Friday, January 04, 2008

A Low Dishonest Decade

I've been reading The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930's by Samuel Hynes.
It's about Auden, Spender, Isherwood, etc. -- the intellectuals who were too young to have served in World War I, who felt the strain of having missed a defining experience, and by the late 1920s they were already defining themselves in terms of the coming war. There was a powerful feeling that WWI had proved liberal democracy a failure, and a strong pressure to turn either Communist or Fascist. It's the "low dishonest decade" that Auden came to repudiate, and a powerful cautionary tale to those who feel a demand to politicize art.

As EM Forster said at the time, and this should be required reading for the Bush administration:

As for their argument for revolution – the argument that we must do evil now so that good may come in the long run – it seems to me to have nothing in it. Not because I am too nice to do evil, but because I don’t believe that the Communists know what leads to what. They say they know because they are becoming conscious of the ‘causality of society.’ I say they don’t know, and my counsel for 1938-39 is rather: Do good, and possibly good may come of it. Be soft even if you stand to get squashed. Beware of the long run. Seek understanding dispassionately, and not in accordance with a theory."

And as Johnny Cash said a couple of generations later,

"Don't go mixing politics with the folk songs of our land."

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