Sunday, June 10, 2007

Dream History

Just a postscript to my Edmund Wilson post the other day: I wrote about how Wilson views Symbolism as a French attempt to catch up to the aesthetic liberty of English Romanticism, kickstarted by the importation of American theory. Well, I found an analogue to that argument in my very first merry hour perusing The Marx-Engels Reader, in the introduction to Marx's 1843 "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right." There, Marx argues that Germany is historically (i.e., politically and economically) way behind France and England, still stuck in the ancien régime, though philosophically their contemporary: that is, that German political philosophy, as conceived by Hegel et al., is more modern than actual political existence in Germany. The task of the German nation, then, is "to connect its dream history with its present conditions" (16) — a lovely phrase, that (Marx can be quite the charmer when he wants to be). Luckily, it is exactly this imbalance between theoretical sophistication and practical benightedness that will give birth to the truly radical revolution, which at that point Marx thought was possible only in Germany, and which has "philosophy as the head … and the proletariat as the heart" (23).

Maybe I'm forcing things a little, but it seems to me that this is the basic structure of Wilson's argument as well,* if we swap aesthetics for politics and put France in the place of Germany: viz. that England was more aesthetically modern than France in the mid-19th century, but that it took the French tendency toward abstract theorization to push those aesthetics to their limit and produce Modernism as we come to know it. In other words, it's the collision of France's "dream history" — or maybe, in this case, "dream aesthetics": the literature they want to have — and the classical conditions of its traditional literary art — the literature they actually do have — that produces the revolution of Symbolism, from which (in Wilson's story, anyway) everything springs.

What interests me the most here are the uneven developments of theory and literature across and even within specific cultures: how one country does something without understanding it, and then another combines a theoretical analysis of that something with a certain primitivism, a naïve belief in the new (or just a desperate desire to escape the old) and a willingness to go ahead.

Sorry if this is not so cogent — I'm just sort of working this stuff through for myself. To be continued...?

* (Wilson, of course, engages directly with Marxism in his 1940 classic To the Finland Station, a cultural history of Communism. Not sure if he'd read much Marx by 1931, though.)