Poetry and Power: Challenges for an Aesthetics of the Left

Hazlitt’s essay on Coriolanus seems apposite to some of the themes I explored in The Reactionary Mind. Hazlitt suggests a deep and abiding affinity of poetry for power, an affinity that explains how the right is able attract a broad formation of followers from below. Hazlitt also hints at why an aesthetics of the left, at least one centered on the more pedestrian claims of the mass, is so often difficult to attain and sustain; indeed, why any aesthetics may ultimately serve as an argument for the arrogations of power:

The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power. The imagination is an exaggerating and exclusive faculty: it takes from one thing to add to another: it accumulates circumstances together to give the greatest possible effect to a favourite object. . . . Poetry is right-royal. It puts the individual for the species, the one above the infinite many, might before right. A lion hunting a flock of sheep or a herd of wild asses is a more poetical object than they; and we even take part with the lordly beast, because our vanity or some other feeling makes us disposed to place ourselves in the situation of the strongest party. So we feel some concern for the poor citizens of Rome when they meet together to compare their wants and grievances, till Coriolanus comes in and with blows and big words drives this set of ‘poor rats,’ this rascal scum, to their homes and beggary before him. There is nothing heroical in a multitude of miserable rogues not wishing to be starved, or complaining that they are like to be so: but when a single man comes forward to brave their cries and to make them submit to the last indignities, from mere pride and self-will, our admiration of his prowess is immediately converted into contempt for their pusillanimity. The insolence of power is stronger than the plea of necessity. The tame submission to usurped authority or even the natural resistance to it has nothing to excite or flatter the imagination: it is the assumption of a right to insult or oppress others that carries an imposing air of superiority with it. We had rather be the oppressor than the oppressed. The love of power in ourselves and the admiration of it in others are both natural to man: the one makes him a tryant, the other a slave. Wrong dressed out in pride, pomp, and circumstance has more attraction than abstract right.

The whole dramatic moral of Coriolanus is that those who have little shall have less, and that those who have much shall take all that others have left. The people are poor; therefore they ought to be starved. They are slaves; therefore they ought to be treated like beasts of burden. They are ignorant; therefore they ought not to be allowed to feel that they want food, or clothing, or rest, that they are enslaved, oppressed, and miserable. This is the logic of the imagination and the passions, which seek to aggrandise what excites admiration and to heap contempt on misery, to raise power into tyranny, and to make tyranny absolute; to thrust down that which is low still lower, and to make wretches desperate; to exalt magistrates into kings, kings into gods; to degrade subjects to the rank of slaves, and slaves to the condition of brutes. The history of mankind is a romance, a mask, a tragedy, constructed upon the principles of poetical justice; it is a noble or royal hunt, in which what is sport to the few is death to the many, and in which the spectators halloo and encourage the strong to set upon the weak, and cry havoc in the chase, though they do not share in the spoil. We may depend upon it that what men delight to read in books they will put in practice in reality.


  1. graccibros June 6, 2015 at 4:20 pm | #

    This is a very interesting post. I think, on the whole, there is a lot of truth to it, especially to the parts on the passions and distortions inherent in writing itself.

    So at the risk of offending leftist pacifists, feminists, I’m going to ask Corey and his audience to consider this clip of a modern movie speech, which I maintain is built out of the very antithesis of what is premised in Corey’s selection here. The speech – which I hope qualifies here – a stand in for poetry and writing – I think it does – was, in my opinion, the intellectual highlight of the movie “Gettysburg,” which I used as an attempted moral and psychological rallying cry for the Obama-no backbone retreat before the Congressional Republican Right in the spring and summer of 2013 – the summer of the 150th anniversary of the battle. Jeff Daniels plays Col. Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine, and he is addressing deserters, asking them to stand and fight in what is likely to be the climax battle of the Civil War; he fears that to lose at Gettysburg is to lose the war entirely.

    It is the address of a college teacher from Bowdoin, a citizen soldier who heard Harriet Beecher Stowe speak in evenings at the college…who is speaking now as a leader not in the Shakespearean sense of Corey’s selection, but in profound ways, as a soldier leader of the world’s most – at the time – republican democracy. I would say, and I intended this selection in my essay – “The High Ground” – to be not a celebration of war, but the opposite of George C. Scott’s speech in Patton – and at the same time a reminder that perhaps there is something missing from today’s left. Judge for yourself…Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s a good idea for the left to be arming and forming militias, rather to understand just how determined the Right is and the fortitude needed to oppose it.

    Oh yes: the nation could not bring itself to resurrect this movie to show itself on that 150th anniversary, the way we do with “Saving Private Ryan” and today being June 6th, “The Longest Day.”

    That despite the fact that the full four hour version which was once online at You tube had collected almost a million views before being taken down for alleged copyright violations. The other stars in the movie are Martin Sheen, Tom Berenger, Sam Elliot and music, a good score, by Randy Edelman.

    Don’t worry, the clip is just about 8 minutes.


  2. Joel in Oakland June 6, 2015 at 6:47 pm | #

    Propaganda = poetry??
    Poll-driven marketing certainly knows what it’s doing as do those using Orwell-speak, but I wouldn’t sit them down next to aesthetics at any party.

  3. Hanzo June 6, 2015 at 8:23 pm | #

    The left is still good at insightful critiques but the war for the senses and aesthetics has unfortunately been lost. The right has managed to present its obsessions, that is: power, primal/dark nature, violence, uniforms and weapons, destruction and domination, as apolitical artistic expressions. The glorification of these images is even being done unconsciously even by leftist artists. A strong critique is required that will force people to see through the colorful brutality of it all so that the politics inherent in them will finally surface.

  4. graccibros June 6, 2015 at 9:41 pm | #

    Well, I can tell you a bit, Hanzo, of what was on my mind when I wrote my essay about the movie for the anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg (“The High Ground: Gettysburg, 1863, ‘What Then Must We Do,’ 2013”), the second half of which was a review of Gar Alperovitz’s book. What was on my mind was the fascination of part of the left with Gar’s perspective, and I strongly suspect, also his very low key, almost emotionless presentation style, a stark and enormous contrast with the content of his views on political economy. In that sense, he is like “no drama Obama.” I thought Jeff Daniels portrayal, by contrast, of one of the heroes of the battle, played it in almost anti-heroic terms, the modern terms which have been – imposed – or is embraced – by the “evolution” of the male personaes on the left…I think its a good question, lurking in the background of Corey’s posting here, what role the passions have been left, or assigned on the left, kind of my rhetorical equivalent of the release of “animal spirits” by the business right if you get the drift. So what “animal spirits” are we allowed on the left: should we get into it, does the rise of feminism set the sexual parameters, set the passion parameters, set the military/no violence parameters…tone and aesthetics for men…is the evolution of Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn symbolic of the these changes…from Olympic gold medal decathlon champion to finding his inner woman? No disrespect to him, or that inner woman, I’m thinking of the cultural meanings if any exist beyond just one person’s gender struggles…but I think she’s already bumped it up into broader implications…

    I think it’s lurking also in the put down of the left by my Congressman, John Delaney, from Maryland, who just had an op-ed in the WaPo declaring that a “progressive” (Sic) like himself doesn’t wish to see a left wing equivalent of the Tea Party arise…Delaney is worried about the recent “loudest voices in the room” – which he didn’t name, presumably, he meant Sanders and Warren. I guess enough to make the Ancien Regime tremble…although he doesn’t quite go about it the same way I am here suggesting, these deep cultural changes on the left, from the populist revolt of the 1890’s, was on the mind of Steve Fraser in “The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power.” He sees the energy and anger, the passion of that 19th cent. era, not on the left, but in the Tea Party.

    I hope everyone now has a nice quiet Saturday evening without too much passion or anger.

    • Hanzo June 6, 2015 at 10:53 pm | #

      It’s a complicated question obviously and I agree with some of your observations. Regarding the man, or person in non gendered language, of the left and what must be done to capture some of those useful atmospherics that the right utilizes almost without realizing it’s doing so, well…the answer for me is this: Basically the Left, especially in America -where it will be the hardest but also the most important- but also all over the world, needs to rediscover, or for some (actually a lot) discover for the first time, a particular leftist figure and what he represents. I’m talking about Lenin.

      So obviously I disagree with your Congressman. The Left’s very survival hinges in it radicalizing in an effective, tactical, critical, collective and yes, even violent, way. The Left should drop the ‘playing by the rules of the game’ rhetoric and go hard on the offensive. Learn that playing by the rules of the Right makes leftists start on false (neoliberal) premises and their critical skills are curbed as a result.

      Stop being kind and demand everything. Activists should start disrupting big business on a large scale. Demand radical reform on all institutions. Simple concessions shouldn’t suffice, though at this point not even that seems possible. The post-war consensus has been dead for a long time after all.

      Jefferson’s fascist/racist bullshit is mainstream on the Right.

      Lenin should be equally so on the Left.

  5. JohnB June 6, 2015 at 10:22 pm | #

    Makes one tempted to plug into that formula modern American ‘losers’ like Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern or Walter Mondale, left in the dust by their ‘imperial’ victors whose handlers cleverly had their men ‘dressed out in pride, pomp and circumstance.’

  6. jonnybutter June 6, 2015 at 10:52 pm | #

    For me the key phrases, the ones which can stand alone:

    The love of power in ourselves and the admiration of it in others are both natural to man: the one makes him a tryant, the other a slave.


    The history of mankind is a romance, a mask, a tragedy, constructed upon the principles of poetical justice

    I don’t want to rub in the obvious, but what Hazlett is claiming as ‘natural to man’ is particularly natural to the male; more importantly though, it’s less a duality than essentially one thing only: slavishness. All the fetishing of arbitrariness, the fear of enui and emptiness, the idea that man is defined negatively, by what Hazlitt calls ‘self-will’ and ‘mere pride’ – are, in a sense, expressions of slavishness. They are a slave’s idea of freedom.

    • Hanzo June 6, 2015 at 11:02 pm | #

      The left has been trying, for more than half a century, to subvert and critique these traditional manifestations of masculinities. It’s a very important task and critical not only for the formation of a more gender egalitarian society but for curbing once and for all that attraction and hold that the Right has over many, as you said, males in particular.

  7. Kia June 7, 2015 at 1:05 am | #

    I love Hazlitt, but if I wanted to find an “aesthetics of the left” I would not expect to find it in Shakespeare, and least of all in Coriolanus. The funny thing to me is that just about the time that Hazlitt was writing, something like “an aesthetics of the left” did emerge, in Russia: Pushkin, Herzen, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, even Dostoevsky. Benjamin Constant in France, Schiller and Kleist in Germany. In England, Wordsworth (whom Hazlitt knew and rather disliked) had already written the Lyrical Ballads, which would certainly qualify. But even before that, there was lots of stuff: Paradise Lost is radical, as are Pope’s Imitations of Horace, for example. Soon enough, the novels of George Eliot. And Thackeray. And Dickens, who had a big influence on the Russians because of his themes of social justice, among other things. But really until the second half of the 19th century the categories “left” and “right” don’t mean anything. They certainly didn’t mean what they have come to mean in the US in the 21st century.

    Hazlitt was smart enough to know that after Wordsworth had run out his talent there just wasn’t anything important happening in English poetry any more-and there wouldn’t be until maybe Thomas Hardy whom nobody read. So Hazlitt, like everybody in the 19th century, turned to Shakespeare and helped make him the 900-pound gorilla of poetry. Because poetry by then had pretty much stopped being about a lot of things that it could be about in the 17th and 18th centuries. It only played on the one string: a certain (by then rather mushy) romantic idea of the heroic that didn’t actually require you to get up and do anything. You could just read Tennyson and feel a bit uplifted out of your comfy chair. Or you could have your ersatz Shakespeare, with Browning and numberless others now resting in deserved oblivion. Poetry had become the poetry of reaction–Shakespeare in particular lends itself to that, but Chaucer doesn’t.

    In other words he didn’t have much else to go with, so he just noted something that wasn’t a feature of poetry as such but only a feature of the way poetry was coming to be regarded at that time.

    You can find powerful arguments in defense of liberal ideas in Greek tragedy, in Jane Austen, in Anthony Trollope, in Edmund Burke, in Samuel Johnson, in William Blake. The right is absolutely crap at explaining everything they give attention to; I have never understood why, when it comes to literature, anybody should believe that they are any better at explaining it. So too many people on the left, I find, only understand Burke as he exists in the imaginations of reactionaries. Burke spent 20 years of his life battling almost singlehandedly against corporate capture of the state.

    You don’t get an aesthetics of the left out of politics: you get an aesthetics of the left out of art, the same place where you get an aesthetics of anything. From art, on art’s terms. But first of all you have to get over the nervousness about the status of art (“What’s if for? Pleasure? Sounds kinda reactionary to me…”) and claim and defend pleasure. This is the business of the left because the life of the imagination is essential to sustaining human dignity. Everyone has the right to beauty and delight and desire. Everyone has the right to grow their imagination so that they can experience life more richly and pass on that richer experience through their own creative vision. “Man does not live by bread alone.” And if people’s imaginative and moral and emotional life is respected and honored, the the other needs will tend to be more secure as well. You can read that in Sophocles.

    • jonnybutter June 7, 2015 at 11:39 am | #

      Too much to respond to here, but I would just note that the title speaks of challenges, not necessarily overwhelming natural obstacles. I mean, failure at meeting this challenge is not an option anyway, right?

    • graccibros June 7, 2015 at 12:38 pm | #


      That’s an amazing post. I’m not competent to get to it all, especially your command of 19th century literature – working at it – but may never get there, so I’ll speak to the ending of on art and pleasure.

      The left unionist’s phrase – mostly the socialist left – left us with a visual symbol, a clenched fist holding a rose and a phrase: Bread and Roses. It seems more like a mirage today. You call for a working life which incorporates aesthetics and pleasure as it unfolds, not I presume, at the cultural subservience to the frenetic version of the American Dream, where one gets to reap such “frills,” at the end as a reward, Gatsby like, but don’t rest too long in that “glory,” look over your left – or is it right – shoulder, the Chinese are working even harder, pulling even and surpassing, and hacking their way right into our hearts and much else. From what I’ve read of working class life in China, for women, but you get a glimpse of the men’s life as well, and it’s just as horrible, “Factory Girls” there is a lot of striving (a word which just doesn’t do justice to the reality presented) for bread, no time this generation for roses; in lieu of, substitute new apps on the latest electronic devices.

      I can’t say, and I’m speaking to feminists very broadly here, in their full range of differences, that my life as a lower middle class male who cultivated an interest in art, and did some very minor collecting, has earned me much solidarity from other human beings, only what I’ve learned first hand myself from the experience. It’s the fuel for some very acidic future writing, and I’ll spare you all right now. If I had never heard of, or read anything by Marx, and I’m not a Marxist in the full old sense of the 19th century meaning, much more in the way Yanis Varoufakis has described his take in his essay at Naked Capitalism, before going to the negotiator’s hot seat, my experience with the art world would have made me class conscious beyond the American norm, that’s just the way I’ve had my nose rubbed in it. And yet I still say a world which can turn its back on beauty and its appreciation isn’t worth living in…class bound as the appreciation still seems very much to be. And I still like landscapes, as they have evolved in the history of art, risking the wrath of Rebecca Solnit and her view in “As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender and Art.”

      For me, feminism’s policing for political correctness every aspect of human existence, for the slightest hint of patriarchy, does in a very real way echo the right’s charges against fully “classified Marxism” and its bad habits, reductionisms…and so on. It’s like a feminine St. Augustine always looking over your shoulder, your conscience, picking, picking until every last trace of fallen man has been transported out before arriving in the “womanly city”? Another one of the joys of late Empire, late globalization and its extreme cultural and gender fragmentation, whirl is king, and I keep coming back to late Weimar culture, or Vienna 1890-1914…perhaps the only question is whose feet will fill the boots echoing off the old cobblestones.

  8. Michael Ash June 7, 2015 at 2:25 am | #

    Great issue. Attempts to wrestle with this problem are fascinating. Battleship Potemkin is one of the best aesthetic examples of The People as hero. Occasional individuals stand out but are then are re absorbed into the whole.

    Also I recommend the poetry of Attila Jozsef:

    With a pure heart

    Without father without mother
    without God or homeland either
    withour crib or coffin-cover
    without kisses or a lover

    for the third day – without fussing
    I have eaten next to nothing.
    My store of power ere my years
    I sell all my twenty years.

    Perhaps, if no one else will
    the buyer will be the devil.
    With a pure heart – that’s a job:
    I may kill and I shall rob.

    They’ll catch me, hang me high
    in blessed earth I shall lie,
    and poisonous grass will start
    to grow on my beautiful heart.

    Translation: Kabdebo, Thomas

  9. Michael Ash June 7, 2015 at 2:29 am | #

    Ps Soldiers of Salamina is a contemporary Spanish novel that explores this question, turning Spengler’s heroic construction, a favorite of the right, on its head with subtlety.

    • Nico Tejada June 7, 2015 at 5:40 pm | #

      The semi-fictional account is entitled “Soldiers of Salamis” in the English translation of Javier Cercas’ “Soldados de Salamina.” Ostensibly an investigation of a group of right-wing poets (“the forest friends”) saved in the closing days of the Spanish Civil War, the author uses the framing story to investigate other heroisms, including those of the soldiers, the Greek troops who died heroically at Salamis, and those of the South American writer Roberto Bolano who serves a small role as a commentator on the principal action and its themes.

      The speculative fiction of Bolano, a reformed poet, poses its own left-wing aesthetics and questions the morality of the aesthetes. I recommend “By Night in Chile” (the story of an Opus Dei functionary and aspiring poet), “The Savage Detectives” (about poets in Spain and Latin America), and 20th century saga “2666.”

      • jonnybutter June 8, 2015 at 7:51 pm | #

        Wow, the Bolaño book is good. Thanks

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