ELIOT AND HIS AGE by Russell Kirk


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Eliot's reactionary politics have always been a complex matter. The proto-fascism of Pound can clearly be seen in his relations with Mussolini's Italy, the authoritarian temperament of Yeats is one with his cyclical theories of history. But Eliot's quarrel with liberalism is shot through with cultural, social, and religious ambiguities. The modernist sensibility which, after Flaubert and James, he made the characteristic sensibility of the 20th century seems grounded in contradictions: the classicism of Eliot's literary criticism, the disguised romanticism of his literary practice. Russell Kirk, a friend of his later years, wishes to corral Eliot into the conservative camp, but there is little to indicate, least of all in Kirk's book, that Eliot would have felt at home in the pages of Bill Buckley's National Review. When Kirk says that Eliot felt the ""need for aristocracy, hereditary and intellectual,"" he is being much too blatant. Eliot despised the utilitarianism and shallow rationalism of his day, but surely he had no interest in reviving a caste system and no illusions about the guardianship of the rich. Kirk admits as much a few sentences later when he remarks that The Criterion, the great journal Eliot edited during the inter-war years, ""would take its stand against leveling radicalism and against plutocracy."" Eliot and His Age, despite its sectarianism, is an interesting and often informative study which pays closer attention to Eliot's political thought than any other previous work. But it tends to fudge the fact that it was commercialism, above all, which drove Eliot from America to England, and that the problems of industrial culture, with which Eliot wrestled all his life, had less to do with Edmund Burke, Kirk's god, than with Arnold and Ruskin on the one hand and the Symbolists on the other.

Pub Date: Feb. 4th, 1972
Publisher: Random House