“The Wasted Century” – by Thomas Fleming

The Great War and its inevitable successor have been called Europe’s civil war, and there is some truth in this characterization.  Divided by language, religion, and culture, the nations of Europe were nonetheless united in a common civilization that developed out of the ruins of the Christianized Roman Empire.  Despite the strains brought on by religious schisms and the Enlightenment’s revolt against the Church, an educated Scottish atheist had much in common with French Catholics and German Lutherans: Civilized Europeans accepted both the classical tradition and the residue of Christian morality that underlay their notions of fair play, personal responsibility, and the duties of charity.  No more.  To speak of Europe today makes sense only as a reference to material comfort, state-subsidized benefits, and adherence to the corrupt and inept bureaucracy of the European Union.

cover-0714-portraitIf the two armed conflicts were part of a European civil war, they were also the beginning of the end both of Europe itself and of the vestigial Christendom that survived in the hypocrisy of good manners.  The memory of those traditions is now preserved only in libraries, museums, and church buildings that tourists admire as uncomprehendingly as a savage who relies on the magic of television and mobile devices.

The Great War that began the process of cultural extinction was a writer’s war, particularly a poet’s war.  It was the first modern war in which large numbers of writers actually fought in the ranks.  The war was also a writer’s graveyard: Britain alone lost Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, and Isaac Rosenberg.

The worst ravages of the Great War consisted not so much in the loss of so many fine men as in its effect on the Western mind.  This was conspicuous in the case of the literary combatants who survived the war often as broken men, but only a very superficial person in Britain or Europe came through unscathed.  The moral and mental derangements caused by the war—adultery, divorce, alcoholism—were mercilessly recorded in the novels of Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh, though later readers may not always comprehend the moral insanity that excited the restless spirits of the “Jazz Age.”

These were the postwar years that T.S. Eliot later described as “Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres.”  The phrase “largely wasted” cannot fail to recall his most famous poem, published only four years after the war’s end.  Gertrude Stein is famous (only) for describing her young literary friends in Paris as “a lost generation,” though Hemingway later claimed that she had borrowed the phrase from a young garage mechanic, whose boss had complained of the difficulty of training the young veterans who had survived the war.  It was a generation of men who had lost their bearings; they lacked discipline and a sense of purpose.  A century later, it is now apparent that succeeding generations never found their way back to sanity.

On the positive side, the postwar generation had also lost some of the naive illusions that had encouraged European man in his follies since the beginning of the Renaissance.  The technological and economic progress of the 19th century had encouraged a radiant optimism in the West.  Diseases were being conquered, agricultural yields were improving, the blessings of hygiene and sanitation were being extended ever more broadly.  Even war itself was being civilized by conventions that were inspired by Christian convictions that few people held.  The religion of Northern Europe and North America was increasingly a hypocritical sham, but stiff upper lip and carry on were the words of the day for the readers of Henley’s “Invictus” or of his friend R.L. Stevenson’s prayer: “The day returns and brings us the petty round of irritating concerns and duties.  Help us to play the man, help us to perform them with laughter and kind faces, let cheerfulness abound with industry . . . ”  For optimists, a good man of strong will can heroically fight off the evils that not only surround him but lurk within him.

Stevenson knew better, as his tale of Dr. Jekyll’s experiment, written only a generation before the war, would seem to indicate, but the dominant creed of the 19th century was neither the Christianity that had dominated the mind of the 17th century nor the anti-Christian Marxism that would rule the 20th.  The Victorian Creed was one or another form of liberalism.  Though it was sometimes undercoated or gilded with a false Christian luster, as in the case of Lord Acton, liberalism was fundamentally a non-Christian and implicitly anti-Christian set of doctrines.  The individual and his relations with the state were the paramount political concerns of liberals from Locke and Smith down to the end of the 19th century, while comfort, hygiene, and prosperity were the marks of this earthly paradise.

Not everyone concurred.  As the age drew to its end, the most significant protest (in England and France) came from writers variously described as aesthetes, Pre-Raphaelites, and decadents, from Ruskin and Pater to Whistler and Wilde, to Ernest Dowson and William Butler Yeats.  It was a diverse group, but bound together with certain common interests: literary craftsmanship, a preference for fine detail over large-scale construction, an elitist contempt for middle-class conventions, and the interest in everything medieval that W.S. Gilbert so memorably parodied in Patience.

While the aesthetes and decadents were soon relegated to an appendix in Oscar William’s anthology of modern verse, the most avant of the avant-garde, Ezra Pound, celebrated them in his ode to Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, in which a best-selling novelist derides not so much their affectation as their serious and selfless devotion to literature.

I never mentioned a man but with the view
Of selling my own works . . .
And give up verse, my boy,
There’s nothing in it . . .
Don’t kick against the pricks,
Accept opinion.  The “Nineties” tried your game
And died, there’s nothing in it.

Commercialism and capitalism itself corrupted literature, and Pound would spend much of his time fulminating against the stupidity and vulgarity of bourgeois liberalism.  Pound exercised a profound influence on his younger friend T.S. Eliot, and the two poets shared an antipathy to the bourgeois liberalism for which England and America had gone to war.

Even before the end of the 19th century, shadows were falling on the sunny world of Victorian England and its fine stoic virtues: labor unrest, ethnic and religious conflict, and the rise of Marxism as a challenge to the reigning orthodoxy of bourgeois liberalism.  But it took a world war to harden and crystallize these strains into fissures that shattered forever the serenity of the Victorian mind.

It was not just the 16 million dead and 18 million wounded that sent up clouds to relieve the glare of the Victorian sun, and it was not even the horrors of trench warfare and the massive destruction of once beautiful places that sobered up a generation drunk on the idea of progress.  War had eaten into the soul not just of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon but of everyone who thought about it seriously.  It was, as Robert Graves put it so neatly in the title of his own war memoir, “Good-bye to all that,” and when you read the snarling writings of Norman Mailer or the Angry Young Men after the second war or listen to the lyrics of Paul McCartney’s sneering “We’re so sorry, Uncle Albert,” you are hearing only a faint and tinny echo of the great horror that is graphically conveyed in Hemingway’s first and best novel, The Sun Also Rises, whose hero has been quite fittingly rendered impotent by a war wound.  Europe and European America lost their manhood in the war and have never even begun to recover it.  All the nuclear brinkmanship and technological bluster in the world cannot change the reality that we are a bruised and wounded people, living secondhand off the garbage of a dead civilization.

The Great War had destroyed “all that,” and in its aftermath, prophet after prophet arose to preach new gospels: Most of the mushrooming crop of gurus were leftists—vegetarian free-loving multiculturalists—but the more significant prophets were men of the right.  In the English-speaking world, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, both émigré poets, grasped the implications perhaps better than anyone.  As unlike as they were temperamentally, Eliot and Pound were both displaced persons: Americans who lived in Europe and reactionaries masquerading as leaders of the avant-garde.  Both had begun, without really completing, a classical education, and they had swallowed, without entirely digesting, vast amounts of disorganized erudition.

Pound was initially indifferent to the war as “possibly a conflict between two forces almost equally detestable.”  His former friend Richard Aldington maliciously satirized him in a novel in which he is made to say, “What I mean to say is that the most important thing is that the process of civilization shouldn’t be interrupted by all this war business.”  In 1920, in the Mauberley ode, he summed up the effect of the war succinctly.  He describes the brave men who went out to fight, who

Died some pro patria
Non dulce non et decor

walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy . . .

and liars in public places.

As a coda to his crescendoing jeremiad, he adds,

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization . . .

For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.

Pound later predicted that poetry would cease to exist before the year 2000.  With a few exceptions, he has been proved right.  And since there has never been a great civilization without poetry, we can say that European civilization has ceased to exist.  It is no longer safe even to go to live productions of plays and operas without being subjected to every kind of degrading silliness—The Magic Flute in Blackface or King Lear done in the manner of Marat-Sade—all sold naturally as terribly avant-garde, when it was already old hat by 1930.

Well-brought-up conservatives do not wish to accept reality.  “We just need better laws, more authentic Republicans in office, a Supreme Court majority that knows the Constitution.”  As they look up Pound’s prediction of the death of poetry—or all the lines I have quoted—on their iPhones and find their way home with their GPS systems to turn on Letterman or leaf through the Wall Street Journal for a mock-conservative spin on Dante, they will no doubt reassure themselves that Pound and Eliot were simply wrong, much like the economists who predicted that London would be ten feet deep in horse manure, because they failed to anticipate the invention of the automobile.  If the great leftist delusion is that man by his nature creates problems that only a global government can solve, the conservative delusion is that self-interested individualists can find their way out of any mess that other selfish individualists have created.  The war had shown Pound and Eliot the futility of both these delusions.

Eliot sat the war out in London.  Initially, he refused to take a side except to say that France had to be defended as the center of our civilization.  Despite his serious studies and undoubted brilliance, the young Eliot had quite conventional views on most subjects.  He was not only an enthusiastic supporter of the London avant-garde—friends with the Huxleys, the Sitwells, the Bloomsbury Group, an admirer of Joyce—but also a victim of the Anglo-American propaganda that treated Germany as a rogue state.  He applauded U.S. entry into the war, though he initially expressed some trepidation about his own participation, first saying he would have to think about his decision, then doubting that people like himself would be called up.  In these days he certainly lived up to Pound’s characterization of him as a “possum,” the animal that fakes death in order to avoid a predator.  Eliot eventually made some efforts to gain a commission in one or another American service, but through bureaucratic inertia and perhaps his own lack of interest, he ultimately failed—though, to be fair, he went so far as to resign his bank job on the strength of an assurance from the Navy.  Perhaps his point of view was best expressed in a letter to his mother (November 1918): “Anyway, at least no one can say I did not try my best to get into army or navy.”  Like most people who say they tried their best, he was content to fail.

Some readers naturally assume that the depiction of a crumbling world that is his Waste Land is in part Eliot’s response to the war.  Critics, generally, have not accepted this view and cite Eliot’s supposed indifference to the war and his shifty evasion of responsibility, but that objection seems irrelevant.  It is not only combat soldiers whose imaginations are affected by war.  Families and friends of soldiers who suffered death or demoralization are damaged themselves.  Some of us experienced this in the comparatively minor Vietnam War, and I cannot really imagine what it was like to live through World War II, much less the War Between the States.

Eliot was far from unaffected by the war in Europe.  He sent a letter to The Nation (London), in which he quoted a letter from an officer at the front:

     [A] man who has been through it and seen and taken part in the unspeakable tragedies that are the ordinary routine, feels that he has something, possesses something, which others can never possess.
     It is morally impossible for him to talk seriously of these things to people who cannot even approach comprehension.  It is hideously exasperating to hear people talking the glib commonplaces about the war and distributing cheap sympathy to its victims.
     Perhaps you are tempted to give them a picture of a leprous earth, scattered with the swollen and blackening corpses of hundreds of young men.  The appalling stench of rotting carrion, mingled with the sickening smell of exploded lyddite [picric acid] and ammonal.  Mud like porridge, trenches like shallow and sloping cracks in the porridge—porridge that stinks in the sun.  Swarms of flies and bluebottles clustering on pits of offal.  Wounded men lying in the shell holes among the decaying corpses: helpless under the scorching sun and bitter nights, under repeated shelling.  Men with bowels dropping out, lungs shot away, with blinded smashed faces, or limbs blown into space.  Men screaming and gibbering.  Wounded men laughing in agony on the barbed wire, until a friendly spout of liquid fire shrivels them up like a fly in a candle.  But these are only words, and probably only convey a fraction of their meaning to their hearers.  They shudder and it is forgotten.

This officer, while dwelling on the horror, was really explaining the war’s moral effect on the young men who endured it and could never be the same.  The officer may have been Eliot’s brother-in-law Maurice Haigh-Wood, whose sister Vivien thought men like her brother (and husband) were too high-strung for the war: Writing her mother-in-law, Vivien explained, “You over there do not realize the bad and dreadful effect war has on the characters of young men . . . If they are nervous and highly strung . . . they become quite changed.  A sort of desperation and demoralization of their minds, brains, and character . . . ”

Eliot experienced the war only from London, but as a man already inclined to melancholy, he seems to have been deeply affected.  One passage in The Waste Land conveys some of the demoralization he witnessed and undoubtedly felt: “I think we are in rat’s alley / Where the dead men lost their bones.”  A little later, we listen in on dialogue at the home front:

“When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said— . . . 
Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth.  He did, I was there.

Lil, alas, seems to have been playing around while her husband was off fighting, and her health has been hurt by “them pills I took to bring it off . . . The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same.”  So the fruits of the war include, in addition to despair and demoralization, both barrenness and infanticide.

The Waste Land marks the beginning of the end of Eliot’s descent into despair, a descent that could not be arrested by the teachings of his Harvard mentor, Irving Babbitt, whose “New Humanism” was a typically American product of the highest type—an attempt to combine liberal individualism with a quasireligious (Buddhist) discipline.

Babbitt’s books are still essential reading for American conservatives.  In Babbitt’s day, conservatism was generally despised as ideological defense of the interests of the rich—a sense it has reacquired in recent years, thanks to talk radio—but I am speaking of conservatism in a more “Kirkian” sense as a principled effort to preserve or at least salvage the good elements of our culture, society, and civilization that have been handed down to us, without necessarily looking too deeply at the question of whether or not such traditions as capitalism, rugged individualism, and unreflective patriotism are in themselves worth preserving, at least in the forms they had assumed in the course of the 20th century.

A well-brought-up Yankee Unitarian like Eliot found a tonic in Babbitt’s learned and high-minded appeal to duty.  However, such a philosophy, though it would be rebottled and relabeled by a series of conservative publicists and fund­raisers, would prove to be a rather thin antidote to the poisons injected into the postwar food supply.  Relying on nothing more than his own intelligence and will, Eliot was sinking ever more deeply into the darkness of his neurasthenia and melancholy, but he was also fumbling toward the light that began to invade his darkened mind near the end of “The Hollow Men” and blazed out in Christian affirmation in “Ash Wednesday.”

Our civilization, as Pound knew better than Eliot, was already botched before the Great War put the finishing touch to the collapse: The war was the high wind that demolished the tottering antiquities of post-Christian civility.  Throughout the century that followed, leftists would try to dynamite the ruins into which frightened conservatives had moved as squatters and scavengers.  Like an extermination squad, the leftists have gone from block to block, from generation to generation, chivvying the squatters from ruined churches and blowing up every little bit of shelter, from classical studies to marriage to the very nature and identity of the human race.  Eliot drew a sort of weary strength from the bits of Latin, Italian, and Sanskrit he inserted into The Waste Land: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” but nearly a century later our schools and universities have dumped those fragments into the trash.

It is not an easy truth to face.  It drove Eliot, before his conversion, to despair, and the unrepentant Pound into madness.  Succeeding generations have lived so long with madness and despair that, growing used to their disease, they have come to accept it as normal, much as an alcoholic, however miserable, may come to accept his own condition and repel any attempt to reform his ways.  Even if he wants to change, he forgets every good resolution when it comes time for the first drink of the day.  He cannot act, because he cannot really acknowledge who he is: “For if any be a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth away, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.”

Eliot and Pound, flawed and broken as they were, provide a mirror for us to look in as we try to acknowledge who and what we are.

Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (July 2014)

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