The Writer And Commitment,
Seeker & Warburg. 25s.
it is a brave man who will confront contemporary literature armed only with this unwieldly weapon, the word “commitment”. My reservations about entering the discussion in this way are not dispelled by John Mander’s interesting examination of the limitation of the term in his first chapter to The Writer And Commitment. He is aware that there are other questions involved in the relation of literature to society than “showing the flag” or joining the Party; that it is not merely “commitment to a concept or a cause”; that commitment is more relevant to the artist’s work than to his life. Mander’s purpose is to enquire into “the possible meaning of the term in relation to certain English writers of the past thirty years”. Since many of these writers have been “committed” in the obvious sense—from Auden to Wesker—the examination seems perfectly legitimate. Yet the doubts continue to nag.
The word “commitment” was taken over into English from Sartre, but no theory of literature was provoked to life by it. Was this so important? I think it was. For without such a theory, there was little to prevent the term being used as a simple, crude rallying cry. It is a pity that Mander does not offer a more detailed analysis of the genesis of the term in its English setting, particularly in the post-1956 period, for this might have helped to clarify some of the confusion.
The source text was Lindsay Anderson’s “Stand Up! Stand Up!”, published originally in Sight And Sound and reprinted in the first issue of ULR. But here the confusion begins. Anderson’s piece was a clarion call to critics. It asked them to reject the notion of the neutrality of criticism, and to declare in more forthright terms the point of view from which judgments were being made. A view of the cinema—and of literature—was implicit in the article. The cinema or the novel or the drama, Anderson appeared to be arguing, deals with human situations and values. The task of the critic is to engage those values openly with his own “commitments” declared.
But the critic’s commitments are not the same as the writer’s commitments in his work. Or rather, the relationship between what the writer believes and how those beliefs are worked through in his novel, is different from the clear statement of principles which a critic is free to develop in the course of making his judgments and discriminations. It is important to know what views Tolstoy held about society, but they are a very different thing from the way in which those attitudes are embodied, organised selectively and subjected to the test of experience within, say, Anna Karenina. I think that we were interested, both in the ways in which human values are embodied in the work, and in the relationship between the writer’s attitude to life and the attitude which his work reveals. But they are different questions—or, at any rate, the relationship between them is not a simple one: and I think a great disservice was done to the discussion by trying to harness them together with the irritating yoke, “Commitment”.
Why did this happen? Largely, I suspect, because of the peculiarly intense pressure of the period in which the whole discussion arose. On the one hand, there was the literature of the time—particularly the breakthrough in the drama with Osborne, Wesker and Delaney, and the poetic documentaries of Free Cinema. Such works dealt directly with problems and complexes of feeling which were close to us. They spoke with immediacy to our condition. They were cast in terms which we could clearly understand and sympathise with, by writers and directors whose “commitments” we shared. Chicken Soup and Roots were, after all, not merely plays by a playwright with strong socialist convictions—they were plays about socialism: about the Communist Party, the East End, the disillusion with Hungary, the search for a new socialist and humanist language. They were doubly committed. They demanded to be judged in terms of the “commitments” which they set out, in the first place, to dramatise. But even here the limits of the term were reached almost at once. The critical coolness with which John Arden’s Sergeant Musgrave’s Dance was received was almost entirely due to the fact that it did not fit the pre-arranged categories of “commitment” as they had been erected (see NLR1, 7).