The Critic as Radical

T_S_Eliot_Simon_Fieldhouse George Scialabba on T.S. Eliot's conservatism, in The American Conservative:

What kind of “system” did Eliot want? A Christian society, of course—his critique of capitalism strikingly parallels that of Rerum Novarum, Centesimus Annus, and other papal encyclicals. But like those venerable documents, Eliot’s writings, though they could be pointedly negative, were not vividly affirmative. He thought there should be a lot more people living on the land. He thought people should have to spend fewer hours working for a living. He enthusiastically endorsed this description of the goal: a “new type of society, which would give fullest scope both to the individual—thus securing the utmost variety in human affairs—and to the social whole—thus stimulating the rich, collective activities which would surely come to life in a society free to express its invention, its mechanical skill, its sense of the earth in agriculture and crafts, its sense of play.”

This sounds much more like William Morris than like Margaret Thatcher. But beyond these, he offered virtually no details. He was neither a visionary nor an activist but a critic.

I said that Eliot had much to teach us about two matters of contemporary relevance. About the first, distributive justice, he wrote much, directly if not programmatically. About the other, he wrote scarcely a word—not surprisingly, since it was hardly visible on the horizon before his death. I’m referring to the steady erosion of inwardness—Eliot would have said “spiritual depth”—resulting from the omnipresence of commercial messages (the “nightmare” of “advertisement”) and electronic media.

I have no doubt that Eliot would have reacted strongly and negatively to this development, so discordant with his sensibility and practice. As described in his critical essays, the gradual surrender of the artist’s personality to tradition, which is at the same time the mastery and transformation of the tradition, resembles the attitude of the narrator of the Four Quartets toward Being and history. In both cases, the prescribed motions of the spirit are inward and downward, the virtues prescribed are humility, gravity, receptiveness. The refrain of “Burnt Norton” has become a meme: “the still point of the turning world.”