Letter from Paris: André Gide and His New Antagonist

Fascism thus has an interest in restricting the functional character of art in such a way that no transformative effect on the class situation of the proletariat—whence comes the largest part of those whom fascist art reaches and a smaller part of the cadre responsible for executing it—is to be feared from it. It is this art-political interest that “monumental design” serves. And it does so in a twofold way. First, it glorifies the existing regime of economic peace in that it represents it according to its “eternal attributes,” that is, as insurmountable. The Third Reich reckons in millennia.—Second, it casts on those on the executing as much as on those on the receiving end of it a spell under which they cannot but appear to themselves monumentally, that is, as incapable of considered and independent actions.1 Art thus augments the suggestive energies of its effect at the expense of the intellectual and enlightening ones. The eternalization of existing relations is consummated in fascist art by the crippling of human beings (whether those who execute or those who receive it) who would otherwise be capable of altering those relations. Only with the comportment that the spell forces upon them can the masses—so fascism teaches—come into their own.

The material out of which fascism erects its monuments, which it takes to be ironclad, is above all so-called human material. In these monuments, the elite eternalize their dominance. And it is thanks to these monuments alone that the human material receives its configuration. Before the gaze of the fascist masters, which, as we saw, sweeps over millennia, the difference between the slaves who raised the pyramids out of blocks of stone and the proletarian masses who themselves, on the plazas and the drilling grounds, form blocks before the Führer is an evanescent one. Maulnier thus makes himself well understood when he lumps together “master-builders and soldiers” as representatives of the elite. (Better, of course, is Gide, when he perspicaciously characterizes the new monumental edifices in Rome as “architectural journalism” [Nouvelles pages, p. 85].)

Maulnier’s aestheticism, as has been indicated, is not an improvised standpoint on which fascism draws only in debates over questions of art history. Fascism is led to that standpoint whenever it would come closer to appearances, but without letting itself get mixed up in reality. A way of seeing that casts aside the functional value of art recommends itself in other respects, too, wherever there is an interest in keeping the functional character of a phenomenon out of sight. That is eminently the case, as is clearly to be seen in Maulnier, with technology. It is easy to understand why. The development of the productive forces, which include, alongside the proletariat, technology, has brought about the crisis that presses toward the socialization of the means of production. This crisis is therefore a function principally of (along with the proletariat) technology. Whoever thinks to resolve it without regard for its objective causes, violently, and while leaving privileges intact, has every interest in rendering the functional character of technology as unrecognizable as possible.

There are two courses that can then be pursued. They lead in opposite directions, but they are determined by related ideas—namely, by aesthetic ideas, precisely. The first course we find in Georges Duhamel2. It amounts to leaving the role of the machine in the production process resolutely out of account and linking the criticism of it to the various misgivings and insalubrities that for the independent producer are bound up with the employment of machines (whether his own or others’). Duhamel comes to a cautious assessment of the automobile, to a staunch repudiation of film, and to the half-facetiously, half-seriously meant proposal that all inventions be prohibited by edict of the state for a period of five years. The proletarian turns against the employer; the petty-bourgeois, against the machine. It is in the name of art that Duhamel sides against the machine. Evidently, things appear a bit differently to fascism. The big-bourgeois mentality of its bosses has left its mark on the intellectuals who placed themselves at its disposal. Marinetti was one of them. He sensed instinctively at first that a “futuristic” view of the machine would be of use to imperialism. Marinetti began as a Bruitist; he proclaimed noise—the unproductive activity of the machine—its most significant one. He ended as a member of the Royal Academy, who admitted to having found in the Ethiopian War the fulfillment of the futurist dreams of his youth3. Maulnier, without really knowing what he is doing, follows his lead when, against Gorki’s “New Humanism,” he states that what constitutes the principal value of discoveries in technology and science is “not so much their result, what they may eventually yield, . . . as . . . their poetic value” (p. 77). “Marinetti,” Maulnier writes, “was intoxicated with height, with movement, with steel, with precision, with noise, with speed—in short, with everything in the machine that can be contemplated as valuable in itself and that does not partake of its utilitarian character. . . . He deliberately restricted himself to turning to account only their unusable, that is, their aesthetic aspect” (p. 84).

Maulnier holds this position to be so well founded that he has no trepidation about citing as a curiosity the sentences in which Mayakovsky addresses Marinetti’s view of the machine. Mayakvosky speaks the language of sound common sense: “The era of the machine demands, not that hymns be sung in its praise, but, in the interest of humanity, to be mastered. Not that one lose oneself in aesthetic contemplation of the steel of skyscrapers, but that one organize the construction of apartment buildings. . . . Not that one seek out noise, but that one organize the use of silencers. . . . We poets need to be able to speak in automobiles” (p. 83f.)4. Mayakovsky’s worthy, because reserved and sober, attitude is incompatible with the effort to take pleasure in a “monumental” aspect of technology. It testifies conclusively against Maulnier’s pronouncement that the collectivism of the Russians has made “the engineer into a spiritual ruler” (p. 79). That is to put a technocratic slant on things. It misrepresents the Soviet citizen’s polytechnic education as technocratically directed compulsory labor. And it is a technocratic interpretation in another sense as well: it is one that suggests itself precisely to technocrats.

Now, no one will reject more decidedly than Maulnier the accusation of thinking technocratically. That way of thinking would seem to him, rather, to be incompatible with the artistic one. His definition of art could, at first glance, make it seem as though he were right. It reads: “The very mission of art is to make objects and creatures unusable” (p. 86). Let us not leave things as they appear at first glance. Let us take a closer look! Of all the arts there is one that Maulnier’s definition satisfies with particular accuracy. It is the art of war. It embodies the fascist idea of art just as much in its monumental application of human material as in its application of technology absolved in its entirety from every banal end. The poetic side of technology, which the fascist sets off against its prosaic side, about which the Russians make too much ado for his taste, is its homicidal side. Thus does the sentence, “Everything that is primitive, spontaneous, innocent is, for that reason alone, detestable” (p. 213), acquire its full meaning.

This sentence is to be found in the final section of the essay in which Maulnier has it out with Gide. Does not the capacity to elicit such telltale reactions merit gratitude? Has not Gide come to embody the ideal figure that he evokes in his diary entry of March 28, 1935: the inquiéteur, someone who instills disquiet? In fact, he has made himself into the spokesman of those who disquiet the fascist author like nothing else.

Those are the masses, and, indeed, the reading masses. “Thanks to the gigantic efforts made in support of education at all levels, thanks to the removal of every barrier between different levels of education . . . , thanks to the astonishing reduction of the number of the illiterate . . . , thanks to the direct appeal to the capacity of all, children not excepted, for literary invention . . . , thanks to all of the above, you are giving”—so Jean-Richard Bloch addressed the representatives of the Soviet Union at the 1935 Paris Congress of Writers—“to the writer . . . the most marvelous gift that he could have dreamed of: you are giving him a public of 170 million readers.”5

For the fascist writer, that is a poisoned chalice. For the elite to whose aid Maulnier springs, an appreciation of art not protected on all sides against disturbing elements by the monopoly on education is something inconceivable. The abolition of the monopoly on education would in and of itself be nerve-racking enough for Maulnier. And now Gorki tells him that art, precisely, is called upon to help to bring it about. He tells him that in Soviet literature no fundamental distinction is made between an aesthetically valuable book and one valuable as a work of popular science. And faced with this proposition—long borne out by the most modern popularizers in western literature: a Frank, a de Greif, an Eddington, a Neurath—Maulnier can do nothing better than include it in his characterization of the “barbarism in the service of which Gorki has placed himself” (p. 78).

Here, too, Maulnier hardly deviates from his idea of presenting culture as the summation of privileges. Perhaps culture does not look so good in this light. But inasmuch as Maulnier seeks out imperialist culture’s confrontation with that of Soviet Russia, that is something that he has to take into the bargain. He cannot change the fact that the sumptuary character of the former stands out in relief against the productive character of the latter. The anxious emphasis on the creative, familiar to us from the culture debate, has the purpose above all of distracting from how little the “creatively” (in that sense) manufactured product, for its part, benefits the production process, from how exclusively it lapses into consumption. Imperialism has brought about a state of affairs in which the poem eulogized as “divine” rightfully shares such praise with pastries.

  1. It is not only the fascist stylization of mass art, but just as much the framework of the various “associations” and “fronts” in which it is played out, that has a beguiling effect (compare the German festive processions with those in Russia).
  2. Georges Duhamel, Scènes de la vie future (Paris, 1930), and L’humaniste et l’automate (Paris, 1933).
  3. Cf. Marinetti’s manifesto for the Ethiopian War. [F. T. Marinetti, “Invito alla guerra africana. Manifesto futurista agli scrittori e agli artisti d’Italia,” Gazetta del Popolo, July 30, 1935; reprinted in Stile futurista 2.11–12 (1935). —Tr.]
  4. [Cf. Vladimir Mayakovsky, My Discovery of America, trans. Neil Cornwell (London: Hesperus, 2005), 103. —Tr.]
  5. [Benjamin in fact quotes from Bloch’s address to the 1934 Congress of Soviet Writers, in Moscow: see Jean-Richard Bloch, “Paroles à un congrès soviétique,” Europe 141 (September 1934): 103. Apparently, he confuses it with Bloch’s address in June of the following year to the International Congress of Writers, in Paris, for which see Pour la défense de la culture. Les textes du Congrès international des écrivains, Paris, juin 1935, ed. S. Teroni and W. Klein (Dijon: Éditions Universitaires de Dijon, 2005), 127–33. —Tr.]