Monday, March 25, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“HOUSE OF EARTH – A NOVEL” by Woody Guthrie (Harper-Collins / Fourth Estate, $NZ34:99)

This week’s “Something New” is new in the sense only of being newly published. It was written by Woody Guthrie (1912-67) 66 years ago, in 1947, but remained in manuscript, archived among his papers, until it was turned up and dusted off in 2012, the centenary of Guthrie’s birth.

It now appears prefaced with a 33-page introduction by Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp – one being a media-friendly History Professor from Rice University; the other being the millionaire film actor (apparently he is now listed as Hollywood’s highest-paid performer) who likes to espouse liberal-left causes. I do always wonder how the very rich contrive to see themselves as identifying with the wretched of the Earth, but it’s not my purpose to focus on Johnny Depp. I’m more interested in Woody Guthrie, the rambling Oklahoma-born, Texas Panhandle-raised folk-singer and protest-singer of the 1930s and 1940s who used to perform with the rather hubristic sign “This Machine Kills Fascists” pasted to his guitar.

Woody, so the hype goes, was the voice of poor white tenant farmers and sharecroppers wiped out by the Depression and the dust storms that made the Dustbowl. Woody was also easily annexed by the Far Left folks of Greenwich Village, to spout the Party Line when necessary. And Woody’s career was cut short by Huntingdon’s disease, which left him in a hospital for the last 15 or so years of his life.

Whether you like his music or not, Woody Guthrie is a sort of American legend now – the kingpin of the Almanac Singers, the comrade of Pete Seeger and the Weavers, the man who inspired the “folk revival” and (for better or probably worse) the man who taught Bob Dylan a thing or two.

So we come to the Big Question at last. Woody Guthrie did have a way with words and did write a heavily-fictionalised memoir called Bound for Glory. Sure, the man who wrote “This Land is Your Land” (and literally hundreds of other songs) knew how to use popular language.

But would this item from the archives have been published on its own merits, and if it were not related to such a celebrity name?

Its interest as an historical document is beyond question. Brinkley and Depp’s introduction says House of Earth was based on Guthrie’s experience of the dustbowl in 1934-35 and his growing sense that Big Business and Big Lumber (who sold the wood of which creaky shacks were made) were destroying plain hardscrabble folks. Hence, says the introduction (p. xix), in the novel “wood is a metaphor for capitalist plunderers while adobe represents a socialist utopia where tenant farmers own land.” The novel reflects Woody’s own campaign, fired by a government pamphlet, to get folks in the Texas Panhandle to build durable adobe houses rather than highly perishable wooden ones.

Guthrie was impressed by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, (and by John Ford’s movie version of it, which led him to write his song “Tom Joad”). But, unlike Steinbeck, he wanted to write about the people who stayed behind in the dustlands rather than the ones who fled to California like the Joads. The introduction spends much time telling us the legend of Woody Guthrie the folk-singer and, while noting that this novel is “a not-so-subtle paean to the plight of Everyman” (p.xxxix), goes on to claim that Guthrie has an authenticity that other writers don’t have. Say Brinkley and Depp:

Guthrie gets to the essence of poor folks without looking down on them from a higher perch like James Agee or Jacob Riis. His gritty realism is communal, expressing oneness with the subjects.” (p.xli)

There you have the 33 pages of background and advance word.

But what of the novel itself?

House of Earth consists of four long chapters, which are like static scenes rather than a developing plot, and which are heavy on lyrical description. We are plunged into the arid and impoverished landscape at once, and a bitter sense of class distinction:

There were more of the shaggy, rotting shack houses than of the nicer wood houses, and the shack houses all look to the larger houses and curse out at them, howl, cry and ask questions about the rot, the filth, the hurt, the misery, the decay of land and families. All kinds of fights break out between the smaller houses, the shacks, and the larger houses….” (Pg.4)

Chapter One tells us that Grandma and Grandpa built their home of clay and adobe and it sure does hurt them to see the young folks building their homes of wood that rots and decays. Tike Hamlin is “a wiry, hard-hitting, hard-working sort of man” (Pg.7) aged 33 and married to Ella May whose pappy owned a whole passel of land. So she’s come down in the world in marrying Tike, the dirt-poor tenant farmer. As soon as the mail comes with a government pamphlet saying how it’s possible to build an adobe house (mud-bricks covered in stucco) rather than living in a rotting, leaking, dust-filled wooden shack, Tike is enthused and launches into a dithyramb on how great it would be to build their own home without working up a debt to some lyin’ cheatin’ timber-merchant and with their only cost being the sweat of their brows. But Ella May reminds Tike that they don’t own the land they’re living on – they’re only tenants – so they don’t own the dirt of which an adobe dwelling could be made. In turn, this leads Tike into a long harangue against private property and the landlords who cheat poor folks. Thus the action for thirty or so pages.

An optimistic radical, however, Woody Guthrie is not the man to leave his characters in the emotional doldrums for long. So we are treated to a ten-page-long vigorous jumping, bumping, thumping, humping sex scene between Tike and Ella in the barn, which has specific and repeated images of seeds and planting and a woman’s body being like Mother Earth and the lustiness of the adventurous erect penis of the working man and the natural lubrication of the woman and her earthiness and the people being at one with the land and unified by its colossal forces.

In other words, we have a scene somewhere between D.H.Lawrence and Cold Comfort Farm.

No. I will not summarise this whole novel. Each of its four chapters is a prolonged scene, symbolically taking us through the four seasons and charting the growth of the new life in Ella May’s belly. The sexual images come thick and fast. When, in Chapter Two, Tike reveals to Ella May the awful truth that he hasn’t been able to renew their lease on the farm, there’s a long, long extended metaphor about the bosses and capitalists and landowners being the termites that eat away at poor folks’ lives. But again, this is subsumed in the earthy, life-affirming sexual play between Tike and Ella May as, this time, they paper the inside of their wooden shack with recent newspapers and Tike tries all his best uxorious tricks to seduce Ella into bed.

And in the Third Chapter the baby is growing in Ella May’s body and Ella May is thinking of how she will best use the money her daddy left her to cover their debts and maybe buy an acre of land outright. And they have a radio. And there is more evidence of injustice in the government’s plan to subsidise farmers not to grow crops in order to keep markets prices up rather than sharing these surplus crops with those who really need them.

Repeatedly, Guthrie forgets his characters to give a panorama of the land, as in:

Just a little thin boxboard shack in the land of grazing cattle, oil fields, carbon black plants, sheep herds, chicken farms, highways as straight as a string and as deadly flat as a frontline trench. A world of flat lands mainly. Flat, crusty, hard lands mainly. Some washed-out ditches deep enough to be young canyons and some gullies and some canyons big enough to swallow several of your big towns, cliff and mesas, gorges and hollers, dry-bedded rivers, sand-bottom creeks, eggless hens, running ducks, stewball nags, hypocrite kilcustards, sons of virgin, hopping hare, buffalo bear, woolly sheep, tedious toddy drinkers, open mothers, deep thinkers, beer makers, slop inhalers, dust and dirt eaters and sandrock sleepers. Crawlers of the night soils, diggers under the sunny sod, hole feelers, hole diggers, hole makers and hole ticklers. Easy gravel walkers and long-tail talkers. The soul, the mind, the winds of heavens unrolling, unfolding, and the listeners down below listening in two or three low brick buildings, wheeling chuck-a-luck….” (pg.93)

And so it goes on, an extended prose poem on the land and its sparse flora and its ornery fauna and its human inhabitants, peppered with dialect words, but too often suggesting that Guthrie is overwhelmed by his own verbal exuberance and losing whatever focus he originally had.

When Tike’s and Ella May’s baby is on the way, Guthrie outdoes himself in an attempt to create some sort of universal statement from the domestic scene:

And the claws of the night demons reached to steal the flame of the fire because they thought that it was the soul of all life, the warmer of all bodies, the strength in all action. The fire in the lamp globe had higher ideas and craved to light the way for the baby to be born, craved, too, just the right instant, to melt out into the air of the room at the moment that the baby took its first breath, and to be inhaled, sucked in, drawn into the lungs and the blood, the brain and the eyes, the soul of the lamp fire fought the unborn blizzard spirits because if they devoured its flame before it could be breathed into the nose of the baby, then it would take several million years again to get to get to be a flame of fire again, a flame struck and placed there by the hand of a woman with a baby in her stomach. The room shook, trembled, splashed and foamed, rolled and tossed, pitched and squirmed, with the shadows of the battled that was going on between the flame or fire and the outer windows down inside the lamp globe. The winds howled into all of the private corners of the room, sniffed, smelled, prodded, felt with their deathly fingers, and danced with such a wild passion that they nearly succeeded in stealing the lamplight. The things about the room flashed light and dark like the gunfire from the muzzles of a million freedom cannons.” (Pg.156)

Many passages like this attempt to combine description of a fire-lit and lamp-lit room with thoughts on the coming baby; but Guthrie is seduced into such excessive statements that, like so much in this book, it tips over into purple prose.

The reproving part of me wants to get censorious about the novel’s inconsistent vision of the good life. Repeatedly, Guthrie promotes a neighbourly, populist-socialist camaraderie as the cure for the world’s ills. But the economic basis for this isn’t always clear. When his Ella May challenges Tike about their decrepit shack, Tike says “You mean that me, my greed caused this farm to be filthy? I didn’t make it filthy. If it was mine, I’d clean th’ damn thing up slicker’n a new hat.” (pp.19-20) Which sounds to me, contrary to Guthrie’s intentions, awfully like an argument for private property.

I could add a few more words about the general naivete of Woody Guthrie’s politics and economic vision (the poor chap was one of those who spent some years doing propaganda work for the Communist Party). But that would take me beyond a consideration of this particular novel.

At the risk of sounding condescending, I will answer my own earlier question by saying that House of Earth is much better than I feared it would be. Unpublished manuscripts turned up from archives tend to be curiosities at best. House of Earth shows some real literary skill on Woody Guthrie’s part (helped, as an after-word informs us, by the editors’ judicious amendments), but he was not cut out to be a novelist. The novel’s situations are feeble threads on which to hang general observations, it is clearly unfinished, and the overblown descriptions are itching to be turned into songs. Fittingly, it concludes with Tike singing a rousing anthem on how the landlords can’t take away his house of earth. The words would go best if delivered by Woody Guthrie and his guitar to a workers’ smoker.

Semi-relevant footnote: The introduction makes a number of references to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which clearly was a big influence on Woody Guthrie, especially in its film version. But the images of House of Earth, with its hard-working tenant farmers just holding on to their unforgiving land, reminded me much more of another film that was released only a year or two before Guthrie wrote House of Earth. This was Jean Renoir’s The Southerner (1945), which I feel sure Guthrie must have seen. The (Texas Panhandle) landscape of House of Earth is arid and dusty. The (central Texas) landscape of The Southerner has the opposite problem. Tenant farmers are trying to farm land that keeps getting swamped by an unruly river. Even so, both House of Earth and The Southerner have the same sympathy for the struggling family unit, and both make class-based comments on the people who control the capital. I’m sure a bit more archival digging would show that Guthrie had seen Renoir’s movie.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW?” (“KLEINER MANN, WAS NUN?”) by Hans Fallada (first published 1932; first English translation by Eric Sutton published 1933; new English translation by Susan Bennett published 1996)

It was just before Christmas, 2012, that the television news showed me a fearful sight. The Auckland City Mission was giving out food parcels to the destitute and to hard-up families. The missioners said that they had far more people applying for help than they usually do. The camera showed a line extending out the doors of the mission, round the corner and down the road for hundreds of yards. Vox pop inteviews revealed that some people had been waiting for seven or eight hours. Others explained how they could barely meet rent and power bills, let alone feed their families.

I’m a New Zealander. That means that I always have a hard time accepting that real poverty exists in this country. A part of me always goes into denial, saying, “Surely these people can find jobs. Don’t they know about budgeting? It must be their own fault.” There are plenty of smug editorials and talkback hosts to feed such delusions, and pundits from Remuera, Epsom and Devonport to say the trouble is that South Auckland (i.e. Polynesian) parents have far too many kids. On Christmas Day, the TV news showed that at least some people turned up to the mission’s free Christmas dinner as a sort of tourist attraction – which would have given a neat opportunity for more sneers from the talkback hosts and pundits.

But the sight of the pre-Christmas line outside the mission defeated me. These people can’t all be fakers and bludgers. There really is poverty in this country, and it seems to be getting worse.

So what do my thoughts turn to, but one of the great novels about people enduring economic hell in time of depression?

Hans Fallada’s Kleiner Mann, Was Nun? was first published in Germany in 1932, in what we now know were the dying days of the Weimar Republic. Hitler was manoeuvred into power in February of the following year. At that time, Germany had proportionately more unemployed and desperate people than most other European countries. The book was an immediate success, rapidly became a bestseller in Germany and was translated promptly into English (by Eric Sutton) as Little Man, What Now? [See note on translations at the end of this review]. It was an international bestseller in English too. Hollywood made a film version in 1934 [see second note below].

I have at best a smattering of German, so I know this novel only in English.

A few words about the author. “Hans Fallada” was the pseudonym of Rudolf Ditzen (1893-1947). He came from a solid middle-class family but had an unhappy and disorderly life, including long periods of sickness, drug-addiction and incarceration in mental institutions. [Not that you would know this from the sanity and workmanlike clarity of his prose]. He was not particularly liked by the Nazi regime, which withdrew some of his books from libraries once they came to power. He was investigated by the Gestapo a couple of times. But he did not get the really heavy treatment other dissident writers were given by the Nazis. Though instinctively on the Left, his novels are oddly apolitical in some key ways, apart from the overtly anti-Nazi Every Man Dies Alone (also known as Alone in Berlin), which was published only after the Second World War was over. To the horror of admirers like Thomas Mann, Fallada chose to remain in Germany throughout the Nazi period. Goebbels hoped to persuade him to write novels praising the regime. Fallada (who was again in mental hospitals for some of the late 1930s) managed to avoid doing this and survived the war.

Little Man, What Now? is an intensely humanistic protest novel, but it is not party-political. Its sympathy is with a young lower-middle-class couple driven further and further into poverty as the depression worsens.

The novel opens with the clerk Hans [Johannes] Pinneberg discovering that his girlfriend the shop-girl “Bunny” [Emma] Morschel is two months pregnant. In different English translations her nickname – “Lammchen” in the German original - is rendered as either “Bunny” or “Lambkin”. I will stick with “Bunny” here.

Pinneberg and Bunny, both in their early twenties, hastily marry and set up house together. But at once we know that these are economic hard times as their first long anxious thoughts are about money and how they will possibly manage, especially with a baby coming. Hans is lowly paid. Bunny will lose her position once she has the child.

            All this leads into the rest of the novel, which is the story of their young marriage being battered by the economic crisis, and yet enduring. At first working in a seed store in a small town, Hans has to hide the fact that he is married, as his boss hopes Hans will marry his ageing and unattractive daughter. Hans loses his job as the boss cuts back on staff. Fortunately Hans’ widowed mother, through her dodgy de facto husband Jachmann, gets him a job as a salesman in a Berlin clothing store. But Hans soon discovers that his paypacket is much smaller than he expected.

In a depression, employers know staff won’t complain as there’s always somebody else to take a lowly-paid job. The employers really put the pressure on as they insist salesmen will get the sack if they don’t meet certain quotas each month. The workplace becomes bitter with competition. Then even that isn’t enough. The employers begin to find excuses to lay off staff, reasoning that necessary work can be done as extra duties (at no greater pay) by remaining staff. I am interested that the word “rationalisation” appears in the 1933 translation I read, and I kept having comparative images of a New Zealand government that argues (to employers’ applause) that we don’t really need a minimum wage for youth workers.

Little Man, What Now? is filled with images of the degradation of unemployment – or the fear of unemployment. The manager who brow-beats and sacks a shop-girl for her ‘immoral’ relationship with another employee. The domineering and patronising way bureaucrats treat Hans when he goes to claim a state insurance pay-out. Hans is overwhelmed by the economic tide. By the end of the novel he is unemployed. His once respectable salesman’s clothes are threadbare and grubby as he tramps the streets of Berlin looking for work. He knows he has hit rock-bottom when police start to hustle him away from department store windows, simply because he looks so shabby that he frightens the affluent customers.

The economic decline of Hans and Bunny is charted in the places they live. Before the baby is born, they have tight, but respectable, accommodation with a widow who was wiped out in the “great inflation” of the early 1920s (although, mildly unhinged, the old woman keeps saying she is sure somebody has robbed her). Next, with baby, they board with old Frau Pinneberg in Berlin. When this becomes unbearable, their tiny income reduces them to a garret rat-hole, built over a cinema and accessible by ladder, in a really seedy part of the city. By novel’s end, with Hans unemployed, they are in a shack, lit by kerosene lamp and with tar-paper roof, on an illegal allotment outside the city. They can at least grow their own vegetables there and they sometimes witness brawls between unemployed Nazis and Communists who are also squatting illegally.

Yet this is as much Bunny’s story as it is Hans’; and Fallada is as much concerned with how the depression affects the emotional life of husband and wife as he is with the economic situation itself. Little Man, What Now? nowhere says anything as trite as “love conquers all”, but it does present Hans’ and Bunny’s loyalty to each other as a positive value in a decaying world.

The nickname Lammchen/Lambkin/Bunny is meant to be a piece of uxorious affection, like Sweetie, Honey, Darling etc. This could put some modern readers off. Is Bunny the inane, helpless child-wife of romantic fictions written by males? (Think Dora Spenlow in David Copperfield). On some of the earlier pages it would appear so, when sitcom-like comedy is made of her inability to make a decent pea soup. But this, it transpires, is simply a realistic depiction of the incompetence of a young wife and mother who has yet to grow into the role. As the novel progresses, it is clear that Bunny is the stabilising component in the marriage, hauling Hans back from silly expenditures when he tries to impress friends on an inadequate income; and making an heroic effort to put their accounts in order as she draws up a monthly budget. By novel’s end it is she who provides their tiny income by taking in mending and washing. Fallada is sensitive to the realities of domestic life with a baby. Quite properly, the novel presents buying a perambulator and avoiding nappy rash and dealing with a crying baby at night as matters of equal importance with Hans’ search for work, and equally heroic.

For something written in 1932, much of the novel is remarkably frank about sexual matters. The opening chapter has Hans and Bunny going to a gyneaocologist and seeking reliable contraception. When Bunny is examined and found to be pregnant, the doctor tells them not to ask him a question because “he heard it thirty times a day”. In other words, he knows that people on tight incomes will be tempted to ask about an abortion. When Bunny first takes Hans home to meet her folks, we at once see the antagonism her parents feel for him, not because he got their daughter pregnant, but because he is lower-middle-class and they are proudly working class. Extra-marital pregnancy is just a fact of life.

Hans and Bunny move out of Frau Pinneberg’s apartment in Berlin because the widow, who has clearly worked as a prostitute, is also clearly running a brothel in the guise of providing “parties” for “gentlemen”. One of Hans’ colleagues is a nudist (part of what was a big movement in late Weimar Germany). At one point he takes Hans to a swimming bath where nudists meet, and it is very clear to Hans that it is basically a place for amateur whores to find customers. Later, the same minor character earns a living by selling pornography. The dodgy Jachmann, who is in and out of jail, gives a lip-licking account of the nude cabarets they can visit if they spend some money in Berlin. There’s also a very touching scene where Hans and Bunny discuss how far into her pregnancy they can continue having sexual intercourse; and how soon after the birth they can resume it. I doubt if any of these things – none of which is dwelt upon – would have made it into the 1934 Hollywod movie.

I have said this novel is oddly apolitical. I mean this only in the sense that it is not clearly party-political and presents no programme for cleaning up the economic mess. Party politics are mentioned, but they are very much background noise to the young couple’s fervent attempts to survive. Again, when Hans first meets Bunny’s family, there are dinner-table differences in politics. Bunny’s brother Karl calls her father a “Social-Fascist” and her father calls Karl “a little Soviet toady”. Father and son are therefore respectively Socialist and Communist. Once or twice Bunny suggests that she might vote Communist if she bothered voting at all. At his first job, one of Hans’ colleagues is an oafish Nazi stormtrooper – a teenager who has taken up street-fighting because he thinks it’s fun and who “enlivened [the workplace] now and then by bursts of boisterous laughter when he described his dealings with his Soviet brethren.” 1932’s equivalent of a skinhead. In the novel there is the odd anti-Jewish comment in the dialogue, especially when Hans’ Jewish employers in Berlin are mentioned, and a couple of minor characters (a nurse; an amateur prostitute at the swimming baths) are pointedly noted to be Jewish. Hans tells Bunny that some of his colleagues at the clothing store are Nazis. He himself doesn’t know which way to jump, apparently weighing up Nazis and Communists as equal options, but never deciding which is preferable.

It is important that Hans is lower middle-class. Once or twice working-class characters in the novel suggest he would know more clearly where his interests lay if he didn’t have such pretensions. Perhaps this was Fallada’s own view. The trade union that is supposed to protect Hans and other shop-workers proves to be a “bourgeois” one that buckles at the first threat from the employers. The very title Little Man, What Now? suggests that a little man without any political fight in him will have to make a choice sometime.

In his desperation, did Hans become part of the Red Front or did he vote for Hitler? How could Fallada know? The novel was written in 1932. Reading it eighty years later, I find that the very indecision of Hans is part of the novel’s power and poignancy.

First footnote – about translations. In the English language, Little Man What Now? was a big bestseller in the 1930s in Eric Sutton’s 1933 translation, a copy of which I bought from a second-hand bookshop years ago. When Susan Bennett produced her new translation in 1996, the preface said that the Sutton version was slightly abridged. Checking the two, I find few significant differences. The Sutton version calls Lammchen “Bunny” and occasionally refers to Hans as “the lad”. The Bennett version calls Lammchen “Lambkin” and occasionally calls Hans “Sonny”. I decided to go with the Sutton translation, which was, after all, the one that English-speakers actually read when the novel made its greatest impact.

Second footnote – about movies. Little Man, What Now? has been filmed twice. The better-known version was made in Hollywood in 1934, and has a certain added poignancy in that, by that time, Hitler was consolidating his power in Germany and the world of Hans and Lammchen was being overtaken by a different sort of horror. Interestingly, in the film, the young wife has her original German name, Lammchen, even though the only English-language translation then available called her “Bunny”. This film was directed by the master of romantic melodrama, Frank Borzage and starred the lean, smiling Douglass Montgomery as Hans, and Margaret Sullavan as Lammchen – perfect casting, as Sullavan was able to be both winsome-fey and steely-determined as required. I have not been able to see the whole film, but easily found two longish representative clips on Youtube. Both reproduced quite accurately dialogue from the novel, but also showed Borzage’s tendency to romanticize the novel’s matter-of-factness. One is the sad-comic scene where Lammchen tells Hans that she accidentally ate all the salmon she bought for their dinner because she was so hungry. So far, so Fallada. But Borzage stages it on a merry-go-round, with Lammchen piece by piece making her confession as she is carried around. It’s funny and it’s beautifully played, but it is Hollywood romance, not Fallada’s realism. A little Googling informs me that there was also a 1967 German-language version of Kleiner Mann, Was Nun? made in the DEFA studios of old East Germany. I have not been able to find out anything about this version, but I would be surprised if the official studio of the defunct Communist statelet didn’t turn it into a Marxist tract. They would have had ample material from the novel to work on, even if Fallada himself scrupulously avoids a specifically party-political perspective.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

            I won’t harangue you this week. I’ll merely drop a thought in your ear.
            I just read a novel by Woody Guthrie, and I got to thinking how imaginative writers, poets, novelists and song-writers are sometimes annexed to political causes.

            Guthrie was a case in point. His songs say something about poor folks and their lives and their hopes for better things, and that’s something that a wide audience can identify with. But it isn’t a political programme. Woody got taken up eagerly by the Greenwich Village Left, however, and was soon penning articles (“Woody Sez”) for the Daily Worker saying how great things were for plain folks in the Soviet Union and performing sundry other propaganda feats.

            At which point I say – I can fully appreciate the singer-songwriter while at the same time rejecting his naïve politics. Because the skills and talents that make an imaginative writer are not necessary the same skills and talents that make a judicious political commentator. Poets, songwriters and novelists can give us a valid vision, but beware when they start preaching the means by which that vision is to be achieved.

            I can grab examples from both the Right and the Left to illustrate this same point.

            On the Right, W.B.Yeats. Brilliant poet, beyond dispute. One of the great ones from his early Celtic twilight stuff to the pithier Crazy Jane poems of his old age. But his ideology and politics? Lamentable swathes of half-baked mysticism, social elitism with lots of forelock-tugging to supposed aristocrats, and some years of beating the drum for home-grown Irish Fascism. Amazing that the man could write something as penetrating about political causes as “Easter 1916” and yet still fall for some of the 20th century’s worst claptrap.

            Do I appreciate Yeats’ poetry any the less in regretting the nonsense of his beliefs and ideology? Indeed not. In fact I think I see more sharply the gulf that divides real literature like his from a political programme.

            On the Left, I have to take it on trust that Pablo Neruda was a great love poet, because I don’t speak Spanish and have read only some translations of his stuff. While taking it on trust, however, I also have to report that Neruda was a simple-minded Stalinist in his political utterances. No matter how great his poetry is, it does not make him a man to trust in the matter of ideology.

            I could fill up pages with sundry other examples. But the point should be clear enough.

            I am not attempting to de-brain song, poetry and other literature. Of course imaginative writers can and do discuss ideas that have an impact on the world beyond the printed page. Literature is not just pure aestheticism or a self-referencing game. Great songs, poems and novels of protest, satire and social comment have been written. But the caveat still remains. The imaginative writer is no more astute in making political choices than anybody else is.

            Therefore attempts to promote political parties and causes on the basis of an imaginative writer’s endorsement should be met sanely in the only possible way – with laughter.