T.S. Eliot and High Modernism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Sep 16 09:01:57 MDT 2002

London Review of Books, Sept. 19, 2002
Terry Eagleton

The 'Criterion': Cultural Politics and Periodical Networks in Interwar Britain
by Jason Harding | Oxford, 250 pp, £35.00

The Criterion, T.S. Eliot's periodical, ran from shortly after the First 
World War to the very eve of World War Two. Or, if one prefers, from one of 
Eliot's major bouts of depression to another. The two time-schemes are, in 
fact, related. In 1921, the business negotiations to finance the proposed 
journal had to be suspended when Eliot suffered a nervous breakdown; it was 
during his convalescence from this illness that he wrote The Waste Land. 
Though the breakdown had much to do with marital misery, it also reflects 
something of the postwar cultural crisis of which The Waste Land is itself 
symptomatic. It was as though the old 19th-century doctrines - Romantic 
humanism, liberal individualism, dreams of social progress - had all failed 
to survive the Somme; and Eliot, like his European Modernist colleagues, 
was dismayed by this spiritual devastation. Among other things, it raised 
the question of how they themselves were to write, bereft of a nurturing 


The Criterion pulled in writers such as Woolf, Lawrence, Yeats, Aldous 
Huxley, E.M. Forster and Wyndham Lewis, but also gave Proust, Valéry, 
Cocteau and other European writers their first airing in English. 
Conservative reaction, like socialist internationalism, was distinctly 
un-English in its lack of provincialism. If the journal espoused an 
unpleasant brand of right-wing Christianity, it was at least an 
intellectually taxing discourse centred on Dante, Aquinas and Parisian 
neo-Thomism, rather than the parochial pseudo-religiosity of a Philip 
Larkin. In the epoch of High Modernism, it was for the most part the 
radical Right, rather than the liberal or social democratic centre ground, 
that opened up cosmopolitan perspectives in a stiflingly claustrophobic 
England, as exiles and émigrés such as Conrad, Wilde, James, Shaw, Yeats, 
Joyce, Lawrence, Eliot and Pound shuttled between cultures and languages in 
order to reap those symbolic resources for their art that England alone 
could not furnish.

Not all of these authors were right-wing; but the predominance of that 
outlook among them is nonetheless striking. In an epoch of cultural crisis, 
it was the displaced and deracinated who could respond to their historical 
moment in answerably ambitious terms; and it was these, therefore, who in 
raising the most searching questions about modern civilisation, were able 
to produce the finest literary art. But nobody is more in love with 
autocracy than the anxious and insecure. The fact that so many of these 
writers responded to the historical crisis with apocalyptic pleas for 
absolute authority and the violent exclusion of subversive elements is the 
price we have to pay for such art, if we should choose to do so.

full: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v24/n18/eagl01_.html

Louis Proyect

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