Radical media, politics and culture.

Terry Eagleton, "Nudge-Winking" Eliot's Criterion


Terry Eagleton, London Review of Books, Sept. 19, 2002

The 'Criterion': Cultural Politics and Periodical Networks in Interwar Britain
by Jason Harding | Oxford, 250 pp, £35.00

The Criterion, T.S. Eliot's periodical, ran from shortly after the First World War to the very eve of World War Two. Or, if one prefers, from one of Eliot's major bouts of depression to another. The two time-schemes are, in fact, related. In 1921, the business negotiations to finance the proposed journal had to be suspended when Eliot suffered a nervous breakdown; it was during his convalescence from this illness that he wrote The Waste Land. Though the breakdown had much to do with marital misery, it also reflects something of the postwar cultural crisis of which The Waste Land is itself symptomatic. It was as though the old 19th-century doctrines -- Romantic humanism, liberal individualism, dreams of social progress -- had all failed to survive the Somme; and Eliot, like his European Modernist colleagues, was dismayed by this spiritual devastation. Among other things, it raised the question of how they themselves were to write, bereft of a nurturing inheritance.


The Criterion pulled in writers such as Woolf, Lawrence, Yeats, Aldous Huxley, E.M. Forster and Wyndham Lewis, but also gave Proust, Valéry, Cocteau and other European writers their first airing in English. Conservative reaction, like socialist internationalism, was distinctly un-English in its lack of provincialism. If the journal espoused an unpleasant brand of right-wing Christianity, it was at least an intellectually taxing discourse centred on Dante, Aquinas and Parisian neo-Thomism, rather than the parochial pseudo-religiosity of a Philip Larkin. In the epoch of High Modernism, it was for the most part the radical Right, rather than the liberal or social democratic centre ground, that opened up cosmopolitan perspectives in a stiflingly claustrophobic England, as exiles and émigrés such as Conrad, Wilde, James, Shaw, Yeats, Joyce, Lawrence, Eliot and Pound shuttled between cultures and languages in order to reap those symbolic resources for their art that England alone could not furnish.

Not all of these authors were right-wing; but the predominance of that outlook among them is nonetheless striking. In an epoch of cultural crisis, it was the displaced and deracinated who could respond to their historical moment in answerably ambitious terms; and it was these, therefore, who in raising the most searching questions about modern civilisation, were able to produce the finest literary art. But nobody is more in love with autocracy than the anxious and insecure. The fact that so many of these writers responded to the historical crisis with apocalyptic pleas for absolute authority and the violent exclusion of subversive elements is the price we have to pay for such art, if we should choose to do so.

full: eagleton