Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Drifting in the stream

Joseph Epstein, in the current issue of Commentary, an essay about T.S. Eliot's life, art, and criticism. There was a time when this literary figure had the status of celebrity: "The fame Eliot achieved in his lifetime is unfathomable for a poet, or indeed any American or English writer, in our day. In 1956, Eliot lectured on 'The Function of Criticism' in a gymnasium at the University of Minnesota to a crowd estimated at 15,000 people." In our day, this would be even more remarkable for someone who defined himself as “Anglo-Catholic in religion, classicist in literature, and royalist in politics.” Epstein concludes with Eliot's assessment of "literary culture," the health of which has only deteriorated since:
...[L]iterary culture is, I believe, shutting down chiefly because literature itself has become unimportant: what is being created in contemporary novels, poems, and plays no longer speaks to the heart or mind.

Eliot spoke to this point, too. He did so most incisively in his essay “Religion and Literature.” There Eliot reminds us that the “greatness of literature cannot be determined solely by literary standards.” Ethical, theological, and moral standards must contribute to such determinations. Criticism can only be effective where there is agreement on these other standards, and in his day, he claimed, “there is no common agreement.” If an arguable proposition about Eliot’s day, it is unarguable in our own.

Eliot held that “moral judgments of literary works are made only according to the moral code accepted by each generation.” Obviously the code changes from generation to generation. Some take this regular change as equivalent to progress, as over the generations we jollily make our way to perfectibility. For Eliot, such regular change “is only evidence of what insubstantial foundations people’s moral judgments have.” He also believed that “those who read at all, read so many more books by living authors than books by dead authors; there was never a time so completely parochial, so shut off from the past.”

Writers, in his view, tend to be not much better than general readers: “The majority of novelists are persons drifting in the stream, only a little faster. They have some sensitiveness, but little intellect.” He doesn’t speak of poets, but, considering the vast quantity of them being turned out by contemporary MFA programs, he could scarcely have thought the poets of our time as other than in an equally irrelevant stream of their own.

For Eliot, literature was a moral enterprise, but moral in a way that purely secular moralists—the moralists of economics, of social science, of contemporary politics—cannot hope to grasp. He wasn’t accusing modern writers of immorality, or even amorality, but of ignorance “of our most fundamental and important beliefs; and that in consequence [contemporary literature’s] tendency is to encourage its readers to get what they can out of life while it lasts, to miss no ‘experience’ that presents itself, and to sacrifice themselves, if they make any sacrifice at all, only for the sake of tangible benefits to others in this world either now or in the future.” Not, any of this, good enough. .... [more - probably behind a subscription wall]
T.S. Eliot and the Demise of the Literary Culture