Illusion and Reality, Christopher Caudwell 1937
We have reached the birth of religions. This collective phantasy of poetry which passes into the individual life of each because it is secreted in the web of society, again emerges (as that web is differentiated out by division of labour) in the form of an elaborate outgrowth, a world of religion separate from the material world of terrestrial life.
Poetry is the nascent self-consciousness of man, not as an individual but as sharer with others of a whole world of common emotion. This emotion, because it is common, has for each individual an objective, and therefore pseudo-external existence. This social objectivity is confused by primitive man with material objectivity, so that the phantastic world, because it is presented to the individual “from outside” by outside manipulation, is confused with the material world against he bumps himself. Other men confirm by their actions the objectivity of a material world; similarly they seem to confirm a like reality for the phantastic world whose sanctions they recognise.
Man’s emotions are fluid and confusing. They are projected onto the outside world in animism, orondism and mana at his primitive stage of culture, not because he is one with his environment, but because he has consciously separated himself from it in order to seek his desires in it by hunting or crop gathering. Because the environment is already something consciously distinct from himself, he is concerned with locating “things” out there or in himself. Because these collective emotions, unlike a pain or a wound but like a sunset or a thunder-storm, are manifestly experienced by all, they gain the sanction of objectivity and therefore of material reality and are located “out there,” in the object which arouses them. Man enters into nature: nature becomes “animated” – endowed with man’s subjective soul.
What in fact is this emotional complex of tribal poetry? Is it material reality or completely ideal illusion? It is neither. It is a social reality. It expresses the social relation of man’s instincts to the ungathered fruit. These instincts have generated these emotions just because they have not blindly followed the necessities of the germ plasm, but have been moulded by the objective necessities of collective action to a common economic end. The phantasy of poetry is a social image.
Therefore the phantastic world of poetic ritual, myth or drama expresses a social truth, a truth about the instincts of man as they fare, not in biological or individual experience, but in associated experience. Such truths are necessarily phrased therefore in the language of the emotions. A pianola roll is pierced with holes. Those holes are real concrete entities. But they are not the music. The music is what happens when it is played. The poem is what happens when it is read.
Hence tribal poetry, and that part of religion from which it is at first indistinguishable, is man’s confused knowledge of society and of his relation to it.
And magic? Man, conscious of his personal emotions; locates the irregularity in the object which stimulates them, because such conscious affects as terror and desire are due to the common experience of a tribe, are impressions common to all individuals of the tribe in relation to certain things. The emotion then seems located in these things and, because of its immediate vividness, seems the soul, the essential reality of these things. Force, the kin-aesthetic sensation of muscular effort, even up to a late date dominated the thought of science, and yet expresses this primitive animistic way of regarding nature.
Man’s emotions are also in him. They therefore seem under his control. They therefore seem to be the means whereby he can dominate reality – through the emotional essence of things. He, the individual, can dominate reality by his will. By evoking – through charms, ceremonies and sympathetic magic – the emotions proper to the achieved act, he believes the act accomplished. It seems to him that he can control outer reality returning into himself. So indeed he can, but only if this thought is scientific thought and, acting as a guide to action, returns out again to grapple with reality.
Because society stands as environment to individual man, and as associated man to the environment, magic and religion overlap, and blend more closely in a primitive economy, where society is only slightly developed and is therefore a thin blanket between the individual and outer reality.
Magic gives birth to science, for magic commands outer reality to conform to certain laws, and reality refuses, so that knowledge of the stubborn nature of reality is impressed on the magician. He does not try to walk upon the water with spells or if he does, the spells fail. Rainmakers are not found in the desert, but in regions where rain sometimes comes. No magician makes spells for a winter harvest. Thus certain stubbornnesses in reality for which stronger spells are needed are gradually recognised; and so it becomes accepted that certain laws can only be overridden by mighty forces – by gods, by Fate, and eventually Fate dissolves into that very decree that these forces may not be overborne by anyone. Even Jove is subject to Fate. Fate is law. Magic has turned into its opposite, scientific determinism.
In proportion as man, by the development of economics, discovers more and more of the nature of reality, magic sets itself bolder and more elaborate tasks, and more and more is corrected by experience. It proposes to man phantastic possibilities, which man realises. But he does not realise them by magic. Without the absurd ambitions of the shaman and the impossible hopes of the alchemist, the modern chemistry which fulfils them would not be. Always the magician is defeated by “fate,” by the inexorable determinism of things, and it is precisely when he has become conscious of that determinism and magic has turned into science, that he is able to do in reality the things magic only feigned. Illusion thus plays into the hands of reality. Magic, promising freedom by the blind pressure of the affects, is realised when the emotional content vanishes, when the magician’s eyes are opened, and he becomes conscious of the passionless causality of reality.
Magic can only exist, as a confused perception of outer reality, because man is himself confused about his relations with it. He has not distinguished himself from his environment – subjective affects are confused with objective qualities. How does he clear up this confusion? Not by mere contemplation, refusing to handle the pitch lest he become soiled. He separates himself consciously from his environment struggling with it and actively interpenetrating it, in the course of the development of economic life. When man has grasped the nature of outer reality by his constant struggle with it in economic production, then he understands clearly the distinction between environment and self, because he understands their unity. He learns that man, as a machine, is subject also to necessity, and that the universe, as a process, is the theatre of free development.
How can we separate religion from poetry in the childhood of the race? Both have an economic function and a social content.
We can distinguish them because we find in poetry, in all ages, a characteristic we do not find in religion the more and more clearly it emerges as “true” religion. Poetry is productive and changeful. The poetry of one age does not satisfy the next age, but each new generation (while appreciating the old poetry) demands poems which more peculiarly and specially express its own problems and aspirations. Thus we have the constant generation of a mass of songs, stories, myths, epics, novels, as a peculiarity of poetic life, which reveals art as something organic and changeful, a flower on the social plant developing and growing with the plant as a whole, because it sucks the same sap, and performs an office that benefits the whole plant.
This incessant change of poetic art is only possible because the appreciator accepts the illusion as illusory. He accepts the phantasy as expressing objective reality while immersed in the phantasy, but, once the phantasy is over, he does not demand that it be still treated as part of the real world. He does not demand a correspondence of all stories and all poetic statements as he demands a correspondence between the experiences of what he calls his real life.
The world may be fairyland in one story, hell in another. Helen may be seized by Paris in one epic, in another she may elude him and the an honoured death in Egypt. Because of this the poet and his hearer are not faced with the problem of integrating the mock worlds of poetry with the real world of everyday existence on the basis of the logical laws of thought which by no means implies that no integration of any kind takes place. But the poem or novel is accepted as an illusion. We give to the statements of poetic art only a qualified assent, and therefore reality has no vested interest in them. Because of this there is no barrier to the fluent production which is the life of art in all ages.
This too is the characteristic of religion, but only in the early stage, when it is still merged with poetry. Religion is then mythology and shows all the spontaneous inventiveness and recklessness of self-contradiction which is characteristic of mythology.
Why does mythology show this organic characteristic? Because it is organic. Because it is still organically connected with society, penetrating every pore. Native races who see an aeroplane presently have a great white bird figuring in their mythology. Early Christianity shows the same insurgent proliferation of mythology so characteristic of art.
A new form of religion begins when the mythologising era ends. The mythology is taken over, but it ossifies. Religion has become “true” religion.
It is plain that mythology, because of the contradictions it contains, can gain only a special kind of consent from the primitive. It demands from him assent to the illogical. So far Lévy-Bruhl is correct. But this same illogical assent is given by twentieth-century man to the productions of poetry and literary art. Hamlet lives for him. So do the Furies. So does the Inferno. Yet he does not believe in an after-existence in hell or in personal agents of retribution.
True, the assent is not of the same strength with twentieth-century man. The gods live for the primitive in the collective festival and the collective emotion. Because so little division of labour exists, because society is still so undifferentiated, the collective world of emotion in which the gods live penetrates every hour of the individual’s life. Not so with the worlds of the theatre or the novel, which segregate themselves from the more complex social life of men. The world of twentieth century art is more withdrawn – so much so that philosophers continually conceive of it as entirely separate, and advance “purely” aesthetic criteria – art for art’s sake.
But though the strength of the assent differs, the quality is the same. The world of literary art is the world of tribal mythology become sophisticated and complex and self-conscious because man, in his struggle with Nature, has drawn away from her, and laid bare her mechanism and his own by a mutual reflexive action. Mythology with its ritual, and art with its performances, have similar functions – the adaptation of man’s emotions to the necessities of social co-operation. Both embody a confused perception of society, but an accurate feeling of society. Mythology, it is true, has other functions. But we are concerned here with the poetic content of mythology, which afterwards separates itself out as a distinct sphere.
Because mythology so interpenetrates the daily life of the primitive, it demands no overt, formal assent. No Holy Inquisition rams it down people’s throats, because in the collective festival it rises vividly from their hearts. Therefore it is flexible. It yields and changes as the tribe’s relation to the environment or itself changes. The incursion of an aeroplane or a conqueror produces a corresponding adaptation of the collective mind by a recasting of the always fluid mythology. Hence mythology has a “self-righting” tendency; it remains on the whole true; it reflects accurately the collective emotional life of the tribe in its relations with the environment to the degree in which the tribe’s own interpenetration of its environment in economic production makes accuracy possible.
Why does the age of mythology as a real organic growth give place to the age of dogma and “true” religion when, because the mythology must now be accepted as true, it ceases to reflect the continual movement of reality and tends become ossified and dead? Mythology ceases to grow and to change and contradict itself, and is set up as something rigid and absolutely true. Faith, a virtue unknown to the primitive, is necessary for its acceptance. Faith was not necessary to the primitive because of his simple direct experience in the world of collective emotion. Faith is not necessary to the novel-reader, because of his immediate direct experience in the world of art. Faith becomes necessary when mythology ossifies into “true” religion. Faith and dogma are the signs of lack of faith and suspicion of doctrine. They show that mythology has in some way separated itself from society.
How has this come about? Only because society has separated itself from itself; because the matrix of religion has become only a part of society, standing in antagonism to the rest of society. Because of this, religion becomes isolated from the rest of society. “True” religion marks the emergence of economic classes in society. The end of mythology as a developing thing is the end of undifferentiated tribal life.
Marx has explained how the division of labour demands a class of overseers, village headmen, managers of irrigation works, etc., whose supervision, as differentiation proceeds, gradually passes from administration of the social means of production to that special right or privilege known as ownership of them. The emergence of the ownership of the means of production, as an absolute right, distinct from elective administration, of them at society’s behest, marks a definite stage in the development of society, the stage of class society. These class divisions rend society in twain, and yet are the only means by which society can pass to higher stages of productive development until a stage is reached generating a class whose economic circumstances enable it to end classes.
The special rôle of the members of the ruling class as supervisors gives them the means of directing into their own lives all the goods produced by society, save for those needed to ensure the continued existence of the exploited class. Originally chosen as supervisors for “intellectual” ability, their rôle, even when it becomes an absolute right and is therefore independent of mental capacity, yet demands primarily mental work, just as the working of the means of production demands primarily manual work. At the same time the privileged conditions and leisure afforded by consumption of the lion’s share of the social product encourages the cultivation of thought and culture among this class, while the hard-driven and beastly condition of the other class discourages this culture.
This rapidly generates a position of increasing instability, like that which causes “critical” vibration in engineering and in the world of Nature produces in certain species a flare-up of unfavourable adaptations – enormous crests, huge hides, colossal tails and huge protuberances. Like a snowball, the organism increases its own impetus to disaster.
In the same way, once the formation of classes due to division of labour passes a certain stage, the process of cleavage is accelerated. The differentiation of the classes produces on the one hand an exploiting class more and more isolated from reality, more and more concerned with thought, with pleasure, with culture, and on the other hand an exploited class more and more isolated from thought, more and more laborious, more and more subject to circumstances.
This specialisation of function, at first beneficial, eventually becomes pathological. Thought originally separated itself from action, but it only develops by continually returning upon action. It separated from action to guide it. Once from supervisors and leaders the exploiting class turn to mere enjoyers and parasites, thought has finally separated itself from material reality, and ossifies in a barren formalism or scholasticism. And once from partners and fellow-tribesmen the exploited class turns to mere slaves, action has finally separated itself from thought and becomes blind mechanism This is reflected in the life of society as a whole by the decay of culture, science and art in formalism and Alexandrine futility, and the decay of economic production in inefficiency and anarchy. Egypt, China, India, the declining Roman Empire, are all examples of this degeneration.
This division of the undifferentiated tribe into a class of supervisors who exercise thought, and a class of workers who only work, is reflected by a similar dichotomy in religion and art. Religion and art cease to be the collective product of the tribe, and become the product of the ruling class who impose religion just as they impose on art.
A tribe does not give orders to its members to work; their work naturally arises from the collective functioning of the group as a whole, under the pressure of tradition and religion whose genesis we have already examined. Any problem or job can only be solved according to the interests of the tribe as a whole because the tribe is a whole. But when interests are divided, the ruling class orders the ruled. The relation is now coercive.
In the same way religion becomes dogma. As the class society forms, religion, which continues to function as a confused perception of society, produces a new and more elaborate world of phantasy but one now with a class structure. There is a supreme god in a monarchical society, or family of gods in an autocracy, or a pantheon in a state such as Egypt formed by the syncresis of various developed class units already godded. There are heavenly peers, scribes, priests and captains, corresponding to the division of the earthly ruling class.
Meanwhile the unequal division of goods and the opposed class interests have created an antagonism which divides society. There are outbreaks, rebellions and revolts which must be crushed. Absolute ownership of the means of production, not being thrown up as a natural response to the task confronting the tribe as a whole, is arbitrary, and depends therefore intimately on violence. It is not made necessary by things and is therefore enforced by men. In the same way class religion, no longer expressing the collective adaptation of society, must equally arbitrary. It becomes dogma. A challenge to it is a challenge to the State. Heresy is a civil crime.
The ruling class now seems to dispose of all social labour. With a highly-developed agricultural civilisation a god-king is formed at the top of the pyramid, and he seems to wield all social power. The slave by himself seems very small compared with the might of social labour wielded by the god-king. In association the slave wields a tremendous power, the power of building pyramids. But this power does not seem to the slave to be his; it seems to belong to the god-king who directs it. Hence the slave humiliates himself before his own collective power; he deifies the god-king and holds the whole ruling class as sacred. This alienation of self is only a reflection of the alienation of property which has produced it. The slave’s humility is the badge not merely of his slavery, but of the power of a society developed to a stage where slavery exists and yields a mighty social power. This power is expressed at the opposite pole to the slave by the divine magnificence of the god-kings of Egypt, China, Japan, and the Sumerian, Babylonian and Accadian city-states. In a syncretic empire like that of Rome, other religions can exist beneath the State cult of the worship of the Emperor. These local cults express local forms of exploitation on which Imperialist exploitation has been imposed, and only a challenge to the god-Emperor is a challenge to Imperial exploitation and therefore a crime in Roman law. As Marx, studying the phenomenon of religion, had perceived as early as 1844: “This State, this society, produces religion – an inverted consciousness of the world – because the world is itself an inverted world. Of this world Religion is the general theory, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its general consolation and justification. It is the phantastic realisation of man, because man possesses no true realisation. .... Religious misery is at once the expression of real misery and a protest against that real misery."
As society, increasingly rent by this class division, enters on a period of failing economy like that of the declining Roman Empire, the goods produced become less and the share-out more and more coercive. Therefore religion too becomes more and more coercive, more rigid, more tremblingly alive to heresy.
At first the ruling class believes its religion, for differentiation from a primitive mythology has only just taken place. It endeavours therefore to appropriate for itself all the goods of religion, as it is already doing those of society. The best seats in Heaven are taken, or – as with the early rulers of Egypt and the aristocracy of Greece – the Elysian fields are monopolised by them. But as this ruling class is challenged by a restive exploited class, the exploiting class appeases it by sharing with it its own spiritual goods, for these, unlike material goods, do not grow less for being shared. Hence in Egypt immortality was gradually extended even to slaves; and mystery religions, in the decaying Empire, offered to the meanest the deification at first peculiar to the god-Emperor. Thus the increasing misery of the exploited class is reflected in the increasing loveliness of its after-life, provided it leads the good life – i.e. one obedient to its employers. The harvest of phantasy, which in tribal life is always eventually reaped, is for the majority in a class society postponed to a phantastic after-life, because the real harvest also is not consumed by the majority.
This increasing consciousness of the function of religion leads to scepticism on the part of the ruling class itself, which coercively enforces a religion it no longer believes in, and itself takes refuge in an elegant idealism or esoteric philosophy.
Beneath the official religion, which can no more be changed than the system of productive relations which has generated it, lurks a whole undergrowth of “superstition” and “legend.” This “superstition” is simply the mythology of the people, playing its old collective rôle, but now regarded as something vulgar and ungentlemanly by the ruling class. This superstition itself bears signs that, although collective, its collectiveness is the emasculated homogeneity of an emasculated class. It has a childishness and servility which distinguishes it from the barbarian simplicity of the creations of an undivided society. Sometimes tolerated, sometimes condemned, this superstition shows the adaptive powers of mythology, but it is now an adaptation to the rôle of an exploited class and is tainted with the idiocy of exploitation. It is full of luck and gold and magic meals and lucky sons – all the fortune this class so conspicuously lacks. But it is genuine, and believed without the need for Faith, precisely because it is not coercively enforced but is the spontaneous production of a collective spirit, and, if not of an undivided society, at least of an undivided class. It is the poetry of religion at a time when religion itself ceases to be poetic. It is the art of the oppressed. Though it fulfils the function of poetry adapting man’s instincts to social life, it cannot be great poetry, for it is no lie that great poetry can only be written by the free. This moves within the boundaries of wish-fulfilment. Its creators poetry have too little spontaneity in their life to be greatly conscious of necessity. It is not therefore ever tragic poetry.
Tribal mythology was free and poetic because the undifferentiated economy of the tribe made its members’ actions relatively free. This freedom was true freedom – the consciousness of necessity. The job demanded evidently such actions, and they were done spontaneously – by the individual’s consciousness of their necessity. Of course this freedom is only relative. It reflects the limited consciousness produced by a limited economy. The divisions of class society were necessary to break the soil for a deeper consciousness and a higher freedom. But still primitive freedom is freedom – such freedom as human society in that stage can know, a stage where, because the economy is undifferentiated, the limited freedom, like the limited product, is at least equally shared by all. Poetry or poetic mythology, fluid and spontaneous, grows such in such soil.
In a class society the workers do their tasks blindly as they are told by supervisors. They build pyramids but each contributes a stone; only the rulers know a pyramid is being built. The scale of the undertakings makes possible a greater consciousness of reality, but this consciousness all gathers at the pole of the ruling class. The ruled obey blindly and are unfree.
The rulers are free in the measure of their consciousness. Therefore the exercise of art becomes more and more their exclusive prerogative, reflecting their aspirations and desires. Religion is ossified by the need of maintaining a class right and therefore art now separates itself from religion. Moreover, religion is already disbelieved by the ruling class because of its openly exploitive character. The ossification of religion and the growth of scepticism in a class society is therefore always accompanied by a flourishing of art, the art of the free ruling class, an art which sucks into itself all the fluid, changeful and adaptive characteristics of primitive religion. Religion is now primarily an expression of class coercion, an expression of real misery and a protest against that real misery, while art is now the emotional expression of the ruling class. Sophisticated art of the exploiters sets itself up against the fairy tale and folk art of the exploited. Both flourish for a time side by side.
This stage itself is only transitory. For as the ruling class becomes more and more parasitic, and delegates increasingly its work of supervision, it itself becomes less free. It repeats formally the old consciousness of yesterday, yet the reality it expressed has changed. The class is no longer truly conscious of reality, because it no longer holds the reins, whose pressure an its hands guided it. The exercise of art, like the exercise of supervision, becomes a mechanical repetition by stewards and servants of the forms, functions and operations of the past. Art perishes in a Byzantine formality or an academic conventionality little better than religious dogma. Science becomes mere pedantry – little better than magic. The ruling class has become blind and therefore unfree. Poetry grows in no such soil.
The exploited class too, as this occurs, become more exploited and more miserable. The decay of economy, due to the decay of the ruling class, produces a sharper and more bitter exploitation. The cleavage between the rulers and the ruled makes the life of the ruled more mechanical and slavish, and unfree. A peasant or small landholder economy changes to an economy of overlords and serfs. To produce even “folk” art and “superstition” a limited spontaneity is necessary. Unlike a class of nomads, smallholders or burghers, a class of slaves has no art. The still essential function of adaptation is now performed for men’s minds by a religion whose fixed dogmatism and superstitious faith expresses the lack of spontaneity of the ruled and their diminished consciousness.
Such collapses are not necessarily complete, for between the ruling class and the class which bears the brunt of the exploitation, other classes may develop, in turn to become the ruling class as a result of a revolution. Ossified religions are challenged by heresies which succeed precisely because they express the interests of another class formed secretly by the development of economy and soon to supersede the old. Such heresies are fought as what they are – a challenge to the very existence of the ruling class.
Poetry, then, cannot be separated from the society whose specifically human activity secretes it. Human activity is based on the instinctive. But those forms of human activity which are most changeful and least dependent on instinct are highest and most human. These activities, because they are based on the inheritance from generation to generation of developing forms and systems which are real and material and yet are not environmental in the biological sense, mould in a different way each generation, which is not however mere clay for its is own inner activity drives on the movement of the external system. This contradiction between individual or natural man, and associated or civilised man, is what makes poetry necessary, and gives it its meaning and its truth. Poetry is a productive or economic activity of man. To separate it from this foundation makes its development impossible to understand.
How far do men’s own estimates of the function of poetry at various times agree with our analysis? It has been generally realised by poets such as Milton, Keats, Shelley or Wordsworth that the poet as “seer,” “prophet” or “teacher” had a social function of importance. This was not expressed precisely but in a metaphorical way, a poetic way, in which the resounding magnitude of the claims concealed a certain vagueness and poverty of social insight. Indeed the conditions of bourgeois economy – under which poetry tends, like everything else hitherto thought sacred, to become a commodity, and the poet, hitherto thought inspired, tends to become a producer for the anonymous free market – these conditions make it almost impossible for any critic who remains within the categories of bourgeois thought to penetrate the idealistic veils with which poetry in the modern era has concealed her commercialised shame.
Yet it is impossible to appeal to primitive self-appraisernent, for literary criticism cannot exist among the unself-conscious primitives – the undifferentiated state of their society makes it unnecessary. The criticism is direct and dumb and efficacious – the valuation of the poet is expressed by the place he is voluntarily accorded in tribal society, the valuation of the poems by their repetition and survival.
In Athens of the fifth century B.C. a society had emerged which, although it was still sufficiently near to primitive society to be conscious of the social function of poetry, was also sufficiently differentiated to be able to separate poetry off as a distinct “sphere” of culture. Poet as producer is not yet a trade, because Athens is not a capitalistic town engaged chiefly in commodity production. It is a port, a centre of exchange. The vending of poems is therefore a trade – the trade of rhapsodist or paid reciter.
It is a society in ferment, in revolution. The developing commerce of the Aegean is producing a class of merchants and slave-owners who are displacing the old land-owning aristocracy. In Athens already the qualifications for rule have ceased to be based on land, and are now based on money income; and this brings it in sharp opposition to Sparta. From a market town and residence of nobles which was a mere appendage of the estates of Attica, Athens has become a town in its own right, a centre of merchants and artisans. This is regarded by the Hellenes as a change from an “oligarchy” to a “democracy.” As in later transitions of the same kind, it has taken place through a transitional period of strong, centralised government or “tyranny” like the Tudor monarchy. The “democracy” of course is extremely qualified – it is a democracy of men of property. The proletariat has no franchise.
Unlike a somewhat similar stage in medieval economy – the transition from feudalism to capitalism – this is not a class struggle which ends with the clear victory of the revolutionary class, but rather with the “mutual ruin of the contending classes.” The struggle between the oligarchs and the democrats, between Athens and Sparta, tears Greece to fragments. It is a struggle between town and country, between slave latifundia and slave-town. Because it remains within the categories of slave-owning, it is incapable of a final solution. No decisive stroke is possible such as the freeing of the tied serfs which provides the basis of the bourgeois revolution. Neither class can completely undermine the foundations of the other, for both are based on slavery, and slavery of a similar character.
Culture is still sufficiently undifferentiated for one man to survey the whole, and Plato and Aristotle stand out as philosophers surveying the whole field of culture, including that of literary art. Both were fortunate in that they were born before the class struggle was reaching its final sterile issue in Greece. There had recently been an alliance between the classes against the common enemy, Persia, and the alliance was still dynamic and creative. Plato, spokesman of the oligarchic class, reacts creatively upon Aristotle, who voices the aims and aspirations of the newer class, more tough-minded, more practical, more in touch with reality. It was no accident that Aristotle of Stagira had been so closely allied with Philip and Alexander, for if at last his class were to score a more solid triumph, and to emerge somewhere as conquerors, it was only by bursting the confines of the city and ruling beyond the bounds of Greece in the Hellenistic empires of Alexander’s heirs.
Aristotle clearly sees the primitive distinction between private and public speech, between non-rhythmical and rhythmical language, between individual persuasion and collective emotion. Indeed to a Greek of that time the distinction appeared so self-evident and practical that it needed no explanation. On the one hand was the great instrument of Rhetoric whereby an individual swayed his fellow men; on the other hand the world of Poetics wherein men were collectively moved to emotion. Aristotle writes about both like a man writing a text-book on a useful and important human activity.
Aristotle’s view of Rhetoric is simply this – the art of Persuasion. But he makes it clear that he has chiefly in mind the obvious and impressive public occasions where the art of persuasion is needed – in the law courts and the political assemblies. This conception of Rhetoric as individual speech used for formal “public” occasions, must be distinguished from the publicity of poetry. It is the publicity of State occasions where State is distinguished from society. Both are one in primitive life, but the class development of Athens has already separated the city from men. The occasions when men use the State machinery and State occasions to persuade others are by Aristotle considered as separate from the occasions when one man speaks to others to persuade them about the normal incidents of daily life. The development of classes has made the city a “tamer of men,” something already towering above society as a structure separate and imposed on it, a view which was to reach its zenith with the Hegelian conception of the absolute State. But it is already implicit in Socrates’ refusal to flee the city’s judgment of death. In this refusal, Socrates forecasts that the class struggle was doomed to destroy Greece, because the city could not generate a class or even one man able to look beyond the city.
Aristotle’s treatment of Poetics requires a more detailed consideration. He deals with a primitive poetry already in process of differentiation in odes, dramas, epics and love poetry, and already distinct from rhetoric; and he therefore looks for a characteristic common to poetic creations which will distinguish them as a species from the non-poetic. An obvious characteristic of poetry to the Greeks was that it told some sort of story. It made some statement about the ways of gods or men or the emotions of the Poet which, even though it was not true, seemed true. The epic is a false history, and the drama a feigned action. Even in love poetry the poet may justly say “I die for love of Chloe” when no Chloe exists. The essence of poetry therefore seemed to the Greeks to be illusion, a conscious illusion.
To Plato this feature of the poet’s art appeared so deplorable that he would not admit poets to his Republic, or at least only if their productions were strictly censored. Such reactionary or Fascist philosophies as Plato’s are always accompanied by a denial of culture, particularly contemporary culture, and Plato’s contemporary culture was pre-eminently poetic. He therefore hates poetry as a philosopher even though he is charmed by it as a man. In a revolutionary period culture expresses the aspirations of the revolution or the doubts of the dispossessed. The philosophers of the dispossessed regard both the aspirations and the doubts as “dangerous,” or “corrupt,” and want a culture which shores up their rottenness. Such a culture idealises the past in which they were strong. This ideal past does not bear much likeness to the real past, for it is one carefully arranged so that, unlike the real past, it will not again generate the present. For Plato this past is idealised in his Republic, ruled by aristocrats and practising a primitive communism which is the way Plato hopes to undermine the trade by which the rival class has come to power.
The Greeks reasoned that poetry was designed to create an illusion. Evidently then the poet made something which created the illusion, even if the something was fabulous. He made stories actually on the stage or, as in the Homeric cycle, a history more real than the transactions of the market-place, the reallest thing in the collective life of the Hellenes. This creation the Greeks took to be the special mark of the poet. The very name etymologica lly was derived from “making,” just as was the Anglo-Saxon word for poet – makar:
To build from matter is sublimely great,
But only gods and poets can create.
However, the Greeks did not suppose that a poet could create something out of nothing by words, which are only symbols of reality. They considered the poet created an artificial imitation of reality, a mimesis. For Plato the Poet is essentially a man who mimics the creations of life in order to deceive his hearers with a shadow-world. In this the Poet is like the Deimrge, who mocks human dwellers in the cavern of life with shadows of reality.
This theory of mimesis gives Aristotle the specific mark to differentiate between the class of rhetoric and the class of poetry. Though it is, to our modern minds, imperfect as a distinction, owing to the differentiation which has taken place In literature since then, it was an adequate distinction in Aristotle’s day.
We separate poetry from the novel and drama; he did not. But the categories of literature are not eternal, any more than the classifications of systematic biology; both must change as the objects of systematisation evolve and alter as the number and characteristics of their species. Culture changes faster than species, and cultural criticism must be correspondingly flexible. Aristotle’s theory of mimesis, as our analysis will show, so far from being superficial, is fundamental for an understanding of the function and method of art.
Aristotle, with his extraverted mind turned firmly on the object, was more interested in the created thing, e.g. the play – than in the man who was influenced by it or who produced it. Thus his angle of attack is aesthetically correct; he does not approach literature like a psychologist or a psycho-analyst.
Plato, with the more intuitive, introverted mind, is interested in the poet and in his hearer rather than the composition itself. His conception of the productive and receptive states of the poetic mind is primitive, corresponding to the more reactionary character of Plato’s thought, but behind the barbarity is a cultured snigger which is characteristically Platonic. The barbarity rather than the culture makes Plato to some extent a spokesman of the primitive view of the poet’s rôle, at a time when poetry is passing, as a result of the invention of writing, from a collective to a private phase. Plato, belonging to the older world of Athens, is not aware of the change. He does not see that the development of economy makes the poem an object of exchange between cities and people, like Athenian vases. The poem is no longer, as in old Athenian tragedy, rooted in a collective festival where actors and audience are simultaneously plunged into an associated world of art. Nietzsche’s passage from the Dionysian to the Apollonian in art has already taken place as result of the passage of Athens from the primitive to the sophisticated, i.e. the differentiated. Poems are now separate from the body of society, to be enjoyed by individuals or groups separate from society. And the invention of writing, made necessary by the development of economy to a stage where records and messages were essential because records were no longer the collective memory of the tribe and men no longer lived in common, led to written poems, not simply because writing was invented, but because the needs that demanded writing also demanded that poetry be detached from the collective festival and be enjoyed by men alone. With Euripides even drama becomes a closet art. Plato, however, was only conscious of this in a general way, as expressed in his condemnation of books and the art of writing. Plato’s criticisms are like D. H. Lawrence’s, they reach back to the past, to the time of an undifferentiated society and collective emotion. They are correct but useless because the critic is unaware that in what he condemns is a product of a class differentiation rooted in economy. He does not therefore reach forward to a solution of present difficulties, but backwards to a time before those difficulties arose. But one cannot put back the clock of history.
Plato is the most charming, humane and civilised of Fascist philosophers, corresponding to a time before the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War had made reaction murderously bitter. In this respect he is an Athenian Hegel. No reactionary philosopher of to-day could attain Plato’s urbanity and charm. This is Plato’s conception of the poet:
Socrates is speaking to Ion, a rhapsodist:
It is a divine influence which moves you, like that which resides in the stone called Magnet by Euripides, and Heraclea by the people. For not only does this stone possess the power of attracting iron rings, but it can communicate to them the power of attracting other rings; so that you may see sometimes a long chain of rings and other iron substances, attached and suspended one to the other by this influence. And as the power of the stone circulates through all the links of the series, and attaches each to each, so the Muse, communicating through those whom she has first inspired, to all others capable of that first enthusiasm, creates a chain and a succession. For the authors of those great poems which we admire, do not attain to excellence through the rules of any art, but they utter their beautiful melodies of verse in a state of inspiration, and, as it were, possessed by a spirit not their own. Thus the composers of lyrical poetry create those admired songs of theirs a state of divine insanity, like the Corybantes, who lose all control of their reason in the enthusiasm of the sacred dance; and, during this supernatural possession, are excited to the rhythm and harmony which they communicate to men. Like the Bacchantes who, when possessed by the god, draw honey and milk from the rivers, in which when they come to their senses, they find nothing but simple water. For the souls of the poets, as poets tell us, have this peculiar ministration in the world. They tell us that these souls, flying like bees from flower to flower, and wandering over the gardens and the meadows and the honey-flowing fountains of the Muses, return to us laden with the sweetness of melody; and, arrayed as they are in the plumes of rapid imagination, they speak truth. For a poet is indeed a thing ethereally light, winged and sacred, nor can he compose anything worth calling poetry until he becomes inspired, and, as it were, mad, or whilst any reason remains in him. For whilst a man retains any portion of the thing called reason, he is utterly incompetent to produce poetry or to vaticinate. Every rhapsodist or poet, whether dithyrambic, enconiastic, choral, epic or iambic, is excellent in proportion to the extent of his participation in the divine influence, and the degree in which the Muse itself has descended upon him. In other respects, poets may be sufficiently ignorant and incapable. For they do not compose according to any art which they have acquired, but from the impulse of the divinity within them; for did they know any rules of criticism according to which they could compose beautiful verses upon any one subject, they would be able to exert the same faculty in respect to all or any other. The god seems purposely to have deprived all poets, prophets, and soothsayers of every particle of reason and understanding, the better to adapt them to their employment as his ministers and interpreters; and that we, their auditors, may acknowledge that those who write so beautifully, are possessed, and address us inspired by the god.
Here Plato shows poetry to be something different in kind from conscious rhetoric, the art of persuasion, which, according Greek views, could be reduced to rule and learned. But poetry can never be learned, for according to Plato it is not a conscious function, with rules of criticism, but an inpouring of the god, and he is sufficiently near to primitive culture to place the poet beside the prophet and the soothsayer. Moreover, according to Plato’s view this inspiration is not only essential for the poet, but for his reader. The rhapsodist who declaims him, and the auditor who is affected by him, must also be inspired by the god. In other words, not only the writing but also the appreciation of poetry is an unconscious (or irrational) function. To Plato all deception is a form of enchantment. Poets are wizards wielding quasi-religious powers. Plato’s symbol of the magnetised rings well expresses the collective character of primitive poetry. In contrast to Aristotle, Plato the idealist is concerned with the enjoyment rather than the function of poetry.
Aristotle, however, is uninterested in the poet’s mind, and does not concern himself with whether or not the creation and appreciation of poetry is a conscious function. He judges it by results, by poems. He systematises them, analyses them, and reduces them to rule. He finds that mimesis is the distinguishing features of Poetics, and he investigates the rules for producing a convincing and successful mimesis.
Unlike Plato, he goes further. As befits a philosopher who studied the constitutions of existing states, he asks: what is the social function of tragedy?
His answer is well known. Its effect is cathartic – purging. The answer is somewhat enigmatic, once one attempts to go behind it. It is tempting to give to the expression a modern interpretation. It has been suggested, for example, that this is merely the basic therapy of Freudism – therapy by abreaction – in a Greek dress. This is on the one hand an over-refinement of Aristotle, and on the other hand a misunderstanding of what therapy by abreaction actually is. Poetic creations, like other phantasies, may be the vehicle of neurotic conflicts or complexes. But a phantasy is the cloak whereby the “censor” hides the unconscious complex. So far from this process being cathartic, it is the opposite according to Freud’s own principles. To cure the basic complex by abreaction the phantasy must be stripped of its disguise and the infantile and archaic kernel laid bare.
Thus the poetic construct, according to Freud’s own empirical discoveries, cannot represent an abreactive therapy even for poet. But Aristotle visualises tragedy as cathartic for the spectators. Even if the poetic phantasy did have an abreactive effect on the poet, it is impossible that every spectator should have, not only the same complex as the poet, but the same associations, which analysis shows are generally highly personal.
Hence followers of Freud who suggest that Aristotle’s catharsis is the equivalent of Freud’s therapy by abreaction, not only misunderstand Aristotle, but also are imperfectly acquainted with the empirical discoveries on which psycho-analysis rests.
It is best, in fact, not to go behind Aristotle’s simple conception, until we ourselves are clear as to the function of poetry, and can compare Aristotle’s ideas with our own. How Aristotle arrived at his definition is fairly clear. On the one hand he saw tragedy arousing unpleasant emotions in the spectator – fear and anxiety and grief. On the other hand these same spectators went away feeling the better for it, so much so that they returned for more. The emotions, though unpleasant, had done them good. In the same way unpleasant medicaments do people good, and perhaps Aristotle went further, and visualised the tragedy concentrating and driving out of the mind the unpleasant emotions, just as a purge concentrates and drives out of the body the unpleasant humours. This practical attitude towards tragedy is not only, as it seems to me, healthy, and good literary criticism, but essentially Greek. If the tragedy did. not make the Athenians feel better, in spite of its tragedy, it was bad. The tragic Poet who them weep bitterly at the fate of their fellow Hellenes in Persia was fined. A similar imposition suggests itself for our purely sentimental war literature.
This, then, was the intelligent Greek view of literature as the differentiation, carried so far in our own culture, had just begun. On the one hand Rhetoric, the art of persuasion, exercised consciously and appreciated consciously, an art which was simply ordinary conversation hypostatised by the hypostasis of the city-state. On the other hand Poetics, a mimesis whose success in imitating reality can be judged by the poignancy of the emotions roused, just as if the auditors were really concerned in it. Both Plato and Aristotle agree here. But in Plato’s view no rules can be laid down for achieving that poignancy, for both creation and appreciation come from outside the conscious mind. Plato, moreover, sees no social justification for poetry. “The emotions aroused,” retorts Aristotle, “serve a social end, that of catharsis.”
Such a definition of poetry is insufficient in literature to-day, not because the Greeks were wrong but because literature, like society, has changed. If he were systematising literature to-day, Aristotle would see that the criterion of mimesis was insufficient to distinguish the existing species of literature, not because of any weakness in the original definition, but simply because in the course of social evolution new forms of literature had arisen. Mimesis is characteristic also of the modern novel and prose play. What we nowadays agree to call poetry is something apart from both play and novel, for which fresh specific differences must be sought. Our next task is to find them.
But Aristotle’s definition reminds us that we cannot, in studying the sources of poetry, ignore the study of other forms of literature, because there is a time when all literature is poetry. A materialistic approach to culture avoids any such error. We have already seen that there is a time when all religion as well as all literature is poetry. Yet as moderns, as men living in the age of capitalism, our concern must be principally with bourgeois poetry. Our next section therefore will be devoted to a general historical study of the development of modern poetry.
1. Marx, On Hegel’s Philosophy of Law.
2. Ion, translated by Shelley.