Christopher Caudwell – Illusion and Reality

9 Apr

Caudwell’s best-known and most developed book, written before he fought and died in Spain. The subject of the book is poetry, more specifically developing a Marxist analysis of poetry’s place in society, but the book’s real value probably lies more in the general region of Marxist historical and philosophical theory. Caudwell is one of the most advanced Marxist writers in theoretical terms, with some great passages on materialism, seen here in terms of thought and language arising from social practice, and communism as a necessary historical development. His understanding of language and its place in human society is quite similar to that of the later Wittgenstein, seeing it as necessarily arising from practice, and this founds the overall basis for the book. In general terms, I would definitely recommend this book to people for the Marxist theory therein, which, as said, is probably better than in most 20th Century works specifically dedicated to the subject.

However, the book does have a couple of flaws, mainly in the realm of its chosen subject-matter. While Caudwell writes about poetry, his analyses of actual poems and poets are often very lacking when they do appear, and there are a fair few major misinterpretations and eyebrow-raising moments, such as in the discussion of Milton, which just takes over from the Romantic ‘Satanist’ misreadings of Paradise Lost and take them to sum up the essence of the work, or the portrayal of Shelley as a bourgeois radical who was lucky to die when he did so as to avoid becoming a reactionary. All in all, there doesn’t seem to be much focus on actual analysis of poems as poems, or of the paradigms expressed within them, which means that a lot of complexity is suppressed in favour of fairly lazy generalisations about poets. One of the main problems which ‘Marxist literary criticism’ has had with lyric poetry is that it generally isn’t directly political in form, but rather deals with more personal subjects, and while I think that Caudwell manages to overcome this somewhat in his discussions of poetry as such, his discussions of actual poems don’t actually seem to tackle the issue head-on, but rather simply restrict themselves to explicitly political poetry, and the political views of poets, or interpret non-political poetry to be directly political in subject-matter.

That said, however, when he discusses poetry in general terms he still has quite a lot of worth to say, and can certainly not be neglected if one is interested in the relation of Marxist theory to poetry. His strong theoretical grounding already puts him quite far in front of most ‘Marxist literary critics,’ who are generally quite light on the Marxism, and, as David Margolies points out, allows him to say much about the social function of poetry which you generally won’t find in other authors. Unlike other socialist writers on poetry, such as even Galvano della Volpe, Caudwell avoids the trap of simply advocating ‘socialist poetry,’ or judging poetry by its explicitly political content only, due to seeing the fact that poetry is generally not explicitly political and taking this into account in his theory. His theory of poetry’s social role, of the function which it plays in the lives of individuals, draws on the old Socratic idea that reason can only find application through the emotions and how we see the world, and due to this focus is prevented from simply reducing a poem to a paraphrase, as is done by the many commentators who took poetry’s worth to be merely its political message.

Caudwell, in discussing poetry’s function, ceases to regard this in merely political-Marxist terms (‘poetry should bring about the revolution!’), and rather looks at function in terms of effect upon the reader, hence in terms of how poetry actually functions when read. In this, he has more in common with reader-response theory than with theories which seek to find poetry’s meaning simply by paraphrasing poems or through merely applying external criteria. While I don’t think that Caudwell necessarily says all that needs to be said about poetry, he certainly forms a good foundation for further analysis, and points the way forward for the rest of us. In addition, the book contains an interesting criticism of Freudian theory, along with psychological content, and while its psychological analysis may not be flawless, it’s certainly interesting.

All in all, then, Caudwell’s book is worth a read for all Marxists, especially those with an interest in poetry. Despite its flaws, which, to be fair, don’t occupy the major part of the book, Caudwell’s ‘Illusion and Reality’ is an important book of 20th Century Marxist theory, and worth having a look through if you can find it.

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