FROM THE PULPIT
A LLAN M ASSIE
Writers and the Golden Age
I WASN ’ TLISTENING carefully to the discussion on Radio 5 because I was mucking out the stable at the time. So I never learned who the speakers were. But the gist of the argument seemed to be why so much art – all art? – was left-wing. Were there, someone asked, any right-wing writers? A few novelists were tentatively proposed (Iris Murdoch, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell), but the consensus was that art was leftwing because it was, first of all, protest, and secondly (I think) a criticism of society and the way we live now. Well, yes, up to a point, and so forth. But the matter is surely more complicated. Orwell, a man of the Left, recognised this. Time and again he asked in his essays how it was that so many of the great modernist writers were attracted to right-wing politics, even to Fascism: examples he gave were Eliot, Pound and Yeats. ‘The relationship between Fascism and the literary intelligentsia badly needs investigating, and Yeats might well be the starting-point,’ he wrote in 1943. Actually, one can imagine these writers – D H Lawrence too – as critics, were they alive, of globalisation, a position now regarded as on the Left. Orwell found one thing constant in Yeats’s work, ‘and that is his hatred of modern Western civilization’. You can find evidence of such hatred in Eliot’s work as well, and in Pound’s and Lawrence’s. They all protest against the ugliness of the modern world, expressing their distaste for the machine age and for the corruption of humane and civilised values which has resulted. Pound, in his hatred of usury, is as hostile to bankers as any G8 protester. It was his loathing of ‘the money power’ that led him to support Mussolini and Italian Fascism. The target may be the same, but right-wing protest has different and perhaps deeper roots. Its anger is aroused by the destruction of an inherited and ordered way of life. It values tradition and a timeless culture. Recognising that there is no progress in the arts (though there is innovation, and there are new techniques), right-wing protest tends towards scepticism. ‘When ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away,’ wrote Burke, ‘the loss cannot possibly be estimated.’ Today’s environmentalists, who may range themselves on the Left, must agree. Of course, the idea that art necessarily finds expression in protest, or is essentially a means of protesting, whether from the Right or the Left, is itself, comparatively speaking, modern. It dates from the Romantic movement. Before then, much art was a celebration of the established order, and inasmuch as it was critical, the criticism was directed at those who would disturb that order. Satire, for instance, was generally conservative. Its anger and contempt were aroused by folly and the vanity and vices of the present day; the satirist harked back to a (doubtless imaginary) Golden Age.
Milton was politically on the Left, but his art was anything but subversive in intent. In writing Paradise Lost he set himself to ‘justify the ways of God to men’. He assumed that the world was rightly ordered, disorder being occasioned by man’s disobedience and conceit. In politics Milton was a radical and republican, what we might now call a moderniser. His writings in prose might even be described as protest literature. But, though he was not an orthodox Christian, inclining rather to Unitarianism, his poetry – his High Art – is in the Christian tradition, Paradise Lost an example of Renaissance Christian art comparable to Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel. Like Bach’s Passions, such art is affirmative. Artists as citizens may belong to right or left, and some of their work may be inspired by political sentiments. In diaries and letters and in conversations they may express opinions violently and crudely – one thinks for instance of the correspondence between Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. They may write political poems as bare, unvarnished and silly as Harold Pinter’s. But their serious work is different. It’s not a matter of opinions, but of feelings and perceptions. In serious work the distinction between right and left has little to do with party politics, or even with immediate political issues. It’s to do rather with two things, which are closely connected: the nature of man and the location of the Golden Age. The Left, ever since Rousseau, has seen man as essentially good, in chains only on account of the institutions of a cruel and corrupt society. Loosen his chains, strike off his fetters, and the natural benevolence of his nature will be free to flourish. For the Left the Golden Age is still to come. The Right, however, sees our nature as essentially flawed. ‘I cannot but conclude’, Gulliver is told by his master in Brobdingnag, ‘the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.’ This miserable creature must therefore be subjected to order. The Right values tradition because, to quote Burke again: ‘We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.’ So the Golden Age is always in the past. Left-wing artists, however angry, are optimists; rightwing ones, however serene or witty, are pessimists. Yet the same man may be of the Left in his politics, opinions, and daily life, but of the Right in his Art. Graham Greene is a good example: politically on the Left, nevertheless on the Right in the view of man’s nature which informs his novels.
LITERARY REVIEW November 2005