Notes on intellectual corruption by totalitarianism
Continuing the beginning of a project
How does one separate the artists and thinkers who were seduced by or flirted with Fascism and Communism from those whose art and thinking became totalitarian?
Cases to consider: Howard Fast, George Orwell, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Ezra Pound, Martin Heidegger, Philip Johnson.
Possible directions towards an answer:
- Did they choose their politics over everything else?
- To what extent do they back away from the totalitarianism and to what extent do they take responsibility for it?
- Are the politics added on the aesthetic or does the aesthetic come out of the politics? Alternately, can the aesthetic be separated from the totalitarianism?
These are only preliminary directions to pursue, and not entirely satisfactory.
We must, at every point, recognize that one's politics, particularly, rise out of the situations and the thoughts of one's times and that for much of the world for much of the 20th century, Communism and Fascism seemed the only political options.
Let's recognize also that unless the artist or thinker can dismissed and discarded as a hack, a propagandist merely, their relationship to totalitarianism will always be problematic and troubling. Yet, the test for continuing to inquire into their works is not correctness or, worse, purity, but the work's ability to be interesting.
Also, last night I came across Gulag : life and death inside the Soviet concentration camps, a photographic history in the library. 550 photographs taken from official files and private collections, collected from the unplanned and unsystematic yet absolutely harrowing documentation of Soviet Russia's prison system. It is, actually, the simpler photographs, the almost unconscious ones, that break your heart: perfunctory mug shots taken of individuals who had their lives taken away by a utopia nightmare, massive railroads and canals photographed, like they were constructed, with no thought to costs in human life and despair.