An Open Secret

The Reactionaries: Yeats, Lewis, Pound, Eliot, Lawrence: A Study of the Anti-Democratic Intelligentsia

by John R. Harrison, Introduction by William Empson
Schocken Books, 234 pp., $6.00

This is an important book, but it is scarcely likely to win favor in the Literary Establishment. It rattles too many skeletons in the closet. The importance of the book does not lie in the incidental literary criticism it contains but in its undertaking a necessary job of systematic research into the “beliefs” present in the work of some of the major writers of our age. Why, then, do I anticipate this negative reaction of defensive maneuvers and clever alibis? Because four of the five writers (Wyndham Lewis is the least famous among them) examined by Mr. Harrison—and he finds the ideas about history and society of all five to be lamentably reactionary—belong to the exalted company of the “sacred untouchables,” as they have rightly been called, of the modern creative line. Read and praised everywhere, they have been speedily converted into classics of the college classroom, where they are almost invariably presented in a heroic light. Thus they have come to represent a vested interest not so readily affronted.

I suppose there is a natural propensity among critics, scholars, and teachers of literature to equate superior works of the imagination with creedal wisdom and beneficence. Few can resist the temptation to swallow a doctrine implicit in a body of poetry that gratifies the aesthetic sense; most cannot bear to admit to themselves that the relation between literature and truth or moral insight is sometimes very erratic, if not altogether deceptive. This is a weakness that fits in neatly with the megalomaniacal disposition of modern art, a disposition easily diverted in our latter days from the close appreciation of the work to the apotheosis of the artist’s person. People in the aging twentieth century, prostrate amid their material affluence and spiritual bankruptcy, surveying the wreckage of all the earlier schemes of salvation, whether secular or religious, are impelled to seek in art the highly consolatory, if not absolute, values they crave. As a consequence we have the culture explosion so called, the promoters of which, all too ubiquitous at present, are sometimes touching in their naïveté but more often frenetic and offensive in the impostures and dissimulations they subject us to. How much closer to the truth is Jean Dutourd, who observes in his latest novel that “loving beautiful things doesn’t mean that one has a beautiful soul but that one has a taste for luxury. The supreme luxury, which is the prerogative of artists of genius, doesn’t presuppose that one possesses the supreme virtue, which is charity.” Though this is by no means the whole story, Dutourd’s way of putting it is certainly worth keeping in mind, if only as a corrective to the cultism of art nowadays rampant among us. The tacit assumption of this cult is that art by itself is capable of conferring ultimate value and meaning upon life. In the long run such vain expectations are bound to lead to total disillusionment with culture.

THE VIRTUE OF CHARITY is …

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