Commitment – Alain Robbe-Grillet
Since writing in order to entertain is futile, and writing to make people believe has become suspect, the novelist thinks he can see another path: to write in order to teach. Tired of hearing armchair critics declare in their condescending way: ‘I don’t read novels any more, I’ve grown out of them, they’re all right for women (who have nothing to do), personally I prefer reality. . . . ‘ and other such idiocies, the novelist falls back on didactic literature. There at least he hopes to get the upper hand again: reality is too baffling, too ambiguous, for everyone to be able to learn something from it. When it comes to proving something (whether it be showing up the poverty of man without God, or explaining the feminine heart, or arousing class-consciousness), then fiction must come into its own again: it will be so much more convincing!
Unfortunately, it then doesn’t convince anyone any more; the moment the novel becomes suspect it runs the risk, on the contrary, of discrediting psychology, socialist morality and religion. Anyone interested in these disciplines will read essays, they are safer. And once again literature is rejected and put back into the category of the frivolous. The didactic novel has even rapidly become obnoxious to everyone. . . . And yet, a few years ago, we saw it take on a new lease of left-wing life, in different guise: ‘commitment’; which is also, in the East, and more naively coloured, called ‘socialist realism’.
Certainly the idea of a possible union between an artistic rebirth and a politico-economic revolution is one that springs very naturally to the mind. It is an idea which from the very beginning is attractive from the sentimental point of view, and which also seems obviously to be supported by logic. And yet the problems posed by such an alliance are serious and difficult; urgent, but perhaps insoluble.
The connection, at first, seemed simple. On the one hand the artistic forms which have followed one another in the history of the nations seem to us to be linked to this or that type of society, to the preponderance of a certain class, to the operation of a tyranny or to the birth of a form of liberty. In France, for instance, in the field of literature, there is some justification for seeing a close relationship between Racine’s tragedies and the development of a court aristocracy, between Balzac’s novels and the triumph of the bourgeoisie, etc.
And as, on the other hand, most people, even conservatives, will readily agree that our great contemporary artists, whether writers or painters, belong, for the most part, (or did belong, when they were producing their greatest works) to the progressive parties, they are tempted to fabricate this idyllic blueprint: Art and Revolution, advancing hand in hand, fighting for the same cause, going through the same ordeals, facing the same dangers, gradually making the same conquests, and finally attaining the same apotheosis.
Unfortunately, though, the moment we move on to the practical level, things start to go wrong. The least we can say, today, is that the data of this problem are not so simple. We all know the comedies and tragedies which for the last fifty years have been disturbing, and still are disturbing, every attempt to bring about this marvellous union which people thought was both a love match and a marriage of convenience. How can we forget the successive surrenders and resignations, the resounding quarrels, the excommunications, the imprisonments, the suicides? How can we forget what has happened to painting, not to mention any other art, in the countries where the revolution has triumphed? How can we not smile at the accusations of ‘decadence’, of ‘excess’, of ‘formalism’, employed at random by the most zealous revolutionaries to describe everything which we think of value in contemporary art? How can we not fear that we may one day find ourselves prisoners in the same net?
It is too easy, and let’s say so straight away, to blame bad leaders, bureaucratic routine, Stalin’s lack of culture, the stupidity of the French communist party. We know from experience that it is just as difficult ro try and plead the cause of art to any politician in any progressive organization. Let us be blunt about it: the socialist Revolution mistrusts revolutionary Art, and, what is more, it is not so obvious that it is wrong.
In fact, from the point of view of the revolution, everything must directly combine for the final goal: the liberation of the proletariat, . . . Everything, including literature and painting, etc. But it is quite different for the artist; e ven if his political convictions are of the strongest, even if he is a fervent jnilitant, art can never be reduced to a means to a wider end, even if that end *s the greatest and most exalted cause. Nothing can be more important to the ar tist than his work, and he soon discovers that he can only create for nothing; the slightest directive from outside paralyses him, to have to pay the slightest attention to didactics, or even to meaning, is an intolerable constraint; whatever his attachment to his party or to liberal ideas, at the moment of creation he can only be concerned with the problems of his art.
Now even at a time when art and society, after developing in similar ways, seem to be undergoing parallel crises, it is still clear that the problems raised by the one and the other cannot be solved in the same way. Later, no doubt, sociologists will discover new similarities in their solutions. But for us, in any case – and this we must face honestly and with clarity – the fight is not the same. And we must also face the fact that today, as always, there is a direct conflict between the two points of view. Either art is nothing – and in that case painting, literature, sculpture and music might as well be enrolled in the service of the revolutionary cause, where they would be no more than instruments, comparable to motorised armies, machine tools and tractors, which have nothing to contribute but their direct and immediate efficacy.
Or else art will continue to exist in its own right; and in that case, at least so far as the artist is concerned, it will remain the most important thing in the world. In which case, in comparison with political activity, it will always seem to be lagging behind, useless, if not frankly reactionary. And yet we know from history that it is only this so-called gratuitous art that will turn out to be on the side of the trade unions and the barricades.
In the meantime this generous, but Utopian, way of talking about a novel, a painting, or a statue as if they could carry the same weight in day to day action as a strike, or a mutiny, or the cry of a victim denouncing his torturers, is doing a disservice, in the final analysis, both to Art and to the Revolution. Too many such errors have been committed in the last few years in the name of socialist realism. The total artistic poverty of the works that claim the greatest affinity with it is certainly no accident: it is in the very idea of a work being created for the purpose of expressing some content of a social, political, economic, moral, etc., nature, that the falsehood lies.
Now, then, once and for all, we must stop taking it seriously when we are accused of being gratuitous, stop being afraid of ‘art for art’s sake’ as if it were the worst of all evils, and stand firm against all the instruments of coercion that are brandished in front of us the moment we talk about anything other than the class struggle or the anti-colonial war.
And yet, not everything in the Soviet theory of so-called ‘socialist realism’ should be condemned a priori. In literature, for instance, did it not also imply a reaction against the accumulation of false philosophy which had finally invaded everything, from poetry to the novel? In its opposition to metaphysical allegories, in its fight against the abstract hinterlands that these allegories presuppose, as well as against purposeless verbal delirium, and against the vague sentimentality of the emotions, socialist realism might well have been a good influence.
For misleading ideologies and myths have no more place in it. This literature simply exposes man’s situation, and that of the universe he has to contend with. And it is not only the worldly ‘values’ of bourgeois society that have disappeared, but with them any magic, religious or philosophical appeal to any sort of spiritual resource ‘beyond’ our visible world. The now fashionable themes of despair and the absurd are denounced as alibis which are too easy. Ilya Ehrenburg was not afraid to write, immediately after the war: ‘Anguish is a bourgeois vice. Our answer lies in reconstruction.’
Given principles such as this, we had every reason to hope that they were proposing to purge people and things of their systematic romanticism, so that they could once again properly be described by that expression so dear to Lukacs, which in any case is the only thing they can be – what they are. Reality would no longer be permanently situated elsewhere, but here and now, without ambiguity. The world would no longer find its justification in a hidden meaning, whatever it might be, because its existence would lie only in its concrete, solid, material presence. Beyond what we see (what our senses perceive), there would henceforth be nothing.
Let us now consider the outcome. What does socialist realism offer us? Obviously, this time, what’s good is good, and what’s bad is bad. But that is the point: their concern with the evidence has nothing to do with what we observe in the world. Where is the progress if, to avoid the division into essence and appearance we fall into the manicheism of good and evil?
And there is something even more serious. When, in the less naive stories, we come up against credible human beings, in a complex world endowed with a tangible existence, we soon discover that, in spite of everything, this world and these people have been constructed with a view to being interpreted. And anyway, their authors don’t conceal the fact that what they are primarily trying to do is to illustrate, with the greatest possible precision, various types of historical, economic, social and political behaviour.
Now, from the point of view of literature, economic truths and marxist theories about excess yield and usurpation are also hinterlands. If progressive novels are only to have any reality through these functional explanations of the visible world, which they have prepared in advance, tested and acknowledged, it is hard to see wherein their power of discovery or invention might lie. Above all, it would merely be one more new way of refusing the world its most certain quality – the simple fact that it is there. An explanation, whatever it may be, can only be superfluous when it comes face to face with the presence of things. A theory about their social function, if it has been responsible for their description, can only confuse their design, can only falsify them, on exactly the same grounds as the old psychological and moral theories, or the symbolism of allegories.
Which explains, after all, why socialist realism has no need of experiment in fictional forms, why it so utterly distrusts every new artistic technique, why What suits it best, as we see every day, is the most ‘bourgeois’ form of expression.
But for some time now some uneasiness has been felt in Russia and the Peoples’ Republics. Responsible artists are now realizing that they are on the wrong track, and that in spite of appearances the so-called ‘laboratory’ experiments on the structure and language of the novel, even if the only people to oe enthusiastic about them at first are the specialists, are perhaps not so useless as the revolutionary party pretends to think.
What is left of ‘commitment’, then? Sartre, who saw the danger of this moralistic literature, advocated a moral literature which would aim at arousing people’s political consciences merely by stating the problems of our society, but would try to avoid a propagandist spirit by restoring the reader’s liberty. Experience has shown that that too was Utopian: the moment the writer starts worrying about conveying some meaning (exterior to the work of art), literature starts to retreat, to disappear.
Let us restore to the idea of commitment, then, the only meaning it can have for us. Rather than being of a political nature, commitment, for the writer, means to be fully aware of the current problems of his own language, convinced of their extreme importance, and desirous of solving them from within. Therein lies his sole possibility of remaining an artist, and also, no doubt, by means of some obscure and distant consequence, of maybe one day being of some use -maybe even to the revolution.
Originally published in 1957 as Pour un nouveau roman.