T. S. Eliot and the Jews 6

The following year, Eliot underwent his conversion to Anglicanism—a secret first unveiled, for most of his readers, in the famous preface to the essay collection For Lancelot Andrewes (1928), where he explains that his “general point of view may be described as clas¬sicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.” The unusual trio (as several commentators have noted) is almost certainly an echo of a 1913 article on Maurras in the Nouvelle revue franqaise, entitled “L’Esthetique des trois traditions,” in which Maurras’s views are described as “classique, catholique, monar- chique.” (The formula was current among admirers of the Action Frangaise before the NRF article: Hulme used a version of it in 1912 in “A Tory Philosophy,” which begins: “It is my aim to explain . . . why I believe in original sin, why I can’t stand romanticism, and why I am a certain kind of Tory.)” The allusion is fitting because, as Eliot told Paul Elmer More privately, Maurras had been a principal reason for his conversion. Eliot made public acknowledgment of the influence as well, though the wording was elliptical: responding, in 1928, to the charge that Maurras’s influence “is to pervert his disciples and students away from Christianity,” Eliot testified that “upon me he has had exactly the opposite effect.”
But the influence was of a peculiar kind, for Maurras was not himself a believer. Eliot felt called upon to defend him in 1928, in fact, because two years earlier the pope had condemned the Action Frangaise and placed many of Maurras’s works (including L’Avenir de Vintelligence) on the Index of forbidden writings. Maurras’s promotion of Catholicism was inspired entirely by his enthusiasm for the prospect of greater order and authority he thought it afforded. Eliot, of course, was a genuine believer. But having been persuaded into his faith by the arguments of a man for whom religion was an instrument not of personal salvation but of national cohesion, he proceeded to treat Christianity as the basis for social, economic, ed¬ucational, and political reform. Thus the bizarre spectacle of Eliot’s religious writings, in which twentieth-century Anglicanism, a faith not exactly noted for its proselytizing or millenarian spirit, becomes the foundation for a theocratic political vision.
The Jews therefore figured, in Eliot’s sociology, as the vestigial remainder of a phase that Christendom had left behind. What is almost as startling as the direct reference to the undesirability of Jews in After Strange Gods (1934) is the general indifference displayed in The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948) to the problem of what to do with any group not assimilable to a homogeneous Christian order. Eliot does not seem, in those writings, antipathetic to the Jews, only indifferent. Their fate (short of conversion) simply did not matter to him. “The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality,” he wrote in 1931. “The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide.” Non-Christians can feel glad at least for the recommendation of patience. The great mistake in trying to make sense of Eliot is the assumption that he had a very consistent idea of what he was doing. The mistake is easy to fall into because of the sense of authority Eliot’s writing has always conveyed. It was an extremely precocious authority: by the time he was thirty-two, he had written three of the most influential essays in twentieth-century criticism in English—”Hamlet and His Problems,” “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” and “The Metaphysical Poets.” But a knack for sagaciousness is readily ex¬ploited, and Eliot sometimes used his capacity for sounding official as a mask for a temperament that was genuinely ad hoc. He was always announcing projects, movements, doctrines, tendencies; but as soon as anyone tried to climb up on the platform with him, he pushed him off. I. A. Richards, Herbert Read, and even Babbitt were subjected to public chastisement by Eliot for what they must have assumed were views Eliot would approve of. That the posthu¬mous Speculations of T. E. Hulme was a hopelessly muddled collec¬tion hardly bothered Eliot—when the book appeared, he hailed Hulme as “the forerunner of a new attitude of mind, which should be the twentieth-century mind, if the twentieth century is to have a mind of its own”—because the muddle so closely matched his own. He was, as a poet, Bergsonian and anti-Bergsonian, romantic and antiromantic, for his entire career. “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar” is a reaction against symbolism; it is also, in its willful image-piling and narrative indeterminacy, a poem unimaginable without symbolism.
Eliot’s was, remarkably, a mind of bits and pieces. His sources are easily traced, but what matters in his writing always comes from something untraceable. The influence of various aesthetic theories on his poetry can all be mapped and measured, and in the end they fail to account for what he actually wrote. There is nothing in imagism or Bergson or Pater that prepares one for “When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table” or for “April is the cruellest month.”
Eliot picked up things he encountered and turned them to uses no one had quite imagined. The famous definition of the “objective correlative” in the essay on Hamlet—“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked”—is lifted straight out of a review by Pound’s great friend Ford Madox Ford, in which Ford wrote: “poetry consists in so rendering concrete objects that the emotions produced by the objects shall arise in the reader.” But critics spent decades pondering Eliot’s essay, and no one remem¬bers Ford’s. And having introduced the term to literary criticism, Eliot never used it again.

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