In an essay on French literature in the period of Nazi occupation, Herbert Marcuse argues that a literature of intimacy—love poems and romantic novels—is the last resort of freedom in totalitarian conditions. Written in 1945 and revised in the 1970s, Marcuse’s essay argues that in the face of totalitarianism, a literature of intimacy opens a realm of human experience that is outside the control of the regime. Because it carries a memory of joy, it is radically other to the ethos of the regime. Later, in The Aesthetic Dimension (1978), Marcuse returns to the role of aesthetics when political change is unlikely to occur. The article revisits Marcuse’s 1945 essay and his reading of the poetry of Charles Baudelaire and Paul Eluard. It begins by relating Marcuse’s interest in love poetry to the work of other critical theorists who see a radical role for aesthetics and the pursuit of happiness in periods when political change is blocked. It examines the 1945 essay, puts it in context of Marcuse’s work for the US intelligence services in the 1940s, and looks at the similarities between the 1945 essay and Marcuse’s later writing. Finally, it asks whether Marcuse’s arguments matter today (as the dreams for which the New Left of the 1960s went in search appear as remote as ever).

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