'Here is a place of disaffection' : a detailed textual analysis of T.S. Eliot's political and social criticism (2001)
AuthorsTaylor-Perry, Andrew M.show all
Rather late in my academic career, too late for a change in majoring subject, I realised that my study interests lay with political philosophy before English literature. Then I discovered, and became fascinated with, twentieth-century inter-war, or 'high' Anglo-American literary Modernism because here, so it seemed to me, the age-old intersection between politics and art had reached its troubled apogee. One could even go so far as to contend that high Modernism, its foremost practitioners sharing in a political disposition opposed to liberal democracy and its abettor, capitalist materialism, was first and always an amorphous political movement dissimulating as art, and that its most notable literary productions in particular, profound as they so often were, had as their prime commission the dissemination of an apocalyptic, anti-modern augury coloured by reactionary politics. Of course, this conservative rendering of high Modernism has now become something of a critical commonplace and much recent study has been devoted to those Modernist 'leading lights' who never recanted their right-wing views, in particular, W.B. Yeats, with his rarefied aesthetics and his disdain for the twentieth-century tide of popular government; Ezra Pound, incarcerated (on the grounds of insanity) after lending treasonable support to Mussolini's wartime Fascist endeavours; Wyndham Lewis, who remained in thrall to Nazism almost until the Third Reich's demise, and T.S. Eliot, zealous curator of the hierarchical structures binding art and society alike. But it was Eliot, perhaps because his was the most philosophically trained mind amongst them, who maintained the most Daedalian attitudes towards the political and social forces in contention during the chimerical peace of the inter-war period and even the phase of postwar reconstruction which came after. As said, a flood of recent critical texts has been concerned to probe the source of Eliot's and the others' political obscurantism, in Eliot's case variously finding it in his formative Harvard years, in his exposure to French right-wing extremism, in T.E. Hulme's mordant 'anti-humanism', in the Orthodox Christianity Eliot embraced as an adult convert, or in the intellectual temper of those inter-war years when no one, it seemed, could escape political polarisation. Yet, perhaps because of his multifarious status, still undiminished thirty-six years after his death as the outstanding allrounder in twentieth-century English letters and the undisputed bellwether of Modernism, his authorship of that movement's magisterial (and most astringently defining) work, his literary and social criticism and his midlife (mid-Modernism) conversion to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927, Eliot's reputation has somehow contrived to weather the revisionist critical odium that has been heaped on his fellow-traveller Pound, for one. As to his credentials, if Conservatism is an ideology which preaches the importance of conserving prevailing political, social, and religious relationships while it insularly superintends indigenous cultural values and would shield them from incursion, then Eliot completes the perfect score with his resolute defence of a traditionally structured, cellular form of social organisation, his ardent Anglo-Catholic Orthodox convictions, and his veneration of the literary canon and linguistic inheritance of the West. This thesis sets out, by way of a close reading of his two inter-war monographs of social criticism and his pronunciamentos as editor of The Criterion - the dissembling literary journal which became both outlet and anodyne for European right-wing opinion - to show that Eliot was assiduously promulgating a systematic beration of Western liberal democracy amidst the many minds willing to receive it, right up to the declaration of hostilities with the forces of fascism in 1939. Even at the conclusion of war, and by 1948, like everyone else presumably forsworn in the political sense, he was still hawking the same tidings, different in emphasis perhaps but scarcely ameliorated in tone, in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. I believe it is the subtlety and tendency towards divarication in Eliot's prose, coupled with that general critical amnesty which has elected to esteem the poet in him and ignore the political philosopher-manque that has helped engineer 'Old Possum's' relative immunity. To uncover his fixations, to reveal the ideologies which by turns attracted him, and to scrutinize the political accommodations he seemed to be advocating, this study approaches Eliot's self-titled works of 'social criticism' from the inside, that is, by way of a dogged textual dissection, however dated this may be as a methodology. Only an exhaustive, analytic approach which emphasizes the socio-political problems identified by Eliot and the options specified by him in their rectification can excavate the layers of meaning encrypted in these documents and open their implications to full view. It has been my deliberate strategy to remain largely aloof from orthodox critical evaluations of Eliot and to resist as well the distractions of contemporary theory. Instead, I have tried to decipher the political Eliot by interpreting him as literally as possible, responding in the discourse he employed, that is, received socio-political terminology of the kind extant at the time. To refract and attenuate a body of social criticism as waspish as his through the contrivance of some literary theory generated seventy years later would only deflect its overdue scrutiny, and serve to maintain the singular political dispensation he has hitherto mostly enjoyed. Just what was Eliot, that self-mandated political and social commentator saying, and why? Rudimentary as these questions may seem, and faced as it is with the welter that is Eliotic criticism, this study's claim to legitimacy, originality even, rests entirely on their elucidation.