Came across a book titled “Foreign Literature” by Luan Rexhepi and Qazim Baroni perchance. This book is written for secondary school! It was published by Albanian Society.
I thought of letting our Indian readers to have a glimpse of this book, must not be misunderstood as book review by me!
I quote from the first page;-
“The Beginnings of Greek Literature”
The most ancient moments of classical Greek literature are the epic poems “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” of Homer, which originated in Asia Minor, among the Ionians. This is not to say that the Greeks were lacking in poetic creation before Homer, only that the Homeric poems were the oldest works of artistic value were written down, and so passed into historic tradition. This was assisted by the invention of the alphabet, of northern Semitic origin, which was received and further developed by the Greeks of Asia Minor, especially by the Ionians, in the 9th and 8th centuries BC, when the epopee of Homer is thought to have been drafted. The invention of writing was the decisive factor which served for the development not only of the epopee, but of every form of culture.”
(Underlined by me)
Development of script and language is shown with the development of civilisation and along with the politics, culture, and economy! See this
“In the genre of comedy, the most notable writer of the epoch was Menander. He enriched the stage with progressive ideas, drawing his themes from daily life. He fought against superstition, and defended the rights of women and slaves. His influence extended not only to the Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence, but even to Shakespeare and Moliere”
(Quote from page 7 of ibid) Here we find the progressive ideologues are sympathetic to slaves, advocate their ‘rights’, even though not fighting for their emancipation!
While praising the poem, it brings out its limitations as well;
“Despite its indisputable grandeur, the Homeric epos has significant ideological limitations. It idealises individuals, heroes, leaders, on whom the main attention of the poet is concentrated. The tribal aristocracy is idealised; the class contradictions are clearly brought out. But the poet does not show the masses in struggle, exaggerating the role of powerful heroes. This is seen also in the attitude of the poet towards his characters.”
Are we different today? In fact religion, caste, nationality have become the biggest enemy of working class; breaking their unity, even by murdering them!
The book describes him not a simple entertainer but as a thinker, who is pained with the feudal system and not happy with the capitalism, which is rising from the wombs of the former. See the following;-
“In “Richard III”, who used England as his private estate, the causes of civil wars were analysed. Shakespeare opposed to the power of the rich historical necessity, which led to class struggle, mistakes and crimes” (Page 21).
He was a Social writer, see here;-
“In these plays the contradictions between the plebeians and the aristocracy, the clashes between the republican and the monarchic leaders, were exposed, that is to say, they dealt in reality with topical problems of the 16th century.” (Page 21)
Here (In the above drama by Shakespeare) author shows how class character affects the individual, see here;-
“Its theme is this: egoistic ambition for power, the vice of class society, destroys the soul of a brave and honourable man, and casts him into the abyss.” (Page 23)
Greatness of the book lies in its scientific explanation of any trend of art, writings, etc. The social background, existing social class, existing class struggle against injustice gives rise to a particular political, social, cultural, literature, etc; that is, a superstructure based on the society’s existing economic condition!
“The struggle of the absolute monarchic state (In France in 17th Century) to create a system of government with iron discipline to serve the interests of the aristocracy, together with the efforts this stratum to show off its behaviour, feelings and tastes – this became the first historico-social factor which inspired the creation of a definite school or trend of thought in life, in culture, and in art, a movement called by the name of “classicism”. Its most concentrated expression is to be found in literature.”
Could not be better!
Other authors praise this Classical era of France in 17th Century, here the authors talk of the ground which gave birth to a particular trend, the resistance by the peasants against the autocracy and the outcome in literature! Readers will be astonished to know, same was with Shakespeare, which I have mentioned above!
Now a French art, drama and culture. “Moliere has given us in finished art, the type of the bourgeois of the period of the primitive accumulation of capital.” (Page 39)
This artist, who worked on stage as writer, owner, actor (1622- 1673) shows the pains of class divided society of French feudalism, which was losing ground against new emerging capitalism. In his play “The miser”, the master shows us the nature of a bourgeois, who though knows how to profit, but remains a miser and does not even fulfil his duties as a parent!
This book, is worth gold. To understand the meaning of a true art, social art, it picks up the authors, here Moliere, the French artist, writer & stage actor, through whom, it shows, how imaginary characters can and does show the existing society, the class characters, and yet, make the drama, the creation a national hit! See this:-
“Moliere expressed the most progressive thought of the time in his struggle against the religious world outlook and the savage reaction of the clergy. He was the sworn enemy of every form of religious or social hypocrisy and he exposed them with great courage.”
Tartuffe, the villain, the religious fraud, did become synonym for “religious hypocrisy”, nay, “hypocrisy” in general in France!
Now, we come to Romanticism, after having seen Classicism! To start with, let us see how this book deals this emerging trend in literature, was it incidental, writer’s imagination or some social economic background?
“……… Like other movements, romanticism did not arise accidentally; it had its roots in the economic-social changes occurred as a result of the bourgeois revolutions, and especially of the French Revolution. A powerful impetus was given to romanticism by the liberation movements of the masses of the people which broke out after this revolution, by the struggle against feudalism and national oppression, by the disillusionment which affected broad social strata as a result of the non-realization of the promises of the French Revolution.”
Does it sound logical? In fact, while the class struggle that was brewing; that of between the new bourgeois class and the proletarian and the bourgeoisie and old decaying Feudalism, which wanted its past glory to be recovered; set a movement in the literature, art!
Art is reflection of social realities. See this from page 45:-
“Progressive and revolutionary romanticism was one of the most powerful and most progressive trends in the history of literature. The positive elements of this romanticism, its revolutionary pathos, form today a component part of the art of socialist realism which, armed with Marxist-Leninist ideology, with the theory of class struggle, is in a position to show the true road to the bright future of mankind.”
Don’t we see, same in our country, in form of writings on Maharana Pratap, Lakshmi Bai; by Prem Chand and in recent past, Bhikhari Thakur (People’s poet, stage dramatist, artist in Bihar), and others? Poems, stories against the oppression of mankind, even if it lacked clear depiction of class struggle, but smell of class oppression was always there!
And see, how this book shows you the changes in literature, through Classicism to Romanticism, reflection of social reality (Page 46)
“In depicting external environment, the romanticists – unlike the classicists, for whom only everlasting things had importance, elements which they regarded as common to all countries and all times – were particular, with that which changed from one epoch to country to another, from one country to another – that is, with local colouring.”
Byron, The British Aristocrat, Who turned against own Class & Poet
“The poet places all this description of Albanian life in romantic antithesis to life in the aristocratic-bourgeois society of Britain, to the spirit of profit and hypocrisy which dominates that society, with the dissolute morals and egoism of its official circles.”
This book excels in finding out the rebels, who criticize their own class, hypocrisy based on exploitation by the feudal and rising capitalists and also limitations of the rebels of yester years, who did not see the full developed capitalism or imperialism and hence had no concept of class less society! Perfect historical materialism and dialectics!!
This poet, advances though in limits of Romanticism of his time, but politically is much aware compared to his counter parts and as such the book brands his “Militant Romanticist”.
Book says- “THE AGE OF BRONZE” (1823), a satirical poem exposes the activity of the reactionary Holy Alliance. This alliance was signed between the rulers of Russia, Austria and Prussia in 1815, after the fall of Napoleon; later the monarchs of other states joined the alliance. This was a league of the rulers against the peoples of Europe, to fight against revolution.
Byron despises Landowners and Bourgeoisie, growing fat on the backs of other peoples of Europe through wars which became the source of wealth for merchants! We don’t find such depiction of reality, today in our literature, be it India or even in USA, which has become fat, nay, a very small section of USA people, and the elite, by way of selling weapons for the regular war every year!!
The world through which Don Juan; the Hero of the work, young Spaniard Juan, intends to travel Greece, Turkey, Russia, etc; and based on his experience, the author shows a world of exploitation, of social injustice, of cruelty and moral degeneration.
Novel “Don Juan” rings out powerfully the theme of revolution. The poet’s dream is directed forward, to a bright future. He has complete faith that the time will come when men will, in the end, attain freedom and live in “the new age”. The poet calls on the peoples of Europe to follow the example of rebellious Spain and Greece. “Only revolution with its iron hand can save the world from the torments of hell”!
What vision, what fire in Byron to fight against the injustice, a firm supporter of Revolution (In India, middle class is against even thought of Revolution, as they are scared of unknown, and do not wish to move out of their ‘cushy’ present, though very unsatisfied from their own living conditions)
See the importance of Byron, where Engels wrote,
“Shelley and Byron, with their ardent feeling and bitter satire of contemporary society, drew a majority of their readers from among workers; the bourgeois kept in his house only so-called ‘family publications’, publications devoid of content and appropriate to the hypocritical morality of the time”. (Page 60)
Critical realism was a literary trend which flourished in Europe in the 19th century. It replaced that of progressive romanticism! Realism means the truthful reflection in literature of objective reality, of life and of human character!
(Was not our Munshi Premchand, and to some extent Rabindranath Tagore in this category?)
Balzac, was a true representative of this trend due deep contradictions of remaining Feudalism and emerging Capitalism, while on the other side victorious Capitalism vs. working class and peasants!
In UK Dickens, in USA Mark Twain and Jack London are few examples of this trend!
Russia began particularly with Pushkin’s novel “Evgeni Onegin” and was represented by a series of notable writers such as Turgenev, Chekhov and Leon Tolstoy
The Spread of Critical Realism in the World
“With the development of capitalism in Europe and America went a corresponding broad development in the literature of critical realism, until by the middle of the 19th century it had become the dominant literary trend.”
This relation of ground reality and the literature, gives the readers the holistic picture of the work, the background of writer’s mind, his relation with the contemporary society, the class contradiction and his preference to a particular class, and even his limitations! Vow! Is this explanation, research not unique compared to other critics?
See, today’s critics of books, movies, stories, novels, blogs, novels, poems, etc; how shallow and sketchy they are, void of any ground reality! Even the language used by these writers are far away from the present language used by the people and prefer to use flowery and worse by the English authors! Natural, as they lack the social reality, lack even the basic understandings of prevailing class consciousness among the exploited, rising antithesis of class struggle, seen in rhetoric, religiosity, national chauvinism!!!
“.. he emphasized the idea that work and happiness in bourgeois society cannot be reconciled, that some strata of society are obliged to work, while the fruits of this work, happiness and amusement are appropriated by other social strata.”
American literature did not fall back! Here is great peace from this great Leftist writer, when he was arrested in Canada for vagrancy;
“The whole of life revolves around food and shelter. For a man to obtain food and shelter, he must sell something. The shopkeeper sells shoes; the politician sells his conscience; women, whether they are dissolute or joined in the holy bonds of matrimony, are ready to sell their bodies. All are buyers and sellers. But the worker can find only one thing to sell — his muscles”.
With all his weakness, Jack London is a successful writer in showing the real conditions of the working class, the role of media, reactionary political parties and Trade Unions, religion in breaking the revolution of the oppressed class to favour the oppressor, in all his novels!
See, what a revolutionary character in his novel “The Iron Heel” says:
“We demand all that you possess. We shall be content with nothing less than all that you possess. We shall take into our hands the reins of power and the destiny of mankind. These are our hands. They are strong. They will take from you your governments, your palaces and all your purpled ease, and in that day you shall for your bread”!
SOCIALIST REALISM (Part 2 of the Book)
Now we come to 2nd part of the book! Russian literature during the revolutionary is described as the reflection arising from the contradiction of deep class antagonism and fight for hegemony. See here:-
“In Gorky’s novel ‘The Mother’, which appeared in 1906, he laid the foundations of the new proletarian literature, the literature of socialist realism. The formation of Gorky as proletarian writer, as founder of the literature of socialist realism was linked with — apart from the above factors, the struggle of the proletariat and the spread of Marxism — the earlier literary heritage and contemporary literary experience. But in the first place, as the favourable literary terrain on which the creativity of Gorky was nourished, was the Russian literature of critical realism: the works of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Nekrasov and many other writers.” (Page 2)
Socialist realism reflects life with truthfulness and in its revolutionary development!
Further, the authors are honest to the core and even declare their ‘preference’ to a particular class, here, the working class; “. There is bourgeois partisanship and communist partisanship, depending upon the interests of which class the writer defends.”!
Now, dear readers, I will not flood you with literature anymore, if you have endured me so far! My last quote from the above book, is from the early childhood struggle of Gorky!
“When he was a child, working as a dishwasher on a ship, he came to know a cook who had a great love for books. He communicated love of reading to Gorky. In the cook’s book-filled chest, “in the most surprising library in the world”, as Gorky called it, there were books of the most varied kinds. He read eagerly: “From these books”, wrote Gorky, “in my soul a strong belief was created: I was not alone in the world and I should not get lost”. (Page 11, Part 2)