Tuesday, 19 June 2012

`Partisans': Bright Women, Painful Compromises - another review that lays bare the non-conspiracy of silence!

Maybe Laskin's book, and the two reviews of Partisans in the NYT re-published here, say something revealing about the ongoing depoliticization of  American culture. It's as if the 21st century cultural paradigm for right-wing western media  is to marginalize our revolutionary history to the point of non-existence. The reality is that, whatever their compromises, bad relationships, chaotic personal lives, political blind spots and wrong decisions, Partisan Review carried the American dissident torch from the wobblies to civil rights, from suffragettes to women's liberation, from anti-fascism/stalinism to Occupy.
Partisan Review was the first to publish 'Towards a Free Revolutionary Art': 

 TOWARDS A FREE Revolutionary Art was completed on 25 July 1938 and published in the autumn edition of the Partisan Review over the signatures of Diego Rivera and André Breton. It is reprinted in the collection of Trotsky’s writings, Art and Revolution. In La Clé des Champs (Free Rein), published in1953, Breton explains that Trotsky was the main contributor.
The wide-ranging manifesto – which is a little shorter than this article – outlined the crisis facing civilisation, not only the approaching world war but generally. Against this backdrop, the position of artists and scientists was practically intolerable as they were shackled to the requirements of the various ruling classes and elites. The regimes of Adolf Hitler and Stalin received specific attention.
However, the manifesto opposed the abstract idea that art could somehow be neutral in a class-based society. ‘Neutrality’, in fact, would mean the continuation of the status quo. In other words, the retention of capitalism (a class-based society) or Stalinism (an increasingly unequal and dictatorial system based on a nationalised, planned economy): "… true art is unable not to be revolutionary, not to aspire to a complete and radical reconstruction of society. This it must do, were it only to deliver intellectual creation from the chains which bind it, and to allow all mankind to raise itself to those heights which only isolated geniuses have achieved in the past. We recognise that only the social revolution can sweep clean the path for a new culture. If, however, we reject all solidarity with the bureaucracy now in control of the Soviet Union, it is precisely because, in our eyes, it represents, not communism, but its most treacherous and dangerous enemy".
The manifesto explained the role artists could play in exposing the real nature of these systems. It rejected controls on artistic expression: "In the realm of artistic creation, the imagination must escape from all constraint and must under no pretext allow itself to be placed under bonds… and we repeat our deliberate intentions of standing by the formula, complete freedom for art".

January 17, 2000


`Partisans': Bright Women, Painful Compromises


Marriage, Politics and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals.
By David Laskin.
Illustrated. 319 pages. Simon & Schuster. $26.

Despite the impression that might be created by the subtitle of David Laskin's "Partisans: Marriage, Politics and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals," the book is not purely gossip about the people who formed concentric circles around Partisan Review, the magazine that began in 1934 as an organ of the Communist John Reed Clubs and was revived in 1937 to combine anti-Stalinist Marxism with the cause of literary modernism.This group, as identified on the book's dust jacket, comprises Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, Philip Rahv, Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford, Elizabeth Hardwick, Hannah Arendt, Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon and Diana Trilling.
Mr. Laskin, who wrote "A Common Life: Four Generations of American Literary Friendship and Influence," among other books, has a theory about these people. By partisans he mainly means the women, who "had more power, access, success and recognition than any group of women had enjoyed before." Not only did they represent "the last generation before feminism," he writes, but "they refused to see the point of feminism."
As they conducted their lives, these women endorsed a traditional form of marriage whose ideal was that the man's work came first and that the woman was responsible for the home. If she wanted to write, she did the housework first and then set about distinguishing herself. The "partisans" he examines succeeded brilliantly, he argues, but for doing so they paid "a very high price, for beneath the seeming complacency, the chumminess, the unself-consciousness of relations between the sexes there was often violence, rage, wild frustration, despair and self-destruction."
Yet in proving this thesis Mr. Laskin is less analytical than descriptive. And the stories he tells are often gossipy and harrowing. The backbone of his narrative consists of four marriages: two of McCarthy's, first to Rahv, the founding co-editor of Partisan Review, and then, in an act of what Mr. Laskin calls "literary social climbing," to Wilson, America's pre-eminent man of letters; and two of Lowell's, first to Stafford, the novelist and short-story writer, then to Ms. Hardwick, the essayist and critic.
Diverging from this are discussions of three other couples: Tate and Gordon, Southerners connected to the Partisan Review crowd by friendship and literary rivalry; Arendt and Heinrich Blücher, refugees who arrived in New York from Europe in 1941; and Diana and Lionel Trilling, Mrs. Trilling being the only woman mentioned in "Partisans" to have taken her husband's surname.
Much was written and published by everyone in these marriages. As Mr. Laskin writes: "They lived the 'life of significant contention,' in Diana Trilling's rather high-toned phrase, and they lived it together. They lived it most passionately, most tellingly in their marriages." But what mainly emerges from his narrative is, in his words, the "bad choices, wrong turns, betrayals, lies, drunken shouting matches, slapped faces, hideous divorces" and, he might have added, extramarital affairs, visits to psychotherapists, stays in mental hospitals and aborted careers.
The point that emerges most prominently is the suffering of the women. To make it in a man's world and have a man, too, McCarthy had eventually to find husbands who were not writers. Stafford saw her career and life destroyed; Ms. Hardwick had to compromise her output; Arendt had to suffer her husband's cheating on her; and Trilling had to subordinate her career to her husband's.
The question remains whether what they accomplished was worth their suffering. Mr. Laskin celebrates the worth of their writing, but can it really be compared with the best of what the men produced? Will McCarthy's and Stafford's fiction endure as long as the poetry of Lowell and Tate? Can even the strongest of Ms. Hardwick's criticism stand up to Wilson's work? One tends to doubt it.
As for what all of them had in common, namely the Partisan Review that for 25 years reigned as New York's most influential intellectual journal, even its power did not endure. Mr. Laskin points out that it failed to understand what Hitler was up to, that it misunderstood the countercultural revolution of the 1960's, and that it never had any sympathy for the feminist movement. Most of all the women disdained "women's lib." By the early 1960's the magazine's cultural moment was past.
So Mr. Laskin's celebration of his partisans sounds slightly hollow, and his eventual despair over them seems exaggerated. As he quotes one younger member of the group: "Thank heaven their political influence is gone -- what little they had. They didn't know any more about politics than anyone else. What they knew from reading books did not equip them to deal with large public questions. Having read Keats carefully doesn't qualify you for anything."
Least of all leading fully self-respecting lives, apparently.