T.S. Eliot’s slim book about moral and immoral fiction may surprise anyone who first comes upon a copy. After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy consists of three lectures delivered at the University of Virginia in 1933. These present an uncompromising denunciation of liberalism—both the liberalism of the nineteenth century and that of the twentieth (the two differing little, in Eliot’s judgment); both liberalism in the Church and liberalism in the secular commonwealth.
Fifteen hundred copies of the first edition were printed in New York; no later edition has been published in this country. Why have these lively lectures been virtually suppressed? Chiefly because of an aside on page 20. There, Eliot is discussing the conditions necessary for a tradition to develop and survive, with particular reference to Christian tradition and to Virginia. For tradition to endure, he remarks,
The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is still more important is unity of religious background, and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.
Howls of rage, in New York especially, arose at this passage when Eliot’s little volume was published in 1934; the same fulminations against Eliot were uttered in 1989, when the first volume of his letters was published. The New York Times, never forgiving Eliot for his Charlottesville lectures, thereafter dealt him a knock whenever opportunity occurred. Actually, this alleged “anti-Semitism” was merely an illustration of the principle that a culture—which arises from a cult—cannot well abide two radically different religions. It would be equally true that a community of orthodox Jews would be distressed and resentful, were they to find themselves beset by a Comus’s rout of free-thinkers nominally Christian. The religion, or anti-religion, of the “free-thinking Jews” that Eliot had in mind was not Judaism, but rather secular humanism (a term employed by Eliot’s friend Christopher Dawson). It was the predominance of this secular humanism (or humanitarianism, the term preferred by Irving Babbitt) that caused Eliot to remark, later, that the worst form of expatriation for an American writer is residence in New York City.
The Evil Spirit & Decadence
There being nothing more in the pages of After Strange Gods about Jews, whether free-thinking or orthodox, it is absurd to cry anathema and to keep from others’ eyes this outspoken little book. Does literature have an ethical end? Should books be judged by the moral suppositions they implicitly affirm or deny? Do Good and Evil matter? And may the operations of the Evil Spirit (capital letters Eliot’s) be discerned among us in the twentieth century? May they be descried, indeed, among men of letters whose talents are high and whose private characters are commendable? These questions are raised perceptively in After Strange Gods.
As orthodoxy had been Samuel Johnson’s doxy, so was she Eliot’s, in 1933 and so long as he lived. Heresies among men of letters in his time infected even his mentor Irving Babbitt, his helpful friend Ezra Pound, and such eminent contributors to Eliot’s Criterion as William Butler Yeats and D.H. Lawrence: Eliot is very blunt about this.
“It is characteristic of the more interesting heretics, in the context in which I use the term, that they have an exceptionally acute perception, or profound insight, of some part of the truth; an insight more important often than the inferences of those who are aware of more but less acutely aware of anything.”
So Eliot said in his first Page-Barbour Lecture. “So far as we are able to redress the balance, effect the compensation, we may find such authors of the greatest value.”
So Eliot finds George Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Thomas Hardy, and D.H. Lawrence, none of whom wrote within true tradition. The general effect in literature of the lack of any strong tradition is twofold: extreme individualism in views, and no accepted rules or opinions as to the limitations of the literary job.
Thus Eliot puts it in his second lecture. A little later, it is true that the existence of a right tradition, simply by its influence upon the environment in which the poet develops, will tend to restrict eccentricity to manageable limits; but it is not even by the lack of this restraining influence that the absence of tradition is most deplorable. What is disastrous is that the writer should deliberately give rein to his “individuality,” that he should even cultivate his differences from others, and that his readers should cherish the author of genius, not in spite of his deviations from the inherited wisdom of the race, but because of them.
James Joyce, Eliot instructs us, is the most ethically orthodox of the writers of his day; but Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence represent “the intrusion of the diabolic into modern literature.” In his third lecture, he reproaches Hardy for cruelty and moral nihilism.
The work of the late Thomas Hardy represents an interesting example of a powerful personality uncurbed by any institutional attachment or by submission to any objective beliefs; unhampered by any ideas, or even by what sometimes acts as a partial restraint upon inferior writers, the desire to please a large public.
As for Lawrence—on behalf of whom Eliot was a witness at the trial for alleged obscenity in Lady Chatterly’s Lover—“It would seem that for Lawrence any spiritual force was good, and that evil resided only in the absence of spirituality…. The man’s vision is spiritual, but spiritually sick.”
The Ruin of Imagination
What disease of mind and heart brings on this literary decadence? Why, deliquescent Protestantism.
The chief clue to the understanding of most contemporary Anglo-Saxon literature is to be found in the decay of Protestantism. I am not concerned with Protestantism itself…. I mean that amongst writers the rejection of Christianity—Protestant Christianity—is the rule rather than the exception; and that individual writers can be understood and classified according to the type of Protestantism which surrounded their infancy, and the precise state of decay which it had reached.
After Strange Gods would be no more approved by the National Council of Churches than by the Anti-Defamation League or the American Humanist Association. It is a very Catholic piece of criticism. And what with the depravity in prose and verse that has flourished during the past several decades—especially since Eliot’s death—this forbidden little book deserves careful reading nowadays.
Literary decadence commonly is bound up with a general intellectual and moral disorder in a society resulting, presently, in violent social disorder. The decay of literature appears often to result from a rejection of the ancient human endeavor to apprehend a transcendent order in the universe and to live in harmony with that order; for when the myths and the dogmata are discarded, the religious imagination withers. So it had come to pass with twentieth-century Protestantism, Eliot believed.
Religious assumptions about the human condition having been abandoned by men of letters, the moral imagination starves. And presently the moral imagination gives way, among many people, to the idyllic imagination; and after they have become disillusioned with Arcadia, they turn to the diabolic imagination, which afflicts both the best-educated and the worst-schooled classes in Western society today. Upon this corrupted imagination, the clever charlatan and the nihilistic writer prey. Unscrupulous originality thus terminates in a universal boring nihilism—or, yet more catastrophic than the listlessness of nihilism, the common collapse of all standards, of all authority visible or invisible, the ruin of culture, the ruin of life.
Eliot foresaw this in 1933. It is unpopular teaching still, but painfully true.
This essay first appeared in the Summer 1991 issue of Touchstone and appears here with gracious permission.