16 October 2013

Ready-Made Elysiums Do Not Comfort

Here is a kind of extended comment on a previous post, "A Critical Judgment of Popular Writing."  I've highlighted portions I find particularly relevant.


Those who deplored Rosenfeld's refusal to join the Communist ranks overlooked the most telling point in his confession of faith.  He saw (as [John Jay] Chapman had seen in the early days of socialism) that the ideal of "rich corporate existence and spiritual growth" had not in fact been furthered by the change in political allegiance.  This ideal of social wealth had always been dear to intellectuals caught up in the American game of salvation by individual acquisition; and yet, following closely the political activity of the '30's, Rosenfeld noted the lack of any "quarrel with the whole blindly wasteful tendency of American life...."  At the rallies he did not hear of the desire for "the right to the good and the sincere job" or of " the social necessity of a living use of materials."  Instead, behind the revolutionary talk he heard the old demand for bourgeois comforts.  The "revolution" was simply distributive; its end was not a change in the quality of life but "cars, silk stockings and radio sets for all."

History may force us to grant the justice of Rosenfeld's observations, but somehow, in our own preoccupation with things, we find quixotic the partisan of a better life.  Rosenfeld might have taken comfort from Thoreau, not only because the '30's taught him a bitter lesson in simplicity but because his stand was never popular.  He now feared that the artist's cause had been lost from the beginning and that a society seeking spiritual ends was "incapable of realization in the world."  America, he wrote, was not "the first land to believe that, made economically secure and comfortable, life will automatically grow blessed."  He did not spare himself hard truths.  Perhaps it was the world's misfortune to be destined to belong to "the stupid."  But if it were, it was still the "artist's business to tell it so."  It was the artist's business to fight for life against death.  The waste land and martyrdom were not the only alternatives.

Rosenfeld placed the artist in the world but beyond the politics of possessions.  For the artist was fundamentally an anarchist.  His intuitions revealed the ever-changing order in things.  To this order he was faithful when he shaped material "in accordance with its own nature and the idea to which it conforms...."  For in this way his work was "expressive," carrying us, as Rosenfeld said of great music, "out of ourselves and beyond ourselves, into impersonal regions, into the stream of things; permitting us to feel the conditions under which objects exist, the forces playing upon human life."  The nature of vision committed the artist to an open world, and in this sense the environment proved "hostile" only when the artist himself refused to embrace it.  "What we call a favorable environment, and what we call creative ability," he explained, "are actually two aspects of a single force, basically or at one with itself, and productive in its two-part play.  Of these parts, one is the 'not-I,' the other the 'I'; but essentially they are lovers...."
Only by spontaneously and openly responding to the world can the artist capture the rhythms of his time.  Without preconceptions he must woo the "not-I."  His love affair with the world is an exploration of reality to the end of adjusting men to the world and to other men.  "Ready-made elysiums" therefore do not comfort him.  The "pink world of received ideas and sentiments" that Rosenfeld found in the work of Gershwin and other popular artists weakened the "lure of the actual...."  Such work removed men from contact with reality.  It offered easy security, not freedom for living; it was not mature.

Sherman Paul, introductory essay to Port of New York by Paul Rosenfeld (1924, 1961).

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