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On "Against the False Magicians"


E.P. Thompson

Against the intolerant orthodoxy of his times McGrath affirmed the "magical" properties of poetry. In the night of a decadent civilization moving towards extermination, the poem might be a charm against evil powers. We have this written out in that fine poem, "Against the False Magicians". . . .

This poem is given an uncomplex dialectical structure. The thesis of the first verse (the wish-fulfillment of romanticism) is easy, fluent, uncluttered. The antithesis of the second verse (realism) opens with a memorable image: "A warship can sink a circus at forty miles." One remembers Mr. Sleary's circus in Hard Times (which, however, was not in the end sunk by the batteries of utilitarianism); but today I always think also of the tanks rolling in to extinguish the Prague Spring. If realism surrenders to the contingent ("the chance and accident of our real world") then it betrays the privileged view of life of art and has no terms for "the potential" ("a view of life according to probability or necessity"), falling back in the end upon the lost fantasies of romance. In the final verse McGrath affirms the true magical properties of poetry ("the charm which the potential has"), moving through a commonplace pathetic image to the sustained and impassioned synthesis in which the reality of human spiritual forces is affirmed ("in a sense truer than the life we see lived all round us").

The poem has an enduring validity. We need not try to fasten it down into a local context. But it can also be seen within the particular context of Communist cultural circles to illuminate an internal hullabaloo in which McGrath was rejecting both of the barren alternatives, "socialist romanticism" or "socialist realism," which were being debated. The argument had been rumbling and sputtering on since the late thirties. If critics and historians will only lay aside their orthodox or post-Trotskyist almanacs for a while and look into the evidence, they will find that the real history is many miles away from the stereotypes. McGrath at this moment was in the belly of a decaying Popular Front whale, but he was kicking violently at the blubber around him. This is the way in which most cultural mutations arise--from the contradiction within the contradiction.

From Thomas McGrath: Life and the Poem. Ed. Reginald Gibbons and Terrence Des Pres. A Special Issue of TriQuarterly Magazine. Northwestern Unviersity, 1987. Copyright 1987 by TriQuarterly.


John Marsh

Unlike E.P. Thompson, I would like to fasten Thomas McGrath’s "Against the False Magicians" down into a local context. Thompson suggests we read the poem in the context of "Communist cultural circles to illuminate an internal hullabaloo in which McGrath was rejecting both of the barren alternatives, ‘socialist romanticism’ or ‘socialist realism,’ which were being debated." Never a strict party-liner, McGrath’s resistance to the sometimes overly orthodox aesthetic prescriptions of the left no doubt influences, as Thompson argues, both "Magicians" and his poetics. But McGrath’s run-in with the House Un-American Actvities Committee, the subsequent loss of his teaching position at Los Angeles State College in 1953 after refusing to cooperate with that committee, and the poem’s 1955 date of composition should alert us to an equally relevant context of the poem as that of internal Communist hullabaloos. That is, America’s homegrown version of political repression and aesthetic prescription—McCarthyism. Especially the effect McCarthyism had in closing down the universe of artistic and political possibilities; and a set of limitations and constrictions McGrath’s "Against the False Magicians" finally assigns poetry the task of resisting.

To be sure, "Against the False Magicians" does not take on McCarthyism as directly as some of Edwin Rolfe’s poetry ("Now the Fog," "A Letter to the Denouncers," "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been") from this period. I would like to argue, though, that "Against the False Magicians" cannot be read outside of the intellectual violence McCarthyism perpetrated against the field of mid-century cultural productions and political thought. As Victor Navasky rightly points out about this period of history, "Unable to tolerate a little subversion...if that is the price of freedom, dignity, and experimentation—we lost our edge, our distinctiveness." It is this freedom, this edge, and finally this subversion that McGrath’s "Against the False Magicians" wants to preserve, and to preserve through the agency of a certain kind of poetry and poetics.

The handcuffed cultural and political world made for by McCarthyism and its implication for a poetics is present in the very first line of "Against the False Magicians": "The poem must not charm us like a film...." The remainder of the first stanza describes a maudlin romance-cum-war film, complete with handsome lieutenants and wet-lipped blondes "saluting themselves and death" with their oblivious-to-falling-bombs-kisses, after which "the screen goes dead and all go home." McGrath labels such melodrama the "Ritual of the false imagination," invoking, perhaps, Frankfurt School Marxists’ denunciation of the Culture Industry and the mass-produced and mass-consumed radio, film, and television products that distract from the everyday inequality and irrationality that characterized the "tranquilized fifties." Yet if McGrath condemns film as "the ritual of false imagination," as so much false conscious escapism, and further that poetry should not "charm us" like the film, it helps to place this aesthetic generalization in its historical moment. Frankfurt School theorists would dismiss film as generally as McGrath does here—and the earlier hijacking of film by the Hollywood Studio System would more profoundly limit film’s potential as an avant-garde or progressive mass medium than any overt or tacit censorship under McCarthyism. In addition to more programmatic Marxist critiques, then, we need to read McGrath’s opening denunciation of film culture within the specific context of McCarthyism. Especially the effect McCarthyism and blacklists had on the content and types of films produced. And, to the degree that culture and literature constructs subjectivity, the effect this circumscribed film and literary culture would have for political consciousness.

As Ellen Shrecker points out, "The nation’s cultural and intellectual life suffered" as a result of McCarthyism. "While there were other reasons that TV offered a bland menu of quiz shows and westerns during the 1950s, McCarthy-era anxieties clearly played a role. Similarly, the black-list contributed to the reluctance of the film industry to grapple with controversial social or political issues." Victor Navasky also wonders "what we have lost in the way of movies unmade, ideas unhatched, scripts not written, talent undeveloped, careers abandoned, consciousness unrevised." Absent McCarthyism, "a cinema of ideas" (Mark Jacobson’s phrase) might have developed. "Perhaps," Navasky continues, "Salt of the Earth (1954), product of the blacklist underground...is but a crude specimen of what might have been." For McGrath to warn that poetry should not charm us like the film depends upon the existence of certain kinds of film (the sexy, politically obtuse war movies described in the first stanza) and a certain kind of circumscribed film culture (Hollywood under McCarthy.) (One need not believe that Hollywood would have given rise to an advanced guard of Sergei Eisensteins to believe that American film lost something when it replaced Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times with Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.) Hence the film culture McGrath both condemns and seeks to preserve poetry from is not inevitable but rather the result of ideological and political pressures on the production of film art. Precisely the pressures McGrath wants to release poetry from—if not in fact to make poetry combat. For if poetry capitulates to the same ideological and political pressures as film, it would, like film, "charm us" into a contemptible escapism characterized by the poetic equivalent of wet-lipped blondes kissing while the bombs fall and, for work produced during the nuclear age, a poetry therefore implicitly "saluting death."

If McGrath’s first stanza warns us that "poetry should not charm us like a film," though, the second stanza opens with an equally programmatic warning:

The poem must not charm us like the fact:
A warship can sink a circus at forty miles,
And art, love’s lonely counterfeit, has small dominion
Over those nightmares that move in the actual sunlight.

McGrath reminds us that poetry should not strive after a realism it is incapable of attaining since its realism can never compete with the really real, the warships and nightmares that can sink art and love and "a circus at forty miles." McGrath’s stanza suggests W.H. Auden’s observation in "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" that "poetry makes nothing happen...." And if poetry indeed makes nothing happen, then it shouldn’t try to have affect that which really does make things happen. No poetry will ever stop a warship, provide shelter from mutually assured destruction, or defeat the "nightmare" of McCarthyism: and to ask poetry to do so is to guarantee disappointment. Yet for Auden and McGrath, poetry does other things. We sometimes forget the optimism behind Auden’s famously pessimistic view of poetry’s claim on the real world:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth (36-41).

In Auden’s vision, poetry "survives" as a way of happening, as the mouth of a speaking, isolated subject. Too great an emphasis on fact, too overwhelming a vision of warships, nightmares, executives, and a total, impenetrable system would, McGrath concludes his second stanza, "have us weeping/ The orphaned fantasies of easier days" (17-18).

In McGrath’s final, remarkable stanza, then, instead of a poetry that charms us into an escapism like films or charms us into a defeatism like facts, McGrath creates a place for poetry similar to the one Auden reserves for it:

It is the charm which the potential has
That is the proper aura of the poem.
Though ceremony fail, though each of your grey hairs
Help string a harp in the landlord’s heaven,
And every battle, every augury,
Argue defeat, and if defeat itself
Bring all the darkness level with our eyes—
It is the poem provides the proper charm,
Spelling resistance and the living will
To bring to dance a stony field of fact
And set against terror exile or despair
The rituals of our humanity.

The final stanza proceeds dialectically: a thesis of political impotence, the antithesis of a proper poetry, and the synthesis of the rituals of humanity. The stanza begins with the abject recitation of defeat: the failure of human ceremony, the "fact" of exploitation (grey hairs stringing a harp in the landlord’s heaven) and darkness and perceived political impotence. A tone of resignation and defeat perhaps in keeping with the mood of the victims of McCarthyism and its political pogroms: both individuals, like McGrath, and, more ideologically, the idealism of the left. Yet, as in Auden, McGrath describes poetry as a reservoir to draw on for the optimism and independence of thought denied under the desiccate political conditions and closed down utopias of the 1950s. A poetry, to borrow from Auden, that "survives" McCarthyism and McCarthyism’s assault on intellectual, cultural, and political life. "It is the poem provides the proper charm," McGrath writes, "Spelling resistance and the living will."

McGrath provides an equally eloquent and no less heroic account of his belief about the "proper aura" of the poem, the poet, and the relation of each to the reactionary, defeatist politics of the post-World War II in his 1953 statement to the House Un-American Activies Committee. A statement of resistance and the living will that would ultimately lead to the loss of his job:

The view of life we receive through the great works of art is a privileged one—it is a view of life according to probability or necessity, not subject to change and accident of our real world and therefore in a sense truer than the life lived all around us.... Then, too, poets have been notorious non-cooperators where committees of this sort are concerned. As a traditionalist, I would prefer to take my stand with Marvell, Blake, Shelley, and Garcia Lorca.... I do not wish to bring dishonor to my tribe.

McGrath’s "Against the False Magicians," in the depths of the McCarthy-era terror, exile, and despair which counted him as a victim, can still imagine poetry and tribes of poets as the preservationists of intellectual and political possibility and non-cooperation. A vision of poetry I find especially heroic and redemptive even today.

Copyright 2001 by John Marsh


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