The Fogey or the Commissar
BY ALAN BRIEN CormitrrmENT is simply another word for decision—it is the act of making a choice. All of us are packed with prejudices, illusions,
convictions, quirks and obsessions which we assume are the normal, universal beliefs of the decent human being. The committed man is the self-aware man who has trawled his own un- conscious and identified the monsters of the deep, who has explored the pyramid of his own society and located the brick under which he was born. Commitment is not taking the right (or the wrong) road but taking your own road after studying the street map. It is the only ambition worth achieving but it depends on knowing the difference between angry idealism and a surplus of youthful energy, between weary pessimism and a desire to stay in bed in the morning. The com- mitted man must be able to distinguish an admiration for Palladian architecture from a desire to meet the best people and an intellectual conversion to Socialism from an urge to be com- missar for Soho.
The assumption that commitment—in the superficial sense of authoring pamphlets about Common Culture, signing letters to the Times rebuking President Kennedy or being the profes- sional odd-man-out in television discussions—is a lonely, dangerous, ill-paid occupation can only be sustained by those naive romantics who have not yet employed an agent. There are less rewards and far fewer headlines in being a young fogey than a young commissar. Not many of our New Left spokesmen have numbered and analysed all their own conditioned responses—they simply slaver at a different bell.
Real commitment is rare, and usually takes place in an atmosphere of howling infants, un- paid bills, lost jobs and boils on the back of the neck. It may include inconsistencies, but they are never unacknowledged. It cannot permit those who oppose flogging and beat their wives, or condemn capital punishment of murderers but excuse the execution of political opponents, or urge working-class solidarity while being rude to waiters and cab drivers.
When opportunity comes to examine books like The Writer's Dilemma* and The Writer and Commitment,t I cannot help noting how vague and woolly and indecisive are not only the com- mitments but the enemies and fortresses against which the crusaders are being recruited. Strictly, The Writer's Dilemma is a work of committee- ment: a collection of ten essays provoked by a Times Literary Supplement question and first published in that sad wodgc of niggling scholar- ship and windy generalisations. The question, almost meaningless in itself and largely un- answered in its replies, was 'What are the limits beyond his control which threaten the modern writer?' It is prefaced by a TLS leader of comical banality. In about 500 words we are treated to * By Various Hands. (Oxford, I2s. 6d.) t By John Mander. (Seeker and Warburg, 25s.)
'our present discontents . . . the mass media, in other words . . . an inevitable concomitant . . .
the time is much out of joint . . from the horse's mouth, as it were . . . some Damoclean threat . . .' It then has the nerve to sum up the main danger to the 'deepest imaginative pos- sibilities' of its contributors as being 'the deaden- ing force of platitude they have to combat.' This anonymous platitude-fighter then goes on to assure his readers that his authors are 'in fact the imaginative writers of today'—a description not often applied, at least as a compliment, to Dr. Arnold Toynbec, Dr. Richard Wollheim or Mr. Gerald Heard.
The 'imaginative writers' here (Saul Bellow, John Bowen, Lawrence Durrell, William Golding, Alan Sillitoe and Nathalie Sarraute) are highly admired by most readers most of the time. None of them seems personally very constricted or threatened. Most of them are optimistic. Mr. Golding is a bit worried that science will impov- erish language but he is confident that 'just round the corner are the Shakespeares and the Mozarts, inexplicable, mysterious.' Mr. Durrell is against the Artist as an Opinionator, which is just as well: he begins by saying 'we are in an age of profound crisis,' cheers up at the thought that 'from the very beginning of our recorded history our world has been apparently in the same dis- turbed and wracked condition' and ends with a conclusion, quoted with approval by old TLS himself, which I cannot parse let alone under- stand. 'And can the artist offer no clue to living? Alas, no; his public does that for him.'
Mr. Bowen puts his faith in the techniques of television to keep the lines open between ever- writer and never-reader and hopes for the woman at the ironing board looking up to say, 'That's true and I never knew it.' Mr. Heard is even more up-to-date. He calls himself 'the literary man' and sees his best protection in lysergic acid diethylamide (not to be confused with the LSD we journalistic men get from our connection) which, in words which could go straight into a commercial, guarantees `day-long experience of wholeness.' Only Mr. Sillitoe's piece reads as if it were written by a writer. He is committed to the Left because the revolutionary alone is able and willing to produce books in which the man at the lathe can see himself honestly mir- rored and be encouraged to fight 'the mindless- ness of the technological age.'
It is a pleasure, after so much throat-clearing and button-holing, to turn to Mr. Mander's study of the Old Left (Auden and Orwell) and the New Left (Wilson, Miller, Wesker, Osborne and Gunn) which attempts to discover whether it is `meaningful' today to ask 'To what is he, in the last resort, committed?' (A sentence for a Henry James butler.) Mr. Mander, unfortunately, is not a much more attractive and fluid stylist than old TLS. Where the Times style uses clichés as hidden persuaders to reassure us that nothing nasty and unusual need be expected, Mr. Mander's prose
has an almost medical-lecture air about it, the atmosphere of a surgeon operating in a frock coat, which mixes technical terms (`this is what I have called the "documentary component" of a work of fiction') with rather old-fashioned Gar- vinian phrases such as 'unnecessarily craven' or `the laborious, but not Sisyphean, task:
Mr. Mander never does decide exactly what he means by commitment. First he points out that 'all art is committed, it would seem, to some- thing beyond itself, to a statement of value not purely withetic, to an Arnoldian "criticism of life." ' If we then ask whether this is saying any more than that all art partakes of the nature of art, he admits 'My choice of contemporary Left- wing writers to illustrate the meaning of commit- ment is to this extent misleading: writers of different views and from different periods would have done equally well.' This reader at this point is tempted to reply : then, it would seem, to that extent, I would do equally well to read another book on this, apparently, un-meaningful term. However, I hung on to be rewarded by Mr. Mander's intelligent, provocative and hard- working real thesis, which is a critical study of vaguely-Left writing over the past thirty years.
Obviously this first horse (what I will call Commitment A) will be a non-starter. Commit- ment B becomes 'the basic cast of mind, the fundamental convictions of a man, still perhaps in pre-philosophical, pre-conceptual form, to which he has come in his exercise of this existen- tial responsibility.' This is a step towards admit- ting that the committed writer should be con- scious of the assumptions implicit in his work, though the codicil 'pre-philosophical' is appar- ently inserted to enrol Thorn Gunn,-who 'would not care to be called a writer of the Left,' in the brigade as an honorary colonel. Commitment C is nearest to my own definition—'what remains in the work of the author's subjectivity after the author has done his utmost to eliminate it.' But the final Commitment D (I may have missed one or two on the way—he ought to have indexed them) is back to the party-line strait-jacket. 'The Socialist is right in his instinctive assump- tion that what matters in art is the quality and nature of the artist's commitment. He is right in thinking that art is about something, that it has reference to something beyond itself by which it must ultimately be judged.' This is the view of the Vatican and the Kremlin, probably of the Pentagon, but surely not of the common reader or the uncommon critic.
It perpetuates the propagandist inflexibility of some of the contributors to Declaration, for whom a work of art can be proudly judged and condemned almost in its absence as long as its message is known. Kenneth Tynan, for example, claimed that 'if Belloc had written a play defend- ing anti-Semitism, or if Evelyn Waugh were to write a play extolling hereditary aristocracy, I should be instinctively hostile: and I should be far more lenient towards a crude writer who cared about total human survival.' Mr. Mander would applaud this stand, even though it implies a double standard for modern and for past works. For has not Shakespeare, after all, written both plays in The Merchant of Venice and almost any of his historical cycle? Though Mr. Mander ingeniously and brightly varies the grounds for exalting Wesker and Gunn and heaping the faggots round Auden, Orwell, Wilson and Osborne, it seems obvious that he is really labelling them as social traitors, middle-class sentimentalists. Freudian deviates and rhetorical entertainers unfit for the pure air of social realism.