T. S. Eliot
34th New Right Meeting, August 6, 2011 (video, transcript; reprinted in Reactionary Modernism).
9,671 words / 1:22:01
The following text is a transcript by V. S. of Jonathan Bowden’s lecture to the 34th New Right Meeting in London on Saturday, August 6, 2011. In editing this transcription, I introduced punctuation and paragraph breaks. The video is available on YouTube here, and below.
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1888 and died in 1965. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Western literature in 1948, and his career in many ways is an elixir of modernism in the arts, certainly early on.
In the late 1990s, there was a concerted attempt to demonize Eliot based around a book called T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form, which was produced by somebody called Anthony Julius. There was a large-scale media correspondence created by this book. The BBC debated it on channels that liberals listen to, such as Radio 4. Was Eliot an anti-Semite or did he reject philo-Semitism, as I call it, a bit too nakedly? There’s a degree to which Eliot certainly went through a radical phase in the mid-1930s after his re-conversion within Christianity in 1937 from Unitarianism to Anglicanism, which in many ways was the key metaphysical moment of his life.
One thing that always happens with all those who gain any degree of prominence is that, there’s a general academic response to them obviously, but to one side, there’s an attempt to feed off them in a sort of collateral damage way of literary criticism. This relates to two areas: their private lives and what can be said about it, particularly in a detrimental way, which is either tittle-tattle or the sexual politics of their life, biographically speaking, and we’ll come to that in relation to his first wife, Vivienne, in a moment. Or, secondly, whether there’s political incorrectness, whether you can harvest the fact that the person concerned, in some way or other, had views that are unacceptable. The remarkable thing is that before people started guarding their most private and intimate thoughts, particularly if they were of some cultural or educational level in the last twenty years, after the advent of what was called political correctness, a vast range of people from Marx onwards have rendered extraordinarily incorrect statements privately and in diaries and in written records. And Eliot was no different.
His most notorious publication, which was never republished, was a book based upon the transcript of a lecture, I think in 1934 or 1935, After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy. Now, this book argued for an organic society with the fewest number of foreigners. It was largely done from what you might call a Christian national perspective, given his conversion to High Church Anglicanism. Eliot remained High Church and semi-Anglo-Catholic by adoption. But as a man, psychologically, he remained a Puritan, and he always had a strong streak of puritanical New England diffidence, which in some ways probably prevented him from leaving the area that we could call ultra-conservatism.
There’s a website in the United States called Counter-Currents, and I’ve written an essay in the last couple of weeks on it called “T. S. Eliot: Ultra-Conservative Dandy,” and there’s a degree to which this is what I consider Eliot to be.
The most important element in Eliot’s life isn’t accusations of incorrectness about this sort of matter played by Julius or whoever else, but is the quasi-nihilism of the early poetry, which maybe poetically is the best poetry, in comparison to the later belief and the metaphysical plunge or the re-plunging back into a considered form of identity and the identitarian politics that inevitably goes along with that.
Now, Eliot worked in a bank for a short period between 1917 and 1925. After that, he worked for Faber and Faber in Camden. He married Vivienne in 1915, and one of the other areas where Eliot has been attacked posthumously is his relationship with his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood. There was a well-known play called Tom & Viv in 1984, and this was followed up by a film of the same vein, Tom & Viv again, on the screen in 1994. This is part of the concerted feminist attack on various writers who retain some prominence in the 20th century. The idea that they were bad to their spouses, that they drove them insane, that they were responsible if not for wife-beating and that sort of thing–we’re dealing with people of a certain cultural level after all–then the moral and linguistic equivalent of same.
This is particularly true of Ted Hughes and his early poetic wife, Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide, of course. And there have been extraordinary attempts, including a very back-handed and misguided one to partly dig up the Plath grave, by feminist devotees largely from the United States. This was part of the extremist second wave of feminism, which is very much part of the 1970s.
You notice that academics feed on writers in two main ways. One is just general biographical and academic approaches within the tolerated bounds of opinion, academically and otherwise. The other is this attempt to suggest that there are dark, willful, abstracted, incorrect, pseudo-Satanic elements to them that need to be revealed such as a belief in an organic Western society with as few foreigners as possible, the belief that not all Semitic influence is for the good of the general population, the belief that men and women are genetically and biologically different and psychologically and emotionally so and in some ways need to be treated differently in relation to legal conduct.
Now, Eliot’s poetry has this enormous bifurcation between his pre-conversion experience and post-conversion experience. The early poems such as Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917 and thereafter and “The Wasteland,” one of the most famous poems of the 20th century, and “The Hollow Men” in the mid-1920s very much despair at life, at existence. Don’t just incarnate the disillusionment of the post-Great War generation, which suffered a catastrophic loss of faith in relation to Western traditions and structures at that time. It wasn’t just a generational clash between those who had fought in the war and those who had ordered the bloodbath; it was a general and conceptual retreat from many hitherto adopted Western attitudes.
There’s an interesting parallelism between Eliot and what you might call an amateur poet, Enoch Powell. Enoch Powell had a prior belief system before his conversion/re-conversion to High Church Anglicanism and that was Nietzscheanism, which strongly influenced Powell when he was a younger man. Powell wrote poetry throughout his life, and volumes of it are available on the internet. Now, when I say a re-conversion, I am working on the premise that before 1950, certainly before 1960, we were living in a largely Christian society, at least in terms of its self-conception. Thereafter I make the judgment that we are beginning to live and now most definitely do live in a post-Christian society. So, when I talk about re-conversion, when somebody recommits to a doctrine of metaphysics such as Christianity–revealed Christianity of one of the major departments, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or one of the major sections or sub-sections within that–they are basically going back to prior Western structures. Maybe not the structures I would choose in an ideal world, but they are going back to that which existed before them.
Tradition was very important to Eliot, who had another career as a literary critic and another career as a playwright, particularly in and around the Second World War. Eliot always sought a social role for the artist, which clashes slightly with the nihilism and despair and inner despondency of perhaps the greatest verse, which he wrote early on in his career. I’ll just read a few things which I have with me in the Faber and Faber edition of the Collected Poems 1909–1962.
Eliot, of course, worked for this firm from 1925 onwards apart from a few outtakes as a professor at Harvard wherein he largely lost contact with Vivienne, partly deliberately. Vivienne was the first wife who declined into mental illness and lived the last nine years of her life from the mid to late ’30s to about 1948, I think, or maybe ’47 in an insane asylum in Hampney in Stoke Newington in Northumberland institute.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Now, this was written 1917 and onwards before Pound became involved in his poeticization. “The Wasteland,” which followed in 1922, was heavily influenced by Pound and was edited by him. There is this quote in Latin and Greek at the beginning of the poem where he basically talks about being honored by the greater craftsman because Pound certainly imagized the poem and cut it down and made it more sheer and not less complex, but probably starker than it might otherwise have been. “The Wasteland” is probably the greatest expression of despair in the 20th century, and despair underlines quite a lot of Western artistic attitudes in the 20th century.
It’s interesting to notice, metaphysically, in a high philosophical sense, why there has been such a current of despair in Western art in the 20th century. As Pound said, artists and writers of some quality–we’re talking about after their death, anyway–are the antennae of the species. There is something in the aether of contemporary modernity and post-modernity which is uniquely despondent for those who care most about civilization and where they believe it’s going. So, if you have the idea that artistic individuals are insightful at a higher level than the general mass of the population it’s inevitable that they will imbibe many of the energies, pro and con, fulfilling the presence and the absence of the metaphysical space.
Don’t forget that the religion that people were taught to believe in for the better part of one-and-a-half to two thousand years is partially collapsed during this period. Western identity has largely collapsed during this period. And if faith and identity go, and if knowledge in terms of what once was feeds through into the present, which determines what one will be, you can understand why many writers and artists have taken the perhaps easy consolation of despair.
Although never riding roughshod in the sort of Left nihilist terrains like Beckett, Sartre and others of the existentialist school in the middle of the 20th century, someone like Eliot incarnated many of their attitudes earlier on, prior to his conversion or re-conversion from Unitarianism to Anglicanism.
I think it’s extraordinarily important actually that Eliot made a metaphysical choice, because it’s a choice that everyone has to make in this life in relation to the ultimate answers. We’ve heard political talks earlier on this afternoon, but politics can only go so far in answering what life is about, particularly as one gets towards the phase of life when death begins to approach.
Religion ultimately gave the consolatory answers to what life’s meaning could be for most people. In the 20th century, religion for thinking and reasonably sensitive people has been replaced by art, and it’s no accident to my mind that despair has become the currency of a large amount of the creative superstructure of Western thinking. People can say, “What use is it for these considerable talents, whatever one thinks of individual artists and writers, to retreat into the possibility of despair? Isn’t it the job of artists to ennoble, to glorify, to build up, to create structures that can be looked up to?”
This is why hierarchical elitism is so important, because if there is nothing above you, then there’s nothing to look forward to, there’s nothing to transcend to, there’s nothing to abide by that is beyond and outside one’s often quite trivial concerns. The mass of people today live completely buried in their trivial concerns, and most forms of culture are forms of entertainment. Eliot represented one of the last generations where the more classical and restorationist attitudes toward culture prevailed.
After the conversion to Christianity in poems like The Ariel Poems and Ash Wednesday and the Four Quartets, for which he was largely awarded the Nobel Prize in 1948, Eliot’s diction and his poetry changes quite considerably. It becomes more causal, becomes more melodic, becomes more semi-Romantic, although he resisted Romanticism in poetic diction. Eliot’s a classicist. Eliot is a New England Puritan in a very complicated way. There’s a poetic neuroticism to him, particularly in the early verse, but there’s also a deep New England Puritanism, but never philistinism because you’re dealing with a highly complex individual. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, he once said that his heart was British but his sensibility and intellect was American, and that Anglo-American hybrid or hybridization very much fulfills the nature of his vision.
Towards the end of his life he became increasingly important even in the politics, if one can call them such, of the Anglican Church. He was asked in the late 1940s by the Archbishop of Canterbury to serve on panels that discussed the theology, particularly of the more Anglo-Catholic chapter of the Church, and he also was involved in 1963 in revisions of the psalter in collaboration with C. S. Lewis in committees to re-examining church doctrine, morals, and textual exegesis. So, Eliot threw himself into Christianity and threw himself into the idea that a Christian community should be what this country had to be in order to reach the redemptive view of itself. This may not be to everyone’s taste today, but there’s a degree to which this mattering to Eliot that something should matter was crucial to his later developments as a poet and a playwright.
Eliot had a parallel career as a literary critic. He developed several important critical ideas, from a highly conservative and individual standpoint, which have stood the test of time and have had great influence. He influenced New Criticism in the middle of the 20th century when it was characterized by I. A. Richards in the United States and F. R. Leavis here on this side of the Atlantic and was characterized very much by the developments at Cambridge University, amongst other places.
Now, Eliot’s ideas were very much of the vogue that there has to be a response to art and a response to higher things which isn’t purely personal. We live in a world where everyone has a subjective response. They like something, they dislike something. They intensely like something, they intensely dislike something. They’re completely indifferent, or whatever else. Eliot developed a concept which he called the objective correlative whereby the words where not completely evaluated by “me likes, me doesn’t likes” sorts of vocabularies.
This involves the idea that there is a background or tradition within an artist’s conceptuality. In other words, the man who wrote “Ariel,” the man who wrote “The Rock”–a collected and collaborationist Christian piece in 1934–was quite different to the man who wrote “The Hollow Men” and “The Wasteland,” and yet the poetic diction of the one and the other are interrelated and all of them have to be seen as part of a career, part of a progression from conscious adult life towards death.
So, this idea of a tradition within an oeuvre rather than just relating to tradition as it comes down to one in relation to the Georgian and post-Andersonian poetry that was written earlier in his career and, of course, against which he was a rebel. In “Prufrock,” there is a comparison between the evening and a patient who is being anaesthetized or etherized and is lying on the table. And that was regarded as quite a shocking and incorrect image at that time when Georgian poetry and neo-Romantic idealism was the way in which things were configured.
There’s a nihilism at times to early Eliot which comes close to Gottfried Benn and this sort of school which is associated with the Right not the Left. It’s important to realize that not all despair in culture is Left-wing. The Left wants to pull down and therefore often adopts an antagonistic attitude towards nearly all prior forms. The more extreme the current of the Left, the more extreme becomes the destructive urge. There’s even a spiritual dimension to this in occultistic terms whereby the Left represents the destructive and chaotic side that wishes to arrange and extend the limit of chaos prior to the prospect of reconstruction. The idea that destruction is a creative passion.
There’s an interesting story about the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin who was, if you like, the founder of a movement that lies to the Left of Marxism and was a rival to the attentions of the extreme Left in the 19th century. Don’t forget: extreme Leftists would have tiny little meetings like this in the 19th century totally ignored by the general culture. Yet their ideas in the 20th century were to dominate much of the hinterland of the planet. This is from E. H. Carr’s biography of Bakunin: Bakunin once passed a gang of rascals and ruffians who were destroying a house and were burning it to the ground, and he got out of the coach and joined in the destruction. He raced about! Don’t forget that he’s an aristocrat. He raced about putting his cane, feral, through things and stamping on pictures and throwing things out of windows with the other ruffians, who just accepted that he was one of them because he joined in. When the conflagration had ensued, and most of the mansion or whatever it was had gone up, Bakunin was asked why he’d done it and he said, “Because it’s there.” That’s an ontological prerequisite, a very extreme Left-wing attitude. You want to destroy things because they are there. The reason you want to do that isn’t pure nihilism, because the bulk of it is the notion that it’s a perfect society that can replace that which is destroyed.
The reason why Right-wing meetings are, in the past when they had the numbers, ranked by the extreme Left, and almost everyone over a certain age in this room has had experience of that, is because they see in their most radical opponents on the other side the germ–and more than the germ–of everything that they most dislike. They see the maximum form of essentialism. They see the maximum form of the belief in the politics of identity, when they believe in the politics of non-identity. This means that people like Eliot, people like Pound, people like Lewis are anathema and always have been to the extreme Left that took over much of the academy from the late 1960s. Although in funny ways one is surprised that Pound and Eliot have not been demonized more.
The reason that they haven’t been, as I discussed in the Pound lecture last time, is because they are crucial to modernist writings and the arts in the English language. If you took Pound and Eliot out and basically corralled them into the zone where Lewis is largely, but not exclusively been left, as politically incorrect, as essentialist, as “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” not philo-Semitic, inegalitarian, hierarchical, religious, prior metaphysical and all these things which you’re supposed not to be, you wouldn’t have much left of Western writings in the 20th century. That’s why they’ve survived, because they can’t be taken out. All you can do is essentially throw brickbats at them from one side of the cultural space.
There’s a lesson here and that is that despite the demonizations–particularly of Pound and to a lesser extent Eliot who made peace with the establishment after the war and partly adjoined it from a radically conservative to ultra-conservative perspective. Eliot’s a less sexy person to talk about from the perspective of the people in this room and the traditions that a group like this could be said to feed upon, but that doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t be looked at and, if you like, is to the Left of Pound and Lewis by quite a considerable way, and yet in actual fact he’s still to the Right of most other tendencies that exist. I think it’s just a truthful statement with which he would largely agree.
He certainly wrote some poems after the Second World War (1939–1945), which praised the war and are regarded as a sort of establishmentarian coming home. By that time he wished to enter the bosom of the Anglican establishment which until the 1960s was still very culturally important as a guiding post for the accepted and received wisdom of society. Anglicanism has declined to such a degree, and is such a dog’s breakfast now, that there’s a degree to which one can often make a mistake of belittling its importance earlier in the century when the Church of England was a power in the land. Now it’s a pathetic, broken backed organization with almost no power at all which is dwindling with every year that passes. It’s amazing to think that it once was the metaphysical engine of the English people and that a considerable part of our people invested quite a degree of talent, power, and moral energy in that particular structure. When things die, they go down quickly. But, to view the thing dialectically, the quicker things go, the more of a space is created for something else to emerge. And something always will emerge.
Somebody spoke to me earlier on about this society and its current status. This society in which we are now living under and in is the hegemon of the liberal vision that has grown up over the last two centuries, but particularly in the last 50 to 60 years. We are living in the eye of the storm. Almost all of the values that people in this room hold are inverted in relation to the mass society and vice versa. This means that we are living through the eye of the tiger and the eye of the storm. Liberalism has never been more powerful in a Left liberal, secularized sense. Eliot uses the term “liberal” as shorthand for all sorts of other terms that could be used. We are now living in the apogee of the sorts of ideas that used to meet secretly and semi-Masonically at the beginning of the 20th century when small little circles like the Bloomsbury Group, who used to meet in and around this area. Bloomsbury, the university district of London University, in Senate House just behind us and so on. A lot of history in this area.
These tiny little groups said to almost recognize each other with strange little handshakes and little nods, winks and so on. You have to remember the pressure these people were under psychologically in the 1920s and the 1930s. Everything that they liked was detested by the mainstream. They were in favor of atheism. They were in favor of dehumanization. They favored it in a different way because mass immigration hadn’t come about then, but they were in favor of various forms of multiculturalism as it would have been defined in that era. They were in favor of homosexuality. They were in favor of the decline of the marriage bond. They were in favor of alternative lifestyles and relationships as a norm. They were in favor of drug usage and its privatization, if you like, in terms of the moral space. They were in favor of all of the things which have come to pass, with the possible exception of euthanasia. Absence of the death penalty, absence of military service, absence of an organic, collective, and coherent vision of a society. A particular type of upper middle class power, maybe, in socio-economic terms, a form of radical Keynesianism dominating the social and economic space, which is complicated because all sorts of different groups were aligning with that sort of idea. Although Keynes was a part of the Bloomsbury Group, that wasn’t their original formulation.
But we’re living now in an era where all of those ideas are semi-totalitarian. Indeed, they are so pervasive that they’re almost totalitarian. Eliot, Pound, Lewis, and the others–the men of 1914, which is a long time back now–were living in a last gasp of the society that culturally came to an end in the 1950s. If Eliot dies in the mid-1960s and a stone is put up to him in Westminster Abbey two years after his death, we are living in a society which is the opposite polarity to that in which he and the other men of 1914 grew up.
There’s a degree to which if somebody like Eliot, with some of the attitudes which he had, particularly written in the earlier material, was alive now, he would receive no attention at all or would be retrospectively completely demonized and would be regarded as a demonic influence both for the Christian conversion and for the Right-wing elements in the prior nihilism which exists before it.
He was a literary critic, had to deal with certain other areas. Eliot disliked Romanticism in art and was essentially a classicist. There is a frigidity to Eliot. There is a prudery in a way, despite the subject matter of some of the early poems. There is a New England fastidiousness. It’s probably one of the many reasons why he didn’t go out beyond the radical conservatism that he believed in quite strenuously.
In “The Wasteland” and in “The Hollow Men,” there is a scintilla of the possibility that he’s opposed to the Versailles Treaty, which, of course, is the Woodrow Wilson inspired belief in all nations cooperating, except if part of the opposition forces in the 1914–’18 war.
We see in Pound and Eliot’s generation the belief that the Western world can revive, that Spengler’s doctrine of the decline of the West in 1918 and thereafter, need not be fulfilled. Whether they favored a form of Caesarism to come up from below and rescue the West and its impasse socio-economically in the 1930s–or whether they believed in forms of classical and restorationist conservatism, with an existing elite toughening its game and imposing upon society a vision more conduit with structures in the past, which would have been Eliot’s cultural vision–is neither here nor there.
But all of them represent in some ways the last flowering of a particular type of Western intellectuality the likes of which you don’t see in the post-war period. In writers and artists who are prominent in the post-war period– John Fowles, J. G. Ballard, Anthony Burgess, with a mild exception in Burgess’ case who wrote A Clockwork Orange amongst many other things, and these sorts of individuals–you do not see the degree of Westernization that you see in Eliot, you see in Pound, you see in Lewis and you see in some of the others.
We’re living in a state where the unconscious of the Western world doesn’t really have an outlet except in the artistry of those who in some ways were morally defeated by the progress of the 20th century. It’s quite clear that certain forces of direct Western renewal were defeated in the middle of the 20th century, and we are living in almost all areas of life with the consequences of that.
Eliot’s retreat into Christianity, if you wish to regard it as such, is his attempt to deal not with that event, which of course comes after it, but with the spiritual malaise that preconfigured it. The purpose of life, the meaning of death, the prospect of family, the tradition out of which we come: all of these are now up for grabs in a world that’s changing with its kaleidoscope with extraordinary speed and rapidity. The point about Eliot’s later Christian poetry is its stillness and its belief in a center and its belief in a return to essence.
In contemporary theory—which if you do an arts course in a Western university today, you will experience quite a bit head-on–all the beliefs that are identity focused are regarded as essentialist. They are regarded as reactionary. They are regarded as that which should not be occasioned. Anyone who does any course across the arts–and in the -ologies that were referred to earlier on, such as sociology, anthropology, the application of economics to social and personal life, psychology, social psychology and so on and all the liberal arts subjects with the exception of the classics–will come across the fact that belief in the prior identities of the West, belief in the religions of the West, belief in the higher philosophies of the West, most of which of course come from the Greeks in one form or another, is anathema. Everyone is taught to be critical, but no one is taught to believe anything. This is why belief and belief in belief is of crucial significance culturally and even anthropologically.
When people cease to believe in anything higher and above themselves they render themselves open to the prospect of slaughter in my opinion. Therefore, it’s very important if there are prior artists in the tradition to go back to the prospect of the existence of identity even in attenuated forms.
Eliot married again towards the end of his life after the death of his first wife, who clearly went insane. Eliot suffered from various nervous and psychological problems early in life, but they seemed to clear up later in life. There are some who think the later work is weaker than the earlier work, but that in some ways, as always, is a matter of taste–although Eliot regarded taste as a dubious criteria in terms of cultural analysis.
One of the groups that he brought back into prominence was the metaphysical poets: Vaughan, Donne, Marvell, Thomas and the others. He wrote about the metaphysicals extensively just as he wrote about Greek tragedy extensively. He had the idea that the metaphysicals were useful because they pooled together an entire sensibility in earlier British and English literary poetics. This was the idea that you had a unified sensibility, which some people just regarded as another name for metaphysics just as they regard objective correlative, another of Eliot’s formulations, as a metaphorization for the belief that there are objective standards through which to view culture.
Eliot certainly did enter the establishment in his final years. Wyndham Lewis once said of Eliot, “He’s kicked up around himself a death-knit and rather smug concept of cult.” And there is a degree to which he did enter into the higher reaches of the Anglican establishment and in many ways compromised with the outsider’s vision of his earlier art. But that’s almost inevitable given the fact that he’s a conservative and given the fact that the society that existed in the 1950s and 1960s viewed from a High Anglican prism wasn’t so far away from what Eliot thought of as a reasonably tolerable and good society.
Eliot regarded himself as an American mentally and British emotionally. He once said, “I’m American in my mind and British in my heart.” And he was very much a part of that Anglo-American generation that viewed this country as seamlessly: England-New England, New England-England. You go back to Henry James, there’s a whole species of Anglo-Americana that thinks of itself in this way. That sensibility, given the change in American art, life, and letters congruent largely but not exclusively with the demographic changes in the United States which are enormous . . .
President Obama’s presidency is just symptomatic of the extraordinary changes which have occurred in the United States, which have de-Europeanized it culturally, intellectually, sociologically, and in other ways to a quite incredible degree. No one who ever goes to the United States now should doubt what Obama’s victory means. It’s just a codification. It’s just a simplistic statement of the changing nature of the identity of the society.
The society that Pound and Lewis, who was born in a yacht off the Canadian coast and spent his first six years in the United States, and Eliot grew up in, that Anglo-Americana has not gone forever, but it exists in a very reduced spectrum. If you look at the art that is produced in the United States now, it bears no relation to the sort of hieratic, puritanical disciplines out of which somebody like Eliot came.
One is often asked with figures as difficult, abstruse, and elitist as Eliot what the point of them is. The point is that they are transcendent figures. The point is that they look upwards. The point of all life is to look upwards in the prospect of something which is above you. Whether you believe God is above you, or you believe some other force is above you, or you believe the gods are above you, or you believe your ancestors are behind and above you, or you believe that the prospect of something else may exist, or you believe in philosophical verities that give three dimensional meanings to death, to sexuality, and to other things, you’ve got to look above you.
Mosley once talked about endless, varied, and revivified forms getting higher and higher. That’s a Platonic idea, a neo-Platonic idea of the prospect of an archetype or an idealism that one can only approximate to. These may be in many ways high-falutin and airy-fairy judgments. In comparison to the majority of people out there, they are completely meaningless. But they have a deeper and more archetypal meaning to my mind, and this is the fact that without such idealism all you get trapped into is mediocrity and opportunity.
Much of the opportunism which has been decried by speakers earlier this afternoon is due to the fact that there is no higher vision there to articulate. It’s not just having a hardcore nationalist political view, in my view. There is also no higher vision there. There’s no philosophical goal in there. Metapolitics is the idea that there is something more to politics than the distribution through power and odd companies of how British Gas operates in the post-privatized world.
If you believe that politics is more than that sort of zero-sum game, you have to have some higher metaphysical vision which is grounded in things like religion or art. This is why our group feels so vulnerable in relation to many other peoples who have kept cardinal forms of identity, often very simplistically, but they have kept them. Once a people loses its ability to recognize its own side, its own semiotic of being, it’s finished as a people unless things get so bad that there’s a return to forms of identity by looking at the very small vanguard of people who haven’t given up on them.
In terms of the Right, you can have a very low view of the Right, or a sort of low version of Right-wing ideas, or you can have a very high version of Right-wing ideas. If you have the very high version, you end up almost speaking to yourself. If you have the very low version, you face complete demonization by the forces of media power which exists completely against you. I personally think that, in this moment of maximum difficulty for our way of looking at things, it’s important to pitch the level as high as possible, partly in relation to the baton that you’re going to hand on.
Without the belief that men like T. S. Eliot can exist, there will be no future for our people, defined as Caucasian people all over the world, particularly of Anglo-Saxon ancestry. Because we are all over the world. We’re increasingly not here, even though we are here, but we are all over the world. One of the primary things that we have to do is adopt a worshipful attitude towards our higher creators.
I am not arguing for a surrogate religiosity of culture, but I think that something which mildly approaches it is necessary. If people give up on the highest things that their people as individuals have created they are opening the space for themselves to be destroyed in the future by people who will not give up on their greatest gifts.
Pound, in an extreme moment of disillusionment at the end of the Great War, talked about a botched civilization and an old bitch of a civilization gone in the tooth and the generation on all sides, including our own nationality of course, that had been slaughtered for a few thousand books, for a few old Greek statues. The First World War was reckoned to be the end. It was reckoned to be the nadir of nadirs. It was reckoned to be the moment when the West came home to itself in the most violent and dispirited of ways. No one claimed that they had a great victory after the Great War who had experienced the industrialization of death that that conflict represented. And yet within a couple of decades, of course, a second war—one of the most violent of conflicts that has ever convulsed the planet—was itself to break out, followed by atomic weaponry that froze power between the blocs.
Now, our role in this group and in those like it across Europe and North America, is to keep alive the idea of high culture that is aware of itself and aware of where it comes from. GRECE in France and other groups always try to pitch the level as high as possible, and they have created a space for organizations like Front National, which in many ways disagrees with it on all sorts of cardinal points. But the point is to create the space for the prospect of metaphysics, for the prospect of higher philosophy, for the belief that belief is possible. Our people face the dilemma, of course, that many instinctively don’t necessarily want to go back to Christianity. But nothing else appears to be tolerable for them, so we live in this post-Christian void.
Eliot had the courage, possibly of the Puritanism of his New England forebears, and he actually chose belief. How deeply did he believe in the Anglo-Catholic re-immersion that he engaged in from middle life onwards? One doesn’t know. Certainly, the conversion, or the re-conversion as I call it, seems to be pretty absolute. There’s nothing fundamentalist about his religiosity, because it’s too fey, too complicated, too non-linear, too mosaic, too modern, too partial to his own sense of self to be something ridiculously constricting.
But I feel that the absence of a prior religiosity or a prior philosophy of life which is congruent with it is a key affliction for our people. A key affliction. It’s something that weakens us particularly in relation to those that may in one moment in the future, as Enoch Powell had said, come to conflict with us generally throughout the future of this island. I personally believe that emotion in high culture, even partially, is vitally necessary to keep yourself morally and intellectually clean for the future.
Eliot’s plays received quite a lot of comment and were widely performed in the commercial West End up until his death in the mid-1960s. The key play is the murder of Thomas Beckett in the cathedral, Murder in the Cathedral. These plays are an attempt to widen the poet’s vision. Eliot always believed that just to talk to a small number of cultural collaborators via small political journals and magazines was never enough, that you needed to transcend that, that the poet needed to have a social role. And playwrights, because of course there are verse dramas, is the social role a poet. Notice that the sort of plays that Eliot wrote—very different from the social commentary of someone like Rattigan, a contemporary—are decisively different from what followed.
British theater changed out of all recognition in the 1960s when a whole generation of essentially culturally Marxist playwrights came up. Eliot, although Murder in the Cathedral is still performed, has become very unfashionable in the generation of Edward Bond and Trevor Griffiths and Arnold Wesker and Hare and Howard Brenton. These are the people who took over the theater in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, particularly the state-subsidized theater which came out of the arts council and the big national corporate bodies that Labour created post-war, post-Festival Britain and which the Tories have never understood how we should deal with.
It always amazes me—this is an aside which has little to do with the topic of this talk—how when Margaret Thatcher was leading this country in what Leftists would regard as an extreme Right Tory direction, however you choose to define that, a play was put on at the National Theatre which consisted of her execution. This was called The Unkindest Cut of All by Howard Brenton with an all-female cast in which a Tory harridan Thatcher look-a-like was guillotined on the stage of the National Theatre.
The Tories are completely culturally witless except in private life where you have often highly nuanced and educated men of an Alan Clark type, although he was unusual in all sorts of ways and a cultural gadfly at that. But there is a degree to which the Tories have never understood what the enemy is and who the enemy is. They’ve never understood how you engage in cultural struggle. They’ve never understood the importance of culture. Only the Left and the extreme Right understand the importance of cultural struggle. The liberal center has inherited the extreme Left partiality for it.
The reason that I talk about Eliot, talk about Pound, or talk about Yeats in a future talk, for example—and his attitude towards Irish nationalism amongst many other things—is to keep alive these figures of power. These are figures of cultural power who should not be lost sight of. They are not just an area of hedonist decadence and celebration of everything falling to pieces. They can be an area of restoration and renewal both individually and collectively. People need the heroic in their own life, and considerable artistic achievements border on the heroic at times. Other people can feed off that and feed the nature of their identity.
Eliot wrote quite extensively about Greek tragedy, and Greek tragedy, of course, is the basis of Renaissance tragedy and the basis of Shakespeare’s art and the basis of the other great Elizabethans. In the Elizabeth Age, which was highly prized by Eliot, we created the greatest form of drama seen since the Greeks. Yet how many people out here know of it? We created this. England created it. In the hierarchy of poets and playwrights who then existed, this was England’s creation.
This is why the English are a proud group who are actually in some respects socially and psychologically awkward. The diffidence of the English interrelates with their love of theater. Theater is a form of play and a form of externalization where you can be yourself and not be yourself. Every town once had a theater. Theater was our form. Of course, it’s grounded in a sort of middle class, lovey culture to a degree. But there’s a degree to which it was our unique form. Unless you realize that people like Eliot, through his criticism, are keeping, in an attenuated way, these forms alive, you miss the point of the social organicism which he’s preaching.
Extreme conservatism in the arts is very unusual, because extreme conservatism is often associated with extreme stupidity. This cannot be the case with men like Eliot who I would regard as a conservative. There are proto-fascistic elements to Eliot, but Eliot does not cross over a particular line. Eliot remains on the blue of the conservative side, culturally speaking.
Now, in the Four Quartets for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Eliot draws out from the Christian tradition many associations which we need just briefly to have a look at.
This is “Ash Wednesday.” This is the first poem after the re-conversion.
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?
Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
“Having to construct something upon which to rejoice” is the belief that when there is no cultural future you turn back.
There was a film recently, a decade or so ago, by a French director in Hollywood. It was quite an unusual film where people have a dinner party and discuss the state of the West as they sit round at this dinner party. One of them says, “What can you do when you can’t go forwards? What can you do when there’s nothing to progress towards?” Progressivism and doctrines of the liberal Left and the Left generally believe in progress. They believe that everything now is heading forwards towards greater and greater degrees of joy, liberty, equality, and progress: progressivism. What can you do if you can’t progress any further?
One of the other characters plotted at the dinner table and its discussions says, “You can go back.” When you can’t precede any further you go back. But you never return to what existed in the past. You return to ideas that you had about it, which opens up a new prospect for the future. That’s the importance of the radicalism in radical Right ideas. That you turn back towards a prospect of what existed that you half remember and you wish to go on from in a different way.
What’s the point of reading people like Eliot now? The point, in my view, is to incarnate yourself in structures of sensibility which once existed in a more general way. A general decline in Western educational level, a general decline in sculpture of will in order to be what we are, has had a devastating effect on all of our people: top of the social structure, middle of the social structure, bottom of the social structure. The more nakedly you look at the decline which has occurred, the more terrible the prospects for the West appear.
We’re living in what radical Christians of a Pentecostalist cast call the End Times. Now, I don’t believe in the End Times, but we are living in the end of a particular era of Western history. We must determine what future our people have. And the first thing that has to be done is mental. Our people are mentally asleep and partly mentally diseased and complacent to the point that they’re toppling over. They are so polite that they don’t even really wish to survive in their present incarnation.
The point of people like Eliot in a metapolitical context, not in a purely cultural one, is that they stand out against the general rot, and there are things about him still which are unassimilable, which cannot be assimilated. What liberalism does is it just ignores those unpleasant factors. Anthony Julius wrote in T. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form that Eliot’s anti-Semitism was equivalent to his failure as a human being. Failure as a human being. Failure to stand up to a priori liberal standards. Failure to adopt a politically correct canon. How can somebody have those views, given what allegedly happened in the mid-20th century, even if it’s a retrospective coinage?
Why did he never re-publish his particular book about the organic society in 1934 to 1935, After Strange Gods? Obviously, he wanted to preserve a notable reputation for conservative assimilation and accessibility to the doctrines of the then establishment. But there is a degree to which what one was at a certain period, and what one remains, cannot be erased.
The point of high culture is to give ideas to our people even if they don’t subscribe to it. The point is always to live outside one’s own cultural comfort zone. The point is always to try to strive for that which is higher and that which is above. I partly preach artistic concerns and considerations of what I believe to be a higher type because I think they are a way to go for people who are totally blocked in relation to expression of their own identity. Lots of people today yearn for a clean and a new way in which to express their own identity. Why do you think that every arts course in every British university deconstructs its main cultural figures as a way of proceeding? They do it so the danger of the prior essentialism, even with a modernist like Elio,t will not be taken up.
The irony is that just before Yockey committed suicide he said that his enemies understood him better than his friends, and that is the view that, in a way, one should take from high culture. Many people on the Right are not interested in high culture, let’s face it. But there’s a degree to which the enemy on the other side knows full well the power that it can have and the way it can transform lives, values, psychologies, purposefulness, and identities. That’s why it takes it away from people.
If it was of no importance, there wouldn’t be a stink around the names of some of the people that I talk about. They would be regarded as bohemian men with folly-laden attitudes which have no importance. No one can dismiss the political allegiance of W. B. Yeats, the metapolitical tangentialism of T. S. Eliot, the open espousal of forms of pre-religionistic fascism by Wyndham Lewis, and the open advocacy of fascistic politics, never mind metapolitics, by Ezra Pound. These are not things you can have a laugh about. These are not things that can be deconstructed out of existence. Because the point of those theories is you break it all down, and then you reconstitute it again, because it’s still there. And if it’s still there, it’s still powerful. It’s still residential It can still be used by the other side. It can still be used by our side, if we have the wit to do so.
Now, Eliot had a stone erected to him in Westminster Abbey two years after his death and therefore joins the Western tradition that stretches back to Shakespeare, stretches back to Chaucer.
Poetry is heightened language. Poetry is a language adopting and attempting to be musical, hence the fact it’s often set to music. Poetry is close to religious incantation, closer than prose. Poetry hasn’t died, although as an art form it has been broken down and privatized to a degree that there are few major poets left today. Because although there are thousands of people who write poetry, it’s disseminated in a bitty, fractured, and post-modern way. A few talents boot up in the post-war era like John Ashbery.
But T. S. Eliot is a bit of a grim giant, a bit of a morbid hierarchical, puritanical conservative fused with the high bohemian passion of a great artist, hence the prudery in his work, hence at times the prissiness in his work, hence at times the indirectness of statement in his work. But he’s very much part and parcel of the sensibility, particularly of the English people born here, in Australasia, in America, or in southern Africa. Wherever people of English and British descent are born they will understand the diction of T. S. Eliot.
T. S. Eliot is not important because he wrote a few poems that people consider to be anti-Semitic. T. S. Eliot is important because he metaphysically opens a prior way of assessing reality and proceeding. I’m not arguing that people convert back to the Christianity most of us have lost. But what I am arguing for is that one has the sympathy for that particular trajectory and one understands why figures like Enoch Powell and T.S. Eliot adopted it. I don’t think it’s the answer for our people in the individual circumstances, the odd individual excepting, or the majority, but it is something that can be respected and it is something which should be valued as such.
To close, I would like to read “The Hollow Men.”
“The Hollow Men”
A penny for the Old Guy
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.
Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.
Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom
This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.
Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.
The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.
Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.
[The introduction of nursery rhyme, of course.]
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom
[That’s a very famous stanza, which is repeated.]
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long
Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom
For Thine is
For Thine is the
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
“The Hollow Men,” a poem for the Old Guy, from 1925. Notice how many of these phrases have entered the English language. “This is the way the world ends.” How many tens of thousands of people say “not with a bang but a whimper” and don’t know where it comes from? That’s, of course, what poetry does. It frees glottal stops. It freezes inarticulacy in people. A lot of people become amateur poets in war or when they’re faced with illness or when they’re faced with the death of a relative. Because that is the moment when they have to confront many of the things that this society exists never to confront.
So, I ask that people have a look at T. S. Eliot as they had a look at Ezra Pound, as they had a look at Wyndham Lewis, as they have to have a look at W. B. Yeats. Joyce, who was associated with them, is in a different category morally, artistically, and politically, never mind metapolitically. Next time I shall talk about W. B. Yeats.
Thank you very much!