The living presence of literature

June 28, 2020

Orthodox Marxist critics examine a literary text in the context of socio-economic conditions in which it was created, but does that downplay its relevance in present times?

Is there really anything like the ‘eternal charm’ of art and literature?

Despite his vigorous interest in literature, Marx left no precise literary theory, nor any comprehensive work of literary criticism. What the later (Marxist) literary critics inherited from him was the understanding of a general ‘mode of production’ and ideological ‘superstructure’, which was adopted by them as an intellectual framework for the development of a Marxist critical practice. This two-storeyed building of base and superstructure has been housing the Marxist authors and critics since the 19th century.

For the uninitiated, this concept can be explained simply by referring to the classical Marxian argument against idealism, that material conditions lead towards the creation of ideas: “consciousness does not determine life, life determines consciousness”. This apparently over-simplified statement – complex in its own right when it comes to the nuances of historical and dialectical materialism – is the premise on which all Marxist literature and theoretical work is grounded.

Hence, mainstream Marxist literary criticism has been primarily concerned with positioning and analysing literature in the ideological superstructure of the social formation – based on a dominant mode of production – in which it was produced.

If I had to examine, for instance, Ghalib from this lens, I would primarily see the socio-economic fabric in which the poet had lived and created: a courtier who was patronised by an emperor and remained economically dependent on the Mughal court, in an era of significant political change in a society which was getting colonised by the British. Do these conditions matter in the long course of history when it comes to his poetry? Not for me. But to an orthodox Marxist literary critic, unfortunately, socio-economic life of Ghalib, the person, and the material conditions in which he wrote would matter more than the spiritual and existential turmoil of Ghalib, the poet. Why is it unfortunate? Let me try to explain.

I recently read The Door, a novel by Szabo Magda on the recommendation of an Indian friend. The novel was published in the 1980s and its narrator is recalling some events unfolding in the mid 20th century Hungary. The novel is shrouded in autobiographical elements and the narrator’s life has many similarities with the author, Magda, who was born in 1917, a year before the split of Austria-Hungary Dual Monarchy by the end of World War I. In her youth, she witnessed the intense political transformation of her country several times, from the occupation by Nazi Germany in 1944 until the Soviet intervention, and so forth. All of this political chaos must have contributed towards her evolution as an author.

But when I read her work, in this case, The Door, I can only read it now in the present. Reading it last month or five years ago means The Door is a memory for me. My act of reading The Door is a process that occurs in the present; it’s not a memory, it’s an activity, which cannot occur for me in the era when it was written. To see The Door as a novel written in the mid 20th century, I have to distance myself from the activity of reading it now, but the novel can only exist for me as an act of reading now, or as a personal memory of having been read. It is not the door that opens in the past. It can only mean something to me in the present, my present.

If the meaning of some literary creation is determined solely by the ideology of the social formation in which it was created, why should the work continue to matter for us when the mode of production, and with it, the ideology which was part of its superstructure, have faded into history?

When we place literature strictly in the mode of historiography, we assume its relevance merely in the context of time and material conditions in which it was produced. And Marxist literary critics have been doing this to Dostoevsky, to Kafka, to Elliot and to all other literary giants.

However, it’s not that Marx was not aware of the problem of seeing literature only from a historical materialist lens. In the 1857 introduction to The Grundrisse, he writes: “In the case of the arts, it is well known that certain periods of their flowering are out of all proportion to the general development of society, hence also the material foundation, the skeletal structure as it were, of its organization.” He goes on to discuss particularly the case of Greek art. After examining the relationship between Greek art and its mythological worldview, which was constructed on an archaic mode of production, he continues: “But the difficulty lies not in understanding that the Greek arts and epic are bound up with certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still afford us artistic pleasure…”

Why does the Greek art still give us this artistic pleasure? The question raised by Marx continues to be one of the most perplexing for any Marxist methodology of criticism which is built on the base-superstructure model. If the meaning of some literary creation is determined solely by the ideology of the social formation in which it was created, why should the work continue to matter when the mode of production, and with it, the ideology which was part of its superstructure, have faded into history?

In the same preface to The Foundations of a Critique of Political Economy, which is now more popularly known as The Grundrisse, Marx tries to answer the question: “A man cannot become a child again… but does he not find joy in the child’s naiveté, and… himself not strive its truth at a higher stage? Why should not the historical childhood of humanity, its most beautiful unfolding, as a stage never to return, exercise an eternal charm?”

To an orthodox Marxist literary critic, the socio-economic life of Ghalib would matter more than his existential

Sadly, this answer does not solve the problem. And the wise old man sounds nostalgic and, in my humble opinion, un-Marxist. Is there really anything like the ‘eternal charm’ of Greek art and literature, or for that matter, any art and literature? Like any work of art, all people individually or all cultures collectively have their own images and perceptions about Greek art, which have not been the same and which are not universal or eternal. The early audiences of Greek drama, for example, were not just spectators but believing participants, so naturally, our relationship with that ‘art’ is very different from that of the original audiences who witnessed and contributed in that work at a passionate religious level.

However, we must also keep in mind that the Western bourgeois academia has always tried hard to simply portray an individual artist or author as the sole source of creation, not because it truly believes in the individual freedom but because such ‘freedom’ has ideologically been beneficial for the advocates of the free-market economy. On the contrary, conventional Marxist criticism has condemned this portrayal to the extent that artistic creation is seen merely as an outcome of the social and ideological structures. In doing so, it has left unchallenged the supposition that a text has an invariable meaning.

Orthodox Marxist criticism, examining a literary text on the basis of the material and social conditions, which it assumes lead to its creation, has been shying away in acknowledging the activity of the creation of meaning by readers in which the text is continually renewed and recreated, hence denying the living presence of literature.


The writer is a filmmaker and poet. He can be reached at [email protected]

The living presence of literature