From New International, Vol.4 No.5, May 1938, pp.158-159.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Triple Thinkers
by Edmund Wilson
289 pp. New York. Harcourt Brace and Co. 12.75.
Seven years after Mr. Wilson’s critical chef-d’oeuvre, Axel’s Castle, which describes the curve made by Symobilsm in the arc of literary history, comes The Triple Thinkers, not because another literary curve needs to be plotted, but because the author has accumulated enough essays to make a volume. But before taking up the present book, let us glance at the method of literary criticism employed by Mr. Wilson in Axel’s Castle, for the fatal character of that method is exposed in The Triple Thinkers.
Mr. Wilson regarded Symbolism as the culmination of a series of reactions in aesthetic behavior; it is the question of the reaction of Romanticism against Classicism, of Naturalism against Romanticism, then a sort of reassertion of romantic elements by Symbolism against the previous reassertion of classical elements by Naturalism, and we end up with Symbolism in the way a history text-book would end up with the triumph of the liberal democratic forces with the election of Roosevelt in 1932. It is a matter of observing coherently and persuasively the consequences of struggle between specific dogmas.
This constitutes the criticism of “tendencies” – an historical criticism in which the literary “tendency” is equivalent to the party platform in politics. Symbolism is an aesthetic formulation from which or to which the individual (Joyce, Proust, Eliot, Valery, etc.) may adhere or depart as his personal lights direct him, as Roosevelt’s formulation of liberal democracy as a party platform is modifiable by his personal conception and solution of various particular problems. Therefore Mr. Wilson’s interest in drawing attention to the Symbolist dogma in the deliberate formulations of various individual writers (powerful enough to attract followers and disciples and a large audience of readers) is of a pedantic character – or in the more concrete sense, a pedagogic character. Fundamentally, Axel’s Castle serves as a solid study-base for organizing readers into professional supporters of literature and literary criticism.
What is the case with The Triple Thinkers? Now Mr. Wilson has no recently-born dogma to describe, no believable literary myth to identify and embroider, no widespread group of readers to call into economic-literary line. For he is a qualified specialist and therefore understands the limits of his specialism. This is clear in the final essay of this book: Marxism and Literature, which shows, rather unresourcefully, the failure of Marxism to include the literary tendency by providing an aesthetic formulation. This is something of a platitude by now, so that when Mr. Wilson quotes, with an air of finality, an inferior critic’s observation that Aristotle did not formulate the principles involved in the creation of Euripides’ and Æschylus’ dramas till half a century after they were written, he is decidedly guilty of overstating his case.
It is true that no work of literary genius has arrived which indicates the possibility of a new dogma, a new aesthetic formulation, which is the only thing that gives Mr. Wilson’s “Aristotelian” capacity any work. But since Axel’s Castle is supposed to have familiarized us all with Mr. Wilson’s specialty, he is anxious to show that he is not falling down on the job, because there is no job for him to fall down on; that is, any that he can handle. Naturally, then, he is anxious to quote the best authorities, and his pages are mottled with quotations from Marx, Engels, Trotsky and Lenin – all to the simple end which Trotsky argued so definitely in Literature and Revolution: such phenomena as the Proletcult, and its abject failure, prove the validity of Marx’s attitude toward literature and that a new culture does not automatically move in on the heels of a revolution, even if it is a Marxist revolution. The growth of a new culture under a new economic condition must be slow and painful.
However, Mr. Wilson is not so poorly equipped a professional as to let his case, which is urgent, slip into the mists of indefinite waiting. The final essay has a formal relation to the foregoing essays, which have been “politically” conscious. But their uniform intention has been to show that meddling in politics never did any first-class writer any good; Flaubert, he says, confused the development of socialism with an individual socialist of his time; Bernard Shaw’s career, by Mr. Wilson’s analysis, proves that his confused political mind progressively deteriorated his art. The implication of Mr. Wilson’s method of exposition here is a false one in relation to his essay on Marxism. In the cases of such writers as Flaubert and Shaw, it was proper and inevitable that their politics and art had separate demarcations, because one was reactionary and the other was progressive. But that does not mean that an artist must always be politically backward or reactionary. Perhaps it means specifically that Shaw and Flaubert became bad artists when they took up material which they could not control. But that does not mean that such material is uncontrollable, and that it may not become progressively more controllable.
Mr. Wilson is willing to admit that such a writer as Silone is a forward-looking sign of the times, but he omits an analysis of Silone, which is significant. It signifies, most probably, that Mr. Wilson cannot make up his mind about Silone’s meanings. So, although his advanced liberalism makes him desire not to seem hostile toward Marxism, the inevitable form of his intellectual prejudice reveals his more significant desire to maintain his professional prestige at the expense of the best socially inspired literature of the time. For the insinuations of his book are plainly reactionary. The reason is that Mr. Wilson lacks that creative nature of the critic so conspicuous in a man like Coleridge, as many contemporary novelists lack the critical nature of the creator, which causes literary artists to know the direction of the present, for they divine the images of the future.
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