Delight and Utility in Literature

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.
T. S. Eliot (1888 - 1965)
U.S.-born British poet and playwright.
The Sacred Wood, "Philip Massinger"
Literature is valued in various ways. Some think of ‘pure’ literature or pure poetry. Horace analyses the function of poetry by the terms dulce et utile. (Delight and Utility). Longinus like Plato emphasizes the sublimity in poetry as conducing to the production of feelings of greatness and grandeur. Plato indicates the moral function of poetry. But no critic wants poetry to be homiletic or didactic. Aristotle wants purification of feelings through the structure of a poem or tragedy. Sidney following Scaliger indicates the function of poetry as delightful instruction. The philosopher teaches by precept, the historian by example, but the poet teaches through delight, through exciting the feelings and thrilling the senses. Poetry, according to Sidney conduces to virtue. Wordsworth says: “didacticism is my abhorrence”. But for him, the pleasure of poetry is of an exalted kind. He regards poetry as the most philosophical of all writings. “It is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge, the impassioned expression that is in the countenance of all science”. Poetry divorced from morality is valueless. Poetry is highest music wedded to highest thoughts. Literature transmits feelings and ideas that exalt the mind, quicken the sensibility and widen the vision. Arnold characterizes poetry as criticism of life in terms of truth and beauty. Eliot who is the exponent of the theory of impersonality in poetry posits the moral function of poetry. “Poetry is not a substitute for philosophy or theology or religion, it has its own function. But as this function is not intellectual but emotional, it cannot be defined adequately in intellectual terms. We can say that it provided ‘consolation’, strange consolation, which is provided equally by writers so different as Dante and Shakespeare.” The Waste Land which is the most objective and impersonal of all writings suggests a message through the diagnosis of the decay and deadness of civilization.

Thus literature is moral, though it has no moral. If morality is obtruded or palpable, literature is bad literature. Allegory is art, but parable is not, because in parable, moral teachings are palpable. Shakespeare is an artist, although his plays enshrine many Renaissance ideas, but Shaw is a propagandist because in his plays ideas are presented so as to ‘convert people to his opinions.’ In literature showing must get precedence over telling. Aesthetic teaching (as George Eliot says) is the object of good literature. Judgment of literature must be in terms of aesthetic norms— laws of beauty and truth, and not in terms of moral laws of life.

T. S. Eliot distinguishes between responsible propagandists and irresponsible propagandists (Poetry and Propaganda in Literary Opinion in America). According to him Lucretius and Dante are particularly conscious and responsible propagandists. Responsible propagandists may seem to be a contradiction in terms, but interpreted as a tension, of pulls, it makes a point. Serious art implies a view of life which can be stated in philosophical terms, even in terms of systems. The responsible artist has no will to confuse emotion and thinking, sensibility and intellection, sincerity of feeling with adequacy of experience and rejection. The view of life which the responsible artist articulates is not, like most views which have popular success as ‘propaganda’, simple, it induces a complex vision of life by hypnotic suggestion. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, Four Quartets are based on catholic religion, but they are not religious preaching like the sermons and homilies of the priests.

Propaganda is not good art. A tract on some political or religious ideals, however, written in meticulous prose or verse cannot be good art. In modern terms, Bernard Shaw or Brecht writes propaganda plays. They write with the deliberate purpose of pointing out some social or political thought and to persuade the readers or audience to their ways of thinking. Bernard Shaw says “for Art’s sake alone, I will not write a single line.” He deals with social problems and philosophical ideas and presents them in such a way that the audience or readers are converted to his way of thinking. In every play, there is one character who is his mouthpiece. Bluntschli in Arms and the Man, Undershaft in Major Barbara, Candida in Candida, Tanner (Don Juan) in Man and Superman represent the ideas of Shaw. These characters symbolize Life force—they are realistic, consistent, self-acting; they are guided by original morality and thus are contrasted with other characters who are guided by conventional morality. However, Shaw has made propaganda art by showing the characters through discussions (and not through actions). His representative character is the catalyst agent who causes the change in other characters. Bluntschli causes change in Raina, Candida in Morell and Undershaft in Barbara. Tenner’s life-force of the unconscious is shown in relief with Don Juan episode. Moreover, comic spirit informs his plays. He makes the audience laugh and think at the same time. He is one of the great comedians, and this is a tribute to his artistic genius. He calls his plays suigeneries.

Brecht creates epic theatre for conveying his message. He creates a new genre epic theatre with its alienation effect, projected captions, sudden irruption of songs, half exposed stage mechanics, exposed stage lighting etc. His manner is that of a parable. The Good Woman of Setzuan is a parable of goodness as modern society understands. Goodness that will be mere exploitable goodness is not practical as long as human nature is what it is, or more precisely as long as the society that shapes human nature continues to be what it is. The problem having been posed, the gods fly off in their cloud, and it is for the audience to supply the answer. The audiences are not spoon-fed with a readily digestible moral: they have to ponder the facts for themselves and come to their conclusions. and the divine purity of childhood in his Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Childhood. In his Lay your sleeping Head, Auden states the message that transformation of sexual passion into universal love (Eros into Agape) is the only cure for the sufferings and insults of sexual love.

Marxist literature supports the propagation of Marxist ideas through literature. It starts with an axiom that literature is an expression of society. Social forces form and condition the poet and his work and his audience. What a poet creates is to be studied as a social phenomenon. Sociological criticism is first credited to French historian Hippolyte Tame who set out to interpret the course of a whole national literature in strictly scientific terms. (History of English Literature, 1863-67). He gave the celebrated formula ‘the race, the milieu, the moment’. Marxism is first a philosophy of history and secondly, a programme of political action; it is only derivatively a theory of criticism. The virtue of Marxist theory lay not in evaluating works of art but in explaining the basic social and economic influences that operated to produce them. (Trotsky — Literature and Revolution). In its cruelly propagandist form, Marxism asks of the writer to use his art as a weapon, exposing the falsities of bourgeois culture. It demands the writer’s commitment to Marxism. The writer who does not serve the purpose of the State is not tolerated. Gorky in his Mother loudly proclaims through the character of Pavel who is on trial “We are revolutionists, and will be such as long as private poverty exists, as long as some merely command, as long as others merely work......We will conquer, we working men! You society is not as all powerful as it thinks itself...." 
 In his passionate Chariot of Wrath the talented soviet novelist, Leonid Leonov speaks for the defence of Soviet socialism:

“Now she was ready to do battle for the mountains that had given birth to her metal, for the people who had created her, and for Stalin who had ordered her to come into being”. The same note is sounded in the war works of Ehrenburg, Sovolev, Fadeyev, Grossman, Pavlenko. Their works are blatant propaganda and bad art. Art creates forms which are by their nature objective, distant and detached. In art, form and content are fused into a significant whole. Ideas may be expressed through forms — characters and situations in plays and novels, images, symbols and rhythms in poetry.


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