Illusion and Reality, Christopher Caudwell 1937


This is a book not only about poetry but also about the sources of poetry. Poetry is written in language and therefore it is a book about the sources of languages. Language is a social product, the instrument whereby men communicate and persuade each other; thus the study of poetry’s sources cannot be separated from the study of society.

It is a common assumption of literary criticism that the sources of literature are irrelevant or unimportant, and that literature can be completely criticised in terms of literature. There was for some time a similar philosophy about the study of nature – the mechanical materialism of d'Holbach, adopted unconsciously by most scientists to-day. It was supposed that matter could be completely described in terms of itself, and since man is made of matter, these terms would describe him also. This philosophy began by divesting matter of all those qualities which have a subjective or mental component – colour, solidity, taste. Mass, size, time and space were regarded as objective material qualities —matter described in terms of itself; until Einstein proved that the observer also entered into the determination of these. Einstein, however, made the same attempt to produce an absolute term, the tensor, which, in its turn, has been shown by the quantum physicists’ Principle of Indeterminacy to depend an the observer. Nothing is left absolute by modern physics but equations – and these are thoughts. Obviously this unexpected outcome of mechanical materialism is not due to the face that it was materialistic, but to the fact that it was not materialistic enough. By giving thoughts and sensuous qualities a purely subjective and fictitious existence, excluded from the reality of matter, the mechanical materialists at once established a field of nonmaterial reality which contradicted the basis of their procedure.

While mechanical materialism was developing the objective or contemplated aspect of matter, idealism was developing its active or subjective side. Idealism became the study of sensuousness, and sensing is an active process. The world as known to man was shown to consist only of sensory qualities – forms, concepts, ideas. At first Kant admitted an unknown thing-in-itself, but Hegel exploded this and left only the idea, not existing in man’s head but out of it – the absolute Idea. Being absolute, it was objective; being objective, it was material. Idealism had become materialism, but because from the start it had excluded objective, contemplated matter it was the rigid, ghostly materialism of Hegel’s Logic, with a self-sufficient structure determined by thought.

This had only come about because in materialism the object had been separated from the subject and regarded contemplatively, while in idealism the subject had certainly been considered actively, but active on a nothing, on mere appearance. Marx’s realisation of this led to the conception of the subject-object relation as an active one – man’s theory as the outcome of practice on the object, sensing as the sensing of something. Theory was seen to be generated by the struggle of man the subject with nature the object.

But this conception could not rest there. For, once it had become plain that the errors of philosophy were due to its abstraction of subject from object, it also became clear that the active subject-object relation was nothing but man living in nature. Not an abstract man in abstract nature, but men as they really live and behave, who must live concretely before they come to speculate abstractly, and whose abstract speculations therefore will bear the marks of their concrete living. Marx saw that the separation of subject in enjoyment and object in contemplation which had occurred in philosophy was the abstract reflection of a similar cleavage in concrete living between the conscious existence of the philosophising class and the unconscious actions of the remainder of society. Theory and practice were sundered in consciousness because they were divided in social reality.

Thus the understanding of concrete living came to appear to Marx as primary to the understanding of the products of concrete living, of which philosophy is one. There is concrete living itself, which includes both theory and practice, and there is the theory of concrete living, which attempts to reduce to theory the concrete relation of theory and practice.

Concrete living is not solid crystal. At any one time men are doing different things and therefore stand in relation to one another. The study of these human relations in a general form is sociology. This sum of human relations is not changeless in time but changes rapidly. The general laws determining the relations of human beings at a given period, and the change of these relations from period to period, form the theory of historical materialism.

Mechanical materialism and idealism are not peculiar to philosophy but are expressed in the science, aesthetics and history of men. If poetry is approached by a mechanical materialist in psychology, it will be regarded as a form of behaviour; if by one in philosophy, as nothing but the gratification of the “aesthetic” sense inherent in matter organised in a human body. The idealist position is generally regarded as a more suitable approach to poetry, which is then explained in terms of the Beautiful, the True or the Good.

It is not very difficult for anyone genuinely interested in art to repel these attacks, although they are often as insidious as they are confused. But the same cleavage of approach is also seen in the methods of those who remain entirely within the province of art and refuse to accept any but “pure” aesthetic considerations.

The mechanical materialists of art regard the art work as the detached object, and attempt to elicit a theory of art from which the subject or artist is excluded, a theory written in terms of the technique or forms of the art. It is supposed that when the devices, technique and “abstract” qualities of the art which can be examined independently of the artist have all been extracted and reduced to theory, art will have been described in its own terms. This is the theory of “formalism,” and it is evident that as a theory it corresponds in aesthetics to mechanical materialism in philosophy. Like these philosophers, the formalists are left at the end with merely subjective realities – with concepts, ideas, schemes and rules.

The idealists of art regard the art work as subjective, as the “feeling” in the mind of the appreciator or artist, and attempt to write a theory of art entirely on this basis. They believe that the aesthetic emotion is ultimately final and “emotionism.”

Not only does this theory correspond to that of the idealists of philosophy, but like theirs it ends in a Phantom materialism. As Ogden’s and Richards’ theories show,[1] ultimately the aesthetic emotion is reduced to coenaesthesia and this in turn is the excitation of certain nerves. Just as formalism becomes “ideas,” emotionism becomes “physiology.”

When Hegel had brought the contradiction to the limit where it was finally resolved on a new plane by Marx, it was still possible for a bastard compromise to arise, the compromise of positivism or phenomenalism. This solved the problem of the subject-object relation by making the relation alone real. Only phenomena existed.

This solution was no solution. Since only appearances exist, there is no reality (such as the mind or matter) which can serve to organise or value appearances and all have equal validity. As the number of appearances is infinite, those organisations of appearances, known as science, theory or truth, are arbitrary and unfounded.

In fact, positivism is always dishonest and from the very start smuggles another reality (usually the mind) into the system in order to organise it and provide some standard of validity. This reality will be concealed under some such name as “convenience” or “probability.” Positivism is thus in fact generally shamefaced idealism or occasionally (in the form of agnosticism) shamefaced materialism. Positivism in philosophy marks a degradation as compared even with Hegelianism, and more so as compared with the real resolution of the problem achieved in dialectical materialism.

Positivism, therefore, also appears in aesthetics as the pure act of enjoyment of the art work, as “art for art’s sake.” Of course this would give absolutely no standard of discrimination between art works or between enjoyments of art works, and, therefore, in fact all aesthetic positivists smuggle in some organising principle, generally emotionist (integration of the personality or reality of the emotion) but occasionally formal (rhythm or “form”).

If well-known English works on aesthetics are examined, it will be found that even those writers who remain purely aesthetic in their approach adopt the emotionist standpoint in one part and then in another part use formalist criteria without any attempt to reconcile the obvious contradictions of the two viewpoints. But it is, in fact, rare to find an English writer on aesthetics who maintains a rigidly aesthetic approach. Generally he imports also, from outside the field of art, considerations which are psychological, historical or even biological in origin, and as some of the considerations may be idealist in their theory (as, for example, psycho-analysis) and others materialist (as, for example, physiology or Darwinian biology), and as these may be mixed with metaphysical theories drawn from sources as far apart and hopelessly in opposition as Descartes, Spinoza, Hegel and even Marx, the result is remarkable. Specialisation is useful; integration is essential; eclecticism, which avoids both, makes the worst of both worlds and is a characteristic feature of modern thought.

As regards this study of poetry, we reject from the outset any limitation to purely aesthetic categories. If anyone wishes to remain entirely in the province of aesthetics, then he should remain either a creator or an appreciator of art works. Only in this limited field is aesthetics “pure.”

But as soon as one passes from the enjoyment or creation of art works to the criticism of art, then it is plain that one passes outside art, that one begins to look at it from “outside.” But what is outside art? Art is the product of society, as the pearl is the product of the oyster, and to stand outside art is to stand inside society. The criticism of art differs from pure enjoyment or creation in that it contains a sociological component. In art criticism, values are ranged and integrated in a perspective or world-view which is a more general view of art from outside. It is an active view, implying an active living relation to art and not a cold contemplation of it, and implying therefore a view of art as active, with an explosive, energetic content. And it is a view of art, not of society or of the mind.

But physics, anthropology, history, biology, philosophy and psychology are also products of society, and therefore a sound sociology would enable the art critic to employ criteria drawn from those fields without falling into eclecticism or confusing art with psychology or politics. There is only one sound sociology which lays bare the general active relation of the ideological products of society with each other and with concrete living – historical materialism. Historical materialism is therefore the basis of this study.

Although the other arts are discussed in their general relation to society, it was thought better to concentrate primarily an one particular art, that of poetry, because its ancient history and somewhat obsolescent appearance to-day raises crucial problems for the student of aesthetics, while, in addition, the fact that it was the art most attractive to the writer gave him a special interest in the task.

1. Cf. Ogden and Richards, Meaning of Meaning, and Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism.