The Nation, 26 September 2011

James Longenbach contributes a surprisingly sympathetic review of a collection of letters by the young T. S. Eliot.  Longenbach argues that Eliot’s Unitarian family made a fetish of doubt and complexity, and that the aspects of Eliot’s life and thought that puzzled them came from a rebellion against this fetish, against “the Eliot Way.”  Eliot rebelled against what he called “the Way of Doubt” by time and again taking actions that entailed an irrevocable commitment.  As Longenbach puts it:

In retrospect, all of the momentous events in Eliot’s life were determined by a moment of awful daring. In 1933 he left Vivien as abruptly as he had married her, and his decisions to enter the Church of England and, many years later, to marry his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, were similarly nurtured in complete secrecy and subsequently revealed to a world in which even close friends were baffled by Eliot’s behavior, left feeling as if they had never known him. To Eliot’s Unitarian family, a conversion to Anglo-Catholicism seemed as explicable as an initiation into a cult.

Considering this disposition of Eliot’s, and in view of his time and place, it is nothing short of amazing that he did not join the Blackshirts.  When Longenbach provides this excerpt from an unpublished essay of Eliot’s, it becomes amazing that he didn’t murder anyone:

In Gopsum Street a man murders his mistress. The important fact is that for the man the act is eternal, and that for the brief space he has to live, he is already dead. He is already in a different world from ours. He has crossed the frontier. The important fact that something is done which cannot be undone—a possibility which none of us realize until we face it ourselves. For the man’s neighbors the important fact is what the man killed her with? And at precisely what time? And who found the body?… But the medieval world, insisting on the eternity of punishment, expressed something nearer the truth.

The man’s neighbors, in their fascination with the details of the crime, might easily fall into a psychological or other scientific explanation of the killer’s motivation, which would in turn reduce the crime itself to the ordinary level of everyday life.  The medieval view insists that murder, like other sin, is not ordinary, that it is a thing set apart from the created world around us.  Eliot may not have craved murder, but he did crave that sort of setting apart.  For him, it was a lie to say that the whole world is one thing and that it can be reduced to one set of laws.  Eliot’s onetime teacher Irving Babbitt was fond of quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lines, “There are two laws discrete,/ not reconciled–/ Law for man and law for thing;/ The last builds town and fleet,/ But it runs wild,/ And doth the man unking… Let man serve law for man,/ Live for friendship, live for love,/ For truth’s and harmony’s behoof;/ The state may follow how it can,/ As Olympus follows Jove.”  These lines come from a poem Emerson dedicated to W. H. Channing.  W. H. Channing was the nephew of Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing, and like Emerson was himself a Unitarian preacher.  The Channings, Eliots, and Emersons were all related to each other, so Eliot likely perked up when he heard Babbitt quote these lines.

While Emerson may have concluded that the “Law for Man” is best observed by general friendliness, Babbitt drew a more sobering conclusion.  In his first book, Literature and the American College (which takes the lines from Emerson as its epigraph,) Babbitt explained that he called himself a “humanist” rather than a “humanitarian” because the former word suggests a more selective sympathy than does the latter.  One can see the humanitarian impulse, in Babbitt’s sense of the word, in the neighbors’ insistent focus on the practical details of the murder, in the implication that the act of murder can be reduced to those details, that it can therefore be put on a level with other acts a person might perform.  The humanitarian impulse thus reduces even murder to one form of behavior among many.  In an age dominated by humanitarianism, murder loses its terror.  The word “mystery” comes to mean, not that of which one may not speak because it lies outside the ordinary realm of our experience, but that of which one must inquire until it can be reduced to the ordinary realm of our experience.  The “murder mystery,” a story in which investigation reveals that a murder was of a piece with the ordinary life around it, thus emerges as the signature genre of the humanitarian age.

Longenbach doesn’t mention Babbitt, through the study of whom I first became seriously interested in Eliot.  Nor does he mention Eliot’s Royalist politics, one of the aspects of Eliot’s thought that kept Babbitt from taking his former student seriously.  However, I was thinking of Eliot the Royalist earlier today, when I offered a comment on the website Secular Right.  A post there complained about a speech Prince Charles had made about global warming.  As rightists, the authors of the site aren’t much interested in speeches about global warming; as secularists, when they hear such a speech from the heir apparent to a throne which sits at the center of the established Church of England, they are quick to attribute it to a yearning for the apocalyptic.  For good measure, the post threw in an identification of the prince as an “aristocratic idler.”  I suggested in reply that this yearning might be a sign that the House of Windsor is an unsatisfactory sort of monarchy:

It might be better if Prince Charles truly were an “aristocratic idler.” As it is, his handlers set myriad tasks for him each day, among them the delivery of public statements that reassure various groups that their concerns are being taken seriously at the highest levels of the state. This frees the people who actually exercise power at the highest levels of the state to ignore those concerns. If the prince and his immediate family were relieved of this chore and their other public functions, they would have an opportunity to withdraw into seclusion, appearing only on those occasions when they might strike awe into the natives. Then the UK might have a proper monarchy, distant, godlike, surrounded by an aura of high majesty and cold terror. Then there would be no need for the heir apparent to repeat warnings about the end of the world; the sound of his name would suffice to fill the people who find such warnings emotionally satisfying with the dread they crave. Failing that, you might as well have a republic.

Walter Bagehot said that there can be arguments for having a splendid court and arguments for having no court, but that there can be no arguments for having a shabby court. I’d say that there can be arguments for having a terrifying king and arguments for having no king, but that there can be no arguments for having an unrelentingly ordinary sort of person as king.

I call Charles “an unrelentingly ordinary sort of person,” not only because his statement is a pack of cliches, but also because of his busy-ness and because he is so familiar a figure.  Irving Babbitt criticized the cult of busy-ness in his own time as something that robbed life of depth; today, the same cult has gone to such extremes that it has reduced people to interchangeability.  By the end of the day, virtually anyone who had completed Prince Charles’ schedule would be indistinguishable from Prince Charles.  And his constant presence in the public eye makes it impossible to accept the prince as a figure embodying any kind of mystique.   As humanitarianism has made murder an ordinary act, albeit a costly one, and murderers ordinary folk, so too it has made kingship an ordinary job and kings ordinary fellows.  I don’t disagree with the Secular Right crowd that there is an unwholesome yearning for the apocalyptic afoot in our time; though perhaps that yearning is in fact simply a yearning for an event that will cast ordinariness aside once and for all.

Babbitt also came to my mind when I read a post on the Nation‘s blog, “The Notion,” about  the end of the Jerry Lewis Telethon.  I should explain that every year since the early 1960s, comedian Jerry Lewis has occupied a bloc of several hours of television time, ending on the morning of the first Monday in September (Labor Day in the USA.)  During that time, a variety of entertainment acts would perform; in between acts, Lewis and others would solicit funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.  Lewis made his name as a comedian by mocking people with spastic conditions, so one would think that he was doing penance by raising money for research into Muscular Dystrophy, though he never seems to have made the connection.  What he did do was present people with Muscular Dystrophy as helpless objects of pity; the archetypal moment of the telethon came in 1973 when he held up a child with Muscular Dystrophy and said “God goofed, it’s up to us to correct his mistakes.”  Not everyone with Muscular Dystrophy was happy to be declared one of God’s mistakes, nor did all of them enjoy wearing the label “Jerry’s Kids.”  For more than 20 years, the pitying, patronizing tone of the telethon has inspired people with Muscular Dystrophy to protest outside the theater and around the country.  While the Muscular Dystrophy Association, funded largely by the telethon, does a great deal of good, many of its best programs have taken their direction from people who object most strongly to Lewis and his maudlin display.  The post expresses relief that the telethon is finally ending.

Again, I would say that what made the telethon so hard to take was its denial of mystery, of mystery in the sense of a realm apart from the ordinary.  People with Muscular Dystrophy suffer and die, and in their physical aspects those experiences are a brutally ordinary affair of deterioration and destruction.  But when people show respect to each other, they agree to look at each other not only in terms of the biological processes that are inexorably carrying all of them to death and decomposition, but also in terms of the stories they tell about themselves, of the roles they play in the groups that matter to them, and of the effects they hope to have on the world.  The idea of a “law for man,” of a realm apart from the ordinary processes of matter and energy, can give such stories and roles and hopes an urgency that the worldview which Babbitt would call humanitarian cannot.  That isn’t to say that every materialist is doomed to be as big a jerk as Jerry Lewis, or that every dualist will as a matter of course keep a humane perspective when meeting someone who has a visible disability, of course.  But it may help to explain why Lewis and his apologists were sincerely unable to understand what he was doing wrong.

Babbitt cared enormously about Socrates, often listing him alongside the Buddha and Jesus as the three greatest men who ever lived.  So if this issue of The Nation were to have fallen into his hands, Babbitt would likely have turned directly to Emily Wilson’s review of Bettany Hughes’ The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens, and the Search for the Good Life.  Bettany Hughes has become a bit of an industry; an Oxford-trained classicist, she has presented many television popularizations of classical scholarship and written books tied in with them.  Partly this may be a consequence of her marriage to television producer Adrian Evans, partly to her looks (YouTube’s suggestion, when you begin typing in “Bettany Hughes,” is “Bettany Hughes hot.”)  Still, I don’t doubt that Michael Grant and Rex Warner and Gilbert Murray and Edith Hamilton and Erasmus and all the other popularizers of the classical tradition over the years had their own ways of gaining position, and I’ve found some of her videos useful.  So I don’t begrudge her the fame and fortune she has reaped.

Wilson is bemused by the Bettany Hughes industry.  And she has some harsh words for this book:

The Hemlock Cup is not a biography of Socrates. Nor is it a book for a specialist, or one that any reader, specialist or not, will want to take slowly. Hughes has nothing to say about Socrates that is not pure cliché: Socrates was “a maverick,” “individual to his core,” “very human,” somebody with a “radical” and “refreshing” “take on the issues of life,” and who “decided to pursue not just the what, but the why.” In general the prose limps along from dangling modifiers to dramatic, verbless sentences to one-sentence paragraphs. Socrates, inspired by his daimonion, was “Rapt. Lost in his own mind.” Vivid. Also annoying. The first sentence of the introduction—“We think the way we do because Socrates thought the way he did”—is, as it stands, clearly false, though you can roughly understand its meaning. There are lots of sentences like that, which one can easily imagine Socrates himself, on a mean day, tearing to shreds.

Readers of Plato may be surprised to learn from Hughes that “Socrates did not believe in or deal with abstracts.” In dialogues such as Laches, Lysis and Euthyphro, Socrates is ostensibly concerned with nothing but the attempt to define the “abstracts” of courage, friendship and holiness. This Socrates may not be a historical character, but Hughes gives no indication of whether, or why or how, she mistrusts Plato as a source. Her use of textual evidence is also sketchy. No sources are given for the injunction “Understand yourself by loving those around you”; one might well doubt that either the historical or the Platonic Socrates held any such belief. Readers may puzzle over what it means to say that “Socrates believed humanity was society”—unless it’s just a rhetorical way of saying that Socrates, like everybody else, knew that people are social. Surely it doesn’t take the wisest man in the world to figure that out.

Treating an academic book, Wilson might stop there.  However, she realizes that Hughes is aiming to introduce Socrates to a general audience, and so praises Hughes’ “television-presenter’s eye for visual detail” that may not offer much to a professor of Greek, but that does make the Athens of Socrates seem more real to a reader with no special background in the subject.

Babbitt’s best friend was Paul Elmer More, who edited The Nation from 1909 to 1914.  After his retirement from journalism, More devoted himself to literary criticism and the history of philosophy.  More coined the phrase “the Inner Check” based on his conversations with Babbitt and his reading of Plato’s Apology.  This phrase expresses an idea which many have regarded as the central metaphysical proposition of the school associated with Babbitt and More.  The idea is that the ancients, including Socrates, the Buddha, and most other sages of pre-Christian Europe and Asia, believed in free will, but that they believed that will to be solely a capacity for negation.  Babbitt, responding to Henri Bergson’s philosophy of the élan vital, preferred the term frein vital to More’s “Inner Check,” but meant the same thing by it.  Since so many wise men in such a wide variety of societies had arrived at this conclusion, Babbitt and More reasoned, it would be unreasonable to reject it.

So, it should be clear what Babbitt and More would have thought of a scholar who interpreted Socrates’ message as “Understand yourself by loving those around you,” and even clearer what they would have thought of one who said that the daimonion, which as More pointed out is Socrates’ term for the sensation that he ought not to do a particular thing, would lead him to be “lost in his own mind.”  On the contrary, More argued that it was precisely this sensation that kept Socrates focused when others around him were losing their way in the confusions of his time.

Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: