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T. S. Eliot's Political 'Middle Way'

When the poet and novelist Robert Graves titled his account of the period between the two world wars The Long Weekend, he was summoning the sort of irony appropriate for a period that seems to us now a feckless pause between world crises. Certainly the “Roaring Twenties” retain a bit of luminosity, but the 1930s do not retain any sheen, in large measure due to the rampant, and eventually tragic, political polarization of the decade. The far Right and the far Left were never stronger nor more active than in this decade, and not just in their respective bastions of Germany and the Soviet Union; everywhere, all around the globe, in the midst of democracies and in the shadows of fading monarchies, these political extremes flourished and sparred. The worst scene of sparring–indeed of furious bloodletting that presaged the coming world conflict–was in Spain, where General Franco’s forces benefited from Nazi money and air support while the motley Republican army, with its International Brigade of young intellectuals from all around the world, trained under Soviet military advisors. But the Spanish Civil War elicited more than grave physical combat; it was also the source of fierce combat among men of letters in the West.

The sharpest battle of the intellectual war occurred in 1937, when Nancy Cunard and a group of other Left-wing writers in Paris (including the young British poets W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender) sent out a questionnaire to 200 writers in Europe, with this provocative content: “Are you for, or against, the legal government and people of Republican Spain? Are you for, or against, Franco and Fascism? For it is impossible any longer to take no side.” The confrontational questionnaire elicited 147 answers, the overwhelming majority of which–126–supported the Republic. Five writers explicitly responded in favor of Franco (among them the novelist Evelyn Waugh and the WWI poet Edmund Blunden). Among sixteen responses that Cunard, in her eventually published compendium, grouped under the skeptical heading “Neutral?” were those of some of the most famous writers of the age: H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Ezra Pound (even at this time deeply involved in the Italian Fascist party), and the Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot. Since the mid-1930s was not an era where attempts at neutrality would be tolerated, these writers were taken either as morally weak and equivocal or as mere closet Fascists trying to protect their reputations. In fact, several of them were either equivocal or Fascist or both. Not so with T. S. Eliot.

Pursuit of a Via Media

Eliot’s actual response, in fact, is a distillation of a much broader and more penetrating agenda, which he spent the last half of his life pursuing. He wrote this response to Cunard: “While I am naturally sympathetic, I still feel convinced that it is best that at least a few men of letters remain silent.” Rather than a deft side-stepping of the issue, what Eliot offers here is the credo that he had been developing since his conversion to Christianity and entrance into the Anglican Church in 1927: a socio-political version of the Anglican theological tenet know as via media.

Anglicanism has made its mark on ecclesiastical history, in large measure, by filling the void between the poles of Roman Catholicism and Reformation Protestantism. The notion of pursuing a via media, a “middle way,” has meant less a third alternative than a comfort with the ambiguity and resistance to the dogmatism that defines both extremes. Anglican theology, however, is not void of content by any means but is, rather, a coalescing of the “middle ground” into a place of theological mooring. Transposed to the socio-political sphere, this precludes a grouping of Eliot with the weak, compromising demeanor of many of his British fellows during the 1930s. Just as the theological via media has content, so does Eliot’s fundamental schema for culture: a “neo-medieval vision” for society. Certainly this is not a call for a historical reprise, since Eliot’s understanding of the Middle Ages was quite idealized. But he was after a model of order and faith. What this came to mean, in Western society between the two world wars, was that Eliot’s pursuit of a political via media differed radically from the other political options brought to the forefront of intellectual life. Eliot’s was a transcendent “middle way,” hearkening both backward and forward toward a medievalism that might effect healing precisely because it is not bound to a humanistic view of man and society.

Since Eliot made precious few explicit pronouncements regarding the outworking of his faith, one must find other sources for exploring the exact nature of his socio-political thought. Such a forum is readily provided by the journal The Criterion, which Eliot edited from its founding in 1922 (the first publication of The Waste Land appeared in the first number) until its closure in January of 1939. Certainly The Criterion was not founded with such a sweeping motive as thorough cultural transformation; it was intended as a cosmopolitan review of literature and intellectual discourse. But there was present, even in Eliot’s early championing of the literary function of a review, a sense of political mission: the healing of Europe’s intellectual wounds, which were perhaps more deep-seated than even the physical destruction of the First World War, through the avenue of an international concourse of minds.

This project of healing Europe by means of a quarterly review, though it produced in The Criterion an amazing and cosmopolitan expanse of literature and criticism in the mid-1920s, proved ill-fated for two reasons. First, the closing down of international communication at the end of the decade, as totalitarian regimes began to flex their muscles in the sphere of culture, destroyed the idealism that the “mind of Europe” could be salvaged through cooperation. This imposed silence alone would have dealt a great blow to Eliot’s hopes for The Criterion were it not for the confluence of a second, very different factor, which immediately gave the journal a new set of possibilities: Eliot’s spiritual awakening to Christianity, which he formalized in 1927 with his baptism and confirmation into the Church of England. Again, the guiding ethic of Anglicanism, his chosen route, is important; the pursuit of the via media in matters of theology seemed to hint at a path through the socio-political melee as well.

Perhaps the first full-blown application of the via media in this sphere began in December of 1928, when Eliot presented a lengthy review article titled, “The Literature of Fascism,” taking the role of one “interested in political ideas, but not in politics.” What followed over the next few numbers was an extended tri-partite debate between Eliot, the Communist writer A. L. Rowse, and the Fascist writer James Barnes. Eliot gave each man opportunity to review the recent literature of his own political camp, and then Eliot responded in an article titled, “Mr. Barnes and Mr. Rowse.” Digging at the root of both ideologies, Eliot found that they are both merely surrogate religions:

Fascism and communism, as ideas, seem to me to be thoroughly sterilized. A revolutionary idea is one which requires a reorganization of the mind; fascism and communism is now the natural idea for the thoughtless person. This in itself is a hint that the two doctrines are merely variations of the same doctrine: and even that they are merely variations of the present state of things…. What I find in both fascism and communism is a combination of statements with unexamined enthusiasms.

This is typical of Eliot’s treatment, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, of the theories behind these two increasingly magnetic poles. The constant implication is that the via media to which he points, with its roots in the Middle Ages and its emphasis on human dignity and simplicity, is the only socio-political option that has taken into account, by clear-sighted examination, the problematic status of human nature.

A Backward-Glancing Move

But what good was the via media in the face of the very actual and pernicious manifestations of the 1930s, of Hitler and Stalin and Franco? And are we talking about the same kind of “middle ground” upon which Neville Chamberlain and others stood at Munich during the 1938 accords, the bitterly ironic purchasing of “peace in our time”?

These hard questions are a good entry point to Eliot’s actual and, I think, profound political vision. Eliot always argued in The Criterion of his interest in political ideas rather than Realpolitik, but such an angle did not at all mean that he had nothing to say on the political issues of the day. In fact, the articles, reviews, and commentaries in The Criterion of the 1930s were overflowing with political arguments. Not incidentally, these arguments were unequivocally anti-Nazi. Indeed, as early as the April 1931 number, Eliot reprinted a speech that Thomas Mann had delivered in Berlin the previous autumn, titled, “An Appeal to Reason.” The text provides an amazing early critique of National Socialism’s emotional excess and, in Mann’s mind, return to barbaric and pagan modes: “It is distinguished in its character as a nature-cult, precisely by its absolute unrestraint, its orgiastic, radically anti-humane, frenziedly dynamic character.” But the criticisms of the Fascist excess are only part of the story–the negative part. Eliot becomes constructive with regard to his via media as well, going so far as to print a lead article in the October 1931 number, written by the economist A. J. Penty, defending the medieval economic scheme as far more efficient, and moral, than any modern alternative. In early 1932, Eliot begins turning to one of his closest friends, the Roman Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, to provide accounts of medievalism as the crowning age, rather than the dark age, for the Western tradition. In his own “Commentary” for the April 1932 number of The Criterion, Eliot begins to define the parameters that such a backward-glancing move would create for his own politics, when he muses that:

The mystical belief in herd-feeling, which has been elevated to a psuedo-science under such names as ‘social psychology,’ is one of the most disquieting superstitions of the day…. It is apparent in extreme Nationalism, as well as in Communism; and indeed, the two do not seem very far apart…. It is a symptom of weakness, but the weakness is only in part pathological; for the rest it is just the essential feebleness and impotence of the individual man which Christianity has always recognized.

Despite this nascent articulation, it is only in the American Lecture Tour of 1932—33 that Eliot comes into full recognition of the route that will comprise the “middle way.” In the Turnbull Lectures at Johns Hopkins in early 1933, Eliot gives an account of poets who have been truly “metaphysical,” in the sense of presenting an account of the world that unifies poetic and philosophic forces. Dante in the thirteenth century, Donne in the seventeenth, and Jules Laforgue in the nineteenth all arose in ages crying out for synthesis, and each afforded as much as he could, though Dante’s was most complete, Donne’s less so, and Laforgue’s mainly inchoate. But the lectures ultimately beg the question, Who will be the next “metaphysical” poet to emerge? The answer, not so far below the surface, is Eliot himself. His will be the proclamation of a unity of spiritual and socio-political forces toward one end: the “good life,” in the medieval sense of simplicity, unanimity of soul and spirit, and oneness of intellectual purpose. The glue that holds everything together is Christianity, and Eliot himself will blaze the “middle path” through his fusion of the intellectual and the creative in his work.

From mid-1933 until the closing of The Criterion with the January 1939 number, Eliot pursued a spiritual via media, a repeated call for a socio-political transformation to the tenets, if not the modes, of medievalism. This was performed in the spiritual vacuum effected by the absolute polarization, by the time of the Spanish Civil War, between Right and Left. Furthermore, though rooted in transcendent principles and a vision of this life by reference to the next, Eliot’s vision was frequently and decidedly brought to bear on the political realities of the day. The situation was not “either/or,” but “both/and.” He could not be the prophet without seeing the world around him.

A Mosaic of Faith and Culture

Let me turn back to 1937, an obscure year of polarity and enmity, as the place to say a final word regarding the pursuit of the medieval way, the via media. What is it that Eliot was proffering in his response to Cunard’s questionnaire: “While I am naturally sympathetic, I still feel convinced that it is best that at least a few men of letters remain silent”? I believe he was giving a glimpse of why his “middle way,” his spiritual order, was so needed. The outcry against him, which in many permutations endures to this day, indicates why it has never come about. It is a scandalon, a stumbling block in this world system. Those who would perpetuate a transcendent via media today invariably find that the stumbling block is very much in place.

With that in mind, what can we learn for our present historical moment from the strange model that T. S. Eliot affords? There are many lessons, but I think three are paramount. First, Eliot’s editorial work of nearly two decades with The Criterion shows us that the Christian thinker, even the Christian imaginative artist, can and should play a part in the analysis and guidance of culture at large. Second, Eliot’s dogged and lucid adherence to his transcendent via media, in the midst of political fray and derangement, shows us that we need not commit ourselves to Faustian bargains in the political sphere but, rather, that we should act on convictions and principles when we suggest remedies for socio-political woes. The test of pragmatism–often a faulty gauge of necessity and even of desirability–need not reign supreme. A final lesson to be gained from Eliot’s via media, aiming as it does firmly backward toward a medievalism that joined faith and culture in one elaborate mosaic, is that new solutions and innovations are not always the best cure for what ails us culturally. In fact, Eliot would argue that the simplest era of the last few millennia, the Middle Ages, serves a paradigm for the simplest of solutions: to let faith in Christ exude out of the next life back into this one, at every level of culture and in every way imaginable. Perhaps, as Eliot says in the visionary passage at the end of “Little Gidding,” the final of the Four Quartets,

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.