Skip to main content

Literature and Propaganda

ISSUE:  Spring 1938

It can be said that every piece of literature is propaganda of a kind. The lyric poet, merely for assuming the importance of his theme, can be charged with suggesting that other themes are of less importance or of no importance at all; the sonneteer who continues to address his mistress’s eyebrow can be and is accused of defending the status quo. It can also be said that every piece of propaganda is literature of a kind. The librarian, the collector of pamphlets, and whoever else is interested in all that is being thought and said—these ask, What is Literature? and do not wait for an answer. It is a good question, and so is another one: What is propaganda? There is even a third: What is the difference between them, and is this difference absolute?

An age that distinguishes between them, and sharpens the distinction, is perhaps unfortunate. Ours has done so, with at least one deplorable result. Our “literature” tends to be insignificant and our “propaganda” tends to be incredible— or to be credible only among those who already believe. We have novels without heroes, plays without irony, and poetry without voice. And on the other hand we have tongues which utter the first words that come, we have hands that reach for whatever instruments of persuasion happen to lie about. Literature would seem to be the art of saying nothing, and propaganda would seem to be the art of saying something without art, or—proudly—without enough.

Both literature and propaganda would benefit by a study of the role of rhetoric in human affairs, and in the conduct of that great art whose name is literature without quotation marks. Rhetoric is the art of telling the truth. Other arts feel the truth, know it, and act it; rhetoric tells the truth as best it can, in the spoken or written language of symbols. Rhetoric, however, can degenerate. It can become the art of telling truths, of making the part appear the whole. Or it can cease to recommend itself and fall into disuse. It has done the latter thing in an age whose poets, observing that many things are believed by many people, but that no ladder of belief leads up to one thing which all may take for granted as being the topmost reality, have chosen to forget that poetry is a telling art. Rather than admit that poetry is a branch of rhetoric, they have insisted that rhetoric is a tool, and a dispensable tool, of poetry. And rhetoric is only a tool if it is nothing more than a series of devices for saying things—things which exist apart from their being said and which could perhaps be better said with other things than words, say guns or blows. Our poets, at any rate, have ceased to desire that we be affected by what they write. The characteristic poetry of our time is voiceless, or concerned with uttering itself and itself alone.

The tool of rhetoric (with quotation marks) has been picked up by propaganda, with which in many minds it is in fact identified. But it cannot be put to any great use—the use, for instance, of telling the truth. It may only tell truths, and it is doing that at a fabulous rate, filling the air with imperfect and discordant noises. The imperfect rhetorician does not stop to inquire whether the consequences of his utterance should be that we shall know something, or that we shall be something, or that we shall do something. It is his hope that we shall do something, and he even tells us that in view of the great hurry we are in we had better do the thing before we know what it is, or what we shall be as a result of doing it. His desire is certainly that we shall be affected by what he writes, but his aim is limited; he is not after us body and soul; and if it is our bodies he is after, it is chiefly the legs and arms. By contagion it is only a piece of the truth—a truth—that reaches us.

Suppose, for example—and the first example had better not be timely—he wants to tell us something about the simple life, the pastoral sentiment. A truth about the pastoral sentiment is that it is silly and baseless. Another truth about it is that it is very charming, and that it stands in a key relation to other sentiments of high value. Still another is that God made the country; and another, that man does not like to live alone. Statements of these truths, in prose or in verse, in exposition or in narrative, would be imperfect rhetoric. The perfect rhetoric is “As You Like It”—not in “As You Like It,” but the play itself, considered as a literary object. Shakespeare with one set of words has both destroyed and created the pastoral sentiment. Touchstone’s wit has cut it to shreds, and the smooth tongue of Jaques has tainted it with insincerity; yet the Forest of Arden is the standard image of the simple life after more than three hundred years, and its trees do not look as if they would ever fall. Rosalind loves the sweet place whither she has been banished at identically the same moment that she laughs it off the earth. And there is the preposterous fact that of all persons in the play it is Charles the wrestler who speaks the following words: “They say he is already in the Forest of Arden, and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England. They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day, and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.” The fact that an unscrupulous bruiser says this in itself says something—the truth, shall we guess, that Shakespeare had in his mind, namely that simplicity is both impossible and necessary, both silly and sooth.

A second example, though it comes from the same antique source, is timely in that it is suggested by a current production of “Julius Cassar” and in that this production has had a political press. According to some commentators, the play makes a statement about Fascism; according to others it explores the plight of the Liberal whose tragedy is that he has undertaken to meet force with force, and degenerates or at any rate dies in the attempt. But if “Julius Caesar” says anything political it is that in such situations the formula is complicated by the characters involved—in this case Brutus and Caesar, with Antony between them. The play is about what happened to these men because they were these men; and also because Shakespeare saw them as personal no less than as political opposites. Brutus is one of Plutarch’s statue men: noble, symmetrical, impenetrable, and by no means brilliant. Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s men: quick, unaccountable, and eccentric; superstitious, changeable, deaf in one ear, epileptic, histrionic. It would be a wonder if two such men survived in a single world; and neither of them does. The play “says” this and more. But it takes all of the play to say it, and we see it as well as hear it. We know something when we are through, and it is important. It is not, however, something that has been proved. It is a series of significant particulars, none of which it has been possible to doubt.

If the objection is raised that the distinction between art and propaganda is after all a useful one, not to say an urgent one, and that to obliterate it would be to increase the current confusion, an answer might be that what we have is worse than confusion. It is a dilemma. We are being bullied into saying which we like better, night or day, when we want to live all the time; or which of our hands we are willing to sacrifice when we cannot walk without swinging both. We are commanded to choose between ghosts while the solid body lies unburied. A piece of literature that signs itself as propaganda leaves something of course to be desired. So, and equally, does a piece of literature that signs itself as art. For neither of them has the least chance of success with the human race—a species noted for its longevity, and fearsome in its contempt for the transient and the trivial; a species, furthermore, which does not like to have statements made about it, and which rudely disowns imitations of itself whose contrivers ask us to admire them rather than their original. There is a ground, in other words, where literature and propaganda can meet and conspire. It is not too late, it is never too late, for both of them to become interested in telling the truth; for literature on its side to remember that the truth cannot be known until it is told, and for propaganda on its side to remember that the truth cannot be told until it is known.

By the truth, naturally, nothing sudden and hitherto secret is meant. The truth means the world—the only world there is. It does not change except as great books change it; and they do not so much change it as remind us of what we knew it was. Its extent cannot be apprehended without irony, and its nearness cannot be rendered without love. A great book, being both literature and propaganda, both poetry and rhetoric, will not move us to go somewhere and do something. It will simply move us—our minds, our hearts, our nerves, our souls, our persons. When it delivers a truth it will deliver it wrapped in that spacious envelope wherein all truths lie warm together. When it delivers an individual it will deliver him first as a man—as a member of that class which has been the subject of our clearest thoughts, even if in the nature of things we are still prevented from thinking to the end—and only after that as the unique fellow he is; tending in his uniqueness to become a monster, and yet, by every intelligible word he speaks, recalled to the lit regions of recognition. And when it delivers an image it will supply at the same moment a perspective—the one perspective, if its author has mastered his vision, in which particulars may continue to be visible, sound interesting, and look true.

The trouble with mere propaganda is that it is merely didactic; and from the merely didactic, as a witty scholar of Oxford has said, nothing can be learned. The trouble with mere literature is that it is merely beautiful; and from the merely beautiful there is no living pleasure to be had. So let us broaden our definition of rhetoric lest we be slaves of mereness; or let us listen to Socrates, for he has done it already:

Socrates: The case, I imagine, is the same with the art of rhetoric as it is with the art of medicine. Phaedrus: In what way?

Socrates: In both it is necessary to investigate nature; the nature of the body in the one, and of the soul in the other. . . . But this knowledge can never possibly be acquired without great labor; labor which the wise man ought to bestow, not with a view to speaking and acting before the world, but for the sake of making himself able, both by word and by deed, to please the gods as best he can.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading