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Ian H. Birchall

The Second Time?

(Spring 1967)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.28, Spring 1967, p.29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Modern Tragedy
Raymond Williams
Chatto & Windus, 30s

Raymond Williams is, unfortunately, one of the best literary critics we’ve got. Amid a general collapse of bourgeois criticism into formalism, sensationalist biography, and other evasions of the critical function, he has always insisted on the role of literature as communication, and on the fact that culture is an organic part of the society it belongs to. If, as is to be hoped, the coming years see a growth of Marxist criticism in England comparable to that already being produced in France, the positive critique of Williams’ work will be one of its crucial starting points.

Williams’ latest work, Modern Tragedy, represents both a narrowing and a broadening compared with Culture and Society and The Long Revolution. It is narrower in that it is more purely concerned with ‘literature’ in the strict sense; broader in that it deals with the European tradition rather than the parochial concern with the English alone which marked his earlier works.

The book falls into three sections. The first outlines a general history of the idea of tragedy since the eighteenth century. The starting-point is the apparent gulf between literary tragedy, and tragedy in everyday language; between the ‘tragedy’ of falling under a bus and the ‘tragedy’ of Oedipus or Hamlet. Williams goes on to state the need for a tragic vision which is compatible with the idea of revolution; which rejects the facile mechanistic rationalism that holds that tragedy is irrelevant since all human problems can be solved; but which also rejects romantic subjectivism, and the idea of transcendental evil which cannot be overcome by human effort.

The second part takes some examples from modern tragic literature – Ibsen, Tolstoy, Lawrence, Eliot, Sartre, Brecht and others. The third is a play, Koba, based on the life of Stalin, which seeks to concretise the issues of the earlier parts.

The work contains many acute perceptions; the constant oscillation between literary criticism and contemporary political issues is refreshing. But the idealism of Williams’ earlier work remains. Culture and Society was not about culture and society, but about ideas of culture and society. Tragedy, in this work, is not a narrowly defined literary genre (as it often seems to be in Steiner’s Death of Tragedy), but it is still an idea. The movement is always from ideas to the social situation. Socialism is for Williams a warmly-felt aspiration, but an ill-defined concept. If he invokes Marx, it is the early humanism in isolation from the later totalisation – and he can quote Carlyle alongside him. However real and vivid Williams’ experience of the working-class may be, he does not conceive it in the perspective of working-class power.

In Koba, the use of one of Stalin’s own pseudonyms makes clear the. author’s intention. But the background, other than the fact that a ‘revolution’ of some kind takes place, is deliberately left blank. The main characters, Joseph (Stalin) and Jordan (Lenin) act out a dialectic of revolutionary idealism and practical necessity – but in a vacuum. The real history of Stalinist betrayal and the anguish of genuine Bolsheviks from 1924 onwards is incomparably more tragic than Williams’ shadow-show.

In making a legitimate plea for a sensitive and complex tragic vision – but without a clear revolutionary structure – Williams runs great dangers. Koba could be taken as a demand for a sympathetic understanding of Stalin. Anouilh (an author Williams dealt with in Drama from Ibsen to Eliot but does not mention here) shows in his Antigone the reactionary potential of a tragic vision. Beside the pure, impossible idealism of Antigone is the pathos of Creon – of practicality, of compromise, of collaboration with fascism.

The scholastic dispute on the future or non-future of ‘tragedy’ can be safely forgotten; but the real problem of a revolutionary, social literature will be increasingly with us. This book makes an ambiguous contribution.

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Last updated: 3.1.2008