalist experiment instead of mining the murky depths of political commitment.
Years ago—actually, a half-century ago—Irving Howe asked a similar question. Writing several years after his essay “This Age of Conformity,” Howe wondered why so much of American fiction, like so much of American life, had come to avoid the question of politics. “One of the most striking facts about American life and literature is the frequency with which political issues seem to arise in non-political forms. Instead of confronting us as formidable systems of thought, or as parties locked in bitter combat, politics in America has often appeared in the guise of religious, cultural, and sexual issues.” Even the very idea of politics is treated by “our writers … as a special ‘problem.’”
For Howe this was, in part, because the political commitments of the nineteenth century—those left and right ideologies that gave birth to the violent revolutions and total societies of the twentieth century—had played themselves out. It was also because in an age of growing bureaucratization, politics was becoming increasingly obscure. Parliamentary reform and revolutionary conspiracy were increasingly supplanted by administrative expertise. Political life was no longer conceived of as an autonomous field of action; radicalism had ceased to be a distinctive mode of social existence. Instead of revolution, there was cultural rebellion; instead of solidarity, a commitment to the self. The political novels of the midcentury ended in despair: Ben Compton, the revolutionary hero at the center of Dos Passos’s U.S.A., lost in the streets of New York; Margaret Sargent, the former bohemian radical of Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps, caught in a set of unfulfilling romantic entanglements; Saul Bellow’s “dangling man” choosing the discipline of the army over the activism of the Popular Front and Ralph Ellison’s “invisible man” preferring life underground to the violence in the streets above.
The choice at the midcentury appeared to be between the individual and society, personal morality and political engagement. It was felt that society was too overbearing, ideologies too rigid—that men and women were swallowed whole, absorbed into the mass of postwar America. Having once mapped the moral ambiguities and emotional complexities of political life in America, the novel was now an atlas of self-doubt and abnegation. Rather than narratives of radicalization, we now had dramas of disillusionment: declarations of political independence. As Lionel Trilling put it in his own novel of midcentury disillusion, life in America was “no longer a matter of politics.”
Since the 1960s, the political novel has gone abroad, into exile, journeying to those countries where politics is still a signifier for action. Nadine Gordimer, V.S. Naipaul, Doris Lessing, J.M. Coetzee, André Brink became its English-language masters. Even when American novelists picked up the intrigues of political commitment, they often exported their novels abroad. Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer had to go to the fictional Central American country of Boca Grande, Don DeLillo’s The Names to junta-controlled Greece. Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate set its apocalyptic conspiracies in Jerusalem and Gaza and perhaps one of our finest political novels, Norman Rush’s Mortals, explored the desolation of political action in the dry, desert veld of Botswana.
To be sure life is better, if perhaps more neurotic, on this side of a state of emergency and without the fear and upheaval, the violence and terror, of revolutionary politics. But how has it affected our political imaginations? Our sense of the present and the possible? Our willingness to view political commitment and action as part of moral life?
I will resist answering. That is why we have this section. (As socialists, we know it’s best to distribute labor.) Ben Hale, despairing over two generations of the “difficult novel,” makes the case for the pleasure and Roxane Gay gives us a rather spirited, feminist reworking of Marx’s theses on Feuerbach. Vivian Gornick, going back to the political novels of the nineteenth century, examines the problem of love and commitment and Nikil Saval, surveying the long history of white-collar fiction in America, contemplates what happens to both the genre and our political desires when many of us can no longer find work, in the office or elsewhere. Nina Martyris, in search of the political novel, goes to the Indian subcontinent where she examines the ways in which contemporary fiction narrates the excitement and disappointments of the Naxal uprising and Helen DeWitt offers us a modern-day parable about writing, about gardening, about life—contemplating the ways in which novels, like gardens, might not only reproduce current “social machines” but might also help us cultivate new, more diverse ones.
We are also, for maybe the first time in Dissent’s history, publishing two works of “political fiction”: six fables by the Syria-born, Chicago-based writer Osama Alomar and a story adapted from a forthcoming novel by Dissent’s own Brian Morton. “Political fiction” is probably a label both writers would resist; their stories, certainly, are political and literary in rather different ways. But at the center of both works of fiction is the question that haunts many on the left today: What should we do when the “guns” of revolution and protest no longer go off, when old modes of political action have proven practically as well as morally unfeasible, when all we have left are the “booby-trapped states” of Alomar’s fiction and the “ghosts of utopia” in Morton’s?
Politics often leans in one of two directions: toward the ideals of the past, the utopias of the future. The political novel can help keep our eyes on the present. It offers us neither visions of what our lives ought to be like in the future nor paeans to how our lives once were lived. It is a document of our experience, of human love and betrayal, of our many disappointments and few triumphs, of what draws us together and what rends us apart. Karl Mannheim once rued that too much of European politics was caught between
“ideology” and “utopia”—between the images of the past and the aspirations of the future. The novel, in its most heightened form, yields to neither. It can only give us the here and now.
The critic Kenneth Burke once remarked that literature was equipment for living. One could argue: it is also equipment for those who want to be alive. The literary imagination, the novel, the stanza can give life to the dead, breathe fresh air into those desires that no longer find expression in our everyday lives. One such desire—the desire for politics, the hope and possibilities of action, the drama of commitment—has softened its pulse in recent decades. The events, now three years old, in a small and then mostly unknown Manhattan park reminded us there was still a heartbeat. The novel can test its strength.
David Marcus is co-editor of Dissent.
* I am much indebted to Shattuck’s classic essay “Having Congress.” The two Congresses have been written about in exhaustive detail elsewhere but with very little of Shattuck’s serrated sense of humor.