Joseph Epstein’s essay, “T.S. Eliot and the Demise of the Literary Culture,” in the November issue of Commentary, strengthens the case for The Waste Land author’s enduring legacy. Epstein captures the high points of Eliot’s biographical and literary accomplishments in only eight pages – an admirable feat given the extent of Eliot’s influence on the past century. After filling out the checklist of Eliot’s early poetry, friendships, jobs, marriages, alleged anti-Semitism, and criticism by rote, Epstein concludes Eliot was a tremendous poet and literary critic more than likely destined to be forgotten due to the imminent collapse of Western culture.
One cannot help but agree with Epstein’s assessment of Eliot as an erudite writer and speaker who could fill a hall with 15,000 attendees – in Minnesota, no less – eager to hear the Nobel laureate speak on literature. Epstein notes it is doubtful any writer living today could match Eliot’s drawing power for a live audience. But the Internet and television render such expectations moot. For example, I don’t have counts on how many people visit Web sites devoted to Seamus Heaney, another Nobel laureate poet, but one can easily imagine a number such as 15,000 boosted a hundred-fold.
Likewise, I respectfully reject Epstein’s too-easy assessment of Eliot as the last of a dying breed and the end of culture. While admitting many of Epstein’s concerns about the present and future cultural climate, your writer is not quite ready to throw in the towel. Call me stubborn, foolish or naïve. But I witness culture thriving on a daily basis, from the glorious Gilead by Marilynne Robinson to the agrarian short stories, novels and poetry of Wendell Berry.
Let readers recall as well Eliot knew that our literary tradition evolved, subsuming all that was best from preceding generations as well as what was once considered avant-garde. It’s easy to dismiss contemporary culture simply because there’s so much Cracker Jack to riffle through before finding the prize.
Depicting Eliot as nothing more than a literary high-brow, in any event, misses the totality of a fascinating individual who boasted of his correspondence with Julius Henry Marx – the inimitable middle sibling Groucho of the Marx Brothers and You Bet Your Life television legend – and a English Music Hall regular who would have been more than likely pleased by the success of the Broadway musical Cats based on Eliot’s children’s book, Ol’ Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
Eliot wasn’t so much concerned with the incursion of low-brow entertainment on the shards of civilization he attempted to shore up as he was the secularized nature of the culture as a whole. “This is how the world ends/not with a bang/but with a whimper,” he famously wrote in “The Hollow Men.” These are the last lines. The preceding lines from the Lord’s Prayer (“For Thine is the Kingdom”) are italicized and marginalized as if the words and meanings behind them drift into the ether of an age consumed with utopian ideologies and the hollow men who populate it. These hollow men are the intellectuals and ideologues – specifically, as noted by Russell Kirk: George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and H.G. Wells – of Eliot’s era who didn’t believe in heaven and so promoted creating their version of it on Earth. Think John Lennon’s “Imagine” performed as 1920s ragtime with a pince-nez, cape and snuff.
Rather than a scold, Eliot, as noted previously, was mainly concerned about the moral imagination, Irish philosopher Edmund Burke’s concept that poetry and art conveying ethical views are uniquely capable of transcending both the private experiences of the artist and the specific events of his time. In his 1999 “Letter to Artists,” Pope John Paul II said much the same:
It is true nevertheless that, in the modern era, alongside this Christian humanism which has continued to produce important works of culture and art, another kind of humanism, marked by the absence of God and often by opposition to God, has gradually asserted itself. Such an atmosphere has sometimes led to a separation of the world of art and the world of faith, at least in the sense that many artists have a diminished interest in religious themes.
Yes, measured by the standards of Pope John Paul II, Eliot and Epstein, there is ample evidence of cultural rot. Yet the still-living Epstein is alone in this esteemed triumvirate holding these outward signs of decay as the norm. As Epstein notes in his essay:
[Eliot] held that ‘moral judgments of literary works are made only according to the moral code accepted by each generation.’ Obviously the code changes from generation to generation. Some take this regular change as equivalent to progress, as over the generations we jollily make our way to perfectibility. For Eliot, such regular change ‘is only evidence of what insubstantial foundations people’s moral judgments have.’ He also believed that ‘those who read at all, read so many more books by living authors than books by dead authors; there was never a time so completely parochial, so shut off from the past.’
Taken out of the context in which these passages originally appeared, Eliot seems to favor only those works of deceased authors. This, however, is a misrepresentation as the poet was also an astute and avid reader of the works of his contemporaries. In short, he was as fond of a mystery yarn by Wilkie Collins as he was charged by the poetry of Saint-John Perse and David Jones – all living, breathing and writing in Eliot’s approximate era (Collins died in 1889, while Perse and Jones died ten years give-or-take after Eliot).
Eliot’s critical criteria wasn’t that worthwhile art was created only by dead creators inasmuch he was concerned with the conservation of great literary and cultural traditions imbued with moral imagination. Who’s to say Eliot didn’t appreciate the moral center of, say, Graham Greene’s novels or might have recognized the moral imagination depicted in such television fare as Breaking Bad? Neither could exist without at least a perfunctory grasp of the moral imagination. In fact, television – when done as more than an exercise in escapism – is a perfect medium for depicting a modern-day Waste Land, specifically the theme of the Vince Gilligan program about characters sliding into despair when, neglecting the moral imagination of preserving family, career and the social fabric in total, they begin to manufacture and sell methamphetamine to individuals similarly compromised.
As a fan of Groucho Marx, Eliot also might’ve appreciated the comedies of filmmaker Judd Apatow, which cleverly portray moral choices in a subversive, often crass, manner. Of course, this is all speculation on your writer’s part. But, with all due respect to a great writer and a great mind, Epstein should get out more often.
Neither can I concede to Epstein’s argument that there isn’t a writer of Eliot’s caliber in our day and time. I contend we simply don’t have the historical perspective necessary to identify him or her, nor does there exist the person capable of promoting such a talent.
As Epstein notes, Ezra Pound had much to do with Eliot’s success – as one could argue he did similarly with the success of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and William Butler Yeats. Pound served as editor, agent, secretary and provocateur for all these writers and many more, and likely did more to shape the culture of the past century than any other individual, Eliot included.
I would argue what’s missing in our times is another Pound, not another Eliot.
Finally, Epstein’s penultimate paragraph:
Rereading Eliot, his poetry and his criticism, a half-century after first reading him as a college student, I am no less, in fact even more, impressed with his high intelligence, his subtlety, the depth of his penetration. His was the literary mind par excellence, and it makes the scientific, the social scientific, even the contemporary philosophical mind seem inadequate, if not paltry.
With this, I cannot disagree. I would add, however, Eliot’s moral message as exemplified in his Four Quartets and later theatrical works, deserve even more recognition than his intellectual celebrity.
For it is upon his championing of the moral imagination Eliot’s legacy to contemporary writers and audiences surely rests. Epstein longs for the cultural halcyon days when a then-backwater town like St. Louis, Missouri, could spew forth an Eliot, while failing to acknowledge the poet was shaped by witnessing two world wars, the rise and fall of countless political ideologies, rapid technological advancements capable of decimating whole populations or increasing exponentially the quality of life, and the comings and goings of despots, buffoons, sinners and near-saints on the world stage. It was hardly a utopia then as it is certainly no utopia now, but the message of Eliot and others like him today continue to redeem their times with a message of spiritual rather than worldly rejuvenation.
Bruce Edward Walker, a Michigan-based writer, writes frequently on the arts and other topics for the Acton Institute.