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When US president Ronald Reagan called actor John Wayne a “great American,” a critic offered that Wayne merely played great Americans, or rather, one might add, the sort of people Reagan thought were great Americans.
A solecism of the same kind is Professor Gertrude Himmelfarb’s praise for the late Lionel Trilling as “the most eminent intellectual figure of his time” in the February 14 Weekly Standard. Trilling merely wrote about great intellects, or rather, one might add, the sort of people Himmelfarb thinks were great intellects. John Wayne played Davy Crockett, the Tennessee adventurer, while Trilling wrote about T. S. Eliot, the Anglo-Catholic modernist.
By chance, the Weekly Standard website posted Himmelfarb’s souvenir, “The Trilling Imagination,” just as my excoriation of T. S. Eliot (Dead Peoples Society) appeared on February 14. She is married to Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of neo-conservatism; their son is Weekly Standard editor William Kristol. I had dismissed Eliot as the junkyard dog of 20th-century Catholic culture, a syncretist who looked through High Church forms to the paganism underneath.
In the paranoid imagination of left-wing critics, the neo-conservatives form a network of Leo Strauss acolytes infiltrating the United States’ seat of power, and guide the world’s only superpower into imperialist adventures. On the contrary, they are fighting political and cultural battles of a past generation which neither were won nor lost, but merely became irrelevant. Like T. S. Eliot, the neo-conservatives play at faith rather than live in the world of faith, a stance that eliminates their relevance to a world in which faith politics dominate.
Himmelfarb’s fascination with Eliot is illustrative. “I was a budding Trotskyite in college,” she writes, “when I came across Trilling’s 1940 essay on T. S. Eliot in Partisan Review. I had read only a few of Eliot’s poems … but I had never read Eliot’s essays … [I] was, however, a faithful reader of Partisan Review, which was, in effect, the intellectual and cultural organ of Trotskyites (or crypto-Trotskyites, or ex-Trotskyites, or more broadly, the anti-Stalinist Left).” The most tangible legacy of Partisan Review was art critic Clement Greenberg’s promotion of Jackson Pollock, which made respectable the random splattering of paint by an inebriated boor.
T. S. Eliot was an ex-Trotskyite’s idea of what a religious conservative must look like, and that is how he appeared to Lionel Trilling then, and still to Professor Himmelfarb today. The circumstance recalls the wife of Aldous Huxley, who remarked that he was a stupid man’s idea of what a clever man looked like. Eliot was a ragpicker of defunct cultures, and an convert out of love for religious syncretism. He was not believer, but with ichthyic frigidity believed in the need for belief.
To Himmelfarb, Eliot’s 1939 essay “The Idea of a Christian Society” was the antipode to Marxism. Eliot writes: “The fundamental objection to fascist doctrine, the one which we conceal from ourselves because it might condemn ourselves as well, is that it is pagan.” Writes Himmelfarb:
Where others found Eliot interesting in spite of his politics, Trilling found him interesting because of his politics: a politics not only conservative but religious, and not only religious but identifiably Christian. And this, to readers who were, as Trilling said in his usual understated manner, “probably hostile to religion” (and many of whom, he might have added, like himself, were Jewish). Where John Stuart Mill had cited Coleridge’s On the Constitution of Church and State as a corrective to Benthamism, Lionel Trilling recommended Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society as a corrective to Marxism.
That is well and good, but what is it that Eliot considers to be Christian? In his 1948 essay, “Notes Towards the Definition of Culture,” he writes that “bishops are a part of English culture, and horses and dogs are a part of English religion.”
There is an aspect in which we can see a religion as the whole way of life of a people [emphasis original], from birth to grave, from morning to night and even in sleep, and that way of life is also its culture … It includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the 12th of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, 19th-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar. The reader can make his own list. And then we have to face the strange idea that what is part of our culture is also a part of our lived religion.
There are religions, to be sure, that are indistinguishable from the morning-to-night activity of a people; as I wrote on another occasion, the Shi’ite Islam of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is one of these (Why Islam baffles America, April 16, 2004). Christianity is not one of these. It is not a folk-religion, rooted in the popular culture of a people. On the contrary: Christianity is a reproach to the daily life of the people, as radical as the commandments of Moses were to the Israelites corrupted by the paganism of Egypt.
To confound religion with culture is consistent, though, with Eliot’s artistic method. “What attracted Eliot to [Anglo-]Catholicism,” I wrote last week, “was not so much the religious content, but the fact that Catholicism allows the corpses of ancient pagan cultures to stare up through the still waters of the Church. Nostalgia for dead cultures, their songs, myths and legends, was the raw material for the poetry of a generation that already had seen the apocalypse of Western culture in World War I.”
To put matters another way: Christianity is “what T. S. Eliot almost believed,” in the felicitous title of a critique by Joseph Bottum, now the Weekly Standard’s literary editor. Eliot “has confused the experience of faith with the experience of God – or at least he has confused his own waiting for faith with the faithful’s waiting for God,” wrote Bottum, quoting Eliot:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and love and hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
“This,” Bottum concluded, “is not faith’s difficult search for understanding, but understanding’s impossible search for faith. And all that remains for the poet is a delicate, esthetic, self-conscious almost-spirituality – a detached and wistful watching of himself, watching himself, watching.”
T. S. Eliot, Bottum observes, made religion respectable for the avant-garde:
For an entire generation of believers Eliot stood as an icon and his faith as a watchword. Born to an age of avant-garde art and thought that defined itself most clearly by its rejection of faith in God, Eliot with his gradual – and public – conversion made it respectable again for believers to believe.
Respectability for the avant-garde explains why the likes of Lionel Trilling would take Eliot as an icon of religious conservatism. Trilling and the intellectuals of Partisan Review remained enthralled by the cleverness of their own paint-splatterings in cultural matters. Unfortunately, they did not like the consequences of paint-spattering in the field of politics – although it must be said in all fairness that Adolf Hitler was a much better painter than Jackson Pollock, the Frankenstein monster created by the Partisan Review.
Modernism no longer matters. The obscurantism of Eliot’s poetry, the cacophony of Arnold Schoenberg’s music, the random idiocies of Jackson Pollock’s painting and their ilk have eroded the popular audience for modern poetry, music and painting. Popular religion has found its own art forms, and has simply left the High Modernists behind like the bleached bones of oxen at the side of the trail westward. Those who play at faith, like Eliot, or for that matter the neo-conservatives, simply are not part of today’s discussion.
The Partisan Review refugees cannot give their fixation with High Modernism, which believed that clever artists can reinvent their medium at will and impose new forms upon the unwashed public. The same narcissism underlies their obsession with Thomas Hobbes and Niccolo Machiavelli, that is, with the enlightened political science of manipulation. Time has long since passed them by. What men believe down to their pores and capillaries, because they can believe nothing else and still face the morrow, is the great force in today’s politics.
As I wrote about the Straussians previously (Why radical Islam might defeat the West, July 8, 2003):
Strauss has become something of a bore. The good professor (I mean this sincerely) hung his political-science hat on Hobbes, who threw out the traditional concept of God-given rights of man. He derived the social contract instead from man’s brute instinct for self-preservation … History exposes Hobbes’s “self-preservation instinct” as a chimera. If men have no more than physical self-preservation, self-disgust will stifle them.