Reading module nº 10
a critical approach to literature
Poesía Inglesa Siglos XIX-XX
Profesor: Vicente Forés
Alumno: Alfredo Carbonell Rico
In this reading module we are going to deal with a way of interpreting literature called ‘Marxism’. But first, we should explain what a critical approach is. A critical approach is a series of procedures to study and analyse a written work in order to interpret it. Through the use of these procedures, we will be able to find normally what that literary work communicates, what structure has it got and which genre it belongs to.(3)
Obviously, it is essential to talk about the figure of Karl Marx, the main texts where these theories are presented and the political movement previous to the literary one. Marxism began with Karl Marx, the nineteenth-century German philosopher best known for Das Kapital (1867; Capital), the seminal work of the communist movement. Marx was also the first Marxist literary critic, writing critical essays in the 1830s on such writers as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and William Shakespeare. Even after Marx met Friedrich Engels in 1843 and began collaborating on overtly political works such as The German Ideology (1846) and The Communist Manifesto (1848), he maintained a keen interest in literature. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels discuss the relationship between the arts, politics, and basic economic reality in terms of a general social theory. Economics, they argue, provides the base, or infrastructure, of society, from which a superstructure consisting of law, politics, philosophy, religion, and art emerges.(2)
But there is another centre of thinking for the
Marxist theories. The
The literary critic trend called Marxism is basically a sociological approach to literature that viewed works of literature or art as the products of historical forces that can be analyzed by looking at the material conditions in which they were formed. In Marxist ideology, what we often classify as a world view is actually the articulations of the dominant class. Marxism generally focuses on the clash between the dominant and repressed classes in any given age and also may encourage art to imitate what is often termed an "objective" reality. Contemporary Marxism is much broader in its focus, and views art as simultaneously reflective and autonomous to the age in which it was produced.(1)
The aim of the Marxist criticism is to value the literary work according to some criteria, for instance if the text agrees or not with the political program proposed by Marx and Engels (this is against capitalism, in favour of the working class etc) or if the text has got the capacity to reflect the social development of its time. Bertold Brecht is one of the main theoreticians for this literary trend. The German writer stated that producing art was not a simple vehicle for the content, but a vehicle to raise social awareness. He also expected the public not to just accept what they were reading or seeing but to understand the problems the artist was dealing with.(3)
Now, we are going to look at some of the key terms that define Marxism (note: definitions below taken from Ann B. Dobie's text, Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism) Commodification - "the attitude of valuing things not for their utility but for their power to impress others or for their resale possibilities" (92).Conspicuous consumption - "the obvious acquisition of things only for their sign value and/or exchange value" (92).Dialectical materialism - "the theory that history develops neither in a random fashion nor in a linear one but instead as struggle between contradictions that ultimately find resolution in a synthesis of the two sides. For example, class conflicts lead to new social systems" (92).Material circumstances - "the economic conditions underlying the society. To understand social events, one must have a grasp of the material circumstances and the historical situation in which they occur" (92).Reflectionism - associated with Vulgar Marxism - "a theory that the superstructure of a society mirrors its economic base and, by extension, that a text reflects the society that produced it" (92).Superstructure - "The social, political, and ideological systems and institutions--for example, the values, art, and legal processes of a society--that are generated by the base" (92). (1)
Some of the main figures in this thought stream are Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, Raymond Williams, Louis Althusser, Walter Benjamin, Antonio Gramsci , Georg Lukacs, Friedrich Engels, Theordor Adorno, Edward Ahern, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.(1)
As an example of the application of these literary theories, I have chosen a poem by Bertold Bretch titled ‘Questions From A Worker Who Reads’(4). I think this is a perfect example of the Marxists theories but also of Brecht . In this poem, the author takes a look at the main empires and kings of the world in a very particular way. Brecht is actually referring to those people who do not appear in history books, the anonymous workers who built the gorgeous buildings and who fought in the wars dying for the interest of a country or in particular for the interest of its governors. It is quite obvious that the poet wants his audience to realise that the history is mainly made by those who do not appear in the history books, but by all the workers and therefore all the working class.
1 Dr. Kristi Siegel, Associate Professor, English Dept.Chair - Languages, Literature, and Communication Division, Introduction to modern literary theory
2 Adapted from The
3 Profesora Ana García Herráez, Universitat de València, Subject: 14214 English fiction from the XVIIth century
4 Poem Hunter, Bertold Brecht, Questions from a worker who reads
Questions from A Worker Who Reads
In the books you will find the name of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.
The young Alexander conquered
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Else won it?
So many reports.
So many questions.
"Fragen eines lesenden
Arbeiters" - translated by M. Hamburger
from Bertolt Brecht, Poems 1913-1956, Methuen, N.Y., London,
5 WIKIPEDIA, the free encyclopedia: The Frankfurt School, Wikipedia Fundations Inc.
All the research was made on the 21st, May 2006.