Friday July 19, 2024

Are you now or were you ever? - Part I

By Salma Khalid
October 26, 2020

The US in the 1940s and 50s was a scene of social unrest, class conflict and militant trade-union and political activities. Art and literature had not yet turned away from social reality. Hollywood writers were a particularly keen and conscious lot and films based on their scripts boldly explored the political, social and moral dimensions of postwar American society. McCarthyism was the response of the US ruling classes to this situation. It exaggerated, even invented, the so-called communist threat and sought to suppress political and artistic dissent in the name of patriotism. Working-class organizations, educational institutions and intellectuals of the Left all came under attack. A witch-hunt also began in Hollywood. Lists of ‘traitors’ and ‘Soviet agents’ were prepared with no shred of evidence. Right-wing frenzy forced colleagues to report colleagues. The studios were told to name writers and actors with socialist and communist leanings. The rich studio-owners prostrated before power and sacrificed art and artists on its altar. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) destroyed lives, livelihoods and careers through its hearings and convictions. The country saw the infamous blacklisting of the Hollywood Ten. The scoundrel in charge – or the Prime Scoundrel – of this mass hysteria was Senator Joseph McCarthy. Behind him stood the US state and the ruling classes – frightened of art and artist, reacting to what they perceived as a dangerous threat.

Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and An Enemy of the People are some of the most famous American plays written in this period by Arthur Miller (Oct 1915-Feb 2005), a figure of influence and stature in postwar literary scene in the US whose own life and art and the social and political environment of his time became interwoven. This was a time when – as American art historian and critic David Walsh puts it – the “renunciation of previous ideas and denunciation of former colleagues became a fashion, [Walsh could have said a national duty] which hardly anyone resisted”. Most of the US intelligentsia made ‘a bargain with the most dastardly elements in American society.’ Not necessarily because they were rabid reactionaries but because they were social cowards who did not want to jeopardize their power, privilege and fame. Miller was perhaps the most famous from the few of this milieu who made a different choice. He managed to keep his integrity intact and did not give in to the thuggery represented by the prime scoundrel and his goons. His artistic indictment of McCarthyism came through his play The Crucible about the Salem Witch Trials. It was an allegorical attack on McCarthyism.

Miller’s essay, ‘Are You Now Or Were You Ever?’ – written a few years before his death – is meant to evoke the villainy associated with McCarthyism. ‘Are you now or have you ever been a member of the communist party’ was the notorious question put by McCarthy and his associates to their victims in the HUAC hearings. Miller explains what moved him to write The Crucible as a response to the paranoia generated by McCarthyism. “Rather than physical fear, it was the sense of impotence, which seemed to deepen with each week, of being unable to speak accurately of the very recent past when being leftwing in America, and for that matter in Europe, was to be alive to the dilemmas of the day.”

He saw startling similarities between the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and McCarthyism when the US moved radically to the Right. From his personal experiences and from the wider social environment, he gives us instances of what this change did to art and artists. Some of them are also funny; for instance, what happened to the Columbia Pictures’ film version of The Death of a Salesman when, despite being threatened by the rightwing, he refused to sign an anti-communist statement. “The studio actually made another film, a short to be shown with Salesman. This was called The Life of a Salesman and consisted of several lectures by City College School of Business professors – which boiled down to selling was a joy, one of the most gratifying and useful professions, and that Willy (Miller’s salesman) was simply a nut. Never in show-business history has a studio spent so much good money to prove that its feature film was pointless.’

From a celebrity, Miller became a fraud and a heretic. “What right had any organization to demand anyone's pledge of loyalty?’ Miller asks a question whose gigantic relevance cannot be lost on us. The incident that causes the most disgust in the reader, exposes the farcical nature of the hearings and shows how criminally petty HUAC officials were is the one involving the HUAC chairman’s proposition that Miller could be spared investigation if Marilyn Monroe, who was soon to be Miller’s wife, would consent to have a picture taken with him. It does appear to be the case that Tsars of political and social persecution parading as accountability happen to share the same kind of characterlessness, even if in some countries of late they have proven themselves to be many notches better than the HUAC chairman in the art of lacking character and shame. This minor digression aside, Miller refused the offer, appeared before the committee, refused to name names and was told by the chairman not to write bad things about the US, had to pay $40,000 in lawyer's fees, paid a $500 fine and was sentenced for a year.

What happened to other leftwing artists, screen writers, trade unionists and academics is a long story, a tiny part of which is told in the essay. Yet it captures well the atmosphere of fear and persecution that was prevalent at that time. Miller writes beautifully. “The surreality of it all never left me. We were living in an art form, a metaphor that had suddenly, incredibly gripped the country. The Crucible was an attempt to make life real again, palpable and structured. One hoped that a work of art might illuminate the tragic absurdities of an anterior work of art that was called reality, but was not. It was the very swiftness of the change that lent it this surreality.”

The dream-reality touch of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is palpable here. But it is a personal and political essay and not a novel or a short story. It has to have and does have that terse and direct language that can force people to think. Take, for example, this passage: “An ideological war is like guerrilla war, since the enemy is an idea whose proponents are not in uniform but are disguised as ordinary citizens, a situation that can scare a lot of people to death. To call the atmosphere paranoid is not to say that there was nothing real in the American-Soviet standoff. But if there was one element that lent the conflict a tone of the inauthentic and the invented, it was the swiftness with which all values were forced in months to reverse themselves.”

In his long, sometime surreal, sometime sharp and sometime vague comparison between Salem and the US of his day, Miller’s style in the essay seems afloat between Fitzgerald and Orwell. The overall effect achieved is somehow mostly Orwellian, the 1984-Animal Farm effect, with Fitzgerald never totally absent. This does not take away from Miller’s talent as a writer in his own right. The names of Fitzgerald and Orwell are invoked here simply as distinct categories whose merger in Miller lends them a quality that is essentially Miller’s own. It is the overall effect that I describe as Orwellian. It is also because the social and political circumstances that make the theme of the essay are also very Orwellian, with lies and deception controlling human lives like gods whose will renders mere mortals helpless.

Part II appears tomorrow

The writer studied Literature and Philosophy at the Forman Christian College.

Email: salmakhalid935@gmail. com