Bourgeois Masterpieces

Julian Symons

My friend and fellow crime writer John Creasey published more than seven hundred books under some twenty different names. (He also found time to found a political party called rather grandly the All Party Alliance, although a wit said that his only allies were Anthony Morton, Gordon Ashe, Michael Halliday and other Creasey pseudonyms.) His books were popular but not highly regarded, and this worried and baffled him. Why, he asked me once, was there thought to be so much difference between Creasey and Shakespeare? Wasn’t Macbeth a crime story? Didn’t he, like Shakespeare, write for the people rather than for intellectuals? The subject-matter was similar, the approach was similar, the difference simply that between prose and verse.

I told him the question was unanswerable, which left him dissatisfied. Had I been candid and said he wrote very badly, he might have responded: ‘Prove it.’ And of course that can’t be done. As Frank Kermode has said: ‘How do we know that it is “our” kind of writing that has most “merit” and “aesthetic value”?’ Creasey versus Shakespeare poses this problem in an extreme form. It is a basic one for Decconstructionists, who end up on the side of Creasey, although they wouldn’t put it in quite that way. That Shakespeare is a particular target, a figure who must be cut down to size or at least trimmed to a modern shape, is made evident by some of the LRB ‘Bardbiz’ correspondence, by statements like those of English teachers who believe that the inclusion of the autobiographies of pop stars in the A-level syllabus not only ‘adds new dimensions’ but also ‘enriches’ it, and of course by producers of the plays who begin Macbeth with the witches engaged in ballroom dancing.

Roger Kimball’s recent writings, including Tenured Radicals, give details of similar, or perhaps one should say more advanced, Shakespearian attitudes in American critical thinking, exemplified in papers about ‘Contemporary Indian Uses of Shakespeare’, or ‘Counterhegemonic Discourse in The Comedy of Errors and The Winter’s Tale’. Mr Kimball thinks such papers are produced in the service of ‘a new political ideology: the ideology of multiculturalism’. That has a limited truth, but it is surely basically a levelling spirit that is at work, a desire to show as he puts it that there is no evidence proving that Middlemarch is ‘a greater artistic achievement than the cartoons of Bugs Bunny’. Or, to phrase it differently, that literature does not exist as a thing in itself, apart from interpretations of it in social, racial or sexual terms. Given such interpretations, Terry Eagleton said recently, ‘the study of English literature might just be defensible, even important.’ That ‘just’ is especially felicitous.

The response to the kind of question Kermode asks himself, it is hard to say how seriously, is that in practice ‘we’ do know that ‘our’ kind of writing has more ‘aesthetic value’. It follows that any theory to the contrary should be re-examined because it is producing self-evidently ridiculous results. This is to say, not, of course, that works of art can be considered – or were ever considered except briefly in the 1890s – as wholly autonomous, with an existence separate from the social and moral values by which we live, but that there is an interplay between ‘society’ and ‘art’ which is damaged when a work of the imagination is labelled a text, with the bare simplicity that implies. We may feel passionately about a novel, a poem, a play, but a ‘text’, all passion removed, lies on the table ready for dissection.

Most of these reflections were prompted by reading a selection of Arnold Kettle’s essays. Kettle, who died in 1986, was a Marxist literary critic who deliberately avoided what his editors call a ‘specialised “professional” language’. Novels, plays and poems are discussed as such rather than as texts, and although Kettle believes that in the last two centuries art has ‘acquired a remarkable aura of something like divinity’ and deprecates this, he is prepared to acknowledge that works of art cannot be made to fit any moral or social Procrustean bed. He implies that they have a kind of autonomy, although one not exactly definable.

Nor is it an autonomy that can be regarded as anything like divine. Kettle proceeds from the basic assumption that socialism is inevitable and desirable, so that, for instance, his interest in the English Thirties writers is sparked by what he sees as their attempted involvement in ‘the transformation of a basically bourgeois society into a basically socialist one’. Brecht and Ibsen are great dramatists in part because of their ‘centrality to their times’, Emily Brontë, Dickens and Hardy earn praise because they ‘burst the buckles of bourgeois consciousness’. There is quite a bit of pro-Soviet claptrap to be found here, as in a piece dated 1959 which says that ‘Soviet culture today is an infinitely healthier, infinitely richer – because more popular – culture than the culture of the capitalist world.’ But it would be wrong to think Kettle regards writers as Zhdanovite engineers of the pen. The interest and value of his criticism come from a perpetual conflict between admiration for the subtlety and power he finds in many ‘bourgeois’ writers and his need to assess them in terms of fairly conventional Marxist beliefs about the nature and purpose of art.

Auden is a case in point. The examination of ‘Our hunting fathers’ in the piece about Thirties poets is the best I have read. Beginning with the assertion that the poem is an ‘exploration into the strange death of liberal England’, Kettle contrasts Auden’s approach to that death with Eliot’s frequent criticisms of liberalism in the same period, glances at Spender’s Forward from Liberalism, and concludes that this is a politically radical poem, saying more than Spender did in a whole book, and facing realities avoided by Eliot. He remarks acutely that one of the problems worrying to left-wing poets of the period was whether they shouldn’t really be politicians. He adds, however, that the language of the poem is ‘pure Oxbridge’, making the point by examining use of the word ‘southern’ (‘his southern gestures modify’), and saying that the culture behind the word, exemplified in its use here, has nothing ‘popular’ about it. For Kettle, this is a severe limitation, more or less cancelling out the ‘brilliantly effective’ use of the word. If it is effective, what does it matter whether the way the word is used is popular? But to Kettle popularity is the bridge that must be crossed by the bourgeois poet on the road to socialism.

Kettle’s arguments with himself are almost always interesting when he is looking at individual works or writers, less so when he deals with general subjects like ‘the progressive tradition in bourgeois culture’. His analysis of Hamlet as basically an attack on the social rottenness of Denmark may be pushing the case a bit hard, but goes a long way towards explaining Hamlet’s famous indecision. If the problem is seen as social rather than as personal, then Kettle’s view that Hamlet is faced with a situation that cannot be satisfactorily resolved just by killing the King, or indeed by any other action open to him, is very persuasive. A brisk analysis of Felix Holt the Radical shows George Eliot’s own radicalism faltering after the opening chapters and sums up the book’s weakness in a sentence: ‘By disarming Felix as an effective moral agent, George Eliot commits the blunder of disarming him as an effective force.’ Beauchamp’s Career, analysed similarly in social terms, is seen as an underrated novel, although one more interesting for the ideas behind it than as a book which ‘does not move or delight me as much as I feel it ought to’. And, again very convincingly, Kettle suggests that Meredith’s barbed-wire fence of extravagant style was a desperate attempt to conceal his lack of belief in the standpoint he had adapted, as he had adapted much in his style, from Carlyle.

There is a fine essay here on the liberating quality of Puritanism, which links the development of a plain puritan prose style with the realism of Defoe, Fielding and (he doesn’t add) Smollett. But Kettle is happiest critically with ambitious but not altogether successful books, like those by George Eliot and Meredith. The relationship between orthodox Marxist Kettle who praises the healthiness of Soviet culture and bourgeois (we might call him) Kettle becomes uneasy when the latter wants to acclaim a bourgeois work as a masterpiece.

In two essays on Dickens, one dealing with Our Mutual Friend, the other for the most part about Bleak House, Marxist Kettle works hard to persuade himself and us that Dickens was a precursor of the ‘richer – because more popular’ art of the Soviet Union. He begins by making a distinction between Socialist Realists (‘whose socialist consciousness illuminates their whole view of the nature of the world’) and Critical Realists, who can’t be called socialists but are critical of class society. Socialist Realists were and are very thin on the ground, but Kettle claims Dickens for Critical Realism. Kettle’s Dickens was immensely popular, had a down-to-earth vulgarity marking him as a man of the People (a capital letter given throughout the essay), and was powerfully practical, as he showed in his work with Miss Burdett Coutts on her home for ‘Fallen Women’. He detested institutional and other bureaucracy, and above all hated 19th-century capitalism. So far, no argument. Kettle then braces himself to acknowledge that Dickens was not an ‘unconscious Marxist’ or even ‘a pre-Marxian socialist’. He claims, however, that the novelist was not just a man of the People, but always on their side, seeing them ‘happily, confidently ... as a specific force in contradistinction to those who rule’. He sees Bleak House as a revolutionary novel, and regards Our Mutual Friend as an exposition of class and caste antagonism and snobbery.

Some of his points have been made before, by that erratic genius Jack Lindsay in his undervalued study of Dickens, but others are new and pungently put, like the offhand observation that the corrupting force in Our Mutual Friend ‘is not money but bourgeois attitudes to it’. The whole article is vitiated, however, by the fact that, as Kettle must have known, his premise about Dickens’s attitude to the People was simply untrue. Dickens feared the People when they turned revolutionary and became ‘the mob’ of Barnaby Rudge and A Tale of Two Cities, wrote with hostility about the People organised as trade-unionists, greatly admired the recently organised police detective force, and was as strongly on the side of those who rule, and against the social elements opposing them, as any other property-owner. His zest for degrading prisoners by making them do useless work, so that they would know they were ‘undergoing punishment’ dismayed many admirers, then and later. It was not only Meredith who adapted and adopted Carlylean attitudes.

On what side of the Creasey-Shakespeare divide should we have found Arnold Kettle? The claims made by Deconstructionist theory on a Marxist populariser like Kettle are strong, but I hope and believe his sense and sensibility would have prevailed. ‘Art moves us,’ as Frank Kermode said in the course of rejecting a comment made by Terry Eagleton. Macbeth and Middlemarch move us; Creasey and Bugs Bunny don’t. Is that too Johnsonianly simple a solution to the problem?