Revisiting the work of a great poet and critic reveals just how much we are in danger of losing
No one writing in the English language is likely to establish a reigning authority over poetry and criticism and literature in general as T.S. Eliot did between the early 1930s and his death in 1965 at the age of 77. Understatedly spectacular is the way Eliot’s career strikes one today, at time when, it is fair to say, poetry, even to bookish people, is of negligible interest and literary criticism chiefly a means to pursue academic tenure. Literary culture itself, if the sad truth be known, seems to be slowly but decisively shutting down.
The fame Eliot achieved in his lifetime is unfathomable for a poet, or indeed any American or English writer, in our day. In 1956, Eliot lectured on “The Function of Criticism” in a gymnasium at the University of Minnesota to a crowd estimated at 15,000 people. “I do not believe,” he remarked afterward, “there are fifteen thousand people in the entire world who are interested in criticism.” Eight years earlier, in 1948, he won the Nobel Prize in literature. In later years, when he went into the hospital, which he did with some frequency, suffering from bronchitis and heart troubles, news of his illnesses appeared in the press or over the radio both in England and America; and so too did news of his second marriage, in 1957, at the age of 69, to his secretary, a Miss Valerie Fletcher, 38 years younger than he. He lectured often and everywhere, so much so that Lyndall Gordon, his most penetrating biographer, wrote that his “face acquired a sort of exposed reticence from the habit of looking down from a lectern into rows upon rows of eyes.” Eliot was the equivalent in literature of Albert Einstein in science in that everyone seemed to know that these men were immensely significant without quite knowing for what.
An immitigable highbrow, Eliot was concerned about the slackening of high culture and the diminishing quality of education—concerns that have proved prophetic. The poetry on which his reputation as a leading figure of the modernist avant-garde was based was not easily comprehended. “Poets, in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult,” he wrote, but he also wrote that “genuinepoetry can communicate before it is understood,” which seems to have been the case with his. His criticism, much of which began as lectures, always came from on high. This was not a man who wrote or spoke down to his audience, ever. Which makes all the more curious his widespread fame.
Far from its being accidental, Eliot’s fame was planned for, carefully cultivated, and nurtured once it arrived. From the first volume of Eliot’s letters, newly revised and just released in Great Britain*, we learn that, in 1919, when he was 31, he wrote to J.H. Woods, his philosophy teacher at Harvard: “There are only two ways in which a writer can become important—to write a great deal, and have his writings appear everywhere, or to write very little.” He chose the latter: to write very little but always to dazzle. “My reputation in London is built upon a small volume of verse, and is kept up by printing two or three more poems in a year,” he wrote. “The only thing that matters is that these should be perfect in their kind, so that each should be an event.”
Eliot worked at Lloyd’s Bank between 1917 and 1925 as the head of a small department stationed in the basement and assigned the translation of foreign documents and overseeing the analysis of the economic behavior of foreign governments. When friends formed a foundation of sorts to bail him out of what was thought drudgery taking him from his creative work, or when he was offered a sub-editorship on the Athenaeum magazine, he eschewed both, preferring to remain at the bank. He felt that, as he put it, he could “influence London opinion and English literature in a better way” by remaining slightly outside of things. The bank, moreover, with its distance from the standard literary life, lent him, as he noted, “aura.” He wrote to his mother in 1919: “I really think that I have far more influence on English letters than any other American has ever had unless it be Henry James. I know a great many people, but there are many more who would like to know me, and [working in the bank] I can also remain isolated and detached.” Those are the words of a man carefully but decidedly on the make.
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis in 1888, the son of a successful manufacturer of bricks and the scion of many illustrious Eliots of Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. His grandfather founded Washington University in St. Louis; Charles William Eliot, a cousin, was president of Harvard when Eliot was an undergraduate there. The Eliot family was centered (anchored might be more precise) in New England, where it spent its summers, and Tom later came to think himself a New Englander, though not so thoroughly as he would one day consider himself English.
Part of what makes Eliot’s literary career so impressive is that he achieved all he did, in effect, in nationality drag. He willed himself into an Englishman, which technically he became only in the year 1927, when he acquired British citizenship. After attending one of Eliot’s readings in New York in 1933, the critic Edmund Wilson wrote to the novelist John Dos Passos: “He is an actor and really put on a better show than Shaw. . . . He gives you the creeps a little at first because he is such a completely artificial, or, rather, self-invented character . . . but he has done such a perfect job with himself that you end up admiring him.”
Eliot wrote of Henry James, in subtle ways his literary model, that “it is the final perfection, the consummation of an American to become, not an Englishman, but a European—something which no born European, no person of any European nationality, can become.” James had become, as Eliot also put it, a European but of no known country, while Eliot, with his bowler hat and rolled umbrella and what Virginia Woolf called “his four-piece suits,” turned himself into something resembling the caricature of an Englishman.
This most politically conservative of writers made two radical decisions when young that drastically changed the course of his life. On a traveling fellowship to Europe from the Harvard philosophy department, where he was completing work on a doctorate on the Idealist thinker F.H. Bradley, Eliot determined no longer to live in America or as an American but instead to settle in England. And not long after, in 1914, he married an attractive young woman named Vivien Haigh-Wood, who, most inconveniently, happened to be insane.
Both decisions were made against the wishes of his strong-minded parents. Ezra Pound offered to write a letter to Eliot’s father explaining the importance of his remaining in England. Eliot had met Pound in 1914; Pound was only three years older than Eliot but had already made himself the impresario of the literary avant-garde and was a generous promoter of other people’s talents. When he read Eliot’s early poetry, he knew he had come upon a talent worth promoting. He arranged to have Harriet Monroe at Poetry magazine publish “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”; he placed other early poems in WyndhamLewis’s Blast and Alfred Kreymborg’s Others. Propelled by Pound’s powerful promotional engine, T.S. Eliot’scareer as a poet was off with a great whoosh.
In his letter to Eliot’s father, Pound insisted that London was the place, certainly a much better place than anywhere in America, for his son to make his reputation as a poet. He was correct about that, even if the senior Eliot hadn’t the least interest in Tom’s becoming one. The prestige of the avant-garde was much less in America in those years than it was in England and on the Continent. In literature, America meant provincialism; London, the great world.
Some surmise that Eliot married Vivien Haigh-Wood because, having had sex with her, he felt a strong sense of obligation. Others that it was his way of putting his foot in the river of life, for Eliot’s first published poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and much else he wrote in his early years, is about the buried life, or the fear of living—“Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?”—another way in which he resembled Henry James.
In “Stuff,” one of the American writer Mary Gaitskill’s short stories, a character says, “Isn’t Eliot that turd who made his wife think she was crazy?” Nearly the reverse was the case: the marriage came close to driving Eliot, a man with a highly delicate nervous organization, mad himself. Vivien claimed that her husband never fully opened up to her, never gave her the affectionate attention she required. This may be partially true—in the emotional realm, Eliot was far from effulgent—but in all likelihood no one else could have done so either. Eliot cannot be accused of being undutiful to her. Most of his earnings went into paying the bills for the quackish physicians then interested in mental illness or for moving his wife into and out of the countryside in hopes of reviving her health. Virginia Woolf described Vivien as “a bag of ferrets” around Eliot’s neck. In a letter to the American critic Paul Elmer More, Eliot described his marriage as resembling a bad Dostoyevsky novel. In 1938, Vivien Eliot was committed to a mental asylum, where she died nine years later, at the age of 58.
The marriage was the signature event of Eliot’s life. His failure even mildly to assuage his wife’s condition and then his separating himself from her after 13 years of a hellish life together left him in despair and on the brink of emotional collapse. The separation also left him with a relentlessly throbbing bad conscience and was a key factor in his conversion to High Anglicanism. He had grown up in St. Louis under the extreme liberal wing of Unitarianism, but his family’s earlier religious tradition was Calvinist. And Calvinist, the Puritanical division, T.S. Eliot always seemed. Calvinist guilt, if Eliot’s be an example, makes quotidian Jewish guilt seem like puff pastry.
Eliot’s conversion was an event that gave order and meaning to his life and coherence to his thought. Peter Ackroyd, another of Eliot’s biographers, writes: “He explained that Christianity reconciled him to human existence, which otherwise seemed empty and distasteful.” Eliot never attempted to win other converts and, as Ackroyd again notes, “rarely asserted the positive merits of his faith, but characteristically exposed the flaws and follies in other competingideologies.”
Eliot would go on to have two further extended relationships—it is far from clear if either was sexual—one with an American of his Boston family’s social set named Emily Hale, the other with an Englishwoman named Mary Trevelyan. Each woman mistakenly assumed Eliot would marry her. In his second, late-life marriage to Valerie Fletcher, Eliot found what perhaps he required all along in a wife: uncritical adoration, unflagging loyalty, and protection of his reputation even after death.
The second Mrs. Eliot has certainly been a most sedulous caretaker of her husband’s posthumous career, allowing no official biography and overseeing the printing of his letters, of which she has functioned as co-editor, with all deliberate want of speed. The Letters of T. S. Eliot are now up to only 1925 and end before Eliot’s career as a great man was fully established. (At this rate of publication, there is an excellent chance that no one reading this essay will live long enough to see the entire collection of Eliot’s letters in print.) The first volume chronicled Eliot’s youth and Harvard years, his decamping to England and early years there. This second volume has chiefly to do with his struggles with his wife’s mental illness and his editorship of the Criterion, the intellectual magazine he founded in 1922.
Eliot worked on the Criterion at night, after his full day at the bank, most of the time with no secretarial help and without salary. (Vivien, it must be said, aided him on the magazine during her sane stretches.) The journal never had a circulation of more than 1,000. Yet it had the highest repute and even today is part of the mythos of literary modernism. The Criterion was highbrow but not all that avant-garde. Conservative in its tendency, Eliot never allowed it to be hostage to any party. “My belief is that,” Eliot wrote to a contributor, “if one has principles at all, they will have their consequences in both literature and politics, they will apply to both.” He would later describe his own positions as “Anglo-Catholic in religion, classicist in literature, and royalist in politics.”
“The Criterion,” as he wrote to various writers he solicited for contributions to the magazine, “does not aim at a very large circulation, but aims solely at publishing the highest class of work. While a contribution to this paper does not reach a very large audience, it probably receives more intelligent attention than any other review and the audience is not limited to Great Britain.” His aim for the journal was international, and he hired translators to provide summaries of important articles in French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch intellectual journals. Most of the great figures of the day wrote for him: James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Yeats, Ortega y Gasset, E.R. Curtius, Paul Valéry, and others.
Fees for writing for the Criterion, while not derisory, were less than grand: £10 for articles of 5,000 words, though he doubled that fee for four special contributors: Yeats, Virginia Woolf, Pound, and Wyndham Lewis. The greater incentive was appearing in good company before an elite audience. “A review is not measured by the number of stars and scoops that is gets,” Eliot wrote to Ford Madox Ford, when the latter was about to begin his own magazine, the Transatlantic Review. “Good literature is produced by a few queer people in odd corners; the use of a review is not to force talent, but to create a favourable atmosphere” in which it might thrive.
Editing the Criterion greatly enhanced Eliot’s reputation, making him a significant force in the formation of the literary taste and intellectual culture of his day. “If the review can satisfy a small international elite,” he wrote, “I shall be compensated for the work involved.” He was also publishing a fair amount of his own criticism, though, during this time, no poetry at all.
Of his criticism, Eliot wrote to F.S. Flint, a regular contributor to the Criterion, that “I am myself very poorly educated and have a smattering of a great variety of subjects.” He certainly did not present himself that way in print, where he gave off fumes of great erudition, was never less than magisterial in confidence, and seemed to speak for literature itself. His prose style had a built-in gravity; every word measured, precise, every phrase carefully formulated, tossing off aphorisms, significance shimmering in everything he wrote, even when it wasn’t quite there. (He had the critical style Lionel Trilling ardently desired but could not always bring off.)
Authority, the sine qua non for any serious critic, Eliot had from the outset. By his early 30s, he had mastered the ex cathedra tone; in later years, he would in fact be known as the Pope of Russell Square, the location of the publishing firm of Faber & Faber, where he became a director and worked as an editor after Geoffrey Faber, the firm’s founder, had agreed to take over publication of the Criterion.
As a critic, Eliot was splendid on particular writers or works. Who else but he could have questioned the artistic quality of Hamlet: “[M]ore people have thought Hamlet a work of art because they found it interesting, than have found it interesting because it is a work of art”? Who else could have lowered the position in the canon of Milton (a matter on which he later revised himself) and raised that of Dryden: “Much of Dryden’s unique merit consists in his ability to make the small into the great, the prosaic into the poetic, the trivial into the magnificent”? He brought the so-called MetaphysicalPoets—John Donne, George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, andothers—from a peripheral to a central place inEnglish studies, arguing that they were the last English poets not to suffer from “the dissociation ofsensibility” between feeling and intellect.
“The dissociation of sensibility” is a reminder that Eliot, as he himself noted, launched “a few notorious phrases which have had a truly embarrassing success in the world.” Among these were “objective correlative” and “the auditory imagination.” Then there are all those sentences of his that, once read, are never forgotten:
“He had a mind so fine no idea can violate it” (this of Henry James).
“The more perfect the artist the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.”
“The progress of an artist is a continual self–sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”
“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least somethingdifferent.”
Eliot claimed that the best method for being a critic was to be very intelligent, and no critic in the modern era was more intelligent than he. “English criticism,” he wrote, “is inclined to argue or persuade rather than to state.” He had no problem making straightforward statements, and when he did so it was with a higher truth quotient than any other critic of his day or ours.
In his general essays—“Tradition and Individual Talent,” “The Function of Criticism,” “Religion and Literature,” and others—Eliot wrote with a range and an amplitude of interest not seen in literary criticism since Matthew Arnold in the previous century or Samuel Johnson nearly two centuries earlier. This breadth, in which he spoke not for literature alone but also for the larger social context in which literature was created, made Eliot seem, somehow, grander, more significant than such estimable American critics as Wilson and Trilling. Through the power of his prose style, Eliot was able to convey, even when writing about the most narrowly literary subjects, that something greater than mere literature was at stake.
Wallace Stevens’s poetry is more beautiful, and Robert Frost’s often more powerful, than Eliot’s, but the latter’s, once read, refuses to leave the mind. How much does memorability matter in literature? A vast deal, I suspect, and in poetry above all. And here, in the realm of the memorable, Eliot has left a greater literary residue than any other poet of the 20th century. A sampler follows:
“Let us go then, you and I/When the evening
is spread out against the sky/Like a patient
etherised upon a table;…”
“I grow old…I grow old…/I shall wear the
bottoms of my trousers rolled.”
“In the room the women come and go/Talking
“I have measured out my life with coffee
spoons/I know the voices dying with a dying
fall/Beneath the music from a farther room.
/So how should I presume.”
“Here I am, an old man in a dry month/Being
read to by a boy, waiting for rain.”
“Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees/Letting
his arms hang down to laugh,/The zebra
stripes along his jaw/Swelling to maculate
“April is the cruellest month…”
“These fragments I have shored against my
“Time present and time past/Are both
perhaps present in time future/And time
future contained in time past…”
“Humankind cannot bear too much reality.”
“This is the way the world ends/Not with a
bang but a whimper.”
In 1922, the year the Criterion began publication, Eliot published The Waste Land, the lengthy work that established his reputation as a major poet. “It happens now and then,” Eliot wrote in his essay on Tennyson, “that a poet by some strange accident expresses the mood of his generation, at the same time that he is expressing a mood of his own which is quite remote from that of his generation,” which is as good a gloss as any on The Waste Land. Along with Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, Joyce’s Ulysses, and the paintings of Picasso and Matisse, The Waste Land was from its inception, and has remained in our time, one of the landmark works of modernism. Lyndall Gordon calls it “the poem of the century.”
That he was indisputably a major artist lent Eliot enormous weight as a critic, and as a moral instructor. No other artist of his rank wrote so much criticism. The two in harness, artist and critic, proved a powerful combination. Eliot’s own view was that the artist was likely to be the best critic, for “his criticism will be criticism, and not the satisfaction of a suppressed creative wish—which, in most other persons, is apt to interfere fatally.” This may or may not be so, but in Eliot’s case, his being the toweringly important artist he was made him, for a time, unassailable.
So much so that most people were willing to overlook that Eliot’s extra-literary views were deeply conservative and that he might have had, not to put too fine a point on it, a Jew problem.
The character in Mary Gaitskill’s story might as easily have said: “Isn’t Eliot that turd who took out after the Jews?” Whether he did or not, whether Eliot was an anti-Semite or not, has been a subject of much controversy on which full-blown books have been written: T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form by Anthony Julius arguing the case for Eliot’s being an anti-Semite, and T.S. Eliot and Prejudice by Christopher Ricks arguing the case against, with many others joining in on both sides of the issue.
The evidence against Eliot is not new; it is all in print. The new letters, it must be said, do not add much. There is a single letter to John Quinn, the art and manuscript collector, one of the young Eliot’s benefactors and himself a genuine bigot, in whichEliot refers to being “sick of dealing with Jew publishers who will not carry out their part of the contract unless they are forced to.” Less unpleasant is a reference to “a young Balliol man of my acquaintance, a clever Jew from Alexandria named Jean de Menasce.”
The most damaging evidence remains where it has always been, in the poems. In “Gerontion,” there is “the Jew [who] squats on the window sill, the owner,/Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp/Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.”
In “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” “Rachel née Rabinovitch/Tears at the grapes with murderous paws.”
In “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar” we have the wretched Bleistein: “Chicago Semite Viennese/A lustreless protrusive eye/Stares from the protozoic slime/At a perspective of Canaletto”; and, worse, “On the Rialto once./The rats are underneath the piles./The Jew is underneath the lot./Money in furs.”
In After Strange Gods, a book made from lectures given at the University of Virginia, Eliot, in limning his ideal society, argues that its population should be homogeneous, with “a unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.”
Anthony Julius, an English attorney with literary training, takes up these and all other bits of anti-Jewish evidence he can find against Eliot. His case is not merely adversarial but prosecutorial, expertly handled, let it be said, and very thoroughly documented (56 pages of footnotes to 217 pages of text). Forensic in style, polemical in tone, the book is a prime example of what Milan Kundera has called criminography, a work setting out to convict a writer of intellectual or ideological crimes. As Eliot wrote apropos of Pascal’s Letters to a Provincial, the philosopher’s Jansenist case against the Jesuits, Julius’s arguments have in common with all superior polemics that “they persuade, they seduce, they are unfair.”
Eliot never believed himself an anti-Semite and actually loathed being thought one, claiming, interestingly, that, for a Christian, anti-Semitism “is a sin.” Yet he never came forth publicly to announce his regret for the anti-Semitic references in his work; how easily, after all, he might have made it an Armenian who owned the building in which the man telling his tale in “Gerontion” lived, or had a fellow named Simpson instead of Bleistein with a cigar, and had Rachel née Seton-Watson tearing at those grapes, and worried about “free-thinking intellectuals” rather than Jews corrupting his ideal society. He never, it should be said, allowed After Strange Gods to be reprinted.
Perhaps Eliot is best indicted by his own poetic theory, specifically, by his notion of “the objective correlative.” He believed that the art of poetry was in capturing emotions and feelings that were beyond standard intellectual formulation or even of language itself. The problem with Hamlet, for example, is that the character Hamlet’s “bafflement at the absence of the objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem.” Eliot apparently had no such problem when he wished to express his loathing for the decay of society, the loss of all social decorum, and the horror of sexual depravity: he found his objective correlative in the Jews.
Among writers, great writers, Eliot scarcely stands alone in making use of the always ready-to-hand convenience of the Jew as a symbol. One could put together a hideous anthology of anti-Semitic passages from great English writers—Anthony Julius has, in effect, done just that in his newest book, Trials of the Diaspora. No further sermonettes are required on the subject of anti-Semitism, but it seems doubly deplorable to find it in imaginative writers (poets, novelists, playwrights), for anti-Semitism is, among other things, a grave failure of imagination—an inability to concede simple humanity to a people because of their religious or social origins—and a failed imagination is for writers the most heinous failure of all.
But might it be allowed that one can write or say anti-Semitic things without being an anti-Semite? Eliot is guilty of the former, but does not, I think, stand guilty of the latter. There is no record of anything on his part resembling anti-Semitic actions. He had good friends who were Jews. Not that this excuses him, but everything anti-Semitic he wrote was composed before the Holocaust. He obviously wasn’t Jew-crazy, like his difficult friend Ezra Pound, who could blame the Jews for bad weather. Eliot made a wretched mistake in the references to Jews in his poetry, and one would like to think that, as a devout Christian, it added to the burden of his guilt.
Julius ends his book on Eliot with a scene set in 1950 in a hall in London in which Emanuel Litvinoff, an Eastern European Jew who survived Treblinka, read “I Am the Lizard,” a poem dedicated to Eliot. Its most powerful passage reads:
I am not one accepted in your parish.
Bleistein is my relative and I share
the protozoic slime of Shylock, a page in Sturmer,
and, underneath the cities,
a billet somewhat lower than the rats.
Blood in the sewers. Pieces of our flesh
float with the ordure on the Vistula.
You had a sermon but it was not this.
According to an account by the English-Jewish poet Dannie Abse, who was in the audience, Eliot’s friend Stephen Spender (born of a Jewish mother) rose up to shout, “Tom’s not anti-Semitic in the least.” Abse heard Eliot, sitting in the row behind him, his head down, mutter, “It’s a good poem, it’s a very good poem.”
Is T.S. Eliot today a figure merely of historical interest: an avant-garde poet in an age now bereft of either a convincing avant-garde or a genuine interest in poetry; a critic with no further discriminations to make, nothing more to teach, and no real literary community to attend to his pronouncements?
Eliot’s best poems still work their magic, his powers of manipulating language to reveal unspeakable truths still resonate and register. His pitch-perfect phrasings stay in the mind the way litanies learned in childhood do. An unsolved mystery is why no poetry written since the time of Eliot, Yeats, Stevens, Frost, or possibly Auden has anything like the same memorability as theirs, and among them no one’s poetry, as I have suggested, is more memorable than T.S. Eliot’s.
In his criticism, Eliot wrote much that was prophetic of the age in which we now live. As early as the 1920s, he remarked “on the vague jargon of our time, when we have a vocabulary for everything and exact ideas about nothing.” He foresaw the rise of “the half-formed science [of] psychology, [which] conceals from both writer and reader the utter meaninglessness of a statement.” He anticipated the loss of authority of universities in the intellectual life of England and America: “They have too long lost any common fundamental assumption as to what education is for, and they are too big. It might be hoped that they would eventually follow, or else be relegated to preservation as curious architectural remains; but they cannot be expected to lead.”
In my opening paragraph, I spoke of literary culture shutting down. The standard explanations for this are the distractions of the Internet, poor rudimentary education, the vanquishing of seriousness in university literature departments owing to the intellectually shallow enticements of modish subjects, and the allure of the pervasive entertainments of popular culture. Although none of these things help, literary culture is, I believe, shutting down chiefly because literature itself has become unimportant: what is being created in contemporary novels, poems, and plays no longer speaks to the heart or mind.
Eliot spoke to this point, too. He did so most incisively in his essay “Religion and Literature.” There Eliot reminds us that the “greatness of literature cannot be determined solely by literary standards.” Ethical, theological, and moral standards must contribute to such determinations. Criticism can only be effective where there is agreement on these other standards, and in his day, he claimed, “there is no common agreement.” If an arguable proposition about Eliot’s day, it is unarguable in our own.
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.”
Writers, in his view, tend to be not much better than general readers: “The majority of novelists are persons drifting in the stream, only a little faster. They have some sensitiveness, but little intellect.” He doesn’t speak of poets, but, considering the vast quantity of them being turned out by contemporary MFA programs, he could scarcely have thought the poets of our time as other than in an equally irrelevant stream of their own.
For Eliot, literature was a moral enterprise, but moral in a way that purely secular moralists—the moralists of economics, of social science, of contemporary politics—cannot hope to grasp. He wasn’t accusing modern writers of immorality, or even amorality, but of ignorance “of our most fundamental and important beliefs; and that in consequence [contemporary literature’s] tendency is to encourage its readers to get what they can out of life while it lasts, to miss no ‘experience’ that presents itself, and to sacrifice themselves, if they make any sacrifice at all, only for the sake of tangible benefits to others in this world either now or in the future.” Not, any of this, good enough.
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.
If the literary culture that T.S. Eliot, at his best, represented is over and done, a thing of the pastnever to be recovered, the loss is of a seriousness beyond reckoning.
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T.S. Eliot and the Demise of the Literary Culture
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Convenience, wrote Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, is as much a force driving mankind’s political evolution as any of the more tangible and conspicuous factors that dominate daily life. So many modern appliances have made what were once minor chores unthinkably exacting burdens. Convenience, Wu wrote, trumps preference. Streaming video services, to name just one example, have rendered the rigors of the clock obsolete. But that convenience has also inured us to sacrifice. Once anathema, viewers have re-learned how to sit passively through a 120-second commercial break. It’s a small price to pay to enjoy our newfound freedom from wait.
That cost may be modest, but it’s a reminder that everything comes with a price tag. The instant gratification associated with on-demand society has made America’s shared cultural moments a thing of the past. The explosion of online shopping has eliminated the time consumers wasted traveling from store to store, but physical retail is dying as a result. The modern public square and the daily human interactions that it encouraged will disappear along with it. Machine learning has the power to introduce a “more compassionate social contract” and reduce physical risk associated with the workplace hazards or lifestyle choices. But risk is just another word for freedom and, in the pursuit of convenience, we risk sacrificing our independence along with our hardships.
“We’re really reinventing the traditional insurance model with our vitality program,” said Marianne Harrison, the CEO of one of North America’s largest life insurers, John Hancock, in a recent appearance on CNBC. The beaming insurance executive boasted of her firm’s effort to marry a “technology-based wellness program” with an “insurance product.” That’s a loaded way of saying that this American insurer is soon going to charge based on the real-time monitoring of your daily activities. Behavior-based insurance will track the health data of policyholders through wearable devices or smartphones and distribute rewards based on individual choices. You don’t have to wear a tracking device to participate in this program—at least, not yet. Harrison assured skeptics that they could also dole out rewards to policyholders who take simple steps like reading preapproved literature, the consumption of which they presumably track.
This innovation is optional today, but the savings it yields both consumer and insurer guarantee that it will soon become a standard feature of the insurance landscape. Your freedom to eat poorly, use tobacco products, drink alcohol, or perform any number of physical activities that include varying levels of risk are not limited. You’ll just have to pay for them. And if Democratic policymakers succeed in nationalizing the private health insurance industry under the auspices of Medicare-for-all or single-payer or whatever other euphemisms they apply to the public confiscation of private property, these “tools” will only become more pervasive.
A similar rationale—the primacy of collective health—can be applied to any number of activities that invite unnecessary risk which technology can mitigate. Foremost among these is the terribly dangerous American habit of driving a car.
In 2017, there were over 40,000 automobile-related fatalities. This was the second consecutive year in which the roads were that deadly and, if observers who attribute this rate of fatal traffic accidents to an increase in smartphone ownership are correct, there will not be a decline anytime soon. A 2015 study purported to show that replacing manual vehicles with autonomous cars or vehicles with advanced driver-assistance systems could eliminate up to 90 percent of all fatal accidents and save as many as 300,000 American lives each decade. It is perhaps only a matter of time before the option to own a driverless vehicle becomes a mandate with a hefty financial penalty imposed on those who opt out.
“[T]he threat to individual freedom that the driverless car is set to pose is at this stage hard to comprehend,” wrote National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke. Presently, the car transports its diver to wherever they’d like to go, whether there are roads to facilitate the journey or not. In a driverless world, as Cooke noted, the driver becomes a mere occupant. They must essentially ask the car for permission to transit from point A to point B, and the whole process is monitored and logged by some unseen authorities. Furthermore, that transit could ostensibly be subject to the veto of state or federal authorities with the push of a button. That seems a steep price to pay for a little convenience and the promise of safety.
The pursuit of convenience, as Professor Wu explained, has resulted in remarkable social leveling. We enjoy more time today for the kind of “self-cultivation,” once only the province of the wealthy and aristocratic, than at any point in history. And yet, we cannot know true liberty without hardship. “The constellation of inconvenient choices may be all that stands between us and a life of total, efficient conformity,” Wu concluded.
There is more to celebrate in the technological revolutions of the last quarter-century than there is to lament. But in the pursuit of convenience, we’ve begun to make spontaneity irrational. In life, the rewards associated with experience are commensurate with that which is ventured. In a future in which the world’s sharp edges are bubble-wrapped, your life may exceed today’s average statistical length. But can you really call it living?
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Podcast: Christine Rosen on Brett Kavanaugh.
The podcast welcomes COMMENTARY contributor and author Christine Rosen on the program to discuss the allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Have his confirmation hearings have transformed into another chapter in the national cultural reckoning that is the #MeToo moment?
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Justice both delayed and denied.
According to Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat Chris Coons, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who has accused Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when she was a minor, did not want to come forward. In an eerie echo of Anita Hill’s public ordeal, her accusations were “leaked to the media.” With her confidentiality violated, Ford had no choice but to go public. Coons could not say where that leak came from, but he did confess that “people on committee staff” had access to the letter in which Ford made her allegations. Draw your own conclusions.
Though many observers insist that what we have witnessed since Ford’s allegations were made public is about justice, it’s hard to see any rectitude in this process. Ford has been transformed into a public figure apparently against her wishes. The details of the attack that Ford alleges are deeply disturbing, but they are not prosecutable. Ford’s recollection of the events 36 years ago is understandably hazy, but what she alleges to have occurred is too vague to establish with much accuracy. She cannot recall the precise date or location in which she was supposedly attacked. Contrary to the protestations of Senate Democrats like Kamala Harris, the FBI cannot get involved in a matter that is not within the federal government’s jurisdiction. And even if local authorities were inclined to involve themselves, the statute of limitations long ago elapsed.
With precious few facts available to congressional investigators and without the sobriety that public scrutiny in the age of social media abhors, the spectacle to which the nation is about to be privy is undoubtedly going to make things worse. A public hearing featuring both Ford and Kavanaugh will be a performative and political display, if it happens at all. It will be adorned with the trappings of courtroom proceedings but with none of the associated protections afforded accused and accuser alike. It will further polarize the nation such that, whether Kavanaugh is confirmed or not, public confidence in Congress and the Supreme Court will be severely damaged. And no matter what is said in that hearing, it is unlikely to change many minds.
Given the dearth of hard evidence, it is understandable that observers have begun to look to their own experiences to evaluate the veracity of Ford’s allegations. The Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan is the author of a powerful and compelling example of this kind of work. Her essay, entitled “I Believe Her,” is important for a variety of reasons. Maybe foremost among them is how she all but invalidates defenses of Kavanaugh that are based on the positive character references he’s assembled from former female acquaintances and ex-girlfriends. Flanagan was assaulted as a young woman, and her abuser—a man she says drove her to a suicidal depression similar to what Ford has described to her therapist—was not interested in a romantic relationship. CNN political commenter Symone Sanders, too, confessed that “there is no debate” in her mind as to Kavanaugh’s guilt, in part, because she was the victim of a sexual assault in college. The similarities between what she endured and what Ford says occurred are too hard for her to ignore.
These are harrowing stories, but they also reveal how little any of this has to do with Brett Kavanaugh anymore. For some, this has become a proxy battle in the broader cultural reckoning that began with the #MeToo moment. Quite unlike the many abusive men who were outed by this movement, though, the evidentiary standard being applied to Kavanaugh’s case is remarkably low. His innocence has not been presumed, and a preponderance of evidence has not been marshaled against him. It is not even clear as of this writing that Kavanaugh will be allowed to confront his accuser. At a certain point, honest observers must concede that getting to the truth has not been a defining feature of this process.
In the face of this adversity, there are some Republicans who are willing to sacrifice Kavanaugh’s nomination. Some appear to think that Kavanaugh’s troubles present them with an opportunity to advance their own political prospects and to promote a replacement nominee with whom they feel a closer ideological affinity. Others simply don’t want to risk standing by a tainted nominee. The stakes associated with a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court are too high to confirm a justice with an asterisk next to his name—a justice who may tarnish future rulings on sensitive cases by association. Those Republicans are either capitulatory or craven.
Based on what we know now, Kavanaugh does not deserve an asterisk. Maybe he will tomorrow, but he doesn’t today. Those who would allow what is by almost all accounts an exemplary legal career to be destroyed by unconfirmable accusations or outright innuendo will not get a better deal down the line. Some Republicans are agnostic about Kavanaugh’s fate and believe that his being stopped will make room for a more doctrinaire conservative like Amy Coney Barrett. But they will not get their ideologically simpatico justice if they allow the defiling of the process by which she could be confirmed.
The experiences that Dr. Ford described are appalling. Even for those who are inclined to believe her account and think that she is due some restitution, no true justice can be meted out that doesn’t infringe on the rights of the accused. Those in the commentary class who would use Kavanaugh as a stand-in for every abuser who got away, every preppy white boy who benefited from unearned privilege, every hypocritical conservative moralizer to exact some karmic vengeance are not interested in justice. They want a political victory, even at the expense of the integrity of the American ideal. If there is a fight worth having, it’s the fight against that.
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Terror is a choice.
Ari Fuld described himself on Twitter as a marketer and social media consultant “when not defending Israel by exposing the lies and strengthening the truth.” On Sunday, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed Fuld at a shopping mall in Gush Etzion, a settlement south of Jerusalem. The Queens-born father of four died from his wounds, but not before he chased down his assailant and neutralized the threat to other civilians. Fuld thus gave the full measure of devotion to the Jewish people he loved. He was 45.
The episode is a grim reminder of the wisdom and essential justice of the Trump administration’s tough stance on the Palestinians.
Start with the Taylor Force Act. The act, named for another U.S. citizen felled by Palestinian terror, stanched the flow of American taxpayer fund to the Palestinian Authority’s civilian programs. Though it is small consolation to Fuld’s family, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that they are no longer underwriting the PA slush fund used to pay stipends to the family members of dead, imprisoned, or injured terrorists, like the one who murdered Ari Fuld.
No principle of justice or sound statesmanship requires Washington to spend $200 million—the amount of PA aid funding slashed by the Trump administration last month—on an agency that financially induces the Palestinian people to commit acts of terror. The PA’s terrorism-incentive budget—“pay-to-slay,” as Douglas Feith called it—ranges from $50 million to $350 million annually. Footing even a fraction of that bill is tantamount to the American government subsidizing terrorism against its citizens.
If we don’t pay the Palestinians, the main line of reasoning runs, frustration will lead them to commit still more and bloodier acts of terror. But U.S. assistance to the PA dates to the PA’s founding in the Oslo Accords, and Palestinian terrorists have shed American and Israeli blood through all the years since then. What does it say about Palestinian leaders that they would unleash more terror unless we cross their palms with silver?
President Trump likewise deserves praise for booting Palestinian diplomats from U.S. soil. This past weekend, the State Department revoked a visa for Husam Zomlot, the highest-ranking Palestinian official in Washington. The State Department cited the Palestinians’ years-long refusal to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The better reason for expelling them is that the label “envoy” sits uneasily next to the names of Palestinian officials, given the links between the Palestine Liberation Organization, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, and various armed terrorist groups.
Fatah, for example, praised the Fuld murder. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the “al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah . . . welcomed the attack, stressing the necessity of resistance ‘against settlements, Judaization of the land, and occupation crimes.’” It is up to Palestinian leaders to decide whether they want to be terrorists or statesmen. Pretending that they can be both at once was the height of Western folly, as Ari Fuld no doubt recognized.
May his memory be a blessing.