Thursday, May 17, 2012

C. S. Lewis vs. T. S. Eliot: Why the Eliotolatry Ought to Stop (1)

Here begins the first in a series of installments meant to lay out C. S. Lewis’ voluminous and multi-faceted case against T. S. Eliot and the malignant Eliotolatry let loose by, of all folks, American conservatives who, ostensibly at least, contend for the worthy and permanent things in Western culture and who ought to know better.
This excerpt comes from a letter by Lewis to Paul Elmer More dated May 23, 1935 from Oxford.  The text is drawn from Walter Hooper’s magisterial edition of The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis (vol. 2, pp. 163-4.)  I follow it with a few explanatory notes and a synopsis of Lewis’ complaints, keyed to citations I have enclosed in brackets in the text. 

“There may be many reasons why you do not share my dislike of Eliot, but I hardly know why you should be surprised at it.  On p. 154 of the article on Joyce [1] you yourself refer to him as a ‘great genius expending itself on the propagation of irresponsibility’.  To me the great genius is not apparent:  The other thing is.  Surely it is natural that I should regard Eliot’s work as a very great evil.  He is the very spearhead of that attack on peras [i. e. proper limitations] which you deplore. [2] His constant profession of humanism and his claim to be a ‘classicist’ [3] may not be consciously insincere, but they are erroneous.  The plea that his poems of distinction are all satiric, are intended as awful warnings, is the common plea of all these literary traitors to humanity. [4] So Juvenal, Wycherley, Byron, excuse their pornography:  so Eliot himself excuses Joyce.  His intention only God knows.  I must be content to judge his work by its fruits, and I contend that no man is fortified against chaos by reading the Waste Land, but that most men are by it infected with chaos.
The opposite plea rests on a very elementary confusion between poetry that represents disintegration and disintegrated poetry.  The Inferno is not infernal poetry:  the Waste Land is.  His criticism tells the same tale.  He says he is a classicist, but this sympathy with depraved poets, (Marlowe, Jonson, Webster) is apparent:  but he shows no real love of any disciplined, and magnanimous writer save Dante.  Of Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Milton, Racine, he has nothing to say. [5] Assuredly he is one of the enemy:  and all the more dangerous because he is sometimes disguised as a friend. [6]
And this offence is aggravated by attendant circumstances, such as his arrogance.  And (you will forgive me) it is further aggravated for an Englishmen by the recollection that Eliot stole upon us, a foreigner and a neutral, while we were at war – obtained, I have my wonders how, a job in the Bank of England – and became (am I wrong) the advance guard of the invasion carried out by his natural friends and allies, the Steins and Pounds and hoc genus omne, the Parisian riff-raff of denationalized Irishmen and Americans who have perhaps given Western Europe her death wound.”

[1] About a month earlier, More had sent Lewis a copy of an article from the American Review that More had written on James Joyce.
[2] By breaking down the standards of art while at the same time professing to uphold them, Eliot, one of “the literary traitors,” was undermining the permanent things in literature.  For example, Eliot’s own poetry simply and intentionally defied understanding, as Lewis argued in “De Descriptione Temporum,” his inaugural lecture at Cambridge, wherein he points out that Eliot’s little poem “Cooking Egg,” had, at that time, been before the world for more than thirty years and no one, not even the experts, had the slightest idea what it meant.  Eliot’s poetry was not just new, Lewis said then, but “new in a new way.”  Unlike earlier new styles of poetry (poetry by Donne or Wordsworth, for example, poetry that could be understood if you knew the basis on which the poet wrote it), Eliot’s new poetry fully mocked decoding.  It was not simply about disintegration; it was disintegrated and disintegrative, as Lewis says below.  Contra MacLeish, to Lewis a poem must not simply be but mean.  And meaning here with Eliot was quite shut out, and not by accident.
[3] In his praise for Dryden at the expense of Shelley, Eliot claimed that Dryden was a classical poet, to which Lewis replied in “Shelley, Dryden and Mr Eliot” that “The days are or ought to be long past in which any well-informed critic could take the couplet poets of our ‘Augustan’ school at their own valuation as ‘classical’ writers.”  After explaining a bit about the Augustans, Lewis writes, “Of the school in general, then, we may say that it’s a good unclassical school. But when we turn to Dryden, we must, I think, say a good deal more than this” (italics added).   That Eliot could make such a gross mistake regarding either the Augustans or classicism struck Lewis as evidence that Eliot was not a well-informed critic, was no classicist, and was probably a poser.  About this I shall say more in future installments.
[4] Those who undermine literature often defend themselves on the ground that they are really literature’s friends, and that they are but writing satirically.  That is, when they write chaotically, they say they are simply showing the adverse effects of chaos, not that they have imbibed it.  For them, the medium is the message.  Not to Lewis.  For him, the message is the message.  One could write about the Inferno, as Lewis says below that Dante did, without writing infernal poetry.  You could write about Hell without being hellacious.  In short, Lewis subscribed to the common criticism levied against Eliot that he had the disease he claimed to rail against.
[5] When Eliot did turn to say something about Milton, he got it badly wrong, so much so that Eliot himself had to retract his views.  But even that retraction was shockingly defective and inadequate.  Eliot and his ilk were so badly mistaken about Milton that Lewis devoted an entire chapter of his Preface to Paradise Lost to exposing the incoherence of Eliot’s criticisms and its fatally flawed premises.  The result is a masterful exercise in logic chopping that dismantles Eliot’s self-congratulatory methods stick by stick.  I shall say more about this in future installments.
[6] To Lewis, Eliot posed as a friend of literature and the permanent things, a pose that fooled the uninitiated, the under-informed, and the unwary.  To Lewis, Eliot was a sheep in wolve’s clothing, one to whom the sheep foolishly looked for guidance and protection.  They seemed not no notice the company the wolf keeps -- predators and underminers like Gertrude Stein, a lesbian poet who compared Francisco Franco to George Washington and who said Hitler deserved the Nobel Peace prize; and like Ezra Pound, the anti-Semitic, fascist, anti-American traitor.  To Lewis, if it walks alike a wolf, talks like a wolf, and keeps the company of wolves, it’s a wolf.  The chief difference between Eliot and his wolf pack was that he was more subtle and more adept at insinuating himself into the camp of culture’s great protectors than his friends were.  Just as Karl Barth sounded the alarm in Germany about the churches' complicity with Hitler and colossal evil, Lewis was sounding it in England about Eliot's axis of friends and colleagues.

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