Feature | Decision, tradition and the individual talent

It is now a hundred years since TS Eliot’s poem ‘The Wasteland’, appeared in The Dial. Numerous global  commemorations have taken place, both academic and popular, many of which have been uncritically hagiographic or, otherwise, laudatory. In 1919—four years prior to that vast poem’s publication—Eliot had published ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, across two issues of Harriet Shaw Weaver’s journal The Egoist. Eliot scholars know these facts well. Similarly, they know very well that Eliot therein inscribed his logic of English poetry and its relation to European tradition, across the backdrop of a paradoxical global order: the longstanding European project of perpetual peace in the League of Nations, alongside the continued control of much of the globe of the old empires through their various protectorates, spheres of influence and dependencies.

What is less known and emphasised is that the essay has an analogue in politics. The logic of land appropriation and global dominance just described would later undergird the concept of a Nomos of the Earth elaborated by the German Catholic jurist Carl Schmitt (2006). Yet this latter elaboration would not take place until after World War II. In 1922, three years after the peace of Versailles (like Eliot’s poem, reaching its hundredth anniversary), Schmitt came to focus on the concept of political sovereignty. In his Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Schmitt emerged to challenge the legacy of nineteenth century positivist law. Two fundamental innovations of the thought of poetic novelty and political authority were, in this period, taking place against the backdrop of early rumblings in Europe’s unsettlement as the centre of social and geopolitical domination.

Each in their own way, Eliot and Schmitt were conservatives. Eliot was concerned that the various experiments of his era (which we now call Modernist) be qualified by acknowledgement of tradition in the production of poetic novelty. Schmitt—who would later join the Nazi party—insisted that the role of decision be acknowledged in the making of law and order. For Schmitt, expertise and competence were as significant to the making of law as was the operation of the precedent (whether codified or in common law) from which they derived. Schmitt believed decision (of a judge or politician) was intrinsic to the law and could not simply be overridden by a mechanical application of precedent. Schmitt and Eliot form a kind of inverse symmetry as they address the relation between the old (precedent/tradition) and the new (decision/individual talent); Eliot, avowing novelty, emphasises the role of tradition in individual talent, whereas Schmitt, avowing the tradition of the laws, nonetheless seeks acknowledgement of the current role of decision in political legal form and the potential it might have for extension in Weimar Constitutionalism.

Eliot and Schmitt never, to my knowledge, wrote directly about one another in a public forum. While they are therefore not connected according to a logic of influence or its anxiety, they are differently imbricated in an interwar, transnational discourse reflecting on temporal political authority, tradition, spiritual transcendence and, above all, the meaning of the new. Eliot and Schmitt’s concatenation is, however, bridged by at least one intermediary and likely many more: English Catholic cultural historian Christopher Dawson (see Miller 2008). Dawson wrote for Eliot’s Criterion in the early 1930s, around the same time that he had begun to champion Schmitt’s work in the Anglophone world. What emerges in this triangulation of Schmitt, Eliot and intermediary figures like Dawson is a version of a wider transnational conversation—particularly among Catholic and High Church Anglican thinkers sympathetic to Fascism—that elaborates a number of things. It elaborates, at once, a decisionist logic of politics and a dialectical model of poetic novelty analogous to decisionism, and embeds both in a Eurocentric account of cultural perfection, undergirded, paradoxically, by an Orientalist genealogy of European tradition.

My focus here is on the particular interwar concatenation of poetic novelty, spiritual transcendentalism and political authority representative of Eliot and Schmitt’s moment. There are, I suggest, both necessary and contingent dimensions to the logic of artistic novelty in art that are partially anticipated in Kant’s third critique, but articulated in Eliot. One finds in Eliot the relation between artistic predecessors and the idea of transcendent making adjacent to a nonetheless contingent cultural clothing. Taking the relation between ‘tradition’ and ‘individual talent’ to be fundamental to the structure of aesthetic innovation, one also finds the geopolitical and cultural frame that surrounds them to be quite contingent. The notion of poetic and political sovereignty that emerges when we connect Schmitt and Eliot through Dawson is vested in a simultaneous openness to a worldwide tradition and immediately foreclosed via an account of European cultural synthesis. What emerges is a modernist poetics for which there is something essential to the structure of poetic innovation and its implied account of global geopolitics, even as the form it has taken has perversely been the seat of a most destructive Eurocentrism.

Decision, Tradition and the Individual Talent

The idea that aesthetic novelty is enriched by tradition has been incipient in European culture since at least Kant’s third critique. Kant wrote, there:

There is no use of our powers at all, however free it might be, and even of reason (which must draw all its judgments from the common source a priori), which, if every subject always had to begin entirely from the raw predisposition of his own nature, would not fall into mistaken attempts if others had not preceded him with their own, not in order to make their successors into mere imitators, but rather by means of their method to put others on the right path for seeking out principles in themselves and thus for following their own, often better, course (2000:163–4).

For Eliot, this is rendered in far less dry terms, through the notion of the poet’s self-sacrifice precipitating both inclusion within and transcendence of the tradition of which the poet is a part:

What is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career. What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality (1919:57)

Yet the aesthetic and political conjunction of these ideas found their clearest intersection in this turn to the 1920s. The concatenation between Schmitt’s politics of sovereignty and Eliot’s poetics of tradition and individual talent arises most starkly when one contrasts Eliot’s essay to the second of Schmitt’s chapters on the concept of sovereignty. Schmitt closes the first chapter of Political Theology by insisting on the necessity of the exception to all past legal thought as central to the application and making of law:

Precisely a philosophy of concrete life must not withdraw from the exception and the extreme case, but must be interested in the highest degree. The exception can be more important to it than the rule, not because of a romantic irony for the paradox, but because the seriousness of an insight goes deeper than the clear generalisations inferred from what ordinarily repeats itself. The exception is more interesting than the rule. The rule proves nothing; the exception proves everything: It confirms not only the rule but also its existence, which derives only from the exception. In the exception the power of real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition. (1985:15).

For Schmitt, legal novelty is reliant on a sovereignty that arises in the form of past legal thought, even as it can never be reduced to the simple processing or repetition of such thought in the application of law. In the second chapter, Schmitt asserts this most explicitly, stating:

Every legal thought brings an idea, which in its purity can never become reality, into another aggregate condition and adds an element that cannot be derived either from the content of the legal idea or from the content of a general positive legal norm that is to be applied (1985:30).

For Schmitt, the role of the rule, of legal thought, derived from the precedents of past law and present codification is relevant only insofar as it informs the competence of the sovereign legal decision maker to impose an exception—to decide that the rule need not apply, or already does not apply in the present situation.

For Schmitt, it is not so much in the charismatic figure of the sovereign, but more crucially in the function of the ‘formula, sign, and signal’ that sovereignty imprints on the modern state (1985:17). In a succinct phrase, the formalism of sovereignty already recognised in the charismatic figures at the head of states had, for Schmitt, to be equally recognised in the very formalism of the calculations of state law. He puts this in one phrase at the turn of the progression already traced in the text: ‘The form should be transferred from the subjective to the objective’ (1985:29). For Schmitt, then, decision is an objective feature of any system of law. It is in this feature as a sign or signal that the act of marking law’s limit and exception remakes the whole system of law anew in a single sovereign act.

For Eliot, the decision of the critic in regard to contemporary poetics is always made in relation to tradition, which we can now read as the analogue in law and politics of the rule. Yet, even as Eliot therefore states ‘The historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional’, the poet, when acting to make new this sense of tradition, operates according to a heterogeneous logic (1919:55). Even as Eliot affirms that the historical sense is ‘what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity’, he will add that the writer, made traditional by the judgement of others, can also remake tradition. Eliot elaborates this as follows:

The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it [emphasis added]. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new (1919:55)

For Eliot, then, in that rare moment when a new work of art is created, it remakes the form of all tradition. Paradoxically, it is the very status of the recognition of this novelty as always already traditional that allows the work, in its novelty, to remake the form of tradition itself. This tradition is nonetheless culturally located—a monolith drawn from one cultural genealogy: it is ‘European’ tradition that can come to permit the novelty of ‘English literature’ (Eliot 1919:55). Eliot’s thought of poetic novelty is at once dynamic and limited to a monolithic genealogy that would return to the Greeks and, at best, to the legacy of the Sanskrit as the ur-genealogy of Indo-European language.

If the concatenation between Schmitt and Eliot is to be rendered in a single expression, one can stipulate: individual talent is the act of decision whereby tradition is at once surmounted and preserved. Analogously, Schmittian decision is the act of making sovereign that at once exceeds and remakes law. It must be noted that Schmitt attempts to proscribe the analogy of political sovereignty with that of aesthetic making: an attempt at purification that, if anything, should warn us as to how stark the connection may in fact be. Schmitt is concerned enough with the possibility of the connection as to close the second chapter of Political Theology with an unargued dismissal: ‘The juristic form’, he insists, ‘is also not the form of technical precision because the latter has a goal-oriented interest that is essentially material and impersonal. Finally, it is not the form of aesthetic production, because the latter knows no decision’ (1985:55). If Eliot is to be believed, however, it is precisely in the paradoxical relation between the poet’s place in tradition and his remaking thereof that the poet does know and exercise decision, if rarely, and albeit, in order to adjoin his contribution to a tradition in relation to which it will now be fixed. Eliot’s talent is, in aesthetics, what Schmitt’s decision is to law and politics.

Tradition, Orientalism and Worldwide Dominion

Schmitt may have continued to maintain the position that art ‘knows no decision’, but this did not prevent him, one year after the publication of Political Theology, from bestowing on the aesthetic one of the three central roles in the sphere that was to be the basis for his Catholic vision of European politics: the sphere of representation. In his 1923 The Necessity of Politics, Schmitt positioned the political idea of Catholicism as finding its role in restoring representation to the political through ‘three great forms’. First in ‘[a]rt—its aesthetic form’, the church was to attain charismatic prestige. Second, it was to unify the tenets enshrined in ‘law—its juridical form’. Finally, this paradigm was to spread through ‘the splendid form of worldwide dominion’ (1931:61) Within this discursive thread that links Schmitt’s politics and Eliot’s aesthetics, worldwide hegemony is then implicated in a theocratic understanding of the role of the church in temporal affairs. To grasp this theory in its complex and, at times, paradoxical form, it is necessary to turn to such examples of Schmitt’s Catholic writings as The Necessity of Politics and, indeed, the wider public sphere that connects these writings with Eliot’s own interwar political views.

Just as Schmitt disavowed the machinic nature of positivist accounts of law, he also insisted on the role of the human and, indeed, the spiritual in politics as the logical undergirding of any possibility of representation per se. Where Schmitt’s politics of decision resembles Eliot’s logic of representation, his Catholic writings emphasise the degree to which the logic of representation was, for him, the basis of representation in politics. In these writings, Schmitt would attempt to delineate the role of Catholicism in social and political life while, first, insisting on the role of Catholicism in a representative form of political life that cannot be touched by the economic and technocratic emphasis of the modern state that Schmitt saw in both the socialist and the capitalist orders. Nor, incidentally, can Catholicism touch the secular economy. In The Necessity of Politics Schmitt insisted ‘Representation is no materialist concept’, as socialists and capitalists alike seemed (he charged) prone to reducing it (1931:60).

Only a person can represent in the highest sense of the term, and moreover (if there is to be more than mere deputising) he must represent some person in authority or some ideas, which latter, directly, it is represented, also become personified. God or The People of democratic ideology or such abstract ideas as Liberty and Equality are conceivable subjects for representation, but not so Production and Consumption … You cannot represent something or somebody to automatons or machines, neither can they in their turn be representative of anything nor be represented (1931:60–1)

Schmitt was not alone in the interwar years in his worry over the state’s reduction of politics to economism and technocratic bureaucracy. Nor was he alone in the turn to religion that was prescribed as a counter-logic along with the potential emergence of fascism as a dark path implied in it. When The Necessity of Politics was first published in English in 1931, it was introduced by the English Catholic cultural historian Dawson, the aforementioned colleague of Eliot’s who also began, that year, contributing to The Criterion.

In Schmitt, Dawson saw the most accomplished theorist of European and particularly Catholic cultural hegemony. As Dawson wrote in his introduction to perhaps the most openly Catholic work of this ‘scientific jurist’: ‘Religion is not to be identified with a particular element in life. It is the ordering of life as a whole—the moulding of social and historical reality into a living spiritual unity’ (Dawson, Introduction to Schmitt 1931:1, 10). The problem, for Dawson (and to a large degree, for Schmitt) was how religion’s role as spiritual unifier was to best be given expression in the temporal world, potentially even while making room for the separation of church and state. Just as Schmitt complained that the problem of secularism was its amnesia about the theological foundations of its structure and institutions, so Dawson too was concerned that the church maintain its central place as guarantor of spiritual meaning in the modern world. ‘The Church exists’, he wrote in a 1934 article in The Criterion,

to be the light of the world, and if it fulfills its function, the world is transformed in spite of the obstacles that human powers place in the way. A secularist culture can only exist, so to speak, in the dark. It is a prison in which the human spirit confines itself when it is shut out of the wider world of reality (1934:16).

Dawson was opaque in such political prescriptions, but he was also reticent to simplistically prescribe this role for religion by lodging it in one of the extant ideologies available at the time: Totalitarian or Democratic. The point, for Dawson, was that the totalitarian interventions into every aspect of life—war, poverty, ‘the control of the birth-rate, the elimination of the unfit’, and widespread industrialism (in short, what we now follow Michel Foucault in calling biopolitics)—were not absent from the Anglo-American democracies but simply less intensified than in either Soviet or Nazi totalitarianism (1934:2). Nonetheless, in modern society tout court ‘[t]he sphere of action of the State’ had ‘grown steadily larger until it now threatens to embrace the whole of human life and to leave nothing whatsoever outside its competence’, including the human and spiritual economy of pastoral care that had once been the domain of the church (1934:1)

The state was threatening to substitute technocratic and bureaucratic custodianship of all aspects of life, to the point where the temporal state would replace and throttle the custodianship the church had once provided. With it would disappear the individual personification of decision entailed in the church as a humanist representational entity. It was not the repressive nature of the existing totalitarian regimes that worried Dawson but, instead, their usurpation of (or hostility to) the role of religion in political life. Totalitarian societies insisted on a form of authority that ‘resembles a religious or militaristic order rather than a political party of the old type’ (Dawson 1934:4). While the totalitarian state emphasised what Dawson called ‘the corporate spirit’, it nonetheless risked throttling spirituality and becoming a ‘soulless bureaucracy which would leave no room for any free initiative and would reduce the whole society to a dead level of mechanical uniformity’ (1934:5).

While Dawson also mused that ‘it is at least theoretically possible that the limitation of political and economic freedom by the extension of social control could actually be favorable to spiritual freedom’, nonetheless, ‘in practice … we have got to consider the spiritual tendency of the new political forces’ (1934:6). Russian Communism was atheistic and German Nazism contained ‘a strong strain of racial and political mysticism … which involves a serious danger of conflict between Church and State’ (1934:8).

‘It is not that the Nazi movement is anti-religious’, he continued, ‘[t]he danger is rather that it has a religion of its own which is not that of Christian orthodoxy’ (1934:5). The point was not to oppose the dominion of a global or even totalitarian order. Rather it was to oppose those technocratic forms of totalitarianism that left no place for either decision or representation. Totalitarian political power was good, provided it recognise the role of human agency in assenting to its dominion and subordinated temporal authority to religious power. In this way, Dawson’s thought drew on that of Schmitt in an effort to make the totalitarian logic of decision compatible with a humanist logic of representation.

Eliot too was sympathetic to the desire for the form of spiritual and humanist experience once manifest, ostensibly, through the church. Writing in 1928 in The Criterion, he was similarly suspicious of Fascism in Italy. There, Eliot took issue with his contemporary JS Barnes, the English Catholic and fascist sympathiser. Where Barnes saw in Italian fascism the ideal political form of the Catholic faith, Eliot repudiated him:

I think I understand what [Barnes] means by the ‘Roman religious tradition’, and it is quite natural for him to see the whole of Europe in accord with it. But I am not so sure what he means by the Roman ‘political tradition’ … I am in accord about the desirability of the ‘independent moral authority’ [of the Fascist state in line with Catholicism] but I cannot see why any fascist should necessarily recognise the need for it, unless a fascist has to be a Christian, which is not demonstrated (1928:285).

Eliot’s ‘accord’ with the desire to see Europe unified under a single religious tradition clearly placed him in line with this transnational (or, at least Anglo-Teutonic) tendency toward a nostalgia for spiritual unity. His interpretation of ‘independent moral authority’ was, nonetheless more unique, particularly as it bore upon artistic freedom in relation to ecclesiastical authority and the bearing it had—if any—for the political sphere.

For Schmitt and Dawson, with differing emphases, the critical political question of the time was to restore to temporal politics the role of the majesty of the spiritual authority that had once been vested in the church. This religious ideal also possessed a cultural component, connected as it was with the idea of the unification and dominance of Europe. Yet it also possessed a complex global and Orientalist thrust: recognising the worldliness of the Catholic tradition, while ultimately vesting authority in the perfection of the institution of the Catholic church. For Schmitt, the European institution of the church had to be vested in aesthetic magnificence, the rule of law guaranteed through the divine theological foundation of the juridical, and the ‘worldwide dominion’ of this order. In such postwar writings as The Nomos of the Earth, a contrite Schmitt would nonetheless provide an account of international law as rooted in the Westphalian order given in land appropriation and right of access to sea. In that text, European hegemony would be the guarantee of legal order. In his interwar Catholic writings, Schmitt was not yet this schematic. The insistence on class-based revolution and Russia’s turn away from Europe towards a certain Orientalism were, for Schmitt, also a rejection of the ideal of political representation guaranteed by spiritual humanism (1931:89). For Schmitt, private property was an expression of spiritual autonomy, as he tautologically demonstrated: ‘If religion is a private matter, the converse becomes true; what is private acquires a religious consecration. The two are inseparable. Private property, therefore, is sacred precisely because it is private’ (1931: 79). This point was hardly neutral in its cultural form, instead it led credence to the idea that European society had developed the most advanced temporal instantiation of a spiritual and human society; ‘this connection’, between private faith and private property, ‘hitherto hardly realized, explains the sociological evolution of modern European society’ (1931:73). Yet it was Dawson who would make the Eurocentric cultural imperialism of the radical Catholicism he shared with Schmitt most abundantly clear.

For both Schmitt and Dawson, tradition was teleological. Innovations, while possessing mobile and syncretic histories, led toward the realisation of the ultimately spiritual unity guaranteed by the church. Dawson would give a historical account of this. Even as powers of innovation might arise among ‘the most irreconcilable of the Oriental subject peoples’, they were also given unity by a Roman and, therefore, proto-European Imperialism that ‘incorporated everything that was living in the tradition of ancient culture’. While Catholic unity was subject to paradox, be it that of ‘its union of authoritative exclusiveness with spiritual catholicity’ or the mysteries of the finite in the infinite resolved (such as they are) by the doctrine of the Trinity, it was clear that European cultural forms had given expression to the telos of cultural expression and temporal authority.

The novel synthesis of courtly love, Platonic idealism and Christian mysticism, as Dawson saw it, was the apotheosis of a cultural synthesis, and the modern period, while emerging from this synthesis, was lacking only in its inability to reincorporate it. Similarly, while European unity in political matters continued to be expressed, the tragedy of modernity was Europe’s fragmentary rejection of this divinely ordained unity. Similarly, Schmitt ultimately correlates the logic of decision in the recognition of the divine justification on which legal novelty and political authority are based; secular institutions retain this structure and merely maintain the delusional idea that they can succeed without its recognition. After the war, Schmitt would complicate his idea of decision and its closures, in response to Catholic criticism of his de-emphasis of the Trinity. The text in which he attempted this, Political Theology, can also be read as a—contrite—attempt to correct an extant emphasis on a monolithic closure to authority and decision, an emphasis that may be seen to have served as a basis for his embrace of Nazism (2008). Yet, if Schmitt would later nuance his understanding of precedent and political authority, in the interwar years, at least, he saw tradition as perfectible and its temporal expression could be given to an ideal European form.

For his part, while Eliot focused on a Eurocentrically aligned account of the ‘organic wholes’ making up national literature and world culture, he would also prescribe a certain openness to innovation that Dawson’s and Schmitt’s teleological thought foreclosed. Yet, despite his own culturally conservative Anglophilia, Eliot differed in a key manner. For Eliot, the ‘existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves’, and this ideal order is ‘modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them’. The ideal, for Eliot (or the young Eliot, at least), had no closure. The logic of tradition and individual talent that so resembles the Schmittean logic of decision, differs primarily in this idea of perfectibility.

Perfection, Novelty and Conformity

In ‘The Function of Criticism’, Eliot explicitly repudiated the tarnishing of individual talent by exterior, religiously ordained, order: ‘We are not, in fact, concerned with literary perfection at all—the search for perfection is a sign of pettiness, for it shows that the writer has admitted the existence of an unquestioned spiritual authority outside himself, to which he has attempted to conform’ (1932:29). Individual talent would, in this way, be stained by the blind embrace of a pre-existing order to which it either conformed, could ultimately conform. Yet this pre-existing order is precisely the teleological crafting of genius revered by Kant, and given a different, but nonetheless strictly Catholic cultural account by Dawson. Individual talent certainly necessitates self-sacrifice, but hardly in alignment with the absolute. Tradition is therefore a substitute for the purposiveness of a deity, and yet open beyond the Abrahamic logic that would constrain it.

In a remark that might well have infuriated Schmitt, Eliot adapted a phrase from art critic Arthur Clutton Brock, ‘[t]he law of art … is all case law’ (1932: 29). Novelty was designed to (within limits) please in a mode that was, if not pluralistic (its author’s Eurocentrism would hardly allow that), at least open to different receivers. Eliot’s early optimism about the absence of perfectibility would be tempered by the idea of maturity he came to develop in his 1944 lecture ‘What Is a Classic?’ But this notion of maturity was never to be subjected to the spiritual teleology Dawson—taking Schmitt as his authority—prescribed. When Eliot announced in 1944 that ‘Europe is a whole (and still, in its progressive mutilation and disfigurement, the organism out of which any greater world harmony must develop)’ he was asserting and avowing a possibility and not prescribing a structure ordained by spiritual authority (2017:684).

Much of what I have just said would caution against an authoritative attempt at a reading of, say, ‘The Wasteland’. To put it in the terms of the poem: ‘thinking of the key’ to a poetic hermeneutic of this unwieldy text, ‘each confirms the prison’ of a closed reading (Eliot, 1969:69). (Subsequent reference to ‘The Wasteland’ are to this edition, cited by line). In other words, any key analytic mechanism forecloses as much as it reveals. If one says the Fisher King story is the key, one forgets the influence of the Vedas; if one sees the text as inflected by the ancient or by the medieval, one forgets its modernity; and so on. While it is hardly the only way to read the poem, I would suggest that a geopolitical logic of poetic closure is both staged and undermined in the poem’s final section, ‘What the Thunder Said’: a logic that also reveals the tension between the kind of teleology one finds in Dawson and Schmitt and its repudiation in Eliot’s own poetics.

Eliot manifestly presents ‘What the Thunder Said’ as turning on three themes: the story of Emmaus from the Gospel of Luke, the Chapel Perilous episode in medieval Grail narrative, and the decay of Eastern Europe in his contemporary moment. These three ‘themes’ Eliot announces in his notes to this section are highly reminiscent of the key elements—as well as the central challenges—to the teleological Catholic view of cultural history that Dawson would later more drily animate in his account of Christendom’s global provenance and European perfection (Eliot 1969:74). ‘The Wasteland’ as a whole is (famously) concerned with the fall of European civilisation under modernity, as well as animated by both Christian intertexts (perhaps most centrally, The Fisher King legend) and multiple, intersecting global and ‘oriental’ elements (and the Upanishads are arguably most central to this latter thematic concern). As such, its closure stages both the possibility of this European, indeed, Christian, telos as well as a disruption of its pretension to the ‘perfection’, undergirded by a ‘spiritual authority’, Eliot would, we have seen, shortly repudiate in favour of individual talent.

The theme of the journey to Emmaus, recounting as it does a scriptural account of the disciples’ experience of Christ’s presence after the crucifixion, offers a possible spiritual solution to the (religious and secular) themes of fallenness that precede in the poem, most notably in the opening section’s evocation of a fallen modern metropolis, an ‘Unreal City, / under the brown fog of a winter dawn’, where the lukewarm from Canto III of Inferno are evoked to reveal the melancholic limbo of European modernity: ‘I had not thought death had undone so many’ (ll. 60–1, 63). Of course, the doctrine of eternal life following Christ’s messianic sacrifice is evoked in the opening stanza. Lawrence Rainey, for instance, has suggested that the lines following the first invocation of an aftermath of ‘torchlight red on sweaty faces’ (l. 322) evokes the episode of Judas’s betrayal as recounted in John 18:3, where the latter appears in the night with a band of men and officers bearing torches. Yet the promise of eternal life given in the lines ‘He who was living is now dead / We who were living are now dying / With a little patience’ is as connected to Christian messianism. This is so, even as it establishes these lines in ‘thunder of spring over distant mountains’ and, from there, frames them, invoking the parallel Hindu narrative of redemption given in Prajāpati’s dialogue on thunder that, arguably, frames this closing section most fully (ll. 328–30, 327). Similarly, the framing question of stanza four that again refers to the episode of Emmaus, ‘Who is the third who walks always beside you?’ (meaning the presence of Christ felt by two disciples in the days after his crucifixion, recounted in Luke 24:13–32) is paralleled by the question ‘What is the sound high in the air / Murmur of maternal lamentation’ (l. 360, 367). This is arguably once more a reference to the simultaneously creative and destructive power of Prajāpati. Eliot’s note also gives this sense of fallen-ness a connection to the third theme, via some lines of Herman Hesse’s Blick ins Chaos: the turmoil in Eastern Europe (bringing with it, presumably, Bolshevism, atheism and the decay of spiritual passion to worldly intoxication exemplified in Hesse’s—and Eliot’s invocation of Dostoevsky’s Dmitri Karamazov) (1969:75).

Reading perhaps overly schematically, one could see a logic emerging from the kind of thinking later exemplified in Dawson: namely that Europe’s capacity to instantiate spiritual and temporal unity through Christ is thwarted by the unwillingness of the Orient to find itself directed by Europe, and by elements of Europe’s East turning toward Oriental and atheistic elements. However, I delineate this possibility because I think at least aspects of its schema are foreclosed by Eliot’s refusal to see the so-called Orient, or at least, Vedic Hinduism, as anathema to true spiritual awakening of the kind given to Europe via Christ. The lesson of the thunder seems a reasonable alternative to Christian redemption: perhaps even an alternative form of revelation in a pan-cultural environ and certainly, at the very least, an equally valid source of global tradition for the genius poet. Where the doubling of the thunder and the temporal chaos of Eastern Europe might taint the thunder as a signifier, not only is the Vedic logic of creation also combined with destruction, but the role that the thunder plays through the course of the lines that follow arguably presents this ambivalence as a basis for the redemption of a decaying world that develops through the course of the section to which it lends the title.

The second theme that Eliot marks as central is his evocation of the conceit of the perilous chapel central to medieval Romance, given voice in the section’s seventh stanza. There the ‘perilous chapel’ aspect of the Grail quest narrative, which Eliot’s source depicts as ‘an adventure in which supernatural, and evil, forces are engaged’, is evacuated of significance, either as the presence of evil or the confirmation of the religious and moral good that would contest it (Weston, From Ritual to Romance, cited in Eliot 2006: 119.) Instead, Eliot depicts, an ‘empty chapel, only the wind’s home’, where the past role of spirit in combating temptation and evil is less relevant to modernity than the internal contest depicted in the text’s engagement with the Hindu Vedas that follow (l. 389). If demonic evil still exists to confirm religious good, the poem suggests otherwise; here ‘dry bones can harm no one’ (l. 391). Instead, the invocation of the Vedic principle of dayadhvam (the incitement to compassion) positions this demonic power in the modern subject’s own psyche; in the Upanishadic fable of thunder, compassion is impressed upon demons, or, perhaps, the demonic aspect of man himself (Eliot 2006:119–20).

The third theme Eliot evokes, ‘the present decay of Eastern Europe’, is more difficult to locate in the poem itself, beyond the already ambivalent lines noted by Eliot to be connected to Hesse’s text. One reading, at least plausible, is Eliot’s own sense of what Dawson later enunciated in his introduction to Schmitt’s book: opposition to the soullessness of Soviet totalitarianism and fear of its partially ‘Oriental’ taint. What undercuts this sense of Eurocentrism and aversion to the ‘Orient’ in Eliot’s own poem is the role the Upanishads play as an intertext that closes the poem, both literally in that it occupies its final lines, sealed as they are with a ‘shanith, shantih, shantih’, and, arguably, in providing the hermeneutic closure of the poem’s project as a whole. Here then, I am not aiming to give an exhaustive reading to this section of the poem, precisely because, as noted at the outset, hermeneutic closure would itself function at crossed purposes to the hyper-referential, indeed, global text. The very ambivalence of the position of the thunder, its alternate vision of redemption through control (dāmyata), generosity and givenness (datta), and compassion (dayadhvam) and its structural role in closing the poem, itself mark ‘What the Thunder Said’, and ‘The Wasteland’ as a whole—despite its own moments of Eurocentricism—as at odds with the teleological picture given in Dawson’s account of tradition and, less explicitly, in Schmitt’s prewar political position.

If a specific political logic emerges in the closing lines of ‘The Wasteland’—beyond the repetition of the ‘Unreal’ city refrain given in relation to the great cities of intellect (‘Athens’) and faith (‘Jerusalem’), or Oriental seats of Empire (‘Alexandria’), or indeed decaying European modernity (‘Vienna London’)—it is perhaps most anchored in the desire to ‘revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus’ that precedes the reference to the Vedic dāmyata as control (ll. 374–7, 417). Indeed, Eliot reorders the sequence (and arguably the hierarchy) of the three Da questions of the fable of Prajāpati and the thunder, from dāmyata (control), datta (give), dayadhvam (be compassionate) to place dāmyata in the closing position. Along with the reference to the Coriolanus, the invocation of the authoritative voice of thunder arguably also evokes the most classic references of the necessity of centralised political authority, the ‘ship of state’ metaphor from Book VI of Plato’s Republic:

Damyata: The boat responded

Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar

The sea was calm, your heart would have responded

Gaily, when invited, beating obedient

To controlling hands (ll. 419–23).

In this way, an invocation of spiritual and emotional self-control is at least partially externalised by Eliot toward a theory of political authority, a theme to which he would return in the uncompleted, two-part poem ‘Coriolan’ published (in two separate parts and places) in 1932.

In 1928’s ‘Literature of Fascism’, Eliot insists that while ‘order and authority are good’, one must nonetheless be wary of a political system that emphasises them and permits its inhabitants to ‘escape the burdens of life and thought’ (1928:288). Eliot’s sympathy for political authority, like his insistence on tradition and, indeed classicism, were tempered by the desire for ‘life and thought’, novelty and originality, individual talent and not perfection, or, as he would put it in ‘The Function of Criticism’, where ‘the principle of classical leadership is that obeisance is made to the office or to the tradition, never to the man’, nonetheless ‘we want, not principles, but men’ (1932: 29). In fact, Eliot’s remarks on the possibility of freedom expressed through political authority are always couched in terms of democracy—in a mode perhaps troublingly reminiscent of Dawson’s idea of a future Anglo-Saxon society whose ‘ideals would probably be humanitarian, democratic, and pacific’. Where, for Eliot, ‘the modern question as popularly put is “Democracy is dead; what is to replace it?” whereas it should be: “the frame of democracy has been destroyed: how can we, out of materials at hand, build a new structure in which democracy can live?”’ (1928:287). What in politics worries Eliot is precisely analogous to the logic of tradition and individual talent, namely, that it will foreclose the novelty (and indeed decision), of genius. Genius, to be genius’ must be aware of tradition in order to transcend it. This is gradually elaborated through his career and, while augmented by an increasing cultural conservatism in the latter moment (for instance in What Is a Classic?), never manifestly abandoned. For Eliot, political authority must be undergirded by active and self-conscious participation just as knowledge of tradition must give way to self-conscious poetic novelty.

As Gareth Reeves has argued, ‘Coriolan’ was perhaps left incomplete precisely because as a poem, it ‘does not offer any resolution to the issue’ of when and in what form one can distinguish ‘true order and authority’ over ‘mere empty “parrotings”’(1994:205). Indeed, truth of order and authority, I would argue, is given for Eliot in the self-conscious decision of (to put it in the poetic terms of ‘the Function of Criticism’) ‘men’ where this does not reduce to ‘principles’ or performances of ‘conform[ity]’ to a predetermined spiritual or temporal ‘perfection’. Even the Romanisation of the titular figure’s name from Coriolanus to merely Coriolan excises the ‘us’ of collectivity in favour of the decisionist grandeur of the hero. Yet, arguably the incompletion of ‘Coriolan’ leads to an irresolvable logic of poetics and political authority that trumps in advance the hermeneutic closure that Eliot, perhaps, desired to derive from completing it. The irresolvable aspect of Coriolan to which Reeves points prevents the poem from being a mere confirmation, or parallel elaboration, of a Schmittian logic of decision. While ‘[t]he natural wakeful life of our Ego is a perceiving’, the Ego is already collective, and if these collective ‘eyes’ (phonemically also the pluralised ‘I’ of the self) are ‘watchful, waiting, perceiving’, they are also ‘indifferent’ (1969:130). What the poem cannot sincerely assent to is an ordered regime that also gives meaning to both collective and authoritative voices: an ego that would be singular while reflecting the collective. Instead, either we have tyranny or, perhaps worse, in the poem’s staging the ‘demand’ of a ‘committee’ crying ‘RESIGN RESIGN RESIGN’ (133). This unseating of the political order of decision in such a mode as to be both authoritative and traditional reflects its irresolvability. It not only stages the impossible desires of Eliot’s politics but also the parallel tensions inhabiting his poetics of novelty.

Where globalisation is culturally Christian and Eurocentric, it is akin to what Jacques Derrida names ‘globalatinisation’—the ethos of Christian cultural hegemony gone global. The partial story I have here told about Schmitt and Eliot reveals them to be perceptive—if Eurocentric and (quasi)-Fascist—contributors to modernist poetics and twentieth century politics. What they contribute is, at least in part, a contemporary parable of globalatinisation. Yet, as Derrida argues, globalatinisation is both indefatigably expanding and, strangely, ‘out of breath [essoufflée] however irresistible and imperial it might be’. Hence, it might do to close by reflecting on what is irresistible—or even transcendental—in the poetic logic of novelty that I have traced, distinguishing from what is merely contingent in its history. Even for Eliot, what is in play is the relation between ‘European tradition’ and ‘English poetry’. Eliot and his modernist counterparts reveal an essential logic of novelty: its relation with and intervention in what precedes it. The synthesis that dominates in this logic, however, does so through the construction of the tradition on which this novelty hinges.

The breathless imperial and Eurocentric logic of tradition that emerges from this partial story renders a diverse intersection of ‘traditions’ as a monolithic lure. If Eliot attempted to eschew ‘perfection’ preferring instead an open novelty, nonetheless, the notion of a monolithic tradition embedded in his thought continually risks lapsing into a teleology that would ‘conform’ to ‘spiritual authority’, coming therefore to resemble the Catholicism of Dawson or, indeed, a certain notion of perfectability nascent within it. Poetic novelty may have its peculiarly Western history, but in its globalisation, this tradition (which is not, nor was it ever, one) is not only appended but, pluralised, erased, remade.

Works cited

Dawson, C 1934, ‘Religion and the Totalitarian State’, The Criterion, vol. 14, no. 54, pp. 1–16.
Eliot, TS 2017, The Complete Prose of TS Eliot, vol. 6., eds David E Chinitz and Ronald Schuchard, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Eliot, TS 2006, The Annotated ‘Wasteland’ with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose, ed. Lawrence Rainey, Yale University Press, New Haven.
Eliot, TS 1962, Collected Poems 1909–62, Faber and Faber, London.
Eliot, TS 1928, ‘Literature of Fascism’, The Criterion, vol. 8, no. 31, pp. 280–90.
Eliot, TS 1919, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ Part II, The Egoist, vol. 6, no. 4.
Kant, I 2000, Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK.
Miller, AJ 2008, Modernism and the Crisis of Sovereignty, Routledge, New York.
Reeves, G 1994, ‘“The Inexplicable Mystery of Sound”: Coriolan, Minor Poems, Occasional Verses’, in The Cambridge Companion to TS Eliot, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge UK, p. 205.
Schmitt, C 2008, Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of Any Political Theology. trans. Michael Hoelzl and Graham Ward, Polity, New York.
Schmitt, C 2006, The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum, Telos Press, Candor NY.
Schmitt, C 1985, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwabb, University of Chicago Press, 1985.
Schmitt, C 1931, The Necessity of Politics: An Essay on the Representative Idea in the Church and Modern Europe, Sheed and Ward, London.


Michael R. Griffiths

Michael R Griffiths lives in Marrickville. He teaches decolonial literature at the University of Wollongong. In 2018, his first monograph The Distribution of Settlement was released by UWAP.

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