T.S. Eliot is doubtless one of the supreme artists of the Twentieth Century—a literary genius who could evoke more in a single stanza than some writers can muster in a volume. His influence was obviously, and deservedly, profound. Yet his sensibility is so stridently anti-human, and his reactionary ideas so horrifying, that one can take him at most in little doses—which, I’m sorry to say, I did not know during my college years, when he was poured into my brain as through a funnel.
Eliot’s anti-Semitism has rightly been the subject of much criticism (most brilliantly by Emanuel Litvinoff), but it would be too hasty to leave it at that. Eliot did not just hate Jews. He hated what he thought the Jews represented: modernity, cosmopolitanism, the society of dynamism, change, and discovery. They represented zivilisation over kultur. Above all, Eliot hated humanity and being human. And he hated man not for his faults but for his virtues. His religion was a way of elevating this contempt for human beings into something he could call respectable—simultaneously a rationale and a rationalization. But at bottom, Eliot was a poet of hate for precisely those things that make man the good thing that he is. Politically, Eliot was a theocratic fascist. “I think that the virtue of tolerance is greatly overestimated,” he wrote. “I have no objection to being called a bigot myself.” But his politics was not an extraneous quirk. It was an inextricable element of his hatred of those things that make human life special. While other Romanticists (Eliot was but a modern Romanticist) had long scorned science and reason for taking the mystique out of life, for Eliot this notion reached an aesthetic nadir. It was at the hands of German fascists that the same sensibility simultaneously reached its political nadir.
No poem illustrates his detestation of man better than “Lune de Miel” (Honeymoon), an English translation of which can be found here. This poem aims his disgust at a couple on their wedding night, who, “at ease / Between two sheets in the home of two hundred bugs, / The sweat of summer, and the smell of a bitch in heat,” will “lie on their backs and spread apart the knees / Of four sticky legs all swollen with bites.” As Rossell Hope Robbins observes in his magnificent book, The T.S. Eliot Myth, “what is for the majority of people the most ennobling experience in life, the glory and dignity of married love,” is depicted here as a revolting affair of sweat, stench, and fleas. Contrast that with a work by one of the great poets of worldly joy and eroticism, E.E. Cummings. Cummings, like Eliot, dwells on sensory detail. But what to Eliot is sleazy is for Cummings a brilliant and living joy.
This is not just a cruelly chosen contrast taken out of context. Eliot’s writing is—with rare exceptions like Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats—almost uniformly a poetry devoid of, or actually attacking, human joy. He writes at times promises of a kind of ascetic redemption in the future, but even this is a pale gauze behind which stands a view that Robbins rightly calls “a philosophy of death.” Eliot’s divine is not a joyous onward-and-upward, but the capacity to accept one’s place in the perpetual hierarchy.
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
I’ve said that Eliot did not merely hate human life, but that he hated man for his virtues. This is made clearest by Murder in The Cathedral, when Becket reaches the moment of greatest insight. The point of this play is the inculcation of guilt, made most explicit when, after the murder, the knights break the fourth wall and explain to the audience that really the audience is to blame for Becket’s death. But most notable is Becket’s realization of his own sin, shortly before the interlude. Here Becket discovers that his sin is the sin of pride: the sin of trying to be a good person for the sake of being a good person, rather than out of a purgation of the self entire. This is “the greatest treason,” because it is doing the right thing for the wrong reason. What’s that wrong reason? It’s a kind of ambition to be the best person you can be: it is this quality of desire for distinction and achievement—for achievement of the good, mind you—that is Becket’s sin:
The natural vigor in the venial sin
Is the way in which our lives begin. [Note, again, the contempt for sex]
Thirty years ago, I searched all the ways
That lead to pleasure, advancement and praise.
Delight in sense, in learning and in thought,
Music and philosophy, curiosity,
The purple bullfinch and the lilac tree,
The tiltyard skill, the strategy of chess,
Love in the garden, singing to the instrument,
Were all things equally desirable.
But now Becket realizes that worse even than enjoying lilacs and music is the ambition to be good, rather than meekly to submit. This makes
Sin grow with doing good.
Becket then realizes that what he ought to seek is not to be the best person he can be, but to resign himself. Resignation is all, and the key to resignation is to accept guilt. Guilt not merely for loving music, philosophy, and curiosity, but for loving virtue and desiring to do good. Guilt, ultimately, for existing.
It is not for me to dispute whether this is a fair account of Christianity. Be that how it may, Eliot’s religion is not a celebration of a world created by God with the possibility of a reward for those who do good. It is a dreary, medieval anti-humanism—“a lifetime's death in love, / Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender” being one’s only reward. At the end of the long road is nothing but submission. This world is so awful that April is the “cruelest month” precisely because it stirs the lilacs up to life. This is poetry as mortification of the flesh, and the most Eliot can offer us is not joy, which is an activity, but permanent, eternal stillness: “Shantih shantih shantih.” One is tempted to say that Eliot hated man much more than God ever did.
Cummings, by contrast, did not think all poems were epitaphs. He, too, had his flaws—he shared a significant amount of Eliot’s Romanticist enmity for the modern. But he relished life, and saw it as partly his job to say so:
you shall above all things be glad and young
For if you're young, whatever life you wear
it will become you;and if you are glad
whatever’s living will yourself become.
Girlboys may nothing more than boygirls need:
i can entirely her only love
whose any mystery makes every man’s
flesh put space on;and his mind take off time
that you should ever think,may god forbid
and (in his mercy) your true lover spare:
for that way knowledge lies,the foetal grave
called progress,and negation’s dead undoom.
I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance
Eliot’s career was about teaching every star how not to dance.