• Email
  • Print

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 the last one can look for in the “sacred untouchables” whose programmatic ideas Mr. Harrison (somewhat ingenuously, to be sure) has undertaken to investigate. But he is on to an open secret, which is simply, as he puts it in an early chapter, that

what Yeats, Pound, Lewis and Eliot wanted in literature…was a hard intellectual approach ruled by the authority of strict literary principles. They rejected the humanist tradition in literature, and in society the democratic humanitarian tradition. The same principles governed their social criticism as their literary criticism, and led them to support the fascist cause, either directly as Pound and Lewis did, or indirectly, as Yeats and Eliot did.

As for Lawrence, though emphatically not a believer in any kind of intellectual approach, he was quite as reactionary, as in his preaching a return to primitive life forms and his idealizing of blood sacrifice, his hostility to the democratic process and rant against the “mob-spirit” and “democratic mongrelism,” his acclaim of power, of mastery and lordship, as a marvelous life-giving “mystery,” and his urging us to surrender to “the natural power of the superior individual, the hero.” Mr. Harrison hastens to note that “Lawrence’s views on social leadership are inherently close to the fascist conception of society.” I see no real gain in such a formulation. Admittedly Lawrence’s views and attitudes are as false as they are dangerous, but what they represent is a private dream rather than a political plan or design; it is far more profitable to approach them through individual psychology and the precise analysis of the moment in Western culture that encouraged their emergence. Bald political terms, with their inevitable crudity of labeling, cannot provide illumination in this particular context. For all the coincidence of certain moods and preconceptions, neither Mussolini’s Italy nor Hitler’s Germany could find any real use for Lawrence in their cultural propaganda.

Hence I am inclined to object to Mr. Harrison’s rather gummy use of the label “fascist” in his indictment of all five writers under consideration, just as I object to Empson speaking, in his Introduction to the book, of “the political scandal of their weakness for Fascism.” Not that I deny that for a time Pound and Lewis supported the fascist cause—though Lewis reversed himself in later years, perhaps for the wrong reasons. Surely the “scandal” invoked by Empson can easily be made out to be real, but only if the entire theme of reaction in modern literature is transposed into strictly political terms. This transposition does not get us very far because it tends to stop discussion. In their social and political thinking all these writers were sheer amateurs, wonderfully alert in their own verbal medium but unable to grasp that politics too is a specific medium—of action in history and society—and that it is preposterous to introduce into this medium notions of “personal supremacy” (Yeats) or of “the natural power of superior individuals” (Lawrence) as serious recommendations for the organization of society. They were drawn ideologically to authoritarian positions but were not in any definite way committed (not even Pound, who is by far the most vulnerable) to the shifting demands and intolerable dogmas of any given political party. Not one of them was in any meaningful sense a political man or even capable of consistent political thought. I doubt whether they understood how capitalism actually functions or exactly what socialists have in mind in proposing a different system. Their social-political unworldliness shows through all their denunciations of liberal ideas. There is in all five of them a radical want of modesty, and I am using the word as Chekhov used it in deploring Dostoevsky’s “spiritual immodesty.” What they can be truly accused of is presumption in undertaking to speak portentously about matters they knew little about. This presumption by quite a few men of letters is a cultural phenomenon—a symptom of certain antinomian qualities intrinsic to the literature of the modern age—which deserves more attention than Mr. Harrison, bemused by the political terminology he has adopted, has given it.

YEATS, FOR EXAMPLE, looked forward to a new aristocratic society, the rise of which he deduced from his theory of “cycles,” with concentration of power in a small ruling class, “every detail of life hierarchical, every great door crowded at dawn by petitioners, great wealth in a few men’s hands…an inequality made law.” Despising democracy as a standardizing process, he idealized previous modes of social life. But these earlier periods, the model of which he saw in the custom of patronage supposedly beneficial to artists and in the “great houses” (Coole Park) of the eighteenth-century patricians, actually knew no such equality of aristocrat and artist as he had in mind. (Even in his own lifetime he imagined the “great houses” to be centers of civilized discourse and behavior, but according to the testimony of Louis MacNeice, a far less subjective observer than Yeats, those old houses contained no culture worth speaking of—“nothing but obsolete bravado, insidious bonhomie and a way with horses.”) In Yeats a strain of social snobbery and resentment of certain features of the modern era (such as the prestige of science) combined to produce a kind of historical snobbery scarcely at all concerned with historical truth. Vision was all; the facts didn’t matter. An exacerbated imagination, over-stimulated by certain poems and graceful phrases he found in old books, conjoined with a coldness and aloofness of temper, “a lack of sympathy with ordinary humanity,” as Mr. Harrison notes, generated in him a dream of the unity of art and life established in an order powerfully conducive to the creation of works of art.

This type of historical snobbery, though not necessarily always mixed with social snobbery, is also to be found in Eliot, Pound, Lewis, and Lawrence. Thus Pound, in the Cantos, locates his ideal society in the China of the eighteenth century and the time of Malatesta in the Italian Renaissance; he casts Jefferson and John Adams in the role of precursors of Mussolini, whose execution he laments in sincere poetic words: “han’g dead by the heels before his thought in proposito/came into action efficiently.” It is not difficult to recognize in all five the vagaries of those who at once abuse the present and undercut the Utopias of the future by placing theirs in the past.

IN DISCUSSING THE VARIETY of reactionary prejudice to be found in these writers Mr. Harrison’s tone is on the whole judicious. His book is free of moral tantrums or outbursts of liberal rhetoric. It is more in sorrow than in anger that he painstakingly presents the evidence from their writings. These men of the 1880s (only Yeats was considerably, older) came of age in a cultural atmosphere shot through with yearnings for the mystical and the occult, and marked by “the growth of a powerful neo-romanticism which revived the theories of the older romanticists of the early nineteenth century and refashioned them for an attack on rationalist and liberal humanitarian democracy.” The supreme irony is that this modernist version of romanticism was presented in a magisterial manner as a restoration of classical norms. A whole generation of poets and critics was taken in by this self-deception.

In the sections dealing with the cultural and historical background of these archaistic Utopias Mr. Harrison is both perceptive and thorough: he is one of the very few critics who do not skirt the question of the enormous influence exerted on Eliot by Charles Maurras and the Action Française movement. The anti-Semitic feelings divulged in the early poems, up to and including The Waste Land, as well as the emphasis on the tradition (with the obligatory definite article enforcing exclusion), by means of which he set out to instruct his recusant British hosts—so prone to fall away from allegiance to “Outside Authority” and ecclesiastical monarchical domination—are derived not from native sources but primarily from Maurras. In his Introduction Empson remarks that Joyce was one of the few men of the 1880s to escape this pervasive archaism and reaction: he quotes a letter of 1934 in which Joyce says he is “afraid that poor Mr. Hitler will soon have few friends in Europe apart from my nephews, Masters W. Lewis and E. Pound.” Perhaps Joyce resisted the lure because “he had actually escaped from a theocracy such as many of the authors examined in this book recommended.”

There is one exaggerated claim, which Mr. Harrison advances on his own behalf, that one would want to challenge. He defines his aim as that of showing “the relationship between the ‘tendency’ of these five writers and their literary style, also their literary principles.” As for establishing any kind of direct relationship, particularly in style, Mr. Harrison has not, in my opinion, succeeded. Between their “tendency” and their literary principles the connections drawn are much clearer. Principles, however, are one thing and practice another. Some of the best qualities of these writers crystallize around the contradition between stated principal and actual practice. Eliot, for instance, boosted for a long time the virtues of classicism, whereas as a practitioner he developed in his poetry what is unmistakably a new version of romanticism. In his nostalgia for the past he is openly romantic, and in his patrician-puritan scrupulosity and feelings of sexual disgust he is the romantic turned inside out. (He was writing before the onset of the present period of “positive” sex, so grossly romantic in its hankering to discover in pornography yet another and quite acceptable literary form.) No wonder that the late Paul Elmer More was gratified by Eliot’s principles, finding them impeccable, and at the same time appalled by his creative practice.

Mr. Harrison would have been well advised, I think, to be persuaded by George Orwell’s judgment, quoted in the book, that “no one has succeeded in tracing the connection between ‘tendency’ and literary style. Texture can not seemingly be explained sociologically.” Texture or style is the product of the workings, at once extremely minute and extremely complex, of individual sensibility; and though the entire process is no doubt in some way affected by the writer’s “belief,” it cannot be altered fundamentally. This question of “belief” in poetry caused Eliot no end of worry (cf. especially his 1929 essay on Dante) and he wrestled with it vigorously and with exemplary truthfulness in essay after essay. He never came to any definitive conclusion and finally let the matter rest. The case of Bertolt Brecht will serve as a good example in this respect. However orthodox he may have been in his communist principles, his unquenchable and highly original sensibility got him into trouble with the Soviet commissars of culture. What goes for radical writers, goes equally for the reactionary ones.

LET ME APPROACH this question from another angle. One can show, I believe, that virtually all of Lawrence’s novels after Sons and Lovers are considerably damaged as works of art by his undue insistence on his own “belief”; but what shall we say about the numerous works which despite the salient element of “belief” in them easily transcend the level of idea-mongering and doctrinal bluster? The Possessed is admittedly a counter-revolutionary novel politically and in the writer’s explicit intention, but that does not deter those of us who spurn its propagandistic “message” from fully enjoying it. Nor do the antipathetic social-political views of W.B. Yeats deter me from appreciating his poetry. Perhaps V. S. Pritchett is right in claiming that “propaganda does not become art until it has the grace and courage to welcome the apparent defeat of its purpose.” The occasion of Pritchett’s apt comment is to be found in his analysis of Oblomov, of which it can be presumed that its author set out initially to chastise the sloth and torpor of the landlord class in Russia, only to produce in his protagonist, that prodigious and ineffable “absentee” from life, one of the most extraordinary characters in fiction. This is equally true of the portrait of elder Verhovensky in The Possessed, by which Dostoevsky meant to scourge the liberal idealists of the 1830s and 1840s only to find himself, as he gave free rein to his creative impulses, with a human being on his hands so genuine and appealing as to surpass wholly our awkward categories of “belief.” I think that posterity will no doubt forgive the ideological aberrations of at least three of the writers discussed in this book—certainly Yeats and Eliot and in part Lawrence—as it has already forgiven Dostoevsky and many other great artists of word and image.

But I agree with Mr. Harrison when he takes to task such critics as L. C. Knights and F. R. Leavis for glossing over the real meaning of some of the ideas of these writers. “It is one thing to see and accept his [Yeats’s] prejudices, and another to conjure them away, to pretend that they were something different.” This false stance is one of which most literary critics who have dealt with Yeats and the others are notoriously guilty. Thus Mr. Harrison justly attacks Dr. Leavis’s position on Lawrence as a social critic. The conclusions of this criticism, writes Dr. Leavis, “were Lawrence’s and Lawrence was an artist of genius: that is why they are to be considered.” Mr. Harrison has no trouble demonstrating that such an approach is irresponsible even from a literary point of view. “One has not only to understand Lawrence’s ideas but to make some attempt to sympathize with them before one can begin to appreciate a novel such as The Rainbow.” After all, Lawrence did not primarily conceive of himself as an artist but as a leader and prophet. And he himself, I have no doubt, would have protested against such cavalier treatment of his ideas as he gets from Dr. Leavis; for he went so far as to assert that “even art is utterly dependent on philosophy: or, if you prefer, on a metaphysic.” It is precisely this metaphysic, so important to Lawrence, that Dr. Leavis, in his book D. H. Lawrence: Novelist, willfully ignores in his anxiety to promote Lawrence as an artist of narrative prose in the “great tradition” (of whose existence I am not at all persuaded). Lawrence is admirable, to be sure, in the immediacy and spontaneity of his language, but there is more to the fictional medium than language and he is not nearly so good a novelist as Dr. Leavis makes him out to be.

To my mind, what these five writers have in common is a conviction, not always conscious, of the sovereignty of the word, not only in literature but also in life. This is their real “heresy,” to use an expression much favored by Eliot and his disciples. In their school of modernity the view prevails that words somehow command reality. What this view represents, of course, as Leon Trotsky once said while polemicizing against the Russian formalists, is a kind of obdurate philosophical idealism. Such literary idealists, he then noted, are proselytes of St. John in that they believed, as is written, that “In the beginning was the Word.” And Trotsky added that he on the other hand believed that in the beginning was the deed, with the word following as its “phonetic shadow.”

  • Email
  • Print