Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Trilling on T. S. Eliot, I

I have been reading Lionel Trilling’s The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent, (Selected Essays). 

Trilling’s “T. S. Eliot’s Politics is a review of Eliot’s essay “The Idea of a Christian Society.”  I can’t recall whether I read that essay in the days when I was reading a lot of Eliot, but even if I did, I was primarily interested in Eliot’s poetry and what he had to say about other poets; so I wouldn’t have taken him as seriously as Trilling does.  He finds Eliot’s ideas largely flawed, but his reasons for respecting certain of them are interesting.  It will take more than one note to cover them adequately and describe what I find interesting.  This will be the first:

Trilling writes, that Eliot “has found his own most useful affinity with the seventeenth century and the thirteenth.  Yet for all his enmity to Romanticism, his own true place in politics and religion is in the Romantic line of the nineteenth century.  He continues the tradition of Coleridge and, after Coleridge, of Newman, Carlyle, Ruskin and Matthew Arnold – all men who, in the days of Reform, stood out, on something better than reasons of interest, against the philosophical assumptions of materialistic Liberalism. Their very language, if we except Carlyle’s, is commemorated in his prose, and to their thought this book is the tragic coda.

“A century has not seen the establishment of this line of thought, but then neither has that same century seen the dominance, of the thought it opposed.  What we see at the moment is the philosophy of materialism – or the Right, the Left, and the Center – at war with itself.  In that war many of our old notions have become inadequate and many of our old alliances inoperative.  We all of us, from our own feelings, can understand Mr. Eliot when, in giving up The Criterion after his long editorship, he spoke of a ‘depression of spirits so different from any other experience of fifty years as to be a new emotion.’  But a really new emotion implies a modification of all other existing emotions and it requires a whole new world of intellect to accommodate it.  Certainly the old world of those who read what I am now writing cannot give it room.  Indeed, can we say that that old intellectual world of ours any longer exists?  Disordered as it always was, it seems now almost to have vanished.

“I am far from thinking that Mr. Eliot supplies a new world, yet in this trouble time when we are bound to think of eventual reconstructions, I should like to recommend to the attention of readers probably hostile to the religion Mr. Eliot’s religious politics.  I say no more than recommend to the attention:  I certainly do not recommend Mr. Eliot’s ideas to the allegiance.  But here we are, a very small group and quite obscure; our possibility of action is suspended by events; perhaps we have never been more than vocal and perhaps soon we can hope to be no more than thoughtful; our relations with the future are dark and dubious.”

COMMENT:  I’ll say in advance that I don’t consider the Romantic tradition, including that portion of Eliot’s politics that Trilling commends, “the tragic coda.”   The emphasis upon morality is found in many of Christopher Hitchens best essays, for example.  Our world is not the world of 1940 in which Trilling wrote his essay.  The practical battle with the materialism of the Left (Communism) and of the Right (Fascism) has taken place.  The practical materialism of the Center (Liberal Democracy) has been left victorious for the most part, but the philosophical battles are still going on.  Only vestiges of Communism remain but Socialism lives on.  It is interesting that Hitchens until very recently considered himself a Socialist, but the “immorality” (in Hitchens’ terms) of his friends on the Left as they refused to denounce and oppose as evil a man as Hitchens ever encountered (Saddam Hussein) caused him to abandon them.  Hitchens denounced and opposed Saddam Hussein and in doing so moved away from the philosophical materialism of the Left. 

While the philosophical Right no longer exists in the Fascist sense, Hitchens found Henry Kissinger’s Realpolitik close enough.  There was no excuse (in Hitchens’ view) for the US ever to accommodate tyrannous leaders in order to promote National Interest.  Hitchens wasn’t thoroughgoing in a philosophical sense.  I doubt he would say that Morality should trump National interest in every case for every nation, but the U.S. during Kissinger’s time didn’t need to befriend nations led by evil leaders in order to preserve America’s interests.  Kissinger assumed the USSR was going to remain in existence indefinitely and dealt with them accordingly.  Hitchens believed Kissinger’s realpolitik immoral.

An emphasis upon morality in politics hasn’t ended.  For example, Jimmy Carter’s antipathy toward the Shah of Iran is denounced as naïve and a colossal blunder from the standpoint of practical politics, which it undoubtedly was, but he was given a mandate to bring morality back into the office of the presidency and he erred in a manner of speaking on the side of morality.  From our perspective the Shah was evil but the Ayatollah Khomeini was a much greater evil.  Had Carter had our present perspective, he could have encouraged the Shah to stay in power as the lesser of two evils and therefore the most moral decision under the circumstances.

Also, Reagan didn’t apply realpolitik when he called for Gorbachev to “tear down that wall.”  There are always multiple reasons for such decisions so we can’t say that morality was the only one, but we can say that Reagan’s call for Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall was a call for Gorbachev to perform that moral act. 

While no one in politics wants to be accused of immorality, Trilling writes that none of the major political positions provided a definition of “morality.”  Eliot as we shall see did provide a definition, and for that Trilling commends him.

While not on the main point, it is noteworthy to read Trilling describing the people who would be reading his essay and thinking about it as “a very small group and quite obscure.”  He was correct.  Those who could afford the education, time and leisure to write and think about these matters were very small in number.  But a few years later returning veterans began filling up the colleges and that number increased dramatically.  I am in this category myself having had my education paid for by the G. I. Bill after the Korean War.  Without these Bills many of us might have had the raw intelligence, but it took educators like Trilling to tell us to look here!  Look at this!  This is important!  And so we looked, and even if we didn’t quite agree with him, he narrowed our interest.  He added to our collection of ideas, and had we been utterly on our own we would have been denied his experience and not been inducted into what in 1940 had only been a small group “dark and dubious.” 

Not that any of us as it thoroughly all together.  Such a condition isn’t possible.  We are involved, whatever our political view is, in a process, and as we consider what might be “moral” or “immoral” it will be useful to consider Eliot’s definition.

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