Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

T. S. Eliot's Neo-Medieval Economics

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

T. S. Eliot's Neo-Medieval Economics

Article excerpt

Introduction

Whether poets have ever made good economists is debatable, but one would certainly not turn to the milieu of the 1930s if one wanted to make an argument for the affirmative. Since poets have often tended to press toward cultural extremes, the decade that saw, perhaps, the most violent political and economic polarization in history, as fascism and communism staked their claims in world affairs, was a doubly dangerous time for poets to enter the fray. Two notable instances immediately come to mind: W. H. Auden, the youthful British poet who led the rush of idealistic literati who joined the Communist cause of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, and Ezra Pound, the maverick American who found, in Mussolini and the Fascist regime of Italy, a realization of his peculiar political and economic vision. Though he did not actually enter into combat, as did many other fellow writers, including George Orwell and Federico Garcia Lorca, Auden apparently gave a limited number of radio addresses for the Republican cause. Seeing that the situation in Spain was intractable and increasingly brutal, he eventually left for America, where in 1940 he began a journey not only toward American citizenship, but also toward a reaffirmation of his Anglican roots. Pound, on the other hand, endured in his chosen situation much longer, becoming a familiar voice on Italian radio and generating enough vitriol against the Allies to warrant placement in an American prison camp, a subsequent trial for treason against the United States government, and the bittersweet exoneration of being proclaimed mentally unsound and thus placed in a sanitarium. Clearly, neither of these poets could have been pleased with the results of their socio-political-economic forays in the 1930s.

Into this mix, enter T. S. Eliot--like Pound, an American attempting to repatriate himself to Europe; like Auden, a skeptic drawn into the mystery of Christianity and the Anglican confession. What sets Eliot apart, however, is that his treatment of many socio-political issues, and especially economic issues, appears not absurd but rather, in retrospect, profound. Eliot's thread of development as a social commentator is also intriguing because, though his poetry remains a rather abstruse source for following his thought, another source does exist: The Criterion. This was the journal--actually subtitled A Quarterly Review--that Eliot founded in 1922 and edited, through various permutations and crises, until he closed it down with the final issue in January 1939. Based on the assumption that an editor, during this period, kept fairly strict control over choices ranging from contributors, to foreign periodicals reviewed, to the thematic direction for the journal at large, The Criterion can be seen to serve as a progressive chronicle of Eliot's primary concerns--both before, during, and after his conversion. This becomes an unusual opportunity for exploration, and it bears much fruit.

By way of preface to an investigation of the economic themes in The Criterion, it is important to note that Eliot's concerns, as expressed in the journal, were almost purely literary and artistic until the mid-1920s. The promising developments in European diplomatic healing, as epitomized in the 1925 Treaty of Locarno, were celebrated in The Criterion primarily for the encouragement toward international intellectual discourse. But then 1926-1927 became a mysterious time for Eliot. Though no explicit Christian confession occurred in the pages of the journal, subtle shifts of emphasis occurred, from the literary and aesthetic toward the moral and ethical.

In January of 1928, The Criterion became a forum for an extended debate regarding the condemnation, by the Vatican, of L'Action Francaise, the rightwing French movement led by Charles Maurras. In a nutshell, the Vatican had finally lost patience with Maurras's insistence that the Roman Catholic Church, though of no use spiritually--Maurras was a self-proclaimed atheist--nevertheless was an essential component of the classical political order that he desired to be established permanently in France. …

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