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that it repudiates modern society in fact slips backwards into primitive forms that only Biblical religion has superseded.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.