I recently had a very interesting conversation with Wheaton art historian and First Things writer Mathew Milliner. Matt has been trying to think about how to understand artistic creativity in relation to cultural authority. T.S. Eliot is an obvious place to start. His famous essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” outlines a view in which the constraining authority of tradition provides the most fruitful context for genuine creativity. As Eliot later put it, we need an “orthodoxy” if we are to thrive.
While reading the literature on Eliot, Matt discovered that in recent decades Eliot’s legacy, both as a poet and critic, has been diminished by charges of anti-Semitism. For example, Anthony Julius argues that anti-Semitism wasn’t just a moral flaw in Eliot, but instead is “an inseparable part of his greater literary undertaking.”
This claim seems implausible on its face. Many, many influential writers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries harbored anti-Semitic sentiments. But as we talked about the issue I suddenly saw what Julius was trying to say. Eliot believed that human beings flourish best when subject to the authority of a specific tradition. It’s an idea he gave the most forceful expression to in AFTER STRANGE GODS, a series of lectures he gave in 1933. In those lectures, “tradition” has blood and soil connotations, and in a passing comment Eliot expresses the concern that “free-thinking Jews” undermine organic communities and their authoritative traditions.
The charge that Eliot’s entire poetic and critical project is implicated in anti-Semitism reflects a much larger modern liberal syllogism. Commitments to authority leads to authoritarianism, which gets expressed politically in Fascism, and leads to the gas chambers. Put in less dire terms: a commitment to authority necessarily involves drawing lines. Some things are “orthodox,” to use Eliot’s term, and some “heretical.” This is inherently “discriminatory,” and reinforces our malign tendency toward ethnocentrism, and etc. In this way of thinking, the charge of anti-Semitism is meant as a synecdoche. It points to the authoritarian consequences of a larger commitment to authority. The same often holds for charges of patriarchy, colonialism, and homophobia. To assert a normative claim—this is good, that is evil—that’s the fundamental crime.
Put in these broad terms the modern liberal outlook seems crazy, because it denies any strong moral claims. It’s a denial we saw in literary studies when the very idea of a canon was criticized and rejected. But modern conservatism, which Eliot represented and tried to theorize, really does present a problem. Where does the “free-thinking Jew” (or for that matter any heterodox person) fit into a world organized around orthodoxy? There have been compelling answers given. One thinks of Jacques Maritain’s argument that it’s precisely Christian orthodoxy about the human person that provides the deepest foundations for political freedom and respect for human dignity in civil society. But when it comes to actual politics, from the Dreyfus Affair in France to Jim Crow in the South, the patrons of social authority in the modern era don’t have a shining record.
Thus a challenge we face. How can we articulate a conservative (in Eliot’s social sense of the term) commitment to civic pluralism? How can a cultural commitment to orthodoxy (again, in Eliot’s social sense of the term) respect the rights of heresy?