Letter from Paris: André Gide and His New Antagonist

Maulnier cannot at any price do without the “creative.” “Man,” he writes, “fabricates something in order to use it; but he creates in order to create” (p. 86). Just how specious is the lifeless and undialectical division between creation and fabrication on which the aesthetic of the creative is based, the Soviets’ polytechnic education proves. This education is just as capable of leading the factory worker to a creative sort of labor—in the framework of a production plan that he oversees, of a collective of producers for which his life is vital, of a mode of production that he can improve—as it is of disposing the writer, thanks to the precision of the tasks that it assigns him, that is, thanks to the specific public that it affords him, to a sort of production that, thanks to the accountability that a maker can give to his procedure, can lay claim to the honorable title of fabrication. And precisely the writer ought to remember that the word “text”—from woven: textum—was at one time just such a term of honor. With the polytechnic education of the human being that is now developing before his eyes, he will be unmoved by the spokesman of the elite who tells him that “those all too fleeting moments in which man is able to withdraw from an existence that, as in primitive times, he must devote almost entirely to the material maintenance of life . . . will be seen by collectivistic society as so many desertions” (p. 80). Whom does the human being have to thank if such moments are so fleeting? The elite. Who has an interest in making work itself humanly worthy? The proletariat.

Its edification can readily do without what Maulnier calls the “privileges of the inner life” (p. 5), but it can never do without such as would feel and describe those privileges as Gide, on March 8, 1935, does: “I feel today, acutely, painfully, that inferiority—of never having had to earn my bread, of never having had to work in straitened circumstances. But I have always had so great a love for work that presumably that would not have compromised my happiness. So that is not really what I mean. But a time will come when that will be considered a failing. There is in work something for which the richest imagination cannot compensate, a profound sort of instruction of which nothing, subsequently, can ever take the place. A time is coming when the bourgeois will sense his own inferiority in the face of a simple worker. For some, this time has already come” (Nouvelles pages, p. 164f.).

Still more disquieting than the fact that in the east there exists a public of 170 million readers is, for Maulnier, the fact that in France there live writers who think about it. André Gide has dedicated his latest book, Les nouvelles nourritures, to the young readers of the Soviet Union. Its first paragraph reads:

You who will come when I will no longer hear the noises of the earth and my lips will no longer drink its dew, you who, later, will read me, perhaps—it is for you that I write these pages; for to live perhaps does not astound you enough; you do not admire as it ought to be admired the astonishing miracle that your life is. It sometimes seems to me that it is with my thirst that you are going to drink, and that what inclines you toward that other being whom you caress is already my own desire. (Les nouvelles nourritures, p. 9)


translator’s note: The present essay was composed in 1936, when its author was living in Paris, having had by then, for obvious reasons, to flee Germany definitively. However, one will find in it none of the exilic—and utopian—pathos that one has generally been wont to detect in Benjamin’s later writings, and against which he, for his own part, sought to inoculate himself, precisely, in his Berlin Childhood around 1900. Rather, we see him here at the height of his lucidity, and engaged in a very fine analysis, in part of the reasons behind the writer André Gide’s espousal of communism in the early 1930s (in which he doubtless saw a reflection and, in a manner of speaking, a confirmation of his own), but principally of the ideology of the fascist intellectuals—and soi-disant upholders of “culture”—in whose side a communist Gide was an insufferable thorn. In a moment we will say a word as to why that was so.

The first question that ought to be asked, though, is, To whom does Benjamin address these analyses? “Letter from Paris: André Gide and His New Antagonist” appeared originally in Das Wort, a review responsible for publishing the writings of German intellectuals in exile. Its editors were Bertolt Brecht, Willi Bredel (a member of the Communist Party of Germany), and Lion Feuchtwanger (at the time a fellow traveler). But its contributors, like its readers, were not all of one stamp politically. They composed, rather, a relatively diverse group, on the left wing of which were the likes of Benjamin and Ernst Bloch, and on the right, Thomas Mann. In short, taken together they were united not by any common position so much as by a common opposition. It was this circumstance, no doubt, that led Brecht to reflect that the journal was, if anything, “not critical enough,” and that he and his fellow editors were “not in agreement with all of the contributions,” even if in the end they “printed them nonetheless.” For they had, of course, to make shift with what they had, and what they had was not hewn from a single stone. “The literature of the [German] emigration,” Brecht goes on to say, “is proceeding along an arduous, uneven, and tortuous path, like that portion of the German nation to which it is linked. Like the latter, it is ununified and held together mainly by a common enmity toward fascism. Its knowledge of politics is unevenly developed; a large part of it, those whom many would call the artistically qualified, were treated as political (and expelled on that account) before they were conscious of what political actions are. What this part has learned, it has learned from the experience of facts; but learning from facts, precisely, was not exactly its strongpoint.”

Now, Benjamin—who here writes unambiguously as a Marxist, and indeed from the standpoint of the orthodox Marxism for which he had advocated as early as 1929 (for example, in “A Communist Pedagogy”)—surely had no need to preach to the choir. We may surmise, rather, that his “Letter from Paris” was addressed primarily to those in the middle and on the right of the spectrum of the journal’s readership, and above all to the “artistically qualified”: those least able, or least willing, to learn from facts.

Let us now address the question hinted at above. Why should a communist Gide have been something that fascist intellectuals were unable to stomach? In short, because Gide was, in the words of Thierry Maulnier (the “antagonist” of Benjamin’s title), a “creator”—or, as we would say today, a “creative writer.” It is for that reason that Gide’s communism was felt to be a betrayal. For the fascist (or, if one prefers, proto-fascist) intellectuals grouped around L’Action française and other, likeminded organs fancied themselves the defenders of “culture,” which for them was defined entirely by the antithesis creation–production, modernity’s version of the old, but hardly venerable, distinction between the “liberal” and the “mechanical” arts. That “fascism’s concept of culture” is predicated on this “lifeless and undialectical division” is not the least of the insights to be found in Benjamin’s “Letter,” nor is the observation that behind the fascists’ purported defense of culture was nothing other, in fact, than a defense of privilege pure and simple.

That is not to suggest that Maulnier and his ilk, in claiming the cause of “culture” as their own, were being disingenuous, simply. To suppose as much would be to fall into the error of “overestimat[ing] the conscious elements in the formation of ideology.” No, like most professional ideologists, they believed what they said. (And, as is often the case, it is those who least know what they are doing who do it best.) The problem in this instance, though, was that it was not only the fascist intellectuals who were apt believe what they were saying. In exposing the fascist ideology of culture, Benjamin no doubt sought to hold up a mirror to those of his readers who, though anti-fascist, were also anti-communist, and whose antipathy to communism was premised on “aesthetic ideas”—which is to say, in the last instance, on the “lifeless and undialectical division” between mental and physical labor, and on the privilege accorded (whether consciously or not) to the former.

Indeed, one of the best moments in Benjamin’s essay is the comparison that he draws between the petty-bourgeois position of a Georges Duhamel and the big-bourgeois, openly fascist ideology of a Marinetti. The comparison hinges precisely on the real point of contact between the two, that is, on the “ideas” that they held in common: “aesthetic ideas, precisely.” Duhamel pronounces an indiscriminate, and generally negative, assessment of technology, whereas Marinetti, no less indiscriminately, eulogizes it. In both cases, however, what is assessed is exclusively the “aesthetic aspect” (Maulnier) of technology—that is to say, its appearance, literally its aesthesis, as opposed to its reality. In neither case (and here is the important point) is the reality of technology—its “functional character,” i.e., its “role […] in the production process”—taken into consideration. That, on the contrary, is left “resolutely out of account,” and for a reason, as Benjamin says, that is “easy to understand […].” It is technology, namely, that, in conjunction with the development, both intensive and extensive, of the proletariat, “has brought about the crisis that presses toward the socialization of the means of production.” With that reality, neither Duhamel nor Marinetti was inclined to have anything to do. And for reasons that have to do, not with “the conscious elements in the formation of ideology” (the dissemblance of interests, etc.), but rather with—what is in general much more decisive—the perspective imposed on the individuals who comprise a given class “unconsciously and as a result of that class’s position in the production process,” which specifically, in the cases in question, precluded any acknowledgment of the determination of historical reality by, in the last instance, the relations of production, and consequently of the fact that it is fundamentally the same—economic, and therefore political—crisis that fascism exploits, i.e., that accounts for its emergence.

(Of the position of the artist under capitalist relations of production, one will find a precise definition in Nicos Poulantzas’s Classes in Contemporary Capitalism. The labor “of painters, artists, and writers,” writes Poulantzas, “is concretized in a work of art or a book, i.e., in a commodity form, even though what is involved are services exchanged against revenue. Marx himself notes that products can assume the ‘price form’ without thereby possessing value,” i.e., “without producing surplus value for capital. […] In other words, although all capitalist productive labor takes the commodity form, this does not mean that all commodities represent productive labor.” Must it be recalled once again that the special “value” ascribed to works of art is believed to derive, more often than not, from their unproductive character? That it is for that reason, precisely, that there accrues to their possession, or simply to their “appreciation,” such a great deal of “cultural capital”? That the “unproductive” character of works of art is simply a distorted reflection of the fact that they are commodities that, nevertheless, i.e., despite being commodities, do not contribute directly to the valorization of capital, and that, therefore, it is precisely from the standpoint of capital that they appear as unproductive? And, finally, that if the artist lets down his guard he may easily fall prey to the same illusion that sustains the exorbitant revenues that, if he has a name, he can expect to realize from his work, viz., that an object bereft of use-value is intrinsically possessed of a greater worth than any merely utilitarian object, for the alleged reason that it answers to no material need, but exclusively to a “spiritual” one [or some such hocus-pocus], that a work of literature, for instance, is intrinsically more “valuable” than a work of popular science, etc.? It is for just that reason that fascism, as Benjamin observes, tends to find “pioneers among extreme artists.”)

We are once again seeing the same thing today, all around us, in the U.S. as well as abroad. The petty-bourgeois intellectual can inveigh against fascism all he likes: it will be in vain, today as ever, so long as he continues to fantasize about some “third way” that would enable humanity to circumvent the alternative socialism or fascism. For the latter will continue to rear its death’s head periodically as long as capitalist relations of production (of which fascism is an excrescence) remain in place. It is on just that point that Benjamin sought to instruct his readers, in holding up to them a mirror in which they would see reflected their own ideological presuppositions and whither they led, and, in so doing, to whisper in their ears, as it were, a salutary ultimatum. For—and it is truly the least that one can say—there are times when one has no choice but to choose sides. Sapienti sat (or at least it should be).

WALTER BENJAMIN (1892–1940) was a German Jewish philosopher, cultural critic and essayist. An eclectic thinker, combining elements of German idealism, Romanticism, Marxism, and Jewish mysticism, Benjamin made enduring and influential contributions to aesthetic theory, literary criticism, and historical materialism.

CHARLES GELMAN is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at New York University.