Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Does T S Eliot provide useful hints about the resilience of Western culture?


The quoted passage comes near the end of T.S. Eliot’s poem, Little Gidding, which was written in Britain during the Second World War. Eliot goes on to use vivid imagery to describe the beginning:

“At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.”

The theme of the poem is:

“All shall be well, and

All manner of things shall be well”.

The author urges us to view history as a pattern of “timeless moments”. We celebrate those who died as a consequence of sectarian strife even though they were not “wholly commendable’. We do not celebrate them to “revive old factions”. We celebrate them because of what we have inherited and taken from them. They now accept “the constitution of silence” and are “folded into a single party”. They have left us with a symbol “perfected in death” that “all shall be well”.

The poem seems to me to offer hope for the future of Western culture, despite the author's experience of the “incandescent terror” of bombing raids while it was being written.

Eliot elaborates his views on culture in his book, Notes Toward the Definition of Culture. The first edition of that book was published in 1948, but he began writing it at around the same time as Little Gidding was published.

At one point, Eliot suggests that culture “may be described simply as that which makes life worth living” (27). He views culture as linked to religion: “there is an aspect in which we see a religion as the whole way of life of a people … and that way of life is also its culture” (31).

Eliot claims that it is an error to believe that “culture can be preserved, extended and developed in the absence of religion”. Nevertheless, he acknowledges: “a culture may linger on, and indeed produce some of its most brilliant artistic and other successes after the religious faith has fallen into decay” (29).

The author saw Western culture as already in decline at the time of writing, by comparison with the standards 50 year previously. Eliot “saw no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further” (18-19).

Although I am skeptical of such sweeping claims, I think Eliot makes an important point about the potential for cultural disintegration to ensue from cultural specialization:

Religious thought and practice, philosophy and art, all tend to become isolated areas, cultivated by groups with no communication with each other” (26).

From my perspective, one of the most interesting aspects of this book is Eliot’s suggestion that “within limits, the friction, not only between individuals but between groups”, is “quite necessary for civilization” (59). In discussing the impact of sectarianism on European culture he acknowledges that “many of the most remarkable achievements of culture have been made since the sixteenth century, in conditions of disunity” (70). Perhaps disunity helped by encouraging artistic freedom of expression.

My reading of Notes Toward the Definition of Culture left me feeling optimistic that Western culture can survive the current culture wars. The culture wars seem to me to be akin the historical sectarian disputes between Catholics and Protestants.

Western culture has previously survived attempts of dogmatists to silence their enemies, so it can probably do so again.

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