T. S. Eliot, Culture, and Higher Education, Part IV

In preparation for the fall semester, which has just now begun (the date of writing is 28 August), and in the cause of a senior seminar that I have organized for English majors, I have recently revisited the work of T. S. Eliot, especially his prose, and particularly his short book Notes towards a Definition of Culture (1949).  Outside of The Waste Land and beneath the calculated reserve of their prose, the six chapters of the Notes offer the single best articulation of Eliot’s sense of a world in dissolution – and in the Notes he had and additional twenty-five years of evidence and experience to bring to the support of his intuition.  In the Notes, Eliot suavely rejects the modern project, which he characterizes not simply as an alarming and yet inexplicable unraveling of the West’s social and intellectual cohesion, but rather as the deliberate destruction thereof by a great wave of petulance that has gripped the cultural elites since the time of the French Revolution.  Eliot’s analysis of the modern deformation of civic order on the one hand, and of the interior, spiritual order of the elites on the other greatly assists in the understanding of the changes over the last sixty years – every one of them for the worse – in the Western order and more particularly In that central modern institution, the university.  Certain of Eliot’s insights have permitted the discussion to draw one or two depressing but also unavoidable conclusions about the contemporary university of the incipient twenty-first century, one being that the university has become a factory of ideological indoctrination and another being that the university’s primary means of protecting that ideology (liberalism) is by demonstrative emissary punishment of anyone who flouts the rigid tenets of the ideology or calls them into question on a factual or logical basis.  The presentation categorized this tendency to non-procedural emissary procedure as sacrificial.  In attempting to go “beyond” the Christian revelation that it repudiates modern society in fact slips backwards into primitive forms that only Biblical religion has superseded.  The university being the chief anti-Christian institution of the prevailing order, its atavism is hardly unexpected; rather – it is characteristic and trend-setting.

The previous parts of this meditation on Eliot’s decorous – but today largely unacknowledged –treatise have not exhausted the analytical depth of the Notes nor have they exploited fully the book’s diagnostic power for making an assessment of the reigning liberal order.  In carrying the process further it will be advantageous to refer to another of Eliot’s essays, one better known perhaps than the Notes, his concise “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), preserved in the collection of critical essays that its author called The Sacred Wood (1920).  As remarked already, the Notes seem at first to offer the delivery of a strictly thought-out, dictionary-like definition of culture without actually ever arriving at one.  Eliot’s frontispiece does hang out a concise epigraph, however, in the form of a terse entry that Eliot quotes from The Oxford English Dictionary.

The entry reads, “Definition: I. The setting of bounds; limitation (rare) – (1483).”  The date will indicate the first recorded usage, which belongs, perhaps significantly, to the earliest stage of modern English.  The gloss calls attention to itself, not least because the Notes presumably assume it in all six chapters, and emphatically because the lexicographer’s verbal equivalent veers sharply away from what most modern people would invoke in the same task of pinning down the word.  Under the modern doctrine of multiculturalism, for example, academic discourse has altered the usage of the term culture to refer almost exclusively to what ordinary speech used formerly called subcultures.  Where contemporary academic research invokes the dominant culture of a society – particularly of any Western society – the researcher invariably characterizes the dispensation, en la manière de Marx, as a structure of oppression; but to subcultures, while no longer calling them that, such research attributes the qualities of authenticity and moral goodness.

In the Notes, Eliot insists that any functioning society obeys a principle of hierarchy.  The parts can exist in relation to each other because they exist first of all in subordination to the whole.  The parts, whether it is individuals or groups, may be differentiated in some degree and in tension with one another, but the differences and the tensions find their resolution when they transcend toward identity in the whole.  “The culture of the individual cannot be isolated from that of the group [and] the culture of the group cannot be abstracted from that of the whole society.”  Notice that, in Eliot’s discussion, identity and limitation belong to one another.  This being the case, the standard liberal discussion of culture, the one that finds articulation in the doctrine of multiculturalism, reverses the OED definition that Eliot endorses by making it the first significant item in his book after the title.  It also attempts to abolish the principle of hierarchy – it cannot do so, of course, so that what it accomplishes is merely the substitution of one reigning image for another.  But rhetorically it is anti-hierarchical.

How do identity and limitation belong together, culturally speaking?  In his chapter devoted to “The Class and the Elite,” in the course of analyzing academic-anthropological notion of culture, Eliot concludes an important paragraph with what amounts to an aphorism – “The man who, in order to understand the inner world of a cannibal tribe, has partaken of the practice of cannibalism, has probably gone too far: he can never quite be one of his own folk again.”  (Observe Eliot’s gentlemanly adverb, probably.)  As well as an aphorism, the understated construction also functions as a parable of the Western elites in the decades since the Notes appeared.

Let the remarkable case of Sweden serve for an instance.  When the modern Swedish state consolidated itself in the 1920s, it did so as one of the most ethnically homogeneous and culturally unified nations of Europe.  Social-Democratic Sweden took for its motto, maintaining it for many decades, the phrase, Sverige är ett folkhem. (“Sweden is the home of one people” – but in Swedish it sounds absolutely cozy.)  The welfare-state partook of plausibility in Sweden precisely because the accented regions found union in the longstanding central institutions: The national language, which everyone could read no matter his spoken dialect, the common art, music and literature, the monarchy, the Lutheran confession, and a shared history going back to the early Middle Ages known by everyone who had gone to school.

Flash-forward to the twenty-first Century: The current leadership in Sweden, the members of which all received their education in the 1970s or 80s or 90s, reflects the reigning epistemological, moral, and cultural nihilism.  Mona Sahlin, a prominent Social Democrat who has served in ministerial positions as well as in the parliament, and who speaks authoritatively for the dominant left-wing faction in her country, said in an interview with the magazine Euroturk in 2002 that she could conjure for herself no notion of “Swedish culture,” implying that there is none: “I’ve often had that question, but I can’t think of what Swedish culture is.”  According to Sahlin, the non-existence of Swedish culture “is what makes us Swedes so envious of immigrants.”  Turks, for example, “have a culture,” but “what do we have?” as Sahlin rhetorically poses; “we have Midsummer’s Eve and such corny things.”

Is Sahlin really so ignorant of her own country as not to know its history, reaching back in stone monuments to the Late Iron Age; is she really so deprived of basic instruction as not to know her nation’s literature, reaching back to medieval balladry, and including such stellar lights in the last two centuries, as August Strindberg and Pär Lagerkvist, and poets of the highest order such as Harry Martinson and Tomas Tranströmer?  Has she never heard the folksongs from Dalecarlia or the fiddle-music from Skåne – or the symphonies of Hugo Alfvén and Hilding Rosenberg?  Possibly she really is that ignorant in all cases.  It seems more likely, however, that this sweeping denial that a rich ethnic and national achievement exists merely instantiates one more time the rhetoric of Kultur-Vernichtung that now functions as the lingua franca of the managerial class.  Eliot’s aphorism applies only too well to Sahlin: Having supped with the Turk she cannot go home to Svealand.

And yet it goes beyond rhetoric to the implementation of policy with drastic consequences for ordinary people.  The Social Democrats, who recently succeeded in disestablishing the state Lutheran church, intend that Swedes should henceforth defer to Turks and to other non-Swedes who, under policies that have never been put to plebiscite, crowd the “no-go zones” of Malmö and Gothenburg.  The near-term future of Sweden is the present of California.

In the Notes Eliot addresses another type of rhetoric, voluble in his day, which has to do with “world culture.”  This “world culture,” promoted by the United Nations and by advocates of a global managerial regime, anticipates modern multiculturalism and probably gives rise to it by direct affiliation: It offers a smörgåsbord, so to speak, of various third-world ethnic cultures, which it raises in conspicuousness so as to equalize them affirmatively with Western national cultures; it proposes to make this buffet of quirks and customs the basis of a global educational curriculum in a “world-federation” run along the lines of a centrally-planned economy.  Eliot’s remarks on “world culture” remain applicable to a regime of multiculturalism, such as the one that the Social Democrats have imposed on Sweden and their counterparts on the other nations in Europe and elsewhere.  “Now the zealots of world-government,” Eliot writes, “seem to me sometimes to assume, unconsciously, that their unity of organisation has an absolute value, and that if differences between cultures stand in the way, these must be abolished.”  Eliot kens the fundamental tendency of all culture-planners: They “take for granted that the final world-culture will be simply an extension of that to which they belong themselves.”

To what culture does someone like Mona Sahlin belong?  She belongs to the politicized culture of professorial nihilism that, having its base of operations in the university, now decisively influences all the other institutions of the society, not least by holding a monopoly over the staffing of them.  This culture of nihilism actively rebels against all domestic tradition, which it classifies as “oppressive”; its tenor is hostile and implacable – it brooks no dissent.  (See Part III.)  “Swedes,” despite the arrogance of Sahlin, do not “envy” Turks; rather, Sahlin and her cohorts hate Sweden, and by association Swedish tradition and Swedes.  They use the alien enemies of Sweden and Swedish tradition – and Swedes – as mercenary aggressor-surrogates, bringing them in-country as “immigrants,” to humiliate and destroy the object of their invidious spite.  That object would be the Swedish kingdom-nation in its proper identity going back to a Sixth-Century Rikdom, that of the Geats, which fathered the hero and monster-killer Beowulf.

Similarly, California radicals have long directed their hatred at the middle-class, Midwestern-flavored polity, whose public schools in 1960s were perhaps the best in the nation, and whose industry helped put men on the moon; the Berkeley elites, using the same method as the Social Democrats in Sweden, have effectively devolved California from its prosperity and robustness to make of it a northerly welfare-vassal of Mexico’s Baja state and a rigged ballot-guarantee for the Democratic Party in national elections.

Eliot again foresees clearly when he writes, “The world-planners… might – if we believed that their methods would succeed – be as grave a menace to culture as those who practice more violent methods.”  The result of imposing that politically tendentious paradox, the universal multicultural model, would be, as Eliot grasps, “no culture at all.”  Rather, as Eliot puts it, “we should have humanity de-humanised.”

Eliot politely grants that his world-planners of 1949 might be “humane” people, but he insists, even in that case, that the “de-humanised” outcome would ensue from their success.  What of our world-planners of 2012?  Where obliteration of the longstanding national culture is the goal (as in fact it is), the means will be to deprive the youngest generation and those who follow them of instruction in their own tradition, replacing the knowledge meet to that with identity-annihilating pseudo-knowledge in the forms of the ideology and the bric-à-brac of “Otherness.”  The term Kultur-Vernichtung, which readers might find exaggerated, nevertheless denotes this wicked gambit justifiably.  Sahlin, in one of her pronouncements, has said that the old Swedes – the ones she accuses of having no culture – must adapt themselves to the supposed actual culture of the so-called new Swedes, overwhelmingly Muslim, that the policies of her party have welcomed into the nation at the nation’s expense.  One should not meliorate the brutality of the Sahlin-type position, which instantiates itself endlessly in the similar moral dispositions of the woman’s peers around the world.

It requires centuries to create a living national tradition; it requires a single generation to kill off the same, provided only that the social engineers control education.  They do control it everywhere, with the content and style of primary and secondary instruction being dictated by the schools of education in the university.

In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot observes of the poet and the literary past that the former, in turning to and assimilating the latter, performs “a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable.”  As Eliot sees it, “the poet’s mind is… a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images [from the archive,] which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.”  The relation to the tradition, whether it concerns Eliot’s “poet” or any sensitive individual, involves consciousness: The individual considered in isolation is limited by many factors, not least his mortality.  A tradition, being supra-personal, knows more than any person possibly can.  The relation to the tradition permits the increase and fulfillment of personhood; it consummates identity.

Just as “the writing of poetry… must be conscious and deliberate,” so too being an individual person must be conscious and deliberate; participating in the continuum of consciousness greatly aids the finite person in the paradoxically impersonal task of being a particular man or woman of his particular place and time.  Kultur-Vernichtung, in expunging the tradition and replacing it by a jejune synthesis, is thus tantamount to the spiritual obliteration of the proper individual.

When Eliot wrote Notes towards a Definition of Culture, the besieging institutions were the political institutions, the parties and ministries; these had already become politicized beyond any requirement.  The Notes function in part as a defense of education against the hyper-politicization of the institutions on which the schools, colleges, and universities depend.  That defense failed.  Six decades later, all over the West, the single most politicized institution is higher education.  Indeed, enjoying its monopoly over personnel in all other institutions, the contemporary university has become the central institution of the society.  In quaint times, now irrecoverable, academics loudly and rightly proclaimed the necessity of keeping their departments and classrooms free from government interference.  Eliot’s low-key but canny prose helps the contemporary dissenter to see how short-sighted the concern of the old professors was.

As it turns out, the university threatens the branches of government far more than any branch of government threatens the university: The organs of the society alter their status to become organs of the university.  The university itself becomes the ideological center of the increasingly rigid and intolerant society, with all the pernicious effects tallied in the foregoing three parts of this essay.

11 thoughts on “T. S. Eliot, Culture, and Higher Education, Part IV

  1. Ilion, just wondering, do you have any idea why the Powers decided we should use “Muslim” rather than “Moslem”? I can’t figure out what difference it made.

  2. Eliot suavely rejects the modern project, which he characterizes not simply as an alarming and yet inexplicable unraveling of the West’s social and intellectual cohesion, but rather as the deliberate destruction thereof by a great wave of petulance that has gripped the cultural elites since the time of the French Revolution.

    It’s difficult to believe that mere petulance caused the deliberate destruction of the West’s social and intellectual cohesion. The psychological malaise of left-wing intellectuals is probably more complicated than being prone to bad temper.

    Explaining why many intellectuals reject or even hate their own countries (and romanticize ‘primitive societies’), Orwell doesn’t allude to petulance. He attributes the academic follies of the intelligentsia to having security without responsibility. Writing in 1943, Orwell said:

    “In the last twenty years western civilisation has given the intellectual security without responsibility, and in England, in particular, it has educated him in scepticism while anchoring him almost immovably in the privileged class. He has been in the position of a young man living on an allowance from a father whom he hates. The result is a deep feeling of guilt and resentment, not combined with any genuine desire to escape. But some psychological escape, some form of self-justification there must be, and one of the most satisfactory is transferred nationalism. During the nineteen-thirties the normal transference was to Soviet Russia. ”

    I believe this “transfer of nationalism” is still going on and has ramified into the transfer of cultural allegiance and a repudiation of hearth and home (what Roger Scruton called ‘oikophobia’).

  3. Orwell in perfect agreement with Eliot? In general, well, hardly.

    More specifically, what I keep wanting to ask as I read all this scathing criticism of contemporary U.S.-European civilization (much of which I do agree with) is–well, compared to what? For example, Orwell was writing in 1943–even before the halcyon days of the 1950s! (sorry I’m being a little sarcastic here.) From what I do know about the history of the West–which is is certainly not enough–I just am not convinced that any past era was on the whole all that worse than any more recent era. (I’ve never read Milton Friedman, but I recall my dad often quoting one line of his: “you’ve got to compare the real with the real.” It seems to me that the longing for the past often expressed on this blog is in fact for an idealized past.) There are all sorts of improvements and declines across all sorts of different dimensions. And what about reigning ideologies and reigning oligarchies? Well, aren’t there quite a few different ones? Are the managers of corporations, officials of government agencies, college administrators, college professors–all part of some single coherent coordinated group that shares a common ideology it is using to ruin our civilization? The objection that keeps popping up in my head is that you guys tend to overgeneralize about this supposed unified form of “liberalism” which uniformly dominates society as a whole. I just do not agree that there is any sort of single ideology that dominates our society. Don’t get me wrong–I think our society is not in good shape, and for many of the reasons you guys point out. I think we are probably living on a patrimony which we do not understand or honor, and as a result, are living on borrowed time. But my hunch is that the issue is one of lazy rootlessness and lack of clear sighted self-conscious commitment, rather than the presence of a corrosive and destructive ideology. And I think this may have something to do with what Orwell points out. In addition, I really dispute the idea that our society is in the present time falling apart. I think it is rather the case that what Weber called the “mechanical foundations” of modern bureaucratic capitalism are very well established indeed, and will probably keep our society trudging on forward along the relatively stable–and stagnant–lines for a some time to come. For example the tenured radicals preen themselves on their oppositionality–all the while faithfully fulfilling their societal obligation to train the young in such tenets of middle-class morality as turning in your homework on time–which really is the most important skill they will need later on. But our religious, intellectual, and moral relativism and nonchalance do not bode at all well in the long run. How long can a society continue indefinitely on a largely, and then maybe eventually merely, mechanical basis?

    • Jeremy, thanks again for your trenchant challenges, which force us all – well, me anyway – to refine and clarify our polemic. Your comment is so chock full of different assertions and questions that once again it will be easiest to respond by interspersing my replies – which I will try to keep terse – in its body.

      Orwell in perfect agreement with Eliot? In general, well, hardly. [The question was not whether Orwell and Eliot agree in every particular, but whether Orwell’s theory that the “tenured protest” of the intellectuals that began with the great prosperity generated by the Industrial Revolution was at the root of their methodical destruction of the moral, religious and metaphysical basis of the West, and his characterization of them as similar to rich young men living on the wealth of fathers whom they cordially despised, was in contradiction to Eliot’s assertion that the root of their destruction was mere petulance. I don’t think the two accounts conflict at all; I think they are two ways of saying the same thing, with the main difference being Orwell’s adduction of some economic factors behind the petulance.]

      More specifically, what I keep wanting to ask as I read all this scathing criticism of contemporary U.S.-European civilization (much of which I do agree with) is–well, compared to what? For example, Orwell was writing in 1943–even before the halcyon days of the 1950s! (sorry I’m being a little sarcastic here.) From what I do know about the history of the West–which is certainly not enough–I just am not convinced that any past era was on the whole all that worse than any more recent era. [I take it you mean to say “better”] (I’ve never read Milton Friedman, but I recall my dad often quoting one line of his: “you’ve got to compare the real with the real.” It seems to me that the longing for the past often expressed on this blog is in fact for an idealized past.) [Actually, I think it would be more accurate to say that we long for righteousness; thus, the name of the site.] There are all sorts of improvements and declines across all sorts of different dimensions. And what about reigning ideologies and reigning oligarchies? Well, aren’t there quite a few different ones? Are the managers of corporations, officials of government agencies, college administrators, college professors–all part of some single coherent coordinated group that shares a common ideology it is using to ruin our civilization? [Yes. They might not be conscious that this is what they are doing, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are indeed doing it.] The objection that keeps popping up in my head is that you guys tend to overgeneralize about this supposed unified form of “liberalism” which uniformly dominates society as a whole. I just do not agree that there is any sort of single ideology that dominates our society. [Well, there’s left liberalism – Social Democrats, Marxists, and American liberals – and then there’s right liberalism – Republicans, Neo-Conservatives, Tories, Libertarians. These choices cover the spectrum of political theories now influential in the West. Traditionalists of the Orthospherean sort don’t fall on the left/right spectrum at all, although because we generally prefer free markets and traditional morality we get lumped in with the Republicans.] Don’t get me wrong–I think our society is not in good shape, and for many of the reasons you guys point out. I think we are probably living on a patrimony which we do not understand or honor, and as a result, are living on borrowed time. But my hunch is that the issue is one of lazy rootlessness and lack of clear sighted self-conscious commitment, rather than the presence of a corrosive and destructive ideology. [Much of it is indeed carried out unconsciously, and with the best of intentions by managers and thought leaders in every field; a situation that does indeed arise and persist due to intellectual sloth, both among students and teachers. But the same cannot be said for such as Peter Singer or Richard Dawkins. Their sort, all too common in the academy, are self-consciously radical revolutionaries aiming at the destruction of the West; they revel in it, and they are culpable. And these sorts of men have immense influence over the institutions that are in charge of handing out professional credentials to the hopeful journeymen of every field of endeavor in the culture.] And I think this may have something to do with what Orwell points out. In addition, I really dispute the idea that our society is in the present time falling apart. I think it is rather the case that what Weber called the “mechanical foundations” of modern bureaucratic capitalism are very well established indeed, and will probably keep our society trudging on forward along the relatively stable–and stagnant–lines for a some time to come. For example the tenured radicals preen themselves on their oppositionality–all the while faithfully fulfilling their societal obligation to train the young in such tenets of middle-class morality as turning in your homework on time–which really is the most important skill they will need later on. But our religious, intellectual, and moral relativism and nonchalance do not bode at all well in the long run. How long can a society continue indefinitely on a largely, and then maybe eventually merely, mechanical basis? [Not much longer. This is our point. We think that we are near the end of our ability to continue as we have so far done. The West has invited the anti-West to invade and destroy it. This will soon happen. How soon? Fifty years or so, perhaps; the blink of an eye. The nation of today holds the nation of our youth in complete contempt. It may not be too late; when the men of the West are roused from their slumber by the onset of disaster, they tend to be the most lethal culture in history, and generally annihilate their foes. It may not come to that. Perhaps we’ll fold without a whimper, at last; perhaps on the other hand there will be a “Naked Emperor” moment, and the West will shake off the drowsiness of the poppies, administer a few hard lashes where they are most needful, and our enemies will slink away, as historically they have been wont to do whenever we showed a little spine. We’ll see. In the meantime, we here will keep pointing out that the Emperor is Naked, and the hour late.]

  4. Pingback: PC is Jizya « The Orthosphere

  5. I am an American moved to Sweden 2 1/2 years ago and everything you say is true. It is outrageous, contemptible, frightening, and what is worse is the younger class who has been brainwashed by the media and the schools (homeschooling now outlawed) into actually believing the crap they dish up as truth. Lies, lies, lies – media censorship, there is no problems with crime related to muslims, only the problem of RACISM by the evil racist Swedes. If somalians claim horrible racist atrocities were perpetrated upon them and it turns out that it was all a lie (because they didn’t like their FREE housing, they want to live in a big city where apartments are expensive and they can fuck off and chew ghat with their friends, and find plenty of people to rob and rape) SO they figure, if we say we were told to ‘pour milk onto yourselves so you can be white’ (like that sounded plausible at all) THEN they’ll move us where we want to move. AFTER it all comes out that it was a big fat lie, no more media attention, no links on the old article to an article about how it was a lie – only links to other articles about racist swedes – no UPDATE on the article declaring the truth – and the old article left up forever. THAT is typical.

    I personally live surrounded by somalians, afghan, iraqi immigrants, and believe me when I tell you – they’re just shit, for the most part. None of them work, the kids as young as 10 loiter in gangs in the centrum parking lot, the older ones are out robbing people every day, welfare fraud, 10 yr old kids robbed at knifepoint by grown men. NO Sweden is not becoming what California today has become, it is going to be MUCH WORSE, because these people view Swedes as ‘christian enemies’ and feel they have the religious approval of GOD to steal from them, rape the women, kill them, etc. The scum in California is just regular greedy disgusting scum. This is a combination of regular greedy disgusting scum with radical islamic beliefs, who think they have done nothing wrong when they gang rape a woman so violently she is unable to walk for a month and almost died from asphyxiation from the semen in her lungs (this is a true single case) and the afghani immigrant who set it all up, premeditated the idea and left her to a group of ASYLUM seekers at the asylum accommodations AND who came to Sweden 5 months under the ‘age deadline’ so he can’t be deported, he’s the only one who just said the truth of what he thought about it: ‘SHE DESERVED IT’ on the stand.

    If you are under 15 when you get here, you can never be deported. Most of the afghan boys who come here lie about their age. This rapist is 23 or 24 years old, has been convicted of rape PRIOR to this, drugs, drug sales, death threats, assaults, accused rapes. All in 10 years or less. But they STILL gave him a job at the afghan asylum apartment housing as a translator, where he set up a Swedish mother of 2 to be gang raped by up to 12 men over a 10 hour period. She had to be sent to a mental institution, after a lengthy hospital stay. The other men were deported, but not the guy who set it up, we’ll never get rid of him – and he said she deserved it.

    I hate it, I can’t stand to watch a beautiful country being destroyed by the most outrageously inappropriate mass immigration of afghans and somalians. Claiming we need to them to ‘take over the jobs’ when people retire and ‘save our pensions’ when 90% of them can’t even read.

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