Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 15, 2005

Arthur Miller

Filed under: literature,swans — louisproyect @ 5:43 pm

Arthur Miller
One of our Greatest Political Artists

by Louis Proyect

(Swans – February 14, 2005) Arthur Miller, one of our greatest political artists, died at the age of 89 on February 11, 2005. Although none of his other plays received the critical acclaim of “Death of a Salesman,” his reputation could rest on this one work alone. Whatever his sixteen other plays, including “The Crucible” or “The Price,” might have lacked in craftsmanship they more than made up for in terms of political and social insight. For Miller the ultimate goal of a work of art was to provide some kind of lesson for humanity. If some critics in this age of postmodernist irony deemed that old-fashioned, Miller was content — as we on the left should be — to adopt the stance embodied in Dante’s: “Segui il tuo corso e lascia dir le genti.” This dictum, which Marx cited in the opening pages of Capital, means “Go your own way and let people talk.”

Although his father was a wealthy garment manufacturer, the Depression would reduce the family to poverty. Like fellow New Yorker and Jew Howard Zinn, Miller eventually went to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a hotbed of labor radicalism. Like Zinn, Miller never joined the Communist Party but was content to speak out against injustice on his own. Zinn’s medium was history and Miller’s was the theater. Both knew who the enemy was and refused to be cowed into political submission, standing up to witch hunters in the 1950s and ’60s. Now with efforts afoot to launch a new McCarthyism against dissidents in the academy, such as Ward Churchill or Mohammad S. Alam, the heroic example of earlier resisters should serve the movement well.

In 1949, just as the Cold War and McCarthyism were taking shape, Miller took Broadway by storm with “Death of a Salesman,” a play that attacked the capitalist system without naming it as such. His Willy Loman is the tragic figure of the modern age. Unlike the Kings of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, this Loman — a low man both figuratively and literally — has very little to fall from his place at the beginning of the play and the rock-bottom that awaits him. His tragic flaw is not so much hubris (or pride) but in a naïve belief that anybody can make it in American society. As a salesman he is the critical link in the circulation of commodities. With nothing going for him except a smile and a willingness to put up with rejection, the salesman can climb his way to the top. Loman falls eventually because he is growing old and losing a step. In a climactic scene, when he discovers that his boss has no use for him any more, Willy cries out “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away…a man is not a piece of fruit.”

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art11/lproy23.html

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