The Marxist Aesthetics of Christopher Caudwell
For British intellectuals, the years after the economic catastrophe of 1929 were a devastating experience. Before their incredulous gaze, the old revenants of European history—mass action and the threat of revolution—turned to trouble the serenity of life under the Constitution. The certitudes of liberalism seemed unequal to these new and foreboding realities: the poor, for long the beneficiaries of reforming schemes and the corporal works of mercy, were suddenly the hungry, unappeasable proletariat; political contention, once expressed in the decorous alternation of parliamentary majorities, began to assume the form of a manichean struggle between Communism and Fascism. ‘No one can expect’, commented one of the leading intellectual journals of the period, ‘that even if we now get through without disaster, we can long avoid social disintegration and revolution on the widest scale.’ Others, like John Strachey, attempted to find a new direction: ‘As not only the last vestiges of freedom for the masses, but also the books, and the whole possibility of existence, for any who attempt scientific thought, go up in the new autos da fé, we shall all find that we shall be forced to choose between our own mental and moral suicide, and communism.’
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The fascination of Joseph Conrad’s novels with the transformative pressures of capitalist modernity threatens a revelation so intolerable, Mulhern suggests, that it can only be contained within dense narrative strategies of deferral and disavowal.
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