The ‘Criterion’: Cultural Politics and Periodical Networks in Interwar Britain 
by Jason Harding.
Oxford, 250 pp., £35, April 2002, 9780199247172
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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.

Yet as one who had never believed in liberalism, Romanticism or humanism in the first place, he was energised as well as alarmed by the cataclysm. It may have helped to put him into a sanatorium, but it also turned his thoughts towards a constructive solution. If civilisation lay in ruins, then there was a momentous opportunity to sweep away this heap of broken images and start afresh. Or rather, start once more with the good old things, moving forward to a classical, orderly, tradition-bound past in the face of that squalid cult of anarchic subjectivism, self-expressive personality, economic laissez-faire, Protestant ‘inner light’ and Bolshevik subversion which Eliot lumped together with cavalier indiscriminateness under the name of ‘Whiggery’.

This Janus-faced temporality, in which one turns to the resources of the pre-modern in order to move backwards into a future that has transcended modernity altogether, is at the heart of Modernism. The pre-modern in Eliot’s poetry is a matter of Fisher Kings and fertility cults; in his prose it is a question of classical order, Tory traditionalism and the Christian church. In both cases, however, a discredited individualism must yield to a more corporate form of being, roughly at the time when laissez-faire capitalism was giving way to its international monopoly version. Whether as slain god or submissive Christian, the point of having a self is to give it away. It is the Romantic-humanist heresy which holds that we should nurture our egos rather than abnegate them. ‘Tradition’ is the order to which the poet must perpetually surrender his selfhood, and writing a poem involves an extinction of personality rather than an affirmation of it. It is no accident that Eliot wrote his doctoral thesis on the philosopher F.H. Bradley, late Victorian deconstructor of the autonomous self. As a rootless, sexually ambiguous American émigré turned pin-striped London banker, his own personal version of that entity had been in question for some time.

Eliot derived his poetics from the French Symbolists, so that it was impossible for him to follow Matthew Arnold in finding a solution to spiritual turbulence in poetry as such. The language of poetry cannot deliver a solution of this kind, indeed cannot even comment authoritatively on such a condition, since to be persuasive – which is to say, for Eliot, to resonate in the reader’s nervous system, visceral regions and collective unconscious, not just in the shallow reaches of the mind – such language must be rammed up so closely against sensuous experience as to be well-nigh indissociable from it. There is, as a result, no space for poetic language to turn round on the experience it records so as to reflect on it critically. The most one can do is gesture through archetype and allusion to some ghostly alternative to the present, or find that alternative in the sanitas inherent in such a richly concretised use of language itself.

The task of cultural criticism must therefore be consigned to prose, which is one reason for the incongruity of Eliot’s poetic and prose styles. While the poetry is cryptic, allusive and ambiguous, the prose is lucid, oracular, loftily self-assured. The Criterion would be Eliot’s chief organ of such Kulturkritik, dedicated to a revival of classical European Christian civilisation. Nothing less than a kind of EU of the Spirit would now suffice to repel the barbarism of modernity. It was not clear how a little magazine whose circulation probably never topped eight hundred was to put the organic society back on its feet, but Eliot seemed to regard the Criterion’s minority status as more conducive to this end than an obstacle to it. Few phrases in his prose seem to yield him a keener, well-nigh erotic frisson than ‘only a very few’, and he would no doubt have been deeply rattled had his readership shot up by ten thousand overnight.

The second depression of spirits gripped Eliot in October 1938, in the wake of the Munich pact between Hitler and Chamberlain. Three months later, the Criterion folded – partly because of the material complications of the advent of war, but no doubt because of its spiritual implications, too. For the war meant that the Criterion’s project to rebuild a cultural equivalent of the Holy Roman Empire had collapsed, giving way to an altogether more sinister sort of European empire; and Eliot observed glumly in the final edition of the journal that ‘the “European Mind”, which one had mistakenly thought might be renewed and fortified, disappeared from view.’

It was Fascism, in short, which helped to close down the Criterion, a point overlooked by those for whom Eliot and his magazine were themselves of this persuasion. In fact, Eliot was not a Fascist but a reactionary, a distinction lost on those of his critics who, in the words of Edmund Burke, know nothing of politics but the passions they incite. Ideologically speaking, Fascism is as double-visaged as the Modernism with which it was sometimes involved, casting a backward glance to the primitive and primordial while steaming dynamically ahead into the gleaming technological future. Like Modernism, it is both archaic and avant-garde, sifting pre-modern mythologies for precious seeds of the post-modern future. Politically speaking, however, Fascism, like all nationalism, is a thoroughly modern invention. Its aim is to crush beneath its boot the traditions of high civility that Eliot revered, placing an outsized granite model of a spade and sten gun in the spaces where Virgil and Milton once stood.

Fascism is statist rather than royalist, revolutionary rather than traditionalist, petty-bourgeois rather than patrician, pagan rather than Christian (though Iberian Fascism proved an exception). In its brutal cult of power and contempt for pedigree and civility, it has little in common with Eliot’s benignly landowning, regionalist, Morris-dancing, church-centred social ideal. Even so, there are affinities as well as contrasts between Fascism and conservative reaction. If the former touts a demonic version of blood and soil, the latter promotes an angelic one. Both are elitist, authoritarian creeds that sacrifice freedom to organic order; both are hostile to liberal democracy and unbridled market-place economics; both invoke myth and symbol, elevating intuition over analytical reason. The Idea of Europe, as Eliot dubbed it, is in its own civilised way quite as exclusivist as the Nazi state which in Eliot’s eyes helped to spell its ruin. It represented, as Thomas Mann understood, a disabling sublimation of the spirit that left actual human life perilously open to the assaults of barbarism. Moreover, though racism and anti-semitism are not essential components of right-wing Tory belief, as they are of most Fascist doctrine, they flourish robustly in that soil.

It is not surprising, then, that Eliot, like W.B. Yeats, should at times be found looking on Fascism with qualified approval, or that he should have made some deplorably anti-semitic comments. The problem with all such political strictures, however, is that conservatives do not regard their beliefs as political. Politics is the sphere of utility, and therefore inimical to conservative values. It is what other people rattle on about, whereas one’s own commitments are a matter of custom, instinct, practicality, common sense. The Criterion was thus embarrassed from the outset by having to address an urgent political crisis while apparently not believing in politics. Eliot writes that a literary review must be perpetually changing with the contemporary world; but how can the idea of a Tory periodical not have a smack of the oxymoronic about it, given that the principles it embraces are timeless and immutable? ‘Times change, values don’t,’ as an advertisement for the Daily Telegraph used to proclaim, written perhaps by a hack who enjoyed burning witches. Nor can it be a question of ‘applying’ these unchanging principles to altering conditions, since the application of universal precepts to the particular, with its resonance of left-rationalism, is part of what conservatism rejects.

This split between principle and practice is a version of the generic division in Eliot’s writing between prose and poetry – the former being too aloof from the concrete, and the latter unable to rise above it. The classical work, in which universal and individual are supposedly blended, is thus denied in the very form of Eliot’s writing, even as it is championed in its content. By the time of Four Quartets, this will have become a theological problem too, as transcendent truths seek to clothe themselves in flesh and time. Eliot’s theology commits him to a belief in the incarnation of the universal in the particular, the Word in the word, even as his disdain for the material world continues unabated.

One might, to be sure, see Modernism as a belated reinvention of this classical unity. The modern artist, so Baudelaire declares, trades in both the eternal and the ephemeral, and this is true of Eliot’s own poetic practice. While the fractured surface of the poem is nervously responsive to fleeting sensations, its mythological subtext is stealthily at work converting all this supposedly random stuff into archetypal truths. In this sense, Eliot the poetic avant-gardist and Eliot the Tory traditionalist are secretly at one: if the illusions of suburban consciousness are to be shattered, and the reading subject put in touch with his or her permanent, imperishable selfhood, a good many guerrilla raids on ordinary language will prove necessary. But Modernism proves unable to stabilise the relation between the changeless and the contingent – a relation which usually turns out to be frustratingly oblique, or, as the ironic form of Joyce’s Ulysses would suggest, flagrantly artificial.

The Criterion, like all such mandarin Kulturkritik, strikes a pose of serene disinterestedness where politics are concerned, committed only to an Arnoldian free play of critical intelligence. A literary review, Eliot insists, must avoid all social, political or theological prejudices. Yet since this, short of drawing one’s reviewers from the ranks of the Seraphim, is clearly neither possible nor desirable (what use is a journal without some sort of line?), he also maintains with bland inconsistency that any review worth its salt has a political interest. It is the contradiction of non-political politics. Jason Harding’s assiduously researched study of the magazine is excellent at nipping behind its tone of Olympian hauteur to reveal the sectarian, manipulative, suavely malicious politics of the literary marketplace that lie behind it. Framed against a world of literary bruisers and racketeers, the book shows Eliot kneeing a groin here or nudge-winking a reviewer into line there, all the time with his eyes fixed piously on the eternal verities. Harding’s book is thus revisionist in spirit, sceptical of grand pronouncements, attentive to ad hoc forces and pressures, aware that what tends to survive of history is the general statement rather than its all-” revealing local context.

The Criterion was rather more disinterested on some occasions than on others. It was, for example, extravagantly Olympian about the Spanish Civil War, urging that any partisanship should be held ‘with reservations, humility and misgiving’, and commending in this respect the admirable equipoise of Arjuna, hero of the Bhagavad Gita and Matthew Arnold’s Asian lookalike. Curiously, however, Eliot makes no such judicious invocation of Arjuna when it comes to combating Communism. He also betrays remarkably little reservation, humility or misgiving in his hostility to ‘free-thinking Jews’, or in his solemn proposal, speaking as an expatriate from St Louis, that ‘it would appear to be for the best that the great majority of human beings should go on living in the place in which they were born.’

The battle against Bolshevism, in fact, was part of the magazine’s raison d’être, and perhaps also part of the reason for its decline. The most important event of the First World War, Eliot writes, was the Russian Revolution; and he clearly views the conflict between it and ‘Latin’ civilisation as a spiritual war between Europe and Asia. Yeats thought much the same: if the Spirit of Europe needed reviving, it was largely because Bolshevism broke out first in the East. The Criterion was among other things a response to the creeping power of Marxism, a creed which Eliot admired rather as one can imagine Pope Pius XII having a sneaking respect for Stalin. He praises Communism more than once in the magazine for its orthodoxy, moral conviction and deep-seated principles, and evidently regards it as one of the few ideological adversaries worthy of his attention. As a Tory reactionary, he himself objects to the ‘dictatorship of finance’ and the fetishism of the economic quite as fervently as the political Left. Indeed, his view of most Conservatives of his day is more or less Roger Scruton’s view of Thatcherites: they are liberals in traditional Tory clothing, elevating liberty over order. But Communism may also have played its part in the journal’s demise, since by the close of the Marxising 1930s and with the looming of global war, its brand of aristocratic, Anglo-Catholic classicism was bound to appear less than burningly relevant. As the Eliot of The Idea of a Christian Society was advocating a largely rural society living by the rhythms of the seasons, Hitler’s troops were marching into Poland.

Harding does not seek to deny Eliot’s ‘elitist and imperialist cultural politics’, though he perhaps underestimates how nasty they could actually be. He does, however, highlight the relative open-mindedness of the Criterion, which actively courted the Communist Hugh MacDiarmid, was mutedly enthusiastic about Maynard Keynes, and by its final phase was publishing Auden, Spender and the Surrealists. He organises his study partly by investigating the journal’s intricate relations to surrounding periodicals (the Adelphi, the Calendar of Modern Letters, Scrutiny and New Verse); partly by an overview of its cultural politics; and partly by examining the work of five of its key reviewers. This approach risks burying the Criterion itself beneath accounts of other journals, sectarian squabbles and reviewers’ biographies; but it has the advantage of illustrating just how politically and aesthetically diverse its contributors often were. Herbert Read, its most frequent book reviewer, was a Surrealist and anarcho-syndicalist educated in a Halifax orphanage, whereas the debonair dilettante Bonamy Dobrée, an odd compound of Strachey and Kipling, bellettrist frivolity and public school backbone, was educated at Haileybury and Cambridge. As the critic John Peter has put it, ‘parts of the Criterion resembled a supplement to the Tablet – while, incomprehensibly, other parts were crowded with Marxists and moderns.’

Read was an anarchist who accepted a knighthood, a champion of avant-garde art who also edited the fashionable Burlington Magazine; such contradictions are typical of the Criterion in general. The money for the journal came from Viscountess Lilian Rothermere, the estranged wife of the newspaper magnate, who was keen to promote the sort of radical-chic production that might make a stir in London drawing-rooms. She played the kind of supervisory role in the conduct of the Criterion that the imperious Annie Horniman did in the running of Yeats’s Abbey Theatre. Eliot, himself an unstable compound of bourgeois stuffiness and literary saboteur, thus found his journal caught between High Modernism and High Society, too dull for some and too daring for others. He himself moved between bohemian Soho and genteel Mayfair, a polarity that conceals an affinity. For Modernism was among other things a reaction against middle-class modernity, which therefore attracted both patricians and poetic drop-outs, the socially outmoded and the socially passed-over.

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.

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