Edward Upward on James Joyce & Modernism

For the Marxist the fundamental forces of to-day are those which are working to destroy capitalism and to establish socialism. Consequently he considers that no modern book can be true to life unless it recognises, more or less clearly, both the decadence of present-day society and the inevitability of revolution. We might proceed to inquire how far some of the best-known modern imaginative books correspond to reality as the Marxist views it; but as the non-Marxist questions the reality of the future revolution we shall perhaps do better to inquire how far such books correspond to those aspects of present-day life which both the Marxist and the non-Marxist regard as real. Economic crisis, unemployment, the growth of fascism and the approach of a new world war—these facts are regarded by almost everyone real and important, and they are beginning to be reflected in the work of the majority of serious writers to-day, even though the positive side of the world situation—Soviet Russia and the advance of the international working-class movement—is often ignored and fundamental reality is consequently distorted; but were these facts even dimly foreshadowed in the work of serious writers twenty years ago? Did D. H. Lawrence, Joyce, Proust, provide us with emotional generalisations about life which will survive the test of practice in the world of to-day? There can be no question that these writers tried to tell the truth about life. Proust explicitly stated that he had set out to discover the fundamental laws—ʻles grandes lois’—of society. Possibly he meant only Society with a capital S: if so we should not be altogether justified in complaining that his picture of the world neither is nor was true to the world outside Society. But we should be justified in pointing out that his picture is not true even to the world which it purported to represent. He gives us an immense wealth of truthful detail, but he misleads us by suggesting that Society is the only part of the social world that matters. He gives no indication that Society is influenced by outside forces, is changed by these forces, and, therefore, though he can tell us accurately what it was like at a given period, he cannot reveal for us the fundamental laws of its development, cannot tell us what it is like now or what it will be like in the future. Ignoring the struggle between capitalism and socialism, he offers no hint of the effects this struggle will have on the world he describes. He does not understand the dynamics of Society. Therefore, in spite of his psychological insight and his skill in presenting minor truths—a skill so considerable that if it had been coupled with a wider understanding it would have made him one of the greatest writers of all time—his work is unlikely to have a high value as literature in the society of the future. For similar reasons Joyce’s Ulysses, in spite of its mastery of language and the brilliant faithfulness of its observation, is unlikely as a whole to have a vital interest for the future. The petit bourgeois Dublin society that Joyce pictured was, like Proust’s aristocracy, decadent, a dying society destined to be supplanted by something younger and more vigorous, by a new society as yet in embryo and quite invisible to Joyce. And because this embryo was invisible to Joyce he could not tell the whole truth even about the petit bourgeoisie, could not see them in their true perspective, could only accept the immediate fact of their decay and attempt to give it a universal importance which in reality it had not got. D. H. Lawrence, unlike Proust and Joyce, was unquestionably aware of and tried to describe the outside forces that were undermining the bourgeois society into which he had made his way; but he saw these forces mainly from a bourgeois viewpoint, as destroyers to be combated; consequently he too misrepresented reality, and though he could give a wider picture of the world than Proust or Joyce, he was unable to give as clearly detailed a picture as they did.

How did it happen that these three writers, all of whom had potentialities which might have placed them among the greatest writers of the world, failed to tell the truth? It did not happen because they wanted to avoid telling the truth. If they had wanted to do this they would have written thrillers or amusing fantasies. They tried to give a picture of fundamental reality, and they failed because in their everyday lives they set themselves in opposition to that reality. They shared the life of a social class which has passed its prime, is decaying and, no matter how violently it may struggle, is doomed to ultimate extinction. A writer, if he wishes at all to tell the truth, must write about the world as he has already experienced it in the course of his practical living. And if he shares the life of a class which cannot solve the problems that confront it, which cannot cope with reality, then no matter how honest or talented he may be, his writing will not correspond to reality, his emotional generalisations about life will not survive the test of practice. He must change his practical life, must go over to the progressive side of the conflict, to the side whose practice is destined to be successful; not until he has done this will it be possible for his writing to give a true picture or the world. The only alternative for him is, as the reactionary class to which he clings plunges ever deeper into failure, to write books which increasingly distort reality and which, translated back into practice, lead to even greater failure. Failing to tell the truth about the major realities, he will try to tell the truth about dreams or words or the past, but he will not succeed even in this. Distortion will appear also in the more limited field of vision. He will at best write something in the style of the later work of Lawrence or Joyce, the style of The Man Who Died or Haveth Childers Everywhere. He will at worst write something so obscure or far-fetched that it will have no value at all as literature in the future.

A writer to-day who wishes to produce the best work that he is capable of producing, must first of all become a socialist in his practical life, must go over to the progressive side of the class conflict. Having become a socialist, however, he will not necessarily become a good writer. The quality of his writing will depend upon his individual talent, his ability to observe the complex detail of the real world. But unless he has in his everyday life taken the side of the workers, he cannot, no matter how talented he may be, write a good book, cannot tell the truth about reality.

SOURCE: Upward, Edward. “A Marxist Interpretation of Literature,” in The Mind in Chains: Socialism and the Cultural Revolution, edited by C. Day Lewis (London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1937), pp. 39-55. This excerpt, pp. 49-52. Table of contents.

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