Alain Badiou: Epic Poetry and Communism

Tolstoy

The communists’ poem is first the epic of the heroism of the proletarians. – Alain Badiou

Harold Bloom once defined epic poetry ancient and modern as a form of heroism transcending irony. It is guided by a persistence of vision, an antithetical spirit that strives and wars against nature and man, that seeks to free itself from one world and create another. From Homer and Vergil, Dante and Milton, on down to the mock epics of Pope and beyond, to the Romantic natural epics of Wordsworth, the parodic myths of Shelley, Keats and their inheritors, on down to the modernist prose epics of our age: Proust, Joyce, Mann, Broch, Lorca and so many others. As Bloom will remark the authentic mark of all achieved epic poetry is above all a “longing for sustained vision”. 1

The philosopher Alain Badiou will offer an appreciation of those epic poets of another breed, of communism, of atheistic materialism rather than skeptical ironists and romantic idealists, modernists of prose or poetic testament, saying that “communist poets rediscover what in France Victor Hugo had already discovered: the duty of the poet is to look in language for the new resources of an epic that would no longer be that of the aristocracy of knights but the epic of the people in the process of creating another world”.2 And, of course, by people he meant the poor, the excluded, the proletarians of the earth. He will provide a short list of communist poets he deems necessary: in Turkey, Nâzim Hikmet; in Chile, Pablo Neruda; in Spain, Rafael Alberti; in Italy, Eduardo Sanguinetti; in Greece, Yannis Ritsos; in China, Ai Qing; in Palestine, Mahmoud Darwish; in Peru, César Vallejo; and in Germany, the shining example is above all Bertolt Brecht.

Of course alarm bells go off when we here such notions as “creating another world” which harken back to both Utopian and Gnostic aspirations. Especially when he embellishes his essay with political eschatology of resurrection motifs, and seemingly at odds Christological directives under the guise of a militant and atheistic materialism. As he says of the epic communist poet, what he seeks is a “dialectic of compassion and admiration, of this violently poetic opposition between debasement and levying, of this reversal of resignation into heroism, that the communist poets seek the living metaphor, the nonrealist representation, the symbolic power. They search for the words to express the moment in which the eternal patience of the oppressed of all times changes into a collective force which is indivisibly that of raised bodies and shared thoughts.”

It’s as if suddenly the actual world vanishes and the collective sparks of all the communist enter into some new impersonal collective force which is raised up out of its death-in-life struggle with the world to attain a realm of pure being where there is no longer the closed off atomized consciousness of individuals but rather the shared consciousness of some greater subjectivity or subjectivization. Is this really an atheistic materialism? It’s as if he’s allegorized the Christian body of the united believers throughout time who will be gathered into that greater body of Christ in a time of no time at the end of days. As sort of communist melting of the minds into a collective subjectivity or Holy Spirit. Of course Badiou has always been against the One-All, the big Other of either religion or naturalism; there is no God or Nature in the strong sense. Against a reduction to naturalist monism or an equal horror of any form of idealist dualism Badiou maintains a dialectical interactionism or oscillation between competing realms of the Real, which is neither reality nor an object in its own right but rather the very thing that obstructs our access to reality.

Cesar Vallejo in his essay The Revolutionary Function of Thought will describe confusion as a phenomenon with a permanent, organic character in bourgeois society. “Confusion grows ever thicker when it is addressed as already confusing problems by the very historical terms of its utterance. The latter occurs with the brand new and, at once, very old problem of the  intellectual’s obligations with regard to revolution. As posed by historical materialists, this problem is already a tangle. When formulated or simply outlined by bourgeois intellectuals, it acquires the aspect of insoluble chaos.”3 This division between communist and bourgeois intellectuals would create that almost gnostic temperament in many communist poets of the era who sought forms of utopic desire. He will as “in what sphere should the artist act politically?” And, answer:

The artist must not reduce himself to turning the tides of an electoral vote of the masses or to reinforcing an economic revolution, but, before all else, he must give rise to a new political sensibility in humankind, a new political raw material in human nature. His action isn’t didactic, transmitting or teaching emotions and civic ideas that already infest the air. Essentially, it means stirring, in an obscure, subconscious and almost spiritual way, the political anatomy of man, waking in him the aptitude to engender and summon new civic concerns and emotions. (from ARTISTS FACING POLITICS)

This notion of engendering a new civic concern and emotion toward the active sphere of the polis rather than some alignment to present party politics seems appropriate. If anything Badiou seeks to convey a communist poetics and politics of poetry that brings with it “nostalgia of the future”, one that sings of the “certainty that humanity is right to create a world in which the treasure of simple life will be preserved peacefully, and that, because it has reason on its side, humanity will impose this reason, and its reason will overcome its enemies”. Even more than this he tells us “communist poetry is not only epic poetry of combat, historic poetry of the future, affirmative poetry of confidence. It is also lyric poetry of what communism, as the figure of humanity reconciled with its own grandeur, will have been after victory, which for the poet is already regret and melancholy as well as ‘nostalgic hope’ of his soul, past as well as future, nostalgia as well as hope”.

He envisions the communist poet as the keeper of the flame, of the communist Idea, as a heroic being whose passion and compassion “for the simple life of the people afflicted by inequality and injustice – that it is the broad vision of a raising up, both in thought and in practice, which is opposed to resignation and changes it into a patient heroism.” This poet and poetry of future nostalgias whose heroic aspirations for an alternate world beyond present need, whose goal seems to be an almost Christological transformation of the world into a common world of ‘nostalgic hope’ where anguish and death become a part of the stubborn tenacity of the spirit against degradation and corruption gives us a form of hope. But what kind of hope?

In his new poetics Badiou conceives of Death as a non-religious eternity. Speaking of the epic war of Spain in the thirties, in which “the death in combat of the volunteers of the Spanish people – becomes a construction; better yet, a kind of nonreligious eternity, an earthly eternity.” A notion of heterocosm? A middle-world of imagination? One remembers the Sufi poetry of angelic worlds between realms where both the material and the mental seemed to cross each other. Epic poetry becomes the poetry of truth, of real life, “wrested away from the cruel powers that be”. Ultimately this epic poetry of the communist Idea seeks to change everything into the gold of true life. “Even the accursed gold of the rich and the oppressors will simply become once more what it is: ‘the gold itself will then be made of gold’.”

In the nostalgias of a hidden gold one feels a sense as if Badiou had become an Alchemyst of poetic transformations, rather than a philosopher of a new militant and materialist poetry. One grows weary of alchemical dreams and future nostalgias. Yet, if read that last statement aright, Badiou, too, is seeking a way out of symbolic wildernesses and to establish a gold that is “gold”, a material realm where value is value not some substitution of human equations to value and valuation.

One wants to find a home in the possible not the nostalgias of future retroactions. As Adrian Johnson in his recent critique of Badiou in Prolegomena of Any Future Materialism admonishes, Badiou’s “paradox-plagued struggle, … to forge a dephenomenolized phenomenology in which there are appearances without a who or what” – a subject or object, seem to land us in an impersonal realm of pure mathematical idealism rather than the dynamics of struggle and material change that is our present world. Of course Johnston would have us take a second look at the life sciences, especially the neurosciences (but that’s another tale).

Maybe Badiou could take a few lessons from Count Leo Tolstoy’s short epic novella, Hadji Murad, where heroism and the common life of men truly took on that nostalgia which does not escape the present nor does it retrace some future retroactive appraisal – unless of that epic poet Tolstoy himself; rather it attains that stature of human dialectic of freedom and fate without which our desperate struggles would all be in vein. Hadji Murad displayed both the tenacity and fortitude of the heroic, as well as the persistence of vision that keeps us and fortifies us against all that deigns to destroy us. And even when must have the courage to face one’s doom, one should learn the art of equanimity and that subtle power that carries with it the “wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). But in the last instance it is not God but rather the force of decision within man himself to face the Real with an equal measure of worth and empowerment; without which the wind is nothing more than a metaphor for the abyss of confusion and intemperate evasion that seeks justification for its cowardice in the face of insurmountable odds.

Badiou will remind us of the Spanish Civil War in the thirties and that during this age of crisis there arose a moment of collective energy, and the “intellectuals all over the world not only to show their support for the popular camp, but also to participate directly in combat”. It was in this war that men and women around the world came together under the banner of emancipation, seeing in it a “unique in the history of the world, of the realization of the great Marxist project: that of a truly internationalist revolutionary politics”. It was here that poets around the world would convey a sense the epic as an affective, subjective, immediate solidarity with the people of Spain; and, how a “sense of shared suffering becomes its own poetic ordeal, which is almost impossible to bear”.

What we see happening in the Middle-East and Europe at the moment should bring us that sense of both solidarity and suffering, a sense of the affective, subjective, and immediate solidarity with the refugees, as well as the people both in France and Syria, Iraq, and other places who are all moving through a great crisis in moral and ethical, social and political suffering that is almost “impossible to bear”. What would such a poetry need to be to respond in equal or greater power to this moment of world crisis? Who are the poets of the moment who will answer from the Left? Give us an answer to strife and war in our time?

Badiou speaks of poetry returning to “world-truth, which can be born forever, when hardship and death change into paradoxical heroism”. What he is speaking of is this sense that the “the international volunteers of the Spanish war represent a new humanity, simply because they are true human beings, and not the false humanity of the capitalist world, competitive and obsessed with money and commodities”. Yet, I disagree with Badiou who aligns himself with Eluard in that erroneous belief in Rousseau and the Goodness of people: “as for Rousseau, humanity is fundamentally good natured, with a good nature that is being destroyed by oppression through competition, forced labour, money. This fundamental goodness of the world resides in the people, in their obstinate life, in the courage to live that is theirs”. It’s not society alone that makes people evil or sadists, masochists, etc. One cannot reduce it to either side of the coin of the Nature/Nurture debate. If the dialectic has any validity its that we all oscillate between aggression and war on the one hand, and fear and retribution on the other. To put it back into some ethical or political ideal of the Good Society vs. the Evil Society of Capitalism is once again to fall back into that Manichean world of the Gnostics. Reality and the Real are not so easily defined, and poetry is much more subtle that philosophical bric-a-brac. Maybe this is why Badiou seems closer to the idealists in his materialist Platonism.

Yet, as he will admit the essential “aspect of communism, or of the communist Idea, is not and never has been the ferocity of a state, the bureaucracy of a party, or the stupidity of blind obedience”. Badiou speaks of a poetry of the “future anterior”, where we experience a kind of poetic regret for what we imagine the world will have been when communism has come. One remembers another era when Greece fought against the Ottoman Empire for Independence where Lord Byron and Shelley both died bravely doing what they had once sung in their epic poetry. How many poets today would die for freedom or independence in such a beleaguered age as ours? How many fight in some foreign realm for the right of others in need? If all those young men who through subterfuge and cowardice hid among the weak and the tame instead of fighting for liberty within Syria against tyranny of State and Religion had stood their ground instead of joining in the killing fields of Paris what great things might have been accomplished?  Maybe against such futile gestures and cowardly acts of terrorism what we need is as Vallejo and Badiou suggest in their own ways, a new epic poetry of concern that revives us to an engagement in that authentic power of transformation of the polis into a habital realm of the commons and community of men and women speaking truth as the condition of life, love, and poetry.


 

  1. Harold Bloom. The Epic. (Chelsea House Publisher, 2005)
  2. Alain Badiou. Poetry and Communism. translated Bruno Bosteels (from The Age of the Poets and Other Writings on Twentieth-Century Poetry and Prose (London-New York: Verso, 2014)) see Lana Turner: Journal of Poetry and Opinion
  3. Cesar Vallejo: Selected Writings. (2015 Wesleyan University Press)

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