Shouting at the Silents:The Cine-Dreams of Delmore Schwartz

Shouting at the Silents
The Cine-Dreams of Delmore Schwartz

by Jonah Corne

I looked toward the movie, the common dream,
The he and she in close-ups, nearer than life,
And I accepted such things as they seem,
The easy poise, the absence of the knife,
The near summer happily ever after,
The understood question, the immediate strife,
Not dangerous, nor mortal, but the fadeout
Enormously kissing amid warm laughter,
As if such things were not always played out
By an ignorant arm, which crosses the dark,
And lights up a thin sheet with a shadow’s mark.
–“Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer” (1937), Delmore Schwartz

In a letter dated November 23, 1937, Delmore Schwartz wrote to his college friend, the composer Arthur Berger, about the “various literary appearances” that he would be making in the coming months, one of which he singled out as giving him an especial feeling of pride: “But best of all is the Partisan Review, which changed from Stalinist to Trotskyite overnight.” Schwartz’s description of the realignment of the magazine–its break with the official American Communist Party, and makeover into a forum for the crystallizing anti-Stalinist Left–could not have been more apt, the nocturnal reference evoking the very subject of the short story in question, “In Dreams Begin Responsibility.”

Schwartz had written the story in a single inspired weekend some two years earlier when he was 21, residing for the summer in a dreary Greenwich Village boardinghouse in an attempt to escape the oppressions of his Brooklyn home. (The story, as we shall see, thrust him psychically back home with redoubled intensity.) Schwartz noiselessly burgled the title from WB Yeats, who had prefaced his collection, Responsibilities, 1914, with the epigraph, “In dreams begin responsibility,” attributing the phrase with clipped, occlusively stinting mischief to the source “Old Play.” It is not difficult to see why the editors of the new Partisan Review would have been drawn to the appropriation and might have liked to claim it as a kind of condensed statement of their own retooled, non-ideologically directed curatorial approach to literature. The journal’s title reads almost like a rebuttal to Stalin’s call for a strict Socialist Realism, which sought to turn attention away from the oneiric sphere, alleged to be too romantic, too bound to the individual. In any case, what is certain is that they instantly recognized the work of the then virtually unknown author as a masterpiece, placing “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” at the head of the re-inaugural issue, before contributions by such established eminences as Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Wallace Stevens and Picasso.

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