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  When Longenbach provides this excerpt from an unpublished essay of Eliot’s, it becomes amazing that he didn’t murder anyone: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.


Quotable remarks from right-wing commentators

From Heather Mac Donald:

I haven’t subjected myself to much right-wing talk radio and TV recently, so I don’t know whether the Obama-haters have made the predictable flip-flop.  Having opposed Obama’s ultimate verbal support for the Egyptian protesters (an opposition not based on any a priori principle regarding the proper deference due to Middle Eastern dictators, but simply on the rule: whatever Obama does is wrong), the right-wing media, if they were suddenly to become guided by reason, should now be supporting Obama’s caution towards Libya.  Because such backing for Obama’s Libyan diplomacy would represent principle and consistency, I can only suppose that the right is now blasting him for not siccing the American military on Libya. (Secular Right)

From James Matthew Wilson:

According to [T. S.] Eliot, Stoicism is a trans-historical phenomenon that emerges when persons become so alienated from all community that they become incapable of fulfilling their political natures and feel thrown back upon themselves.  Lacking the communal resources to pursue a good life in this world or the next, they conceive of the private reason as the only place where happiness might be “made.”  Pierre Hadot describes this ancient Stoic condition with elegant simplicity.  For the Stoic, the Cosmos consists of an already realized and determined rational order.  Morality consists simply in the assent of reason to that order; one is good if one’s reason accepts that order’s course.  The logical exercises of Stoic life consist in a constant disciplining of the reason, a training to see the rational order of things as they are and to accept them.  This involves stripping away all possible projections from one’s own mind to see the bare order of things.  Hadot cites Marcus Aurelius, for instance, who trained himself to conceive of the act of making love as the simple brushing and bumping of bodily parts.  Stripped of all “anthropomorphic” or “subjective” “sentiment,” one sees things for what they are and accepts them.  This, for the Stoic, is “happiness.” (Front Porch Republic)

From Jim Goad:

I feel sorry for you if you aren’t entertained by people who say things such as Jews “hate God and worship the rectum,” the Catholic Church is “the largest, most well-funded and organized pedophile group in the history of man,” and that “Mohammed was a demon-possessed whoremonger and pedophile who contrived a 300-page work of Satanic fiction.” I find it so funny, I paused to laugh while typing it. If you can make it from 2:35-3:20 of this video without so much as a titter, I’ll pray to the Lord to give you a funny bone. (Taki’s Magazine)


Some interesting things from the web

1. Al Wood, proprietor of the magnificent Ukulele Hunt, disclaims any interest in politics, but he has a post up about copyright law that everyone should read.  He calls for a scrapping of the 95-year term of protection that is now standard in the developed world, and a return to the once-standard renewable 14 year term.

2. Some CT scans subject a patient to the radiation equivalent of 900 chest X-rays.  Several years ago, I heard the physicist Joseph Rotblat explain why he’d become an activist against the testing of nuclear weapons:

People began getting worried about all these tests.  In order to pacify the people, the Atomic Energy Commission issued a statement- this was the beginning of 1955- saying you didn’t need to worry at all about the fallout because the dose which people in the United States received from the tests was not more than from a chest X-ray.

Most people didn’t know how much radiation you get from a chest X-ray.  I knew… [A]fter this statement, I thought this was terribly dangerous.

3. A new article about T S Eliot in Commentary asks “But might it be allowed that one can write or say anti-Semitic things without being an anti-Semite? Eliot is guilty of the former, but does not, I think, stand guilty of the latter.”  The major theme of the piece is the great difficulty his Calvinist heritage left the Tse-Tse in his attempts to enjoy life.  Certainly a man who made several well-publicized anti-Semitic remarks, then earnestly declared anti-Semitism to be a sin, would seem to be an example of someone not having fun.

4. Seats in the US Senate are not apportioned by population, with the result that a candidate can lose by a landslide in one state, while candidates in other states can receive fewer votes and win elections.


The return of The American Conservative

It’s been quite a few weeks since the appearance of the October 2010 issue of my favorite “Old Right” read, The American Conservative; I’d begun to fear that it would have no successor.  That particularly bothered me, as people who really should know better had in the interval set out to deny that an anti-militarist Right had ever existed.  Fortunately, the December issue is now up.

Highlights include George Scialabba’s piece on T. S. Eliot’s “revolutionary conservatism,” Justin Raimondo’s analysis of the Obama administration’s devastating impact on the antiwar Left that did so much to elect Mr O, and Bill Kauffman’s argument that the professional classes in the USA do not merely accept rootlessness and social isolation, but that they insist on it as a qualification for membership.  There is of course a heartfelt eulogy for the late Joseph Sobran, full of praise for Sobran’s principled antiwar conservatism, his quick wit, and his deep learning, though a bit skimpy on his rather less appealing habit of hobnobbing with Holocaust-deniers (a habit at least mentioned in this post on the magazine’s website.) 

Stephen Baskerville’s piece about gender-neutral marriage bears the promising title “Divorced from Reality: Don’t Blame Gays for the Decline of Marriage.”  Baskerville argues that “marriage creates fatherhood.”  Unlike Germaine Greer, who argued in The Female Eunuch that women should rise up against marriage in order to revoke “the gift of paternity” that the institution unjustifiably gave men, Baskerville sees in the social creation of paternity the chief justification for marriage.   He opposes gender-neutral marriage, as with much greater vehemence he opposes liberal divorce laws, precisely because such reforms threaten to deprive patriarchy of its charter.

Ash Wednesday

No juniper tree

No juniper tree

T. S. Eliot was a student of Irving Babbitt’s at Harvard.  Afterward, Eliot often claimed to be a disciple of Babbitt’s.  “Once to have been a student of Babbitt’s was to remain always in that position,” Eliot wrote.  Eliot sent letters to Babbitt under the salutation “Dear Master.”  Babbitt never answered any of these letters.  Babbitt never made it clear whether he was repelled by “Dear Master” or he disliked Eliot for some other reason. 

Be that as it may, in 1989-1990 I spent a good deal of my time reading books by Babbitt and his circle of followers.  Since Eliot was the most famous of those who wished for admission to that circle, part of that time I studied Eliot.  My favorite of his poems is “Ash Wednesday.”  Today is Ash Wednesday.  So:


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 agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?