The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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The Treasonous Clerk: Of One Conservative Mind: T.S. Eliot and Russell Kirk
James Matthew Wilson - 07/27/09
T. S. Eliot signature

A review of Eliot and His Age by Russell A. Kirk (ISI Books, 2008), 460 pages, $18.

Writing near the end of his life, E.W.F. Tomlin, a British Diplomat, man of letters, and disciple of T.S. Eliot since early youth, recorded in his memoirs of the Anglo-American poet, T.S. Eliot: A Friendship (1988), a telling detail. In the months before the start of the Second World War, Tomlin discussed British conservatism with Eliot, only to discover that

He classed Chamberlain the ‘Conservative’ with Baldwin as a representative of that mercantile tradition, descending from Adam Smith, Ricardo, Cobden and Bright and from which the Fabians were themselves derived, as being the official receivers of the capitalist system. He therefore considered them of a tradition quite different from that form of conservatism—so admirably defined by Russell Kirk in his study Eliot and his Age (1971, 1984)—which, as Eliot said to me more than once, was the best and perhaps the only defense against the extremes of Communism and Fascism.

Tomlin’s association of Eliot’s thoughts on conservatism with those of Russell Kirk is cogent if we are to understand the distinction of Eliot as a poet and thinker, and also if we are to apprehend the peculiar nature, genius, and limitations of Kirk’s writings.

The intention of this memoir, its author observes in the opening pages, is to stake a claim on Eliot’s posthumous reputation. In the decades after Eliot’s death, rumors and libels had surfaced in the writings of old, if distant, acquaintances and young, ambitious literary critics to the effect that Eliot, the man, was a fascist, an anti-Semite, and perhaps a homosexual; to make matters worse, he was a bad husband, a cold and aloof acquaintance, and even a hypocrite. Getting off but little more easily, Eliot’s poetry came under the attack of hostile critics whose renewed and modified vigor transformed the old accusations from Eliot’s communist contemporaries into intricate deconstructions of elitist, fascist, anti-Semitic, and homosexual tendencies buried in the lines of his verse. Tomlin knew Eliot for a number of decades and, though much younger than Eliot and always, consequently, distanced from him by that respectfulness and awe proper to the disciple, he believed himself to have seen and understood Eliot’s character thoroughly. As new knives were drawn for a posthumous character assassination that Eliot’s contemporaries could never have managed, Tomlin deemed it necessary to publish his own sketch of Eliot’s character, and it was in all ways a noble one. Eliot was austere and shy of mien and long-suffering and pious in his Anglo-Catholic faith. His marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood had been a Way of the Cross prefacing Eliot’s decades of celibate and self-denying, almost monastic, habits—a passage of prayer and humility whose last temporal fruits would be remarriage in old age to Valerie Fletcher.

Indeed, as Tomlin pins him, Eliot appears something more than a great man if something less than a saint. The essential virtue of his character was not a radical genius or gift for scandalizing self-described traditionalists and revolutionaries alike with his clinical prose and broken verses, but rather the prudence of the conservative. However it may have appeared to the materialist, revolutionary radicals, as a classicist, a monarchist, and an Anglo-Catholic, Eliot was not a reactionary. In mild testimony to this, Tomlin comments more than once that Eliot never considered converting to Roman Catholicism, despite the hopes of the Reverend Martin D’Arcy, the Jesuit Thomist philosopher who catechized many English literati in the first half of the Twentieth Century. In Tomlin’s stout English imagination, no testimony to prudent, modest conservatism could be more patent. Eliot was primarily a Christian, but he was in essence a conservative given over to none of the despairing temptations or wild hopes manifest in the ideologies of the last century.

Tomlin’s claims are as well founded as can be; they were timely at first appearance and should have helped to discourage the continued drawing of knives in the critical darkness. But what precisely has Tomlin told us? Something of more than biographical significance. In the passage quoted above, Tomlin suggests that Kirk’s book on Eliot, Eliot and His Age, had captured the true conservative tradition with which Eliot identified himself. He was no “mercantile” classical liberal, hoping to buoy up tradition, family, and Church as the modern corporate market-state ravaged the conditions that allowed those institutions to flourish, or who insinuated philosophical materialism beneath a sheen of Christian piety. Rather, Eliot identified himself with a conservatism more internally consistent and august. In saying this, Tomlin creates a connection between Eliot and Kirk whose bibliographical notes tap insistently and ask us an overwhelming question. Consider: Tomlin characterizes Eliot by citing Kirk’s definition of conservatism in a book that is, in fact, a critical biography of Eliot. In that book, Kirk discusses conservatism with specific reference to Eliot’s talk to the London Conservative Union entitled “The Literature of Politics.” There, Eliot seeks himself to suggest his conservative pedigree, in implicit contradistinction from an intellectually vacuous “mercantile” one that he actually criticized in print repeatedly. To pull off this definition, we must note, Eliot references, without naming, Kirk’s early essay, “The American Conservative Character,” to which Kirk draws our attention in his book. So Tomlin sends us From Eliot to Kirk, who sends us to Eliot again, who sends us at the last back to Kirk!

Here lies the more profound implication of Tomlin’s passage. For, such an interweaving of references suggests an interweaving not merely of influence but of personal sympathy. I would suggest that Eliot’s poetry and prose is as foundational to Kirk’s own writing as that no less explicit cornerstone, Edmund Burke. Eliot formed Kirk’s thought; his identity as a poet and critic, rather than as a philosopher or theologian, led Kirk to place the theme of the moral imagination at the center of his writings rather than one more discursively and rationally principled. He came through Eliot to appreciate that a way of feeling and experiencing, a set of dispositions and a steady vision, were not only a necessary preamble to good politics but to achieving a good life.

Mark C. Henrie observes, in his introduction to the reissue of Kirk’s The Politics of Prudence (2004), that Kirk’s attention to the moral imagination arose partly in response to the diabolical influence Jean-Jacques Rousseau had had on European society. “Rousseau’s ‘work’ was not to be accomplished by a political program,” Henrie writes; “it was not to be accompanied simply by a philosophical breakthrough; it was accomplished by a tacit appeal to the deepest movements of the heart. And Rousseau remains, whether we like it or not, at once among the philosophical and poetic legislators of our age.” For all the talk of social contracts, Rousseau’s influence permeates us by means of the novel and the frank autobiography. This is just, and Eliot himself would approve it. A student of Irving Babbitt’s at Harvard, Eliot had imbibed that New Humanist’s devastating and thorough demolition of Rousseau, romanticism, and revolutionary humanitarianism as the malign constituents of the modern age. As Henrie writes, Burke’s Reflections and other writings after the French Revolution sought to counter the sentimental education Rousseau had given with one of Burke’s own. As a poet and playwright, Eliot would, as Burke could not, fully exploit the genres of imaginative literature as part of a like counter-romantic strategy. Whereas Burke’s most famous passages outline with a flourish a dramatic theory of truth and an aesthetic theory of politics, Eliot would simply write dramas and poems that eventually, but secondarily, gave rise to his formidable prose essays in cultural criticism. His work actually gives us drama and truth rather than merely theorizing those things. As Henrie indicates, much the same must be said about Kirk’s writing; the moral imagination, as he deploys it, seeks to counteract the “idyllic imagination” of Rousseau, and it is on the level of imagination rather than theory that his genius best appears.

Beyond this fundamental debt of literary method, so richly did Eliot’s influence pervade Kirk that, I would propose, the younger author is the intuitive authority on how we should interpret Eliot. In a formulation Eliot himself used in a related context, it seems almost certain that Kirk wrote with Eliot “in his bones.” Hence, the importance of the recent republication of Eliot and His Age (2008) with a new introduction by Benjamin G. Lockerd, Jr. Kirk’s study of Eliot has many merits and few faults. He wrote it as a critical biography, which is the natural form for literary criticism, as Samuel Johnson demonstrated so well. Kirk thus binds himself to accounting for Eliot’s published work as a whole and within the whole of a man’s life—the most difficult and rewarding standard for criticism, and one that dwarfs the literary-critical potshots that have tried to chip away at Eliot as man and poet. Paradoxically, this biographical method of criticism is precisely the approach recommended by Eliot—the supposed poet of “impersonality”—in his major essays on the Elizabethan dramatists. For Eliot, the work of the major poet shows forth only once we can see how the individual works congeal into a greater one, the construction of a single and complete personality. Thus, Eliot held up Shakespeare and Jonson as major, and Middleton a minor, authors—the latter’s works never cohere but remain individual curiosities, whereas, as history demonstrates, the reader of Shakespeare’s plays eventually becomes a reader of Shakespeare the man, wishing to know him, to seek him out above and behind his words as Augustine had sought God in creation.

Because Kirk grafted Eliot’s spirit to his bones, he is the authoritative guide to Eliot’s life and work. Lockerd observes in his introduction that “the two works every student of Eliot should have on hand are [Grover] Smith’s encyclopedic book T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays (1956) and Kirk’s Eliot and His Age.” Kirk’s book initially recommends itself for the usual scholarly reasons. For its time, it was thoroughly researched and made use of Eliot’s then unpublished letters as much as was possible. More letters have since become available that inevitably make a pure biography, rather than a work of biographically based literary criticism, a more promising endeavor. But Kirk gives us all the archival support we need to affirm his portrayal of Eliot’s life and work. As Lockerd also points out, in damning contradistinction from the more recent, hostile criticism on Eliot, Kirk at least took the care to read all of Eliot’s published writings, with especially close attention to the crucial essays and commentaries Eliot wrote during the two decades he edited the Criterion (1922–1939). These periodical pieces are the key material missing from most readers of Eliot’s knowledge, because Eliot seldom collected or republished them. We may conclude that Kirk’s research was first rate, but that it only took on the convincing form it did because Kirk so thoroughly embodied Eliot’s spirit.

Kirk discusses all of Eliot’s major works, though he seldom does so exhaustively. The only real weakness to his analysis of Eliot’s poems seems consequent to the impact modern existentialism made upon the Twentieth Century critical imagination; thus the powerlessness, loneliness, pusillanimity, and effeminacy of Eliot’s first major poetic character, J. Alfred Prufrock, Kirk summarizes—following many other critics—with the idea of “solipsism.” Even now, I am not sure critics and readers of Eliot have found the proper vocabulary to describe the human condition as Eliot’s poems reveal it. But I would argue that we misread them to the extent that we view his understanding of the plight of the modern person as anticipating or overlapping with the sense of isolation and the void that would haunt the pretentious narratives of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, or even with the disembodied theological angst of Dostoyevsky. Kirk seems to have trusted too much to Eliot’s otherwise penetrating early critics on this point. Eliot’s portrayal of Prufrock is social rather than metaphysical in nature, precisely because Eliot, following Aristotle, took for granted that man was a political animal. Although Eliot would find analogues for modern loneliness in the idealism of F.H. Bradley, he thought Bradley’s philosophy an inadequate account of reality rather than a revelation of how profound is the isolation of the individual human psyche. Even with such a solecism, Kirk’s account of Eliot stuns and convinces.

Another observation of Lockerd’s directs us to an affinity between Kirk and Eliot that transcends Eliot and His Age; he notes that Kirk deemed the book on Eliot to stand alongside his acknowledged masterpiece, The Conservative Mind (1953), as his two most “major” works. This suggests two possibilities. The first is that Kirk’s achievement stands exclusively in the category of the literary historian, and that, therefore, we should read The Conservative Mind like Eliot as a mere monument of biographical facts that does not transcend its subject matter to rise to the level of theory. As the passage from Tomlin encourages, I would reject this in favor of a second conclusion. Kirk not only embodied Eliot’s spirit, but he sought to advance his legacy and to adhere to the tradition he had established for the man of letters in the modern world. Historical and biographical though much of Kirk’s work is, it strives to give form to the moral imagination of his readers in a way that the mere historian could not.

As is appropriate, Eliot offers us the language we need to reevaluate Kirk’s achievement more justly. He concludes the essay mentioned above, “The Literature of Politics,” with a meditation on the relation of men of thought and men of action in the political realm. Dismissing the likes of George Bernard Shaw as having great immediate influence on the day’s politics but, being shallow, no lasting impact on culture, Eliot avers that

there should always be a few writers preoccupied in penetrating to the core of the matter, in trying to arrive at the truth and to set it forth, without too much hope, without ambition to alter the immediate course of affairs, and without being downcast or defeated when nothing appears to ensue.
       The proper area for such men is what may be called, not the political, but the pre-political area. I borrow the term from Canon Demant, the Regius Professor of Theology at Oxford; and I am thinking of work such as his, and Mr. Christopher Dawson’s, and that of Professor Reinhold Niebuhr in America. It is in this area also that my own much slighter talents have been employed.

Kirk was the leading conservative thinker of his day, and he made an obvious political impact. That is, The Conservative Mind so startled the intellectual landscape that Kirk’s “new conservatism” would cause new monuments and new armies to appear upon its surface. In a fashion at but one remove from William F. Buckley, Jr., his writing would inform the language of conservative politics in immediate and recognizable ways. In this sense, we would be foolish to deem Kirk “pre-political” in the way Eliot describes himself.

And yet, on the whole, that is precisely how we must think of him. James Kalb observes in The Tyranny of Liberalism that, today, Kirk “is more admired than followed. His limited success suggests the difficulty of reformulating conservatism in America.” This claim seems only half right. Kirk must necessarily be more admired than followed because his literary and intellectual achievement was primarily to hold up icons of conservative thought and to illuminate the principles or canons in defense of which any true conservative intellectual must fight. He was a man of letters whose explicitly political concerns perhaps concealed the way in which his writings actually functioned: like Eliot’s poetic works, Kirk’s prose would initiate us into a way of feeling and of thinking or, better, into a way of feeling what we think at depths no political platform can reach. He was more Rousseau than Burke, more novelist than polemicist; but he was more Eliot than Rousseau, as well, introducing us to the problems of modern life as well as to the constellation of ideas and sentiments we must recover if the moral imagination is to flourish once again.

In his biography, Kirk observes that Eliot’s political writings were short on specific proposals, consumed largely with definition and clarifying (in the Latin sense) the principles behind the political disputes of his day. But if one surveys Kirk’s writings beyond the major books, particularly the occasional lectures printed in The Politics of Prudence and Redeeming the Time, one reaches much the same conclusion. One looks in vain for a “solution” to the Spanish Civil War in the Criterion; one cannot expect to find hints toward a policy of taxation or the proper role of the state in the promotion of family life or education in Kirk’s many volumes. They were of one mind, but that mind was not that of the political theorist. The theoria of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas more swiftly leads us to a practical politics than does the pre-political imaginative initiation of Eliot and Kirk.

And so, Kirk, like Eliot, can and should be admired chiefly not because of his real if passing influence on the shape of conservatism through the administration of Ronald Reagan, but because of works like The Conservative Mind and Eliot and His Age. These provide us stories of the moral imagination and, therefore, make a more lasting if necessarily pre-political contribution to the life of the mind and of society. As is the case with reading Eliot, reading Kirk is an education of the sentiments. Like Tomlin, Kirk was a disciple of Eliot’s and we cannot properly speak of an Age of Kirk in the way that Kirk announced the Age of Eliot. In other respects, however, Kirk stands forth as Eliot’s peer in the pantheon of modern men of letters. His is the account on which we should rely to understand Eliot’s achievement, but we should also appreciate the particularly literary and imaginative achievement of Kirk himself. We do not turn to The Conservative Mind for a gospel to follow, but for initiation into the canons of the moral imagination; in giving us a real history it opens up a whole world of feeling. As the contemporary mind becomes more deracinated, more subject to the battery of the winds of a culture now virtually identical with its commercials and a politics all but reduced to flattering the infinite libidos of “consumers,” we shall have to repair to Kirk’s writings more not less. For, increasingly, those pages will give access of a vision of life in deference to the wisdom of the past and the permanence of God’s Truth that those unsatisfied by the crudities and trash of our age might otherwise be able only to suspect in what Eliot called “hints and guesses . . . the gift half understood.” We cannot, strictly speaking, follow such men, but we should venerate them.

To learn more, visit the ISI short course on Conservative Thought.

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