Eliot the Adversary

by Mark Anthony Signorelli (July 2012)


In an article published previously at the website called The Imaginative Conservative, entitled “T.S. Eliot as Conservative Mentor,” Roger Scruton attempts to make the case for Eliot as one of the great representatives of the conservative tradition in the twentieth century. Considering his achievements as both a poet and a critic, Mr. Scruton concludes that Eliot is a vital author, one who has reconciled an allegiance to the broad traditions of Christianity and conservative politics with the unique social conditions of modernity. This assessment of Eliot’s achievement and its importance is more or less typical among contemporary Christians and conservatives alike, who generally take Eliot to be “one of theirs,” a great champion of tradition and ordered society, a judgment no doubt based on Eliot's own description of himself as a "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion." I think this is a monumental error, stemming from a deep misunderstanding of the art of poetry, and its relationship to the community. When we understand these things properly, I am convinced we will recognize Eliot’s influence on our poetic tradition as something perfectly baneful; we will see that he did more to wreck the art of poetry than any other man of his generation, and that for this reason he deserves to stand ahead of Freud, ahead of Nietzsche, ahead of Skinner among the intellectual villains of the modern world.

Any attempt to characterize Eliot as a conservative or a defender of tradition must overcome the prima facie objection that his verse constituted a radical repudiation of over two thousand years of Western poetics, inaugurating a stylistic revolution which had no real precedent in all of that tradition. Nothing could be less conservative in spirit than such a project. Mr. Scruton grossly understates the radical nature of this revolution, claiming that Eliot “overthrew the 19th century in literature” and rebelled against “his contemporaries’ use of a worn-out poetic diction and lilting rhythms.” But Eliot’s stylistic “experiments” – the free verse, the fragmented imagery, the tortured syntax – do not simply entail a revolt against 19th and early 20th century conventions; they represent a wholesale abandonment of the stylistic norms of Western poetry, as they stood from the time of Homer.  His work departs as categorically from the stylistic precedence of Dante and Racine as it does from that of Tennyson or Dowson. The critic Timothy Steele, in his excellent book Missing Measures, punctures the long-standing myth, propagated first by the modernists themselves, that the innovations of modernism amounted to a reaction against late Victorian mannerisms:  “we may say this of the leaders of the modern revolution…they objected to the diction and attendant subject matter of Victorian verse. Yet they identified Victorian poetry with the metrical system which the Victorians used but which was not in itself Victorian, having been used for centuries by a variety of poets working in a variety of styles.” Nor was Eliot’s revolution in anyway a “return” to some earlier tradition, as we would expect a conservatively-minded revolution to be; Pound’s insipid motto captured the whole ethos of the movement: “make it new.” The renovation of the rather marginal work of the Metaphysial Poets, in which Eliot was joined by critics like F.R. Leavis, was always a sham and a form of self-delusion, through which Eliot convinced both himself and his readers that his act of rebellion sprang somehow from an homage to the past, that in composing the bizarre and deformed lines of the Wasteland or The Hollow Men, he was following the models of good High Churchmen like Donne and Herbert, rather than mimicking the aformal paroxysms of absinthe-swilling nihilists like Laforgue and Valery.

One of the most admirable causes taken up by Mr. Scruton over the years has been his crusade against the hideousness of modern architecture. In much of his work on this topic, he has argued persuasively that the totalitarian impulse which has deformed so much of modern politics manifests itself as well in the overbearing concrete structures of modernist architecture. That is to say, Mr. Scruton has recognized that in the case of modernist architecture, style is not philosophically neutral, but rather embodies a certain perspective and way of approaching the world. Unfortunately, when it comes to Eliot’s style, which in many places amounts to little more than poetic brutalism, Mr. Scruton has entirely forgotten this insight. The eschewal of basic formal elements like meter and stanzaic pattern; the fragmentation and incoherence of lines like “behaving as the wind behaves / No nearer;” the esoteric and non-consecutive allusion to symbols – these things did not emerge arbitrarily or without ideological pedigree. They are the stylistic manifestation of certain evident tendencies of modern thought – the disavowal of all concepts of essence or form, the deep skepticism about the possibility of public rationality, the understanding of psychology as an enclosed arena and the fascination with its more abnormal phenomenon. In Eliot’s work, the profound doubts and disorder of modernity became poetic style.

An artist of declared fidelity to broad Western traditions like Anglicanism and Toryism is presumably one who subscribes to the most basic beliefs involved in those traditions – the notion of freedom as the capacity to realize essence, the possibility of public standards according to which debate may be rationally arbitrated. It is simply irreconcilable to reason for such an artist to adopt a poetic style which embodies the adverse of these positions, and which tends, as its influence becomes more general, to erode their efficacy. Scruton is entirely too flippant in his treatment of this point. He writes that Eliot “was a thorough traditionalist in his beliefs, but an adventurous modernist in his art,” later referring to this state of affairs as a “paradox.” But it's not a “paradox;" it's an incongruity and a contradiction, one which the poet avoided acknowledging throughout his life only by indulging in massive amounts of self-delusion. To claim, “I am a Tory and an Anglican in my convictions, but a modernist in my poetic craftsmanship” is precisely like saying, “I am a Puritan in my morals, but in artwork, I generally prefer the priapic scenery of certain ancient Greek vases,” or, “I am a strict pacifist in political principle, but as far as interior design goes, I incline towards the tastes of the Dayak head-hunters.” If the avowers of such positions are incapable of recognizing their incongruity, the rest of us ought not to be.

To his credit, Scruton does not make the claim, so often alleged by defenders of the modernists, that the alienation and despair of modern life compel the artist to adopt a fragmented style, so as to truthfully reflect the desperate conditions of his time (this is what the critic Yvor Winter called the "fallacy of imitative style"). Yet because this is such a common argument, it deserves consideration here. For one, it is obviously not true to say that the moderns were the first artists to peer into the abyss of the human estate, to apprehend the abandonment and desolation lurking in the shadows of our existence, nor is it any more true to say that they saw these things more astutely than their predecessors. To the contrary, life’s absurdity as it is revealed to us by the story of Oedipus or Lear is a devastating possibility, in comparison to which the moans of an Estragon or a Hugh Selwyn Mauberley seem like a childish snit. Why then did Sophocles and Shakespeare not feel compelled to discard the formal elements of their art? It is not because they understood life less, but because they understood their art more. They understood that artistic form is one of the fundamental ways that the human soul conquers the apparent anarchism of nature, imposing an order and a comprehensibility upon a reality often lacking in both. There can be no question as to whether this triumph of the mind of the artist over the void is a real possibility for human life, for the entirety of our artistic heritage declares it to be so. Of course, in the face of this testimony, one can still insist that a belief in the rational integrity of the human mind is a myth or an illusion, that the soul is as much the product of the material world’s blind violence as anything else in the world. But then one simply ceases to be a “royalist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion.” More crucially, one ceases to be a poet, for that name has been accorded in the Western tradition only to such persons who created a harmonious and comprehensible structure out of words, and therefore subscribed, even if implicitly, to all the metaphysical and ethical presuppositions which make such a labor viable. 

Scruton praises Eliot for being the voice through which “the modern world was at last making itself heard in literature,” one counseling us that “the conservative response to modernity is to embrace it, but to embrace it critically…submit to the voice of order and set an example of orderly living.” This is entirely dubious. For one, how is it that Eliot encourages us to “submit to the voice of order” in our lives when he would not do so in his art? How is it that disorderly writing promotes “orderly living?” But the larger question, left entirely unaddressed by Scruton, is what exactly do we mean by this “modernity” to which Eliot at last gave voice? Is it something deserving of such voice in the first place, or no? This is the great weakness of Scruton’s essay: he never definitively states what modernity is, all the while praising Eliot as the oracle and conservative mediator of that same modernity. To be sure, the topic is a large one, the adequate treatment of which would have lain outside the scope of Scruton’s essay. Still we can say, in very general terms, what we are referring to when we speak of the “modern world” as something distinct from what came before. Modernity is not just, or even primarily, a change in the material circumstances of humanity. It is a set of ideas, an amalgam of convictions, dogmas, and attitudes, defining the true nature of man and the cosmos he inhabits, and the influence of these ideas on social organization and individual behavior, as that influence has been slowly exerted over the course of centuries. Before we laud a man for making such a set of ideas heard, we must first ascertain whether or not these ideas are salutary or not in their fundamental direction, and wise or not in their fundamental purport. If it turns out that this particular set of ideas known as modernity is deeply erroneous in any important respects, there can be no question of embracing it.

We certainly have good reason to think that modern thought is false in many profound ways, and that modern society is consequently misguided. Think here of the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, whose narrative of the emergence of modern moral thought constitutes a story of intellectual misstep after intellectual misstep, of the rejection of teleological concepts of man’s perfected nature, leading to the failed attempt to justify moral norms by a deracinated reason, leading to the failed attempt to justify moral norms by emotion, leading to a rejection of moral norms and submission to the simple prevalence of will. The end point of this trajectory is that catastrophic incoherence of ethical inquiry, famously described in the opening of After Virtue.  And MacIntyre’s proposed remedy for this situation is not an “embrace” of this incoherence, but rather, a return to the principles of the pre-modern tradition, the departure from which involved us in this calamitous cycle of confusion in the first place.  Why should the poet not similarly turn his mind away from the anarchism of the modern world, and look to the past for guidance?  Why should we demand his allegiance to principles clearly fallacious in their significance and degrading in their influence?  The poverty of Scruton’s advice on this matter becomes evident when, towards the end of his essay, he refers to Friedrich Nietzsche’s attempt to “deny the sovereignty of truth altogether,” acknowledging that this philosophical project was one of “absurdity.”  But, as MacIntyre convincingly demonstrates, Nietzsche is the modern philosopher par excellence, the thinker in whom the necessary implications of over two centuries of failed liberal theorizing culminate. The attempt to think outside of the category of truth, and to subject all social development to an arbitration of wills – this just is what we mean, or ought to mean, by modernity.  How then can it make any sense for Scruton to commend Eliot for “embracing” a mode of thought which the two of them regard as “absurd?” 

There is another way to state this point. Traditions of thought in the pre-modern West were notable for the pre-eminence they accorded to the study of poetic texts. The Psalms, the Homeric epics, the odes and epigrams of Horace – the reading and interpreting of such texts occupied a primary place in the educational program of Western students for millennia, and the necessary propaedeutic for all advanced learning. The humanism which emerged from this form of study, and which dominated Western culture prior to the 17th century, was suffused with the poetic mentality throughout, a mentality that trained men to find truth in human subjective experience, to conceive of themselves as willing, impassioned creatures, and to locate the hopes of an ordered community in the rational concord of its members. Modern thought, with its emphasis on techne and its mathematical modes of verification, came into the world to challenge every one of these intellectual habits, to teach men instead that truth resides alone in the “objective,” that persons are a congeries of material causes, quite as susceptible to manipulation as inanimate nature, and that the right ordering of the community is accomplished through such manipulation, properly executed. Thus modernity has been, right from the beginning, an anti-poetic mentality, and the ruins of society we presently inhabit are the tangible effect of this mentality, as it has worked itself out in our politics and our culture. There is no warrant to praise a poet for reconciling himself to this great nemesis, the adversary of everything he is supposed to embody, and there is most certainly no warrant to recommend such an example to other aspiring poets. 

By ignoring the trajectory of error implicit in “modernity,” Scruton seems to invest the phenomenon with an authority or moral imperative which we ought never ascribe to it. Thus, he commends Eliot for “reconciling” himself to the modern world, for writing in the language of the modern world, for situating his mind in the modern world, all of which commendations carry an implication that modernity is something necessary, something that had to be. But of course, this is the arch-fallacy of the progressive mind-set, the conviction that historical epochs unfold according to some determinism built into history. Eliot, in “reconciling” himself to modernity, accorded his times a necessity – and therefore, an authority – which no truly conservative thinker could possibly accord them. His “Wasteland” is nothing more than a white flag with footnotes. In this attitude towards his times, in his assumption that the decadence of the modern world was necessary, rather than freely chosen, Eliot betrayed a profoundly progressive bent of mind.

Once we deceive ourselves into believing that modernity took shape according to some enigmatic determinism at the heart of history, we will easily fall into the additional delusion that modern artists were compelled to adopt their styles in obedience to the imperatives of their times. David Hume famously remarked that, when reading ethical philosophers, he found that they spoke constantly of what is, until suddenly and without apparent rational warrant, they began speaking of what ought to be. In a strikingly similar manner, when one reads literary critics and scholars of artistic history, one finds that they speak of periodic styles as having been, until suddenly when they arrive at the modern era, when they start referring to styles having had to be. Thus, Michelangelo chose to sculpt in the style that he did, Wordsworth chose to write in the style that he did, but Kafka and Picasso had to work in the styles that they did; the spiritual and political crises of their age were simply too great and too pressing to construct their artifacts in any other way. All of this is pure superstition. The notion that a historic era, whatever its character, limits the technical variety available to an artist is a degrading myth, one which tends to erode one of the most absolute and necessary forms of human freedom – the freedom of artistic creation. As Friedrich Schiller wrote in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man: “The artist is indeed the child of his age; but woe to him if he is at the same time its ward, or worse still, its minion!”

The fact is, we are presently watching that modern society, which Eliot and others like him invested with so much authority, self-immolate before our eyes. We are watching its fraudulent economy disintegrate, its politics seize up in impotence, its worthless schools corrode the mentality of the young until they are unfit for any civilized duty. The impending collapse of our frail, ephemeral order threatens to transform the whole of our social landscape in unimaginable ways. The modern order, from the beginning, had an insufficient amount of truth in it, so now it is passing away. Yet with the passing of that order we can foresee also the passing of its artistic works and legacy, which have been invested in that order in a wholly unprecedented manner; the art of the twentieth century, like no other art before its time, speaks to and from the specific historical circumstances of its age. Thus, when that age passes, as it is now passing, a very large part of the interest of modern art will pass too.

One of the great errors of the modernists has been their repeated assertion that the poet is one who writes for his times, who speaks for the prevalent beliefs and concerns of his contemporaries, in an idiom drawn from the spoken language of his contemporaries. Thus, F.R. Leavis praises Eliot because his “staple idiom and movement derive immediately from modern speech.” Scruton echoes this praise, when he commends Eliot for finding “artistic forms that would make contact again with our experience – not my experience, or yours, but our experience, the experience that unites us as living here and now.” But such experience – experience that is limited to the particularities of any given historical epoch – will never suffice for the purposes of the poet, who strives to articulate the essential experience of humankind, which must be an experience transcending, in some manner, the limited particularities of historical circumstance. How else is it that we are still able to sympathize in our reading with a soldier in the army of General Kutuzov, or a medieval lady damned for her sexual transgressions, or a Theban king overwhelmed by an adverse fortune? Ben Jonson’s praise of Shakespeare – that “he was not of an age, but for all time” – accurately states the relationship of the master to his historical epoch. The great enemy of artistic excellence has always been the provincial, that habitual assumption that the attitudes, customs, forms of life, and dogmas of one’s own place are those of men generally. The provincial invests his geographical circumstances with a kind of universal authenticity, just as the modernist invests his historical circumstances with a similar kind of perpetual authenticity. Modernism is therefore nothing more than a temporal provincialism, emerging from the false assumption that the very abnormal spiritual and intellectual conditions of late-nineteenth and twentieth century Western society may be taken as universal and permanent features of human life. 

At the heart of this subjection of the poet to his age’s purported imperatives lies a very profound and very lethal error regarding the proper relationship between the poet and his society, for it is necessarily to suppose that the poet comes behind the demagogues, mercenaries, and masses who are generally shaping the events of any given age, and owes to them a spiritual allegiance. But this is false – monstrously false. The poet comes first in the order of civil society, because it is he who finds the proper utterance for the most elemental truth of human experience. The poet, insofar as he is a poet, speaks the instinctive or inherent desires and beliefs of the human soul, before they have been modified or defaced by his particular environment. As Holderlin rightly asserted:

“In that the poet feels himself seized in his whole inner and outer life by the pure tone of his original sensation and he looks about him in his world, it is new and unknown to him, the sum of all his experiences, his knowledge, his intuitions and memories, art and nature, as it presents itself within and without him; everything is present to him as if for the first time, for this very reason ungrasped, undetermined, dissolved into sheer material and life. And it is supremely important that he does not at this moment accept anything as given, does not start from anything positive, that nature and art, as he has learned to know and see them, do not speak before a language is there for him.”

All experience is something new to the poet, and so he must interpret that experience anew, quite as if no person before him shared in this experience. Thus he has no obligation to confine himself to the interpretations of his age, and forfeits his claim to the title of poet when he allows his epoch’s assumptions to overrule the informing voice speaking in his own soul. The poet does not measure his own experience by the prevalent attitudes of his time, but he asserts that experience audaciously, and expects his contemporaries to measure their own experience by what he presents to them – a depiction of essential humanity. This is why Chesteron could write:

“Poetry deals entirely with those great eternal and mainly forgotten wishes which are the ultimate despots of existence. Poetry presents things as they are to our emotions, not as they are to any theory, however plausible, or any argument, however conclusive…If bereavement is a bitter and continually aching thing, poetry will say that it is so, and no philosophers will persuade poetry to say that it is an evolutionary stage of great biological value. And here comes in the whole value and object of poetry, that it is perpetually challenging all systems with the test of a terrible sincerity. The practical value of poetry is that it is realistic upon a point upon which nothing else can be realistic, the point of the actual desires of man.”

The poet comes first. He is not judged by the ideologies of men; he judges them. He has no obligation to adhere to even the most prevalent of beliefs or attitudes in his lifetime, but rather, he is bound to defy them with all the intensity of his soul if he discovers that they do not match up with his own experience. Even if he is the last man remaining in the world with the will to do so, he is bound to defy them still. And because the poet is not to speak until there is “a language there for him,” because he is the one who finds the most appropriate language for his experience, it is fallacious to suppose, as so many modern poets in fact have supposed, that the poet is obliged to adopt the language of his times, or to work in an idiom drawn from the general linguistic and syntactic usage of his contemporaries. This is precisely the reverse of the true case. The poet is not to measure his language by the usage of the mass of men; the mass of men, if they are the least bit civilized, ought to measure their usage by the language of the poet, ought to strive to conform their own manner of speaking to the poetic classics. And in fact, in those ages when educational and cultural institutions have been healthy, and have exerted a civilizing influence on the people, this has been the order of things, and not the other way around.

Only when we grasp the proper relationship between the poet and his community, and only when we recognize the poet’s sacred duty to guard the deepest laid desires of man, only then can we understand what made Eliot’s assault on traditional poetics such a treacherous act. For that poetics – a poetics of harmonious form, of public reason in contradistinction to esoteric vision – taught man his nature by pleasing his nature; taught him, through the delight of proportionate pattern, that he is an order-seeking creature; through the communion of sentiment, that he is a creature made for society; through the virtuosity of art, that he can never be content with himself as he is, but must ever strive to excel himself if he would be happy. Only when he knew himself as such a creature was man fit for the work of civil society. Modernity began when the bleak, blind men of theory profaned these desires, one after another, by declaring that the individual was born detached from his social bonds, or that his pleasure in the presence of beauty was an agitation of his material being, no different than the agitations caused by hunger or sex, or that public reason was always a deceitful imposition of the dominant will, or the superstitious remnant of a theistic cosmos. Brazenly, forcefully, repeatedly, the modern philosophers tried to persuade men out of a knowledge of their own selves, tried to deface the self-image which nature stamps upon our mind from the first, and over the centuries, wound up succeeding beyond all of their giddiest aspirations. Yet there was human nature still; it remained always what it was, and to regain it, to make its knowledge operative again, it was necessary only to assert it against the melee of distortive theories overrunning the modern world. Poetry did assert it, and for a time held off the encroachments of theory. Then Eliot came and taught poetic style how to manifest the solipsism, the chaos, and the nihilism of modern thought, and in doing so, trained men’s souls to delight not in the lovely, but the sordid; not in the eloquent, but the arcane; not in the harmonious, but the bizarre, and thus insinuated a conception of a despairing, irrational creature in the place of the old self-image. He accustomed men to thinking that this was their true nature, or at least their true nature now in the modern world. The ordered, formal poetry of the Western tradition did stem from a “terrible sincerity,” as Chesterton called it – a sincere thirst for beauty and truth. When Eliot jettisoned that tradition, and convinced his peers that it was something obsolete or exhausted, he threw away the only effective means of challenging the rancid systems rotting the modern world. Hobbes, Rousseau, Mill, Nietzsche, Darwin, Freud, Derrida – each of them marched against the citadel of man, wielding his weaponry in the form of some aberrant theory. But so long as the poet manned the ramparts, the impenetrable gates stayed down, and those lethal ideas could find no entrance into the heart of the place.  It was Eliot who turned traitor, who raised the gates from within, and submissively gave the place up to the barbarous powers he was duty bound to have resisted to the death. No one, absolutely no one, played a more decisive role in the progressive decadence of the modern Western world than T.S. Eliot.

It is impossible, then, to give credence to Scruton’s assertion that Eliot’s poetry appeals to the “feelings” of the reader. By rejecting the public rationality and harmonious structure of traditional poetics, Eliot forfeited the ability to arouse those elemental passions for understanding and beauty which it was the custom of the old poetics to arouse. As a matter of fact, Eliot’s work is remarkably sterile and phlegmatic, revealing little tendency to appeal to the emotions. It sometimes teases the intellect, but it never touches the passions, and I have very little hesitancy in declaring my confidence that no reader ever found himself truly “moved” by reading Eliot. Even in what Scruton calls his masterpiece, The Four Quartets, Eliot’s style stumbles awkwardly from a manic and unpleasantly obscure symbolism, to a dry pedantry, to an airy vapidity that would rival the very worst of Khalil Gibran: “At the still point of the turning world. / Neither flesh nor fleshless; / Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, / But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, / Where past and future are gathered.” Those Christian readers who confess a fondness for such passages as these should question themselves frankly whether they would still admire such rebarbative verse if it expressed the substance of some other set of beliefs, not their own. If the answer is no – as I suspect it must generally be – then the grounds of their admiration are not truly authentic grounds, having more to do with consent to a set of propositions than the sympathy of a common experience. The proper end of poetry is not propagation of doctrine, but cultivation of human nature, and only when we find the best aspirations of our nature cultivated do we have a justification for expressing critical approval.

Whether the term “conservative” still has a definite meaning is quite debatable; so thorough is the spiritual wreckage of our age that it is no longer clear we have any cultural legacy to conserve. Nonetheless, if I may take the word in its broadest significance, I would say that it generally refers to one who believes that something has gone drastically wrong with the modern world, that answers for our predicament can be found in the wisdom of the past, and that consequently, one prerequisite of sound thinking for us is to be looking towards the past at least as much as we look towards the future. I would urge persons of such bent of mind to consider how thoroughly Western traditions of thought in the pre-modern world were poetic traditions of thought – how far the dominant forms of education and culture stamped a poetic mentality upon those civilizations. I would further urge such persons to consider how much “modernity” represents the triumph over that mentality of the abstract, technical, and utilitarian modes of thought characteristic of science.  And when we understand these two things, we will realize how our redemption from the crudity of our times depends, in a crucial way, on poetry, and on the restoration of our old poetic tradition. As Eliot was one of the chief vandals of that tradition, it is hard to see how conservatives can conceive of him as anything other than an adversary. We must reclaim our natures now, through authentic poetry, and that demands of us an unrelenting enmity towards this man, whose work was the last seal on our destruction, and is now the first impediment in the way to our restoration.

Mark A. Signorelli's personal website can be found here: www.markanthonysignorelli.com


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