Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot's Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century is a model of the best scholarly writing: sympathetic but not adulatory; learned but not pedantic; comprehensive but never plodding; complex but eminently readable. This essential book has been out of print for a few years now, and it is cause for celebration that this new edition is being published.
Upon its publication in 1971, Russell Kirk's critical biography was widely acknowledged as the best general introduction to T. S. Eliot's life and works. Much has been written on Eliot since, but this volume remains the best introduction to the twentieth century's greatest man of letters. Moreover, Dr. Kirk's book is also one that must be consulted frequently by Eliot scholars, for we still have much to learn from it: in many ways our collective understanding of Eliot is just beginning to catch up with Kirk's. Scholars who fail to check this book when writing on Eliot, especially those who are dealing with his cultural ideas, are likely to find too late that insights they claimed as original were long ago enunciated by Kirk – or, worse yet, long ago disproved by him. Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot's Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century is a model of the best scholarly writing: sympathetic but not adulatory; learned but not pedantic; comprehensive but never plodding; complex but eminently readable. It is informed throughout by Kirk's faith in the real importance of imagination to the well-being of each person and of every community. This essential book has been out of print for a few years now, and it is cause for celebration that this new edition is being published.
A Literary Friendship
Some idea of the friendship between Kirk and Eliot may be gleaned from this book, from Kirk's memoirs (The Sword of Imagination ), and from the letters that passed between the two men. Kirk's first letter to Eliot is dated June 30, 1953, when he had just received his doctoral degree from St. Andrews and had seen his dissertation published by Henry Regnery under the title The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana. The book was taking America by storm, being reviewed in every major newspaper and journal and receiving high praise from nearly all quarters, even from liberal writers who did not agree with its principles. Kirk writes, "Dear Mr. Eliot: Our friend Mr. Henry Regnery has suggested that I call on you when I am in London July 1319. I believe he has sent you a copy of my new book, The Conservative Mind." Kirk mentions other common friends: Bernard Iddings Bell and the Earl of Crawford. He notes that Eliot had recently been granted the doctor of laws degree by St. Andrews, while he had himself received the doctor of letters degree (the first ever earned there by an American) and was writing a book about the university.
A letter of July 13, 1953, from Eliot's secretary, Miss Valerie Fletcher (who would become Eliot's wife in 1957), invites Kirk to tea with Mr. Eliot, but by the time Kirk arrived in London and received the message it was too late. He writes (on July 17) that he is off to Fife and will see Eliot's new play, The Confidential Clerk, at the Edinburgh Festival. Eliot responds on August 6, letting Kirk know he will be in Edinburgh at the Beresford Hotel and that he hopes to meet another common friend, George Scott Moncrieff, while there. In his capacity as editor at Faber & Faber, Eliot is planning to publish the British edition of The Conservative Mind: "I must tell you that I was very much impressed by your book, and hope we may be able to come to some arrangement with Regnery to whom we have written."
Kirk tells of their Edinburgh meeting in his memoirs, saying that he was immediately "moved by Eliot's kindness – an impression confirmed by their meetings and correspondence for several years thereafter." More recent biographers and critics have generally painted a picture of an aloof and even cold Eliot. A notable exception is Anne Ridler, who served for many years as the poet's secretary: in her short reminiscence, "Working for T. S. Eliot," she describes him as truthful, generous, and tenderhearted. It seems that those who knew him well usually found him so. The stiff, unapproachable Eliot is largely a fiction of those who did not know him and do not want to like him.
Kirk reviewed The Confidential Clerk for the Month. He found in it (as he puts it in the present volume) a portrayal of modern people who "grope half-consciously for some assurance that their lives matter, and that the barriers which separate every man from his fellows may be transcended, ultimately, in a community of souls." Eliot was pleased with the review, writing to Kirk (on October 28, 1953), "It is most surprising to find any critic penetrating so far into the play merely on what he has seen at one stage performance, without having been able to read the text. I am wondering when or whether other critics will come to see the play from something like your point of view. It seems to be the impression of some intellectuals that The Confidential Clerk is a rather unsuccessful farce." Eliot's implicit objection is not that he thought the play fully successful but that it was not a farce. Kirk had, after attending a single performance, understood what the playwright was attempting. Here an intellectual and artistic fellowship was formed between the sixty-four-year-old eminent man of letters (who had been awarded the Nobel Prize five years before) and the new writer, thirty years his junior, who had just burst onto the scene.
Perhaps it was their amicable first meeting that inspired Kirk to contemplate writing a book on Eliot. In any case, Kirk writes from the Queen Elizabeth off Cherbourg on September 10, "Some day, by the way, I am going to write a critical account of twentieth century letters, called The Age of Eliot – and perhaps before long." In the event, it was to be eighteen years before that book was published, six years after Eliot's death. In the same letter, Kirk confides that "I once intended to call my book The Conservative Mind: from Burke to Eliot. I decided, however, that it would be improper to deal at such length with a thinker whose work is not yet complete; and this was a fortunate decision, as matters turned out, for it would have been rather embarrassing for you to publish a book with such a title." As it happened, Eliot had told Henry Regnery, the American publisher of the book, that he questioned giving the place of honor to his old Harvard professor, George Santayana. In spite of the reservation expressed in his letter, Kirk did change the Eliot and His Age subtitle in the revised edition to From Burke to Eliot and expanded his treatment of Eliot (and other modern poets, including Frost) in the final chapter. There he writes, "If there has been a principal conservative thinker in the twentieth century, it is T. S. Eliot, whose age this is in humane letters. Eliot's whole endeavor was to point a way out of the Waste Land toward order in the soul and in society."
Thus, at a critical early juncture in his own literary career, Kirk was befriended by Eliot and began to focus his own critical writing increasingly on the latter. Most of Kirk's later books contain numerous references to Eliot. Kirk's gothic novel Lord of the Hollow Dark gives its main characters names from Eliot's verse. He frequently lectured on Eliot, and his presentation at the T. S. Eliot Society's Centennial Celebration in 1988, titled "Eliot's Christian Imagination," was published in a collection called The Placing of T. S. Eliot, edited by Jewel Spears Brooker. A posthumously published collection of Kirk's essays fittingly bears as its title a phrase from "Ash-Wednesday" (and from the essay "Thoughts after Lambeth") oft quoted by Kirk: Redeeming the Time. From at least 1953 on, Eliot was central to Kirk's thought.
Eliot and Kirk had much in common besides their many common friends. Both were eventually happily married to younger women: Eliot married Valerie Fletcher in 1957; Kirk married Annette Courtemanche in 1964. Both founded and edited a review, Eliot's Criterion and Kirk's Modern Age – profiting equally little financially from their labors. Both were raised outside Christian orthodoxy: Eliot's family were Unitarians, and Kirk's were unchurched people who occasionally practiced spiritualism. They went through gradual conversions, beginning with philosophical convictions and ending in faith. Eliot became an Anglo-Catholic in 1927 and Kirk a Roman Catholic in 1964. Kirk wrote many ghostly tales, and ghosts are also much in evidence in Eliot's poems and plays. Kirk experienced a kind of mystical connection with Eliot on Ash Wednesday of 1975. On that day he read part of the poem of that title to students at Olivet College. Later that night the old section of his house in Mecosta, Michigan, burnt to ashes.
Sharing a somewhat skeptical temperament, neither expected much improvement in the world, yet by the same token neither was given to despair. A comment of Eliot's (made in his essay on F. H. Bradley) frequently quoted by Kirk asserted, "There is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors' victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph." On the basis of this stoical (and yet frequently hopeful) attitude an enduring friendship was built.
Though the correspondence between Kirk and Eliot addressed many serious topics, it was also playful at times. Kirk was fond of saying, after some lengthy discourse on the troubles of our time, that nevertheless "cheerfulness will keep breaking in," and indeed cheerfulness is evident in their letters. For instance, Kirk writes from Balcarres House in Scotland on January 4, 1955, "Lord and Lady Crawford hope you will come up to stay at Balcarres whenever you can contrive it. They have been left servantless recently. Lady Crawford washes the dishes, Lord Crawford wipes them, and Dr. Kirk carries them to the cupboard. The end of an old song." On January 7 Eliot replies, "Please give my warmest regards to the Crawfords and say that I should always be very glad to serve as a scullery maid, and am also very good at making beds." The two friends had apparently discussed the possibility of making a journey together, and Kirk is proposing that Eliot join him in a voyage to Cyprus, which was a rather dangerous place to be at that time: "What plans have you for a foreign expedition? It would be rather splendid to be stoned in Cyprus. There's glory for you." Eliot responds, "I think it unlikely now that I shall go as far as Cyprus, stoning or no stoning." In a letter of May 31, 1955, Kirk tells Eliot, "I have been collecting wondrous tales of your lectures at Chicago from students of the Committee on Social Thought. . . ." His informants have apparently told him of trouble Eliot stirred up with some of his comments on education during a 1950 visit to the University of Chicago. Kirk concludes, "I shall have to write a Comic History of the Age of Eliot, as well as an Age of Eliot." The two evidently shared a love of mischief.
Their mischievous skepticism helped keep Kirk and Eliot from turning their conservative philosophy into just another simplistic ideology that offered easy solutions to all problems. In one of his letters to Eliot (October 27, 1955), Kirk quotes Ambrose Bierce's definition of a conservative: "A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from a Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others." In a similar vein, Eliot had rendered a caustic comment on the Conservative Party in 1929 (quoted at length in the present volume): "It has, what no other political party at present enjoys, a complete mental vacuum: a vacancy that might be filled with anything, even with something valuable." Eliot and Kirk maintained an ironic, even sardonic, distance from all political schemes that promised more than could be accomplished in this fallen world.
In the final chapter of The Conservative Mind, Kirk quotes Eliot's statement in The Idea of a Christian Society: "Conservatism is too often conservation of the wrong things; liberalism a relaxation of discipline; revolution a denial of the permanent things" (the last term to become enshrined in one of Kirk's book titles, Enemies of the Permanent Things). Kirk's comment on this passage gives a name to the kind of mindless conservatism he resisted: "The conservatism of Eliot is not the attitude of the dragon Fafnir, muttering Let me rest – I lie in possession.'" This "Fafnir-Conservatism," as Kirk thereafter calls it, is not what either man supported.
In the final chapter of The Conservative Mind, Kirk quotes Eliot's statement in The Idea of a Christian Society: "Conservatism is too often conservation of the wrong things; liberalism a relaxation of discipline; revolution a denial of the permanent things"
Eliot's suspicion of doctrinaire ideological conservatism is evident in comments he makes in letters to Kirk concerning William F. Buckley's National Review. In a letter of December 7, 1955, he notes that several "reliable people" (including Kirk) write for the journal, but, having read some of Buckley's writing, he finds in it a tendency to go "violently to some extreme" and of "substituting one error for another." On January 13, 1956, Eliot writes that in National Review and other American journals of opinion there is too much personal vituperation and too little discussion of principles. In an earlier letter (October 12, 1953), in contrast, Eliot had noted with interest the development of a philosophical conservatism in America in advance of anything in England, led by Robert Nisbet (whose book The Quest for Community had been published in the same year as The Conservative Mind), Reinhold Niebuhr, and Russell Kirk. He placed little hope in conservatism of a less balanced and philosophic type, even when practiced by an able ally such as Buckley. Kirk later tells Eliot (December 22, 1955) that he plans to continue writing for National Review but has told Buckley to remove his name from the masthead. (He remained allied with Buckley, and the two joined forces in many common causes, but he aimed to take a longer view than some of the writers in National Review.) On January 28, 1956, he writes that he hopes to set a better tone in his Conservative Review (eventually titled Modern Age). Having received the first issue of this new journal modeled on his Criterion, Eliot writes (on February 3, 1958) to say that it is "much more welcome than the National Review about which I have very mixed feelings."
In The Sword of Imagination , Kirk identifies three principles of Eliot's conservatism: "First, he was moved by what Unamuno called the tragic sense of life.' . . . Second, Eliot abided by ancestral wisdom: the Hebraic and Christian and classical patrimony of culture. . . . Third, Eliot sought to recover the idea of a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn." The order of these three is important: awareness of human weakness leads one to look for wisdom in the traditional teachings of those who have (in the phrase from King Lear) "suffered most," our ancestors. And central to the wisdom they impart is the idea of community. What is implicit here and explicit elsewhere is that both men believed (influenced in this by Christopher Dawson above all) that this community could only be formed in relation to a common religious belief – that there is no culture without cult.
By 1956, Eliot was occasionally beginning his letters with the familiar salutation "My dear Kirk," though the younger man continued to greet him deferentially with "Dear Mr. Eliot." This warm friendship between two men of letters flourished during the last decade of Eliot's life. Eliot's last letter to Kirk is dated August 25, 1964, less than six months before his death. The Kirks maintained friendly relations with Mrs. Eliot afterward, and their daughters gave dramatic performances of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats before Andrew Lloyd Webber did the same on a larger scale. Valerie Eliot and Annette Kirk remain friends today.
The Moral Imagination
In writing of Eliot's poetry and plays, Kirk introduces an important literary theory which he develops from Edmund Burke's phrase "the moral imagination." Though he does not make such a claim for himself, Kirk is here engaging a philosophical debate that began with Plato's Republic, where Socrates argues that poetic mimesis is thrice-removed from ideal reality and concludes that poets must be banned from the republic. Many Plato scholars regard the entire utopian scheme of this dialogue as ironic, for it begins when Socrates' interlocutor insists on luxuries in the ideal state and the master acquiesces and agrees to think of an ideal government for a "feverish" society. Nevertheless, the question is raised in this dialogue as to whether poetry can present truth or is only good for pleasure. Aristotle answers in his Poetics that poetry has the capacity to present the universal realities of "human action and life and happiness and misery" and that "[p]oetry, therefore, is more philosophical and more significant than history, for poetry is more concerned with the universal and history more with the individual." In the Middle Ages Dante extends this claim, saying in his letter to Can Grande that the aim of his Comedy is "to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of happiness." In the Renaissance, Sir Philip Sidney defends poetry from puritanical attacks in his Apology for Poetry, arguing that poetic images are able to touch our hearts and move us to moral action, which the philosophers' abstractions cannot do. Russell Kirk makes a significant addition to this school of literary theory with his expanded concept of the moral imagination.
By the "moral imagination," Kirk says, "Burke meant that power of ethical perception which strides beyond the barriers of private experience and events of the moment." This definition is a challenge to the notions of relativism and "cultural constructionism" that rule much of the academy today, asserting that our thoughts can never go beyond "the barriers of private experience and events of the moment." Kirk defines the moral imagination in contrast to what Irving Babbitt called (in reference to Rousseau) the "idyllic imagination," which ignores the tragic experience of the past and concocts visions of human perfection to be brought about by rationalist ideological programs. As Kirk puts it later in the book, "Like Burke, Eliot came to dread not the intellect itself – certainly not to dread right reason – but rather to dread defecated rationality, arrogantly severed from larger sources of wisdom." Thus the first principle of Eliot's thought – the tragic sense – is inherent in the second – reliance on the wisdom of the ages – for only those who do not believe in evil can suppose they will be able to think of rational solutions to all problems.
In Christian terms, the tragic sense is expressed in the doctrine of Original Sin, an idea that served as a touchstone for Eliot. In The Sword of Imagination , Kirk quotes a statement Eliot made in 1933:
[W]ith the disappearance of the idea of Original Sin, with the disappearance of the idea of intense moral struggle, the human beings presented to us both in poetry and in prose fiction today, and more patently among the serious writers than in the underworld of letters, tend to become less and less real. . . . If you do away with this struggle, and maintain that by tolerance, benevolence, inoffensiveness, and a redistribution or increase of purchasing power, combined with a devotion, on the part of an élite, to Art, the world will be as good as anyone could require, then you must expect human beings to become more and more vaporous.
As Kirk puts it later in the book, "Like Burke, Eliot came to dread not the intellect itself – certainly not to dread right reason – but rather to dread defecated rationality, arrogantly severed from larger sources of wisdom."
Besides Rousseau, one of the culprits in the shift from the moral imagination to the idyllic imagination was Emerson (who had particular importance to Eliot, a descendent of the same New England Unitarian Brahmin class that produced Ralph Waldo). Kirk quotes Emerson as saying "I never could give much reality to evil and pain." Along with belief in evil and in Original Sin went the belief in Hell, and Kirk quotes Kathleen Raine's statement that "Mr. Eliot gave hell back to us. . . . The shallow progressive philosophies both religious and secular of our parents' generation sought to eliminate evil from the world. Mr. Eliot's visions of hell restored a necessary dimension to our universe." The dark visions of Eliot's early poetry, which were taken by many (and still are taken by some) to be expressions of nihilistic despair, were in fact a dramatic acknowledgment of the existence of evil and the incapacity of one person or one generation to vanquish it.
Yeats says somewhere that no writer who lacks the "vision of evil" can be great, and the finest writers of the twentieth century all describe that vision in their various ways. We find it in James Joyce, Flannery O'Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Frost, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, and so on. The great writers of fiction and poetry seem – implicitly, at least – to reject the modern theory of progressive enlightenment.
Of these, Flannery O'Connor was a particular favorite of Kirk's. They shared a taste for mordant wit, and they both wrote fiction full of rural grotesques. The two met just once (in 1955), and O'Connor gives a charming description of the event in a letter: "He is about 37, looks like Humpty Dumpty (intact) with constant cigar and (outside) porkpie hat. He is non-conversational and so am I, and the times we were left alone together our attempts to make talk were like the efforts of two midgits [sic] to cut down a California redwood." She does record, however, one successful dialogue in which the two of them imagine with delight, the recently deceased John Dewey tormented by children crawling all over him. In a letter of January 15, 1957, Kirk inquires of Eliot, "Do you know Flannery O'Connor's recent book of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find'? Very good, and terrifying." Eliot responds on February 20, "I did see Flannery O'Connor's book of short stories when I was in New York and was quite horrified by those I read. She has certainly an uncanny talent of a high order but my nerves are just not strong enough to take much of such disturbance."
Where are the great works of poetry and fiction written by progressives? Kirk notes that the great liberal literary critic Lionell Trilling admitted the lack of such works in his book The Liberal Imagination (1950):
Our liberal ideology has produced a large literature of social and political protest, but not, for several decades, a single writer who commands our real literary imagination. . . . So that we can say that no connection exists between our liberal educated class and the best of the literary minds of our time. And this is to say that there is no connection between the political ideas of our educated class and the deep places of the imagination.
Kirk implies that the imagination of a great writer sees and describes the truths of nature and of human nature, whereas liberal political ideology tends to ignore those hard truths. Trilling's forthright admission has apparently not given more recent liberal critics pause. They still seem to assume that their worldview is complete and consistent. Lacking positive texts to admire, they often devote their efforts to discrediting writers like Eliot, who has been accused by them of being a fascist, an anti-Semite, a misogynist, and so on. But in their efforts to take the moral high ground these critics reveal their simplistic and incoherent notion of morality, which substitutes a pale and vacuous tolerance for a living, breathing charity.
In Kirk's view, a true moral imagination is impossible without religious truths, and this assertion challenges secular theorists who hope they can develop an ethical system from a starting point in radical moral relativism. In confronting this fantasy, Kirk follows Eliot, who meditated on the connection between literature and religion both before and after his conversion. He considered the idea that sound religious belief makes for good imaginative writing but found the relationship between the two more complicated. His conclusion is perhaps summed up in a comment made in 1947 and recorded by Kirk: "If we learn to read poetry properly, the poet never persuades us to believe anything. . . . What we learn from Dante, or the Bhagavad-Gita, or any other religious poetry is what it feels like to believe that religion." Certainly Eliot found that one of the strengths of his favorite poet, Dante, was the Thomistic theology that infused The Divine Comedy. But in the modern era Eliot finds a new necessity; in an era of disbelief, perhaps expressions of belief must take shocking form: "Where blasphemy might once have been a sign of spiritual corruption, it might now be taken rather as a symptom that the soul is still alive, or even that it is recovering animation: for the perception of Good and Evil – whatever choice we may make – is the first requisite of spiritual life." One of the poets who had the greatest influence on the younger Eliot was Charles Baudelaire, who would hardly come immediately to mind as a poet of moral imagination. Yet Eliot found in Baudelaire's writing that first principle of moral imagination, a belief in evil. In his introduction to Baudelaire's Intimate Journals (quoted by Kirk), Eliot states that the French poet's sense of evil is preferable to the "cheery automatism of the modern world," and he goes on to say:
So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing: at least, we exist. It is true to say that the glory of man is his capacity for salvation; it is also true to say that his glory is his capacity for damnation. The worst that can be said of most of our malefactors, from statesmen to thieves, is that they are not men enough to be damned. . . . Baudelaire perceived that what really matters is Sin and Redemption . . . ; and the possibility of damnation is so immense a relief in a world of electoral reform, plebiscites, sex reform and dress reform, that damnation itself is an immediate form of salvation – of salvation from the ennui of modern life, because it at least gives some significance to living.
The horrific infernal visions in Eliot's early poetry (and those in the fiction of Kirk and O'Connor) have the same effect of bringing the reader face-to-face with evil and refusing simplistic modern scientific and social solutions to the human dilemma. Thus, even Eliot's darkest verse written before his conversion is, according to Kirk's theory, genuine poetry of the moral imagination.
Kirk's theory of imagination has much in common with the one C. S. Lewis proposes in The Abolition of Man. Lewis argues that good imaginative literature trains the heart to respond with ordinate emotions appropriate to the object presented. He maintains that particular things merit particular responses – in other words, that our affections may be objective. Modern rationalism tends to create people who disregard the truths of imagination, becoming "men without chests." Kirk holds to much the same view in Eliot and His Age. In one significant passage, he evaluates carefully Eliot's attitude toward discursive and intuitive reason: "Though always a partisan of right reason, Eliot understood that the discursive reason is not the sole way of approaching truth. Repeatedly he took the side of reason against impulse and ideology; he distrusted the notion of an intuition unguided by authority and not subject to discursive analysis – as he disliked the fallacy of an untutored conscience. Yet the insights of faith – the leap in being' of the man of vision, the sudden direct experience of reality – are essential to Eliot's later poetry." The visionary, immediate, direct intuition of reality spoken of here is the fruit of the educated and informed imagination. Kirk expresses with great subtlety the balanced view of discursive reason and imaginative intuition toward which Eliot's entire oeuvre tends and at which he eventually arrived.
In acknowledging the fundamental truths of human existence, the moral imagination necessarily finds itself at odds with modern ideologies, which tend to reduce all problems to a single one (whether it be class or gender or something else) and exaggerate the power of instrumental reason to transform human society. In The Conservative Mind, Kirk points out that Eliot distrusted the new bureaucratic elites representing the centralized state: "For one thing to avoid," Eliot declares, "is a universalized planning; one thing to ascertain is the limits of the plannable." The moral imagination thus proposes as a corollary of the theological doctrine of Original Sin the political principle of "the limits of the plannable," limits not always recognized by post-Enlightenment rationalists.
In his Choruses for The Rock, Eliot brilliantly describes the modern planners' dreams "of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good." The traditional imagination instead dreams of community founded on prayer:
What life have you if you have not life together?
There is no life that is not in community,
And no community not lived in praise of GOD.
Here is the third principle Kirk identifies in Eliot's conservatism, the notion that what we need is not a grand vision of a national or global society providing for all, but rather a vision of smaller and more integral communities of persons caring for one another. It is the difference between providing goods and providing for the good. Kirk defines ideology as "the attempt to supplant religious dogmas by political and scientistic dogmas." Modern ideologies, he believed, are all variations on the Benthamite notion of achieving "the greatest good of the greatest number," where the good is defined materially and humanity is seen as a manageable herd rather than as a community of souls.
Eliot considered two extreme versions of modern central planning – fascism and communism – and his view of these two is worth close examination.A number of critics have accused him of being a fascist or at least a cryptofascist, but these critics have not read Kirk's book. Kirk, on the other hand, examined all of Eliot's commentaries in the Criterion, which is where his most directly political statements appeared. No one who reads those commentaries carefully could still believe Eliot sympathized with Mussolini or Hitler, but some scholars have read neither the commentaries nor Kirk's explication of them. (An excellent recent book on the Criterion by Jason Harding finally begins to set the record straight on these issues, but the author fails to give Kirk credit for making many of his points three decades earlier.) Kirk's conclusion is that in the years between the wars when Eliot was editing the Criterion "he was a consistent and intelligent opponent of both Fascist and Communist ideologies; and somewhat to his own surprise, perhaps, on occasions he found himself defending the constitutional democracies of Britain and the United States. He never entertained any foolish hopes of Mussolini or Lenin, Hitler or Stalin."
Fascism and communism, Eliot maintained, "are merely variations of the same doctrine."This seems almost self-evident today, but few saw it at that time, when many British intellectuals adhered to one or the other of these variations and shouted at each other across the abyss. Kirk notes that in the April 1931 issue of the Criterion Eliot published Thomas Mann's Berlin speech, in which Mann denounced National Socialism.The fundamental problem with both communism and fascism, Eliot maintained, was that they were both atheistic systems. His definitive statement on them appears in The Idea of a Christian Society, published in 1939, just as war was breaking out: "If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin."
Critics who continue to accuse Eliot of fascist leanings frequently offer as evidence his high regard for the French writer Charles Maurras, whose political movement, called the Action Française, was deeply anti-Semitic, though not really profascist. Again, these critics would do well to read Eliot and His Age, for Kirk clarifies the limits of Eliot's regard for Maurras. In describing Eliot's opposition to the 1935 Italian invasion of the Negus Negusti region of Abyssinia, Kirk points out that Eliot's commentary in the Criterion takes an anti-imperialist stance, asking, "How many lower peoples have been, on balance, really helped by our European intervention?" Kirk goes on to say that Eliot's stand on this issue "carried him, too, into grave misgivings about the French Right, for which he had long felt sympathy. The Abyssinian war had provoked manifestoes from three groups of intellectuals: from the Right, from the Left, from the Catholics. With the last, Eliot took his stand." The leading light of the French Right, with whom Eliot had sympathized, was of course Maurras. Kirk is certainly right to say that this sympathy diminished over time, and probably right when he claims that Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More exerted a greater influence over Eliot's political thought than did Maurras.
On the question of Maurras and Eliot's view of him, contemporary critics who want to make Eliot out as a fascist ignore Kirk and get it wrong. In a recent essay in a reputable scholarly journal, for instance, a well-known critic asserted that Eliot never distanced himself from Maurras. His evidence is a statement made by Eliot in 1948 calling Maurras "a sort of Virgil who led us to the gates of the temple." First of all, this demonstrates the critic's ignorance of Eliot's favorite poem, The Divine Comedy, in which Virgil leads Dante through the Inferno and part way through the Purgatorio but is incapable of guiding him into Paradiso. Eliot is saying through this allusion that Maurras (who valued Catholicism strictly as a cultural force, who was himself an unbeliever, and whose works were placed on the Index by Pope Pius XI) led him to the gates of the temple but could not take him inside. In any case, if this critic had consulted Eliot and His Age he would have found quoted a passage from a 1955 lecture by Eliot in which the poet speaks of "a man whom I held in respect and admiration, although some of his views were exasperating and some deplorable" – Charles Maurras. Eliot goes on to say that if Maurras had limited himself to "the literature of political theory" instead of becoming involved in practical politics, "those of his ideas which were sound and strong might have spread more widely." Furthermore, when critics get Eliot right, they sometimes claim observations as original that Kirk made long before. Dominic Rowland recently published an article pointing out that Eliot was strongly influenced by two French political theorists: one on the right, Maurras, but also one on the left, Julien Benda. Once again, this is an observation Kirk had made three decades earlier.
During the past decade there has been a great debate concerning Eliot's alleged anti-Semitism, with many scholars maintaining that Eliot was virulently anti-Semitic. In Eliot and His Age Kirk gives a carefully balanced and objective analysis of this issue. Recently, a scholar named Ranen Omer brought to light the lengthy correspondence between Eliot and the American Jewish philosopher Horace Kallen. One of the great Eliot scholars of our time, Ronald Schuchard, wrote a lengthy article re-evaluating Eliot's relations with Jews in light of his friendship with Kallen. Not surprisingly, Kallen's name comes up in the pages of this book. Kirk quotes a letter Eliot wrote him on January 13, 1956, mentioning "my old friend Horace Kallen." Another recent issue in Eliot scholarship has to do with the eugenics movement, which was very popular in the early twentieth century, particularly among intellectuals. Two different books have asserted that Eliot believed in eugenics. Neither quotes a highly relevant passage from Eliot's commentary in the January 1931 issue of the Criterion, in which he deplores proposals to put eugenics into practice: "we may conceivably have, in time, legislation framed to enforce limitation of families (by the usual methods) upon certain parts of the population, and to enforce progenitiveness upon others. With the applause of some of the clergy." Kirk does quote it.
Eliot was, as Kirk makes clear, suspicious of modern movements that paraded under the banner of "social justice." While he found nothing to disagree with in this term, he feared that it led to an overemphasis on society and a deemphasis of the individual. Kirk quotes Eliot as saying, "the moment we talk about social conscience' and forget about conscience, we are in moral danger – just as social justice must be based on justice. The separation in our mind which results simply from dwelling constantly upon the adjective social' may lead to crimes as well as errors." The history of various social justice movements since then has provided ample proof that Eliot's concerns were justified.
Nevertheless, as noted earlier, Eliot's philosophical conservatism never made him a complacent partisan of the British conservative party. For example, as Kirk points out, "In his Criterion Commentary of October 1931, Eliot drubbed both the materialistic socialism of Harold Laski and the materialistic conservatism of Lord Lymington. . . ." The problem with some strains of modern political conservatism from Eliot's point of view is that they tend to be every bit as secularized and materialistic as the socialism they oppose. Kirk also quotes a passage from the April 1931 Criterion in which the editor asserts that "the old contrast between Capitalism and Socialism is hardly going to suffice for the next forty years. . . ." Kirk was sympathetic, for he found himself at times debating the atheistic capitalist Ayn Rand, as well as various libertarians and "neoconservatives" over the years. Eliot often pointed out that theological heresies result when a partial truth is seen as absolute, and he saw the same sort of error arising in political philosophy.
Eliot was concerned that our modern enlightened democracies with their educational elites might become totalitarian states without dictators, a concern voiced more recently by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical letter Veritatis Splendor. Eliot's view, as Kirk explains it, is that "[e]ven if the democracies do not slide into their own variety of totalitarianism, . . . still they are irreligious in many ways already, particularly in their economic measures. To organize society merely on the principle of private profit leads to a rejection of nature – including the exhaustion of natural resources by unregulated industrialism and ending in dearth and desert.'" As this passage suggests, Eliot had a sympathy for what would now be called "environmentalism." Kirk goes on to quote him as saying, "For a long enough time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanised, commercialised, urbanised way of life: it would be as well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet." On the other hand, Kirk notes elsewhere Eliot's skepticism concerning the idea of overpopulation, one of the bugbears of many modern environmentalists. Thus does Kirk reveal the subtlety and balance of Eliot's cultural and political thinking in a way that has never been surpassed.
An Enduring Work
Eliot and His Age is a literary biography that will endure when much of the more recent writing on Eliot is gathering dust. In his memoirs, Kirk highlights especially two books of his: The Conservative Mind and Eliot and His Age, which he rightly calls "a really major book." It has a place with other essential early books on Eliot that still richly repay our attention – books by scholars like Hugh Kenner, Grover Smith, Leonard Unger, and Helen Gardner. In fact, I would say that the two works every student of Eliot should have on hand are Smith's encyclopedic book T. S. Eliot's Poetry and Plays (1956) and Kirk's Eliot and His Age. The former is still a treasure-trove of knowledge concerning Eliot's literary sources; the latter remains the most thoroughly researched and judicious study of Eliot's fundamental ideas. No other scholar was better placed to understand the man and his writings than Kirk, for he knew Eliot well, had read most of the same books, and had many of the same friends (including, besides those already mentioned, people like Wyndham Lewis and Roy Campbell). Moreover, Kirk and Eliot were fighting the same intellectual and cultural battles on opposite sides of the Atlantic. His deep sympathy for Eliot and his beliefs might have made Kirk a mere acolyte, but he was always a profoundly independent and critical thinker – so his book is never simply a reverential tribute to the master. It is fortunate that Kirk did not write his book on Eliot when he first thought of it. Writing nearly two decades later, he had matured in his own thought and had become himself an eminent man of letters. He was able to survey the whole of Eliot's life and career with enough distance in time and with enough personal authority that his judgments became as nearly objective as is possible. The result is a book that comprehends better than any other both Eliot and his age.
Benjamin G. Lockerd Jr. "Introduction." from Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot's Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2008) xiii-xxxi.
This excerpt is reprinted with permission from ISI Books.
Learn more about Russell Kirk by visiting the Russell Kirk Center here.
For more than forty years, Russell Kirk (1918-1994) was in the thick of the intellectual controversies of his time. He is the author of some thirty-two books, hundreds of periodical essays, and many short stories. Both Time and Newsweek have described him as one of America's leading thinkers, and The New York Times acknowledged the scale of his influence when in 1998 it wrote that Kirk's 1953 book The Conservative Mind "gave American conservatives an identity and a genealogy and catalyzed the postwar movement."
Dr. Kirk wrote and spoke on modern culture, political thought and practice, educational theory, literary criticism, ethical questions, and social themes. He addressed audiences on hundreds of American campuses and appeared often on television and radio. His books include Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot's Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century, The Conservative Mind, The Essential Russell Kirk: Selected Essays, The American Cause, Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered, The Sword of Imagination : Memoirs of a Half-Century of Literary Conflict, Redeeming the Time, The Politics of Prudence and Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales.
Benjamin G. Lockerd Jr. is a professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Grand Valley State University. He is a former president of the T. S. Eliot Society and is currently on the society's board of directors. His books include The Sacred Marriage: Psychic Integration in "The Faerie Queene" and Aethereal Rumours: T. S. Eliot's Physics and Poetics.Copyright © 2008 Benjamin G. Lockerd, Jr.
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