Reading the Wreckage: De-Encrypting Eliot's Aesthetics of Empire

By Paul, Douglass | Twentieth Century Literature, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Reading the Wreckage: De-Encrypting Eliot's Aesthetics of Empire


Paul, Douglass, Twentieth Century Literature


Many of the works of the Ancients have become fragments; many works of the Moderns are so in their inception.

- Friedrich Schlegel, Athenaeum, Fragment 24

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older

The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated

Of dead and living. Not the intense moment

Isolated with no before and after,

But a lifetime burning in every moment

And not the lifetime of one man only

But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

- T. S. Eliot, "East Coker"(1)

It has seemed natural to find a wide gulf separating the poet of The Waste Land from that defender of aristocracy who later described his views as "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion."(2) As many studies have shown, however, Eliot's writings exhibit a substantial continuity of conservative and reactionary beliefs from about 1914.(3) The aesthetics of the jagged and the juxtaposed that Pound and Eliot had adapted from T. E. Hulme also form part of this continuity.(4) Though its formal innovations appear "revolutionary," The Waste Land's aesthetics are of a piece with modernism's reactionary character and reflect the cultural politics of the British conservatism Eliot had adopted. The de-encrypting, digging up, and decoding of the poem's fragments and allusions - its dry rock and intertextual archaeology - also lead to familiar ground: Eliot's gravitation to the British empire as "home." Finally, The Waste Land may be seen as part of a British literary tradition of "reading the wreckage" that goes back at least to Edward Volney's Ruins (1791).

Eliot's and Pound's use of fragmentation is qualitatively different from that of Joyce, Woolf, and H.D. I do not argue that fragmentation is an inherently reactionary aesthetic technique. Indeed it was associated with a liberal politics for Volney and Shelley. However, Eliot's and Pound's techniques of interruption and layering take on an opposite political coloration when their primary effect is to block access by the uninitiated, and when the initiation process must actually precede the aesthetic experience of a "modern" consciousness of complexity and contradictoriness. To put it another way, the aesthetic goal of Eliot's and Pound's major works becomes didactic, whereas the goal of Joyce, Woolf, and H.D. appears to be more truly "experimental," in the sense that they try - successfully, in my estimation - to evoke and explore a modern human consciousness through an aesthetics of disruption. Some political ideology inheres in all aesthetic practice, and "modernism" contradicts itself here, as in many of its other aspects. But since Eliot's 1922 poem has been so often taken to typify modernist aesthetics, it is important that we notice the consistency between his politics and his chosen form, even if that form has other possible implications.

There is little doubt that Eliot's identification with right-wing Anglo-European culture matured long before The Waste Land was published. He had been attracted to reactionary politics when he encountered Charles Maurras's work in the aftermath of his temporary "conversion" to Bergsonism. Maurras had amplified French fears of racial degeneration through the Action Francaise, and his political agenda was later implemented by the Vichy government, leading to his eventual imprisonment for life as a traitor. As Peter Ackroyd points out, the Nouvelle Revue Francaise of March 1913, a publication Eliot would likely have read, described Maurras as "classique, catholique, monarchique," the trio Eliot would employ in his Oxford syllabus of winter 1916 and then later to describe himself (Ackroyd 41; cu. Schuchard). I agree with Kenneth Asher that "[T]he Maurrasien inheritance provided Eliot with a dominant intellectual framework that he retained throughout his life" and that Eliot's essay on Machiavelli in For Lancelot Andrewes (1928) was actually a covert defense of Maurras (Asher 8, 54). …

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