T.S. Eliot And Ideology, by Kenneth Asher
This book is a failure, but it is the sort of failure that is deeply instructive when a writer attempts to promote a pet agenda rather than to understand the subject he is talking about. The author’s agenda, rather clearly presented, is that T.S. Eliot was strongly influenced from the beginning of his thinking by European reactionaries like the French tradition. He seeks to view this reactionary tradition as being the base of Eliot’s thinking across his poetry, plays, and literary criticism. He then sees this reactionary ideal as inspiring his own influence on others as a reactionary figure and views this as providing a continuity between Eliot’s earlier career as an agnostic poet of the desolation of postwar Christendom and his later career as an Anglo-Catholic. To say that this book fails at its task is fairly obvious, for while the author clearly manages to convince himself, he is more or less trying to stack the deck with snippets from an immensely broad body of work. Moreover, the author entirely avoids talking about the most important aspects of influence that were on Eliot from his own background and upbringing, which makes this work even more suspect.
This book is a bit more than 150 pages and it begins with acknowledgements and an introduction. After that the author provides a historical context to the French reactionaries that the author wishes to view as being foundational to Eliot’s worldview (1). This leads to a discussion of the possible links between Eliot, a man who was nothing if not well-read and diverse in his interests, with these reactionary thinkers (2). After that the author look at the relationship between orthodoxy and heresy (3), again not realizing that Eliot was far from Orthodox in his background even if he became much more Orthodox after conversion and in the period leading up to his baptism. This leads to a discussion of the Christian order that the author views as a bad thing (4) promoted by various Christian thinkers, as well as the matter of visions and revisions about how the world is to be transformed from what it is into something else (5). The book then ends with a discussion of the influence of Eliot on the “new criticism” that followed (6), after which there are notes and an index.
And what aspects of Eliot’s background allow us to make sense of the fondness that the author finds in obscure French reactionary thinkers? Well, Eliot was himself descended from Boston’s elites in charge of Harvard, many of which had turned to the Unitarian faith and imagined themselves as living the religion of the future. Eliot’s opposition to that sort of view, which is likely shared by the author, would have predisposed him to praise that which came before even before converting to religion. Yet it is not the family or social aspects of Eliot’s life that the author uses as a way of unifying his thinking and his appreciation of traditional culture, but rather some sort of obscure group of French thinkers that the author appears to have some expertise in. This book stands as a cautionary tale in why it is that one should not expect to find insight in books that are written by people who know little about their purported subject but a lot about a side subject that they wish to make far more popular by connecting it to a larger subject, like writing a book about C.S. Lewis by connecting him to Italian history because of the connection of Narnia. That sort of convenient approach is what we find here, to the loss of its enjoyment of reading.