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The Red On The Blue (And On The Button):
October 7, 2002 7:12 AM   Subscribe

The Red On The Blue (And On The Button): Terry Eagleton's description of T.S. Eliot's politics is easily the best definition of traditional Conservatism written by an untraditional Marxist I've ever read.[More Inside]
posted by MiguelCardoso (25 comments total)

 
These two passages are particularly pithy and perceptive:

(1) "Fascism is statist rather than royalist, revolutionary rather than traditionalist, petty-bourgeois rather than patrician, pagan rather than Christian (though Iberian Fascism proved an exception). In its brutal cult of power and contempt for pedigree and civility, it has little in common with Eliot's benignly landowning, regionalist, Morris-dancing, church-centred social ideal.

Even so, there are affinities as well as contrasts between Fascism and conservative reaction. If the former touts a demonic version of blood and soil, the latter promotes an angelic one. Both are elitist, authoritarian creeds that sacrifice freedom to organic order; both are hostile to liberal democracy and unbridled market-place economics; both invoke myth and symbol, elevating intuition over analytical reason."

(2) "It is not surprising, then, that Eliot, like W.B. Yeats, should at times be found looking on Fascism with qualified approval, or that he should have made some deplorably anti-semitic comments. The problem with all such political strictures, however, is that conservatives do not regard their beliefs as political. Politics is the sphere of utility, and therefore inimical to conservative values. It is what other people rattle on about, whereas one's own commitments are a matter of custom, instinct, practicality, common sense."
posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:13 AM on October 7, 2002


Thanks for the link Miguel. I now have something to do over lunch.
Learning about the work of Terry Eagleton, Frederick Jameson, and Walter Benjamin certainly made that undergraduate survey of Marxist Literary Criticism worth the trouble. I've found so many worthwhile insights in the pages of their work.

It makes it so much more of a pity that Marxist theory was extrapolated into a governing systems of horror and repression.

At least no one mucked up the reputation of Darwinism by applying it to the social sphere.
posted by putzface_dickman at 8:15 AM on October 7, 2002


This probably won't go to 100 comments, you know, Miguel, but thanks for pointing it out. It may take some time to absorb, though. It was one of those recurring things in my younger years - how one could judge Eliot's work in view of his political ideas, which was even more pronounced in the case of his friend Pound, of course.

LRB is a good thing, yes?
posted by Grangousier at 8:16 AM on October 7, 2002


At least no one mucked up the reputation of Darwinism by applying it to the social sphere.
Um. I could argue with you on that, but the thread would have to go Godwin, and that wouldn't be nice.
posted by Grangousier at 8:21 AM on October 7, 2002


Terry Eagleton's description of T.S. Eliot's politics is easily the best definition of traditional Conservatism written by an untraditional Marxist I've ever read

I guess you do not read that much, at least when Eliot is concerned.

"Fascism and communism, as ideas, seem to me to be thoroughly sterilized. A revolutionary idea is one which requires a reorganization of the mind; fascism and communism is now the natural idea for the thoughtless person. This in itself is a hint that the doctrines are merely variations of the same doctrine: and even that they are merely variations of the present state of things...What I find in both Fascism and communism is a combination of statements with unexamined enthusiasms."

-T.S. Eliot. from 'Mr. Barnes and Mr. Rowse'
circa 1930
posted by clavdivs at 8:27 AM on October 7, 2002


Sorry Grangousier, I left off the <irony> tags. I'll be more careful in the future.
posted by putzface_dickman at 8:29 AM on October 7, 2002


It was precisely fascism (Hitler) and Marxism--viewed as opposites-that gave us the Holocaust and the Gulags...mass killing (and add in Mao). Pinker's new book The Blank Slate show how this oddity came into being.
Eliot was not alone in seeking an anchor for a troublesome age, and his anti-semitism was rampant...re-read Gatsby and the crazy ideas that enthrall Tom ,Daisy's husband: he is spouting from a then popular book that was anti-black.
posted by Postroad at 8:41 AM on October 7, 2002


I think it was John Barth who said "Romanticism + Industrialism = Modernism" meaning as I understand him, that the modernists just found different ways to engage in the romantic drama of self. Eliot wanted to posit a realm of community above politics without squarely facing (or admiting to) the political maneuvering necessary to producing and maintaining that community. Eliot's dilemma and the dilemma of modernism seems to be how to develop a "negative capability" which acknowledges the pervasiveness of power politics, yet which preseves the possibility of action in a non-political manner. I'm endlessly fascinated by this.

But I think too, that Eliot's example suggests the futility of arranging political sympathies along any simple spectrum. Political philosophies can't accurately be arranged along a spectrum of (say, libertarian to authoritarian) because political philosophers don't even agree on the nature of the world they wish to change.

btw, anyone who hasn't read Eagleton's essay on Fish, linked to this article, should: it perfectly demonstrates what an poseur Fish is.
posted by octobersurprise at 9:00 AM on October 7, 2002


I guess you do not read that much, at least when Eliot is concerned.

Dear clavdivs, thanks for that typical quote which beautifully summarizes Eliot's (and conservatives') objections to Fascism and Communism. However, as Eagleton notes, conservatives' efforts to equate Fascism and Communism (the most famous being J. L. Talmon's The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy and Carl J. Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski's, Totalitarian Dictatorship ) obscure the fact that conservatives, like Eliot, were a great deal more sympathetic to Fascism. Eliot's love affair with French integralist Charles Maurras says it all.

Besides, T.S. Eliot is not a Marxist, of course, and so my opinion that Marxist Eagleton's definition of Conservatism is the best I've ever read by a Marxist obviously stands.

[On preview] Octobersurprise: Fish may be a poseur, but what an irresistible, intelligent one he is!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:18 AM on October 7, 2002


It was precisely fascism (Hitler) and Marxism--viewed as opposites-that gave us the Holocaust and the Gulags...mass killing (and add in Mao). Pinker's new book The Blank Slate show how this oddity came into being

I've only read three reviews of the book (all very laudatory) but I think you're absolutely right. All this "New Socialist Man" or "Model Fascist Citizen" shit, implying that human beings can be conditioned into becoming something "better" goes against the solid, sacred bedrock of human nature (or genes, call it what you will).

Though Pinker's eager-beaver scientism also calls into question Rousseau's and others' concept of (wo)man's perfectibility - at the centre of 21st century dogmatics. Which is much more dangerous. Real, old-fashioned, liberal cosmopolitan education is the greatest weapon of civilization we have, no?
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:35 AM on October 7, 2002


putzface: D'oh! Out-ironised!
posted by Grangousier at 9:37 AM on October 7, 2002


I didn't see much new here, if you already know anything about Eliot and the Criterion. My main objection is to treating Eliot as a representative of "traditional Conservatism"; it's like setting Bill Clinton up as an exemplar of post-bop saxophone and comparing him to Joe Henderson or David S. Ware. Poets are poets, not politicos; to the extent they dabble in politics, it is for the same inchoate reasons most people dabble in politics, as opposed to the focused intensity of the politician (for whom it is life, as poetry is for the poet) or the logical clarity of the political scientist (usually much clearer than the phenomena warrant), and it is almost always to the detriment of their poetry (Eliot, Pound, and the wonderful MacDiarmid were all at their best when not riding their political hobbyhorses).
posted by languagehat at 9:52 AM on October 7, 2002


"obscure the fact that conservatives, like Eliot, were a great deal more sympathetic to Fascism."

sympathetic? How? you seem to posit that eliot had to place his "sympathies" with one ideology or another. Eliot had a sexual relationship with Marraus? Perhaps you could expand on this thought? here, I'll venture...

"I may say also that I felt a reluctance to meddle with a matter that concerns another nation than mine. What decided me was Mr. Wards suggestion that the influence of Maurras, indeed the intention of Maurras, is to pervert his disciples and students away from Christianity. I have been a reader of the work of Maurras for eighteen years, upon me has had the exact opposite effect. This is only the evidence of one; but if one can speak, is it not his duty to testify?"

-T.S. Eliot. from his retort to Catholic apologist Leo Ward, 1928.
posted by clavdivs at 10:11 AM on October 7, 2002


Here's a standard version (borne out by After Strange Gods, the book T.S.Eliot never reprinted), from the American Poets website:

"Eliot also gravitated toward the politically conservative (indeed monarchistic), neoclassical, and Catholic writing of Charles Maurras."

It's a well known fact, clavdivs, not a matter of opinion. I love Eliot (and Pound and Céline) as much as you probably do - but you gotta take the rough with the smooth, right? Or left!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:26 AM on October 7, 2002


Since I am only familiar with Eliot from his poetry, trying to extrapolate what his politics might be is a mindwarping exercise in itself. I can think of some rough contemporaries of his (i.e. G K Chesterton, Charles Williams) whose works I have always enjoyed but in whose politics I have zero interest. And sometimes it seems poor Pound's legacy has been completely overwhelmed by his political "insanity".

Great thread, though. And hey, no vitriol or name-calling!
posted by norm29 at 10:50 AM on October 7, 2002


"Eliot also gravitated toward the politically conservative (indeed monarchistic), neoclassical, and Catholic writing of Charles Maurras."


"I have been a reader of the work of Maurras for eighteen years, upon me has had the exact opposite effect."

never said it was opinon, tis a fact.

but i look for the synthesis.

"had the exact opposite effect"
posted by clavdivs at 10:59 AM on October 7, 2002


"I can think of some rough contemporaries of his (i.e. G K Chesterton, Charles Williams) whose works I have always enjoyed but in whose politics I have zero interest"

Well, how about Bertrand Russell, whom was imprisioned, during WWI for his views.
posted by clavdivs at 11:06 AM on October 7, 2002


"The epic of disbelief
Blares oftener and soon, will soon be constant..."

-Wallace Stevens, "Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz"
posted by clavdivs at 11:13 AM on October 7, 2002


Graffitti in Downtown NYC men's room:

Capitalism=Heroin=Addiction to Money

Marxism=Methadone=Addiction to Government

Anarchism=Freedom


I dunno about the last line, but you could subtitle the first two "in the best possible outcome"
posted by jonmc at 11:55 AM on October 7, 2002



Perhaps--in the strictest sense--it's stretching a little to say that Eliot was "sympathetic" to fascism, since as far as I know he never gave his unqualified approval to Action Française or to any other fascist or quasi-fascist organization. However, as the rhetoric of After Strange Gods demostrates, at the very least Eliot at that time expressed opinions which would have been very congenial to Maurras and his crew, however opposite an effect Maurras might have had on him. I believe Eliot regretted this later (to his credit ASG was never reprinted) and I think those lectures are the work of a man under strain, the expression of emotional longings, not ideology; but ultimately there's no distancing him from a certain rhetorical proto-fascism--broadly understood--anymore than you can distance, say, Hemingway, at times, from the communist /socialist left.

Ok, next: will Valerie ever release the next volume of letters?
posted by octobersurprise at 12:14 PM on October 7, 2002


Eliot went all right-wing and insufferable and a bit loopy after he got religion, circa 1930. There's no contradiction between Miguel and clavdivs here, except the one in Eliot's own life. 1910-28, clavdivs is right: nowhere near Maurras. In the early 30s Eliot backed the wrong horse and wrote nothing of merit for most of the decade. I'm surprised Eagleton didn't mention 'Coriolan', which is c. 1935, rubbishy demagoguery and the best primer on how his stagnant political thinking rubbed off elsewhere. What was it that Mussolini wrote? "Fascism, now and always, believes in holiness and in heroism; that is to say, in actions influenced by no economic motive, direct or indirect." Holiness and heroism is very 1930s Eliot, even if statist fascism isn't. At least Auden and MacNeice were there to take up the slack and speak for their generation.
posted by riviera at 12:18 PM on October 7, 2002


What a kickass essay by Eagleton on Fish. I was force-fed Fish in graduate school, which was one of the main reasons why I fled academia for good. It's always amazing to see someone with a real analytic mind take on one of the pseudo-philosophical postmodernists.

Fish's appeals to history are almost always gestural. He means by history something like what Henry Kissinger means by it - that is, as far back as he can remember. This is a pity, since if he had a rather richer sense of the past he might recognise that the universalist liberal principles he abhors were once the last word in iconoclasm.

Go, Terry.
posted by redshoes3 at 12:19 PM on October 7, 2002


What decided me was Mr. Wards suggestion that the influence of Maurras, indeed the intention of Maurras, is to pervert his disciples and students away from Christianity. I have been a reader of the work of Maurras for eighteen years, upon me has had the exact opposite effect

Not to harp on or anything (well...) but what Eliot means here is that Maurras's effect on him is not at all to pervert him away from Christianity but rather to keep him faithful to it. Nothing negative is said about Maurras's influence - quite the opposite.

Maurras was, of course, the main influence on Salazar, who (along with Franco) did weave Fascism and Catholicism together (mentioned by Eagleton as exceptions). I had to read a lot of Maurras for my doctoral thesis (on Lusitanian Integralism, the Portuguese version) and remember how surprised I was by his utter mediocrity and unpleasantness, given the number of outstanding poets and writers that admired him.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 2:34 PM on October 7, 2002


redshoes3: I agree. Thanks for the link, Miguel -- Eagleton's other articles are great too. His piece on Spivak is a joy for anyone who's ever had to wade through the muck of postcolonial theory.
posted by ramakrishna at 8:54 PM on October 7, 2002


"is to pervert his disciples and students away from Christianity...upon me has had the exact opposite effect"



"Maurras's effect on him is not at all to pervert him away from Christianity but rather to keep him faithful to it."

Maurras' intention is another debate. Your not harping. your back peddling.
posted by clavdivs at 6:44 AM on October 8, 2002


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