Friday, May 02, 2008

HUAC: now let us go into poetry

Mr. [Arthur] Miller [recently author of The Crucible]: I am opposed to the Smith Act and I am still opposed to anyone being penalized for advocating anything.... It is the nature of life, and it is in the nature of literature, that the passions of an author congeal around issues. You can go from War and Peace through all the great novels of time and they are all advocating something.... l am not here defending Communists, I am here defending the right of the author to advocate.

Mr. Sherer: Even to advocate the overthrow of the Government by force and violence?

Mr. Miller: I am now speaking, sir, of creative literature. The[r]e are risks and balances of risks.

We tend to read Arthur Miller's stand against the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities ("HCUA" or more commonly--but mistakenly--"HUAC") as bold because, on the face of it, we know that he came to oppose the odious Smith Act, which permitted the government to prosecute Americans for "intending" to advocate something, and because he seemed admirably unwilling to back off from the idea that "the passions of the author" and his "issues" constituted evidence of benevolent intentionality, that is, evidence which Miller would argue indeed suggested a beneficial, not dangerous, relation to the world. In order to save the liberal-left conception of writing as invariably related to a world-made-better, Miller was in effect willing to argue with HUAC not the nature of interpretation but the interpretation of specific texts themselves.

Fortunately that hearing never really came down to a text-by-text interpretation. But the committee did succeed in forcing Miller to concede the harmlessness of certain genres. The committee could get him to admit that, say, poetic writing could be about anything and then at the same time to concede that there had to be limits on what could be said. If literary language congeals around life's action, then it fell into the government's widening net of established subversives and subversive material. The only alternative was to make a substantial retreat and concede that some literary genres--poetry: harmless, it would commonly seem--entail less absolutely than other genres a responsibility for what the writer says about the world. Thus the "absolute" right specifically of the poet to write anything he or she wants about, say, bloody revolution, implies for the writer the evaluation of more or less dangerous genres.

Mr. Scherer: Let us go into literature. Do you believe that, today, a Communist who is a poet should have the right to advocate the overthrow of this Government by force and violence? In his literature, his poetry, or in newspapers or anything else? (The witness confers with his counsel.)

Mr. Miller: I tell you frankly, sir, I think, if you are talking about a poem, I would say that a man should have the right to write a poem [on] just about anything.

Mr. Scherer: All right.

Mr. Jackson: Then I understand your position is that freedom in literature is absolute?

Mr. Miller: Well I recognize that these things, sir, are not: the absolutes are not absolute.

Mr. Jackson: My interpretation of your position is that it is absolute that a writer must have, in order to express his heart, absolute freedom of action.

So rather than making Cold War hermeneutics a more exact business, the shift in the government's idea about what is a subversive text - the shift in and caused by the Dennis Supreme Court case, the move to the subversive text itself and the more (or less) subversive genre - only made the government's readings more arbitrary.

That is, now that the court had put itself and the government's investigating agencies in the business of interpreting intent, the normal hard work of gathering external evidence could be dispensed with. So the prosecution could use the rhetoric of a text-centered interpretation (with its usual claims to objectivity, close attention, and exactitude) while actually focussing once again imprecisely on the author, the radical absolutist seeming to "express his heart." "The crime," noted Justice William O. Douglas wisely in his Dennis dissent, "then depends not on what is taught but on who the teacher is. That is to make freedom of speech turn not on what is said, but on the intent with which it is said." When Douglas wrote later about his disgust for the Dennis majority, he spoke again of the issue in terms of academic freedom, eloquently suggesting in general what historians such as Ellen Schrecker have recovered in great specificity--that the notion of "objectivity" in American scholarship and teaching became increasingly valued in the 195Os. While objectivity was put forth even in the humanities as an absolute value, it was in a very important way a practical response to the invitation from government and universities to come to the end of ideology. "Thus those who believed in Communism and hoped it would take hold here and taught the creed became criminals," Douglas wrote about the Dennis case and intentionality, "while those who were more detached--that is, did not believe in Communism--could teach it with impunity. Yet from the academic viewpoint, the deeper a person was immersed in a subject and the more passionately he felt about it, the better teacher he usually was--whether the course be one on Wordsworth, Henry George or Karl Marx."

Douglas was alluding to the case of university professor Paul Sweezy, who taught Marxist theory at the University of New Hampshire at the time the state gave its attorney general a very broad definition of subversive language and suggested that he go find it at the local U. Here are two of the questions Sweezy declined to answer:

"Did you tell the class at the University of New Hampshire on Monday, March 22, 1954, that Socialism was inevitable in this country?"

"Did you in [that] or in any of the other former lectures espouse the theory of dialectical materialism?"

One wonders, of course, how a teacher can clearly explain dialectical materialism without even momentarily seeming to espouse it? And how was it concluded that Professor Sweezy said socialism is inevitable in this country if, in interpreting the Marxist text for his students that day in class, he said Marx himself would have argued that socialism is inevitable in countries like the United States in which certain conditions manifest themselves? The unequivocal "is" was made more central to the state's analysis of subversive language than the conditionally speculative "would have" and the relationally speculative "like." Even such simplification of scholarly hypothesis assumes the teacher's language would be accurately in question during the course of the investigation; in fact, paraphrases in students' notes, subpoenaed or volunteered, would be the basis of the state's interpretation of espousal:

"I have in the file here a statement from a person who attended your class, and I will read it in part because I don't want you to think I am just fishing. 'His talk. . .was a glossed-over interpretation of the materialistic dialectic.' Now, again, I ask you the original question."