The nearest to an answer for all of this from Eliot might be the following
passage from "Notes towards the Definition of Culture":
To our Christian heritage we owe many thing beside religious faith.
Through it we trace the evolution of our arts, through it we have our
conception of Roman Law which has done so much to shape the Western
World, through it we have our conceptions of private and public morality.
And through it we have our common standards of literature, in the
literatures of Greece and Rome. The Western world has its unity in this
heritage, in Christianity and in the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome
and Israel, from which, owing to two thousand years of Christianity, we
trace our descent.
(This also points toward his idea of "standards" for defining art.)
ELIOT'S words, by the way,--not mine--on the relation of Christian and
"Classical" writers for education are as follows:
There are two and only two finally tenable hypotheses about life: the
Catholic and the materialistic. The defence of the study of the classical
languages must ultimately rest upon their association with the former as
must the defence of the primacy of the comtemplative over the active life
.. . . . It is high time that the defence of the classics should be dissociated
from objects which, however excellent under certain conditions and in a
certain environment, are of only relative importance--a traditional public-
school system, a traditional university system, a decaying social order--
and permanently asociated where they belong, with something permanent:
the historical Catholic Faith.
Eliot saw these as a single tradition. I need not note that Dante knew Virgil.
Date sent: Sat, 18 Aug 2001 22:00:09 EDT
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Subject: Re: Definition of art
In a message dated 8/18/01 7:01:31 PM Eastern Daylight Time,
[log in to unmask] writes:
> Well, Eliot wrote a great deal about his commitment to "Classicism," so
> I should think it would be his idea that is at issue, not Steve's.
> "What is a Classic" is an extended definition of his notion of the
> "classical" and the importance of it, ie., "maturity" as he understood
> that term. Both there and elsewhere, for example, "Modern Education and
> the Classics," he identifies it with the Greek and Latin texts and
> claims the only way to preserve a Christian society is to teach those
> texts. He is constant and pretty clear in who he means. And he is very
> clear that it is not ok to treat just anything as equally valuable. He
> has clear hierarchies. So I don't know what the question is here unless
> it is the particulars of his extensive discussions.
> "What is a Classic," for example, THE classic text of Western
> civilization is Virgil. Nancy
My point is that he had a great many interests besides Greco-Roman
writers, and this shows up in the broad range of both his poetry and his
criticism. I believe what he said about Virgil is that he preferred Virgil
to Homer. It was Dante he said had the greatest influence on his own work,
and Dante is medieval, not Classical. On top of that, Dante has been a
virtual fad with artists and writers from Boticelli to Henry Miller, so I
think of him as a poet who lived in the medieval period but also
influenced many artists whom we think of as modern. One can't
incidentally, skewer an artist by what he likes to read, as I thought
Steve might have been setting himself up to do. Cezanne is rightly called
the father of modern art, and is incredibly radical in his ideas about
space in painting. Yet he apparently knew large sections of the Aeneid by
heart, and would recite them to people who came to his studio.
To me, what an artist uses for material is aesthetically irrelevant, and
what we want to judge him on is what he does with whatever material he
selects. Eliot might call Sweeney Agonistes fragments of an Aristophanic
melodrama, and he's certainly drawn on the Oresteia. But what he's
produced is a lot closer to the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari than to Aeschylus,
and to miss this I think is to miss the point. When people regard Eliot as
an important modernist poet--you may not see him in this way--they mean
he does something modern with the material he uses, and he isn't just a
tired producer of pastiches of Aristophanes.
I wasn't sure whether Steve meant Classical literature or canonical
literature, and now I guess I'll never know if his answer would have been
your answer. But I think it's important to be aware that "tradition"is
neither a dirty word in the arts nor a word that's unique to Eliot.
Painters talked about tradition all the way down to Willem de Kooning. I
don't personally care if a person uses the word "tradition" or not. It
just seems to me that one can't make snap judgments based on buzz
words--that a painter or poet uses words like tradition, Classical, or
whatever. To a lot of people today, a "traditional" society means a
society that's closer to nature, where money isn't the measure of
everything and the food isn't full of pesticides and chemicals.
I don't recall "Modern Education and the Classics." But doesn't it strike
you as odd that he would claim, in your words, that "the only way to
preserve a Christian society is to teach [Classical] texts"? How would
it particularly foster a Christian society to have students read
non-Christian authors? What explanation did he give? Or what's your
explanation? Pending any clarification you can provide, maybe we should be
asking what he means by a Christian society. It sure doesn't sound like
what Saint Augustine might have meant by a Christian society. And of
course "Christian" is another buzz word. Eliot, and also Graham Greene,
got an unusual amount of flak for their religious conversions--this in a
society that supposedly believes in religious tolerance. I personally
think the religious sniping has been overdone. It seems to me that Eliot
saw two extremes. Either what he called a Christian society or what he
regarded as neo-paganism or a lapse into paganism. And this latter I think
he associated with occultism, seances, Tarot cards, maybe at some point
"recreational drugs," etc.
I don't totally agree with him about, say, Gurdjieff. But Eliot isn't
nearly as exclusionary as people make him sound, and as ideal societies
go, his is not bad. As you say yourself, he finds it a must that students
read non-Christian (Classical) authors. I also find him pretty sensitive
to the Jewish foundations of Christianity, which to me is a plus. After
Strange Gods is a kind of polemic against neopaganism, and indeed not
among his better works, at least as far as the literary criticism goes.
But he includes
some really good remarks about environmentalism, and I could usually
with his conclusions even though his way of thinking things out wasn't
mine. If I were asked, for example, why I object to industrial pollution
or genetically altered foods, I might frame my answer in terms of public
health issues. If he were to frame an answer in religious terms, that
doesn't especially bother me, even though I don't share his religiosity.
And to tell you the truth, he might be right. Once in a while, I actually
do find myself thinking that if there's a God, he'll punish us for the
mess we've made of the earth and for our incredible cruelty to one
another. I don't think we can blame the problems just on "industry," and
I'm afraid that we're all complicit.