T. S. Eliot (essay date 1928)
SOURCE: "The Idealism of Julien Benda," in The New Republic Anthology, 1915-1935, edited by Groff Conklin, Dodge Publishing Company, 1936, pp. 293-300.
[An American-born English poet, critic, essayist, and dramatist, Eliot was one of the most influential writers in English of the first half of the twentieth century. His work and thought are characterized by experimentation, formal complexity, artistic and intellectual eclecticism, and a classicist's view of the artist working at an emotional distance from his or her creation. In the following essay, which originally appeared in The New Republic on 12 December 1928, Eliot critiques Benda's theories about the responsibility of intellectuals as presented in La trahison des clercs.]
M. Julien Benda is a critic who does not write often or too much. His Belpbhgor, which some of us recognized as an almost final statement of the attitude of contemporary society to art and the artist, was published in 1918 or 1919. La Trhison des Cleres is the first book of the same type that M. Benda has written since Belpbhgor, it represents some years of meditation and study; we expected a book of the same importance. We are not disappointed. And just as Belphdgor, although based upon an examination of French society alone, applied to the relation of society to the arts in all Europe and America, so is La Trbison des Clercs of general application. It is, indeed, more general; for M. Benda now draws his illustrations from England, Germany, Italy and America, as well as from France. In these illustrations I do not think that he has been altogether fair; and as he has cited William James and Kipling, we are entitled to cross-examine him on his examination.
M. Benda's thesis may be divided into two parts, upon which we may find that we give separate verdicts. The first part is a general criticism of the political passions of the present time. The second part is a scrutiny of the culpability of certain noted men of letters, and implies a rule of life which M. Benda would lay down for men of letters of our time. In the first general diagnosis, I am inclined to yield complete assent; in the second part, he does not seem to me to have carried his analysis of individuals far enough; and the ideal that he holds up to contemporary men of letters seems to me to be infected with romance. But he puts a problem which confronts every man of letters; the same problem which Mr. Wyndham Lewis has solved for himself in his own way by writing his recent books: the problem of the scope and direction which the activities of the artist and the man of letters should take today.
With the first part of M. Benda's thesis I cannot deal in this short paper. No one can disagree with his statement of the "modern consummation of political passions"; his classification of passions of race (e.g., the Nordic theory and the Latin theory), passions of nations (e.g., fascism) and passions of class (e.g., communism). I say that no one can disagree with the statement, which is made with all M. Benda's usual lucidity and concision; but the analysis could be carried much farther than M. Benda carries it. A new Remy de Gourmont could "dissociate" these ideas of Nationalism of Class, of Race into their local components; and there is also the Religious Idea (not discussed by M. Benda) to be dissociated (with special reference to an actual controversy in England) into components such as conviction, piety, prejudice and politics. Each of these subjects would take a chapter by itself. Let us merely accept M. Benda's general statement of the "perfection" of these passions in the modern world—in universality, in coherence, in homogeneity, in precision, in continuity and in condensation; and proceed to the question: what is the role of the man of letters; does he today involve himself in these passions, and if so, why; and what is his proper function?
M. Benda brings a grave accusation against the modern "man of letters," whom he calls the "clerc." The accusation is retrospective, for it applies to most of the nineteenth century. The "clerc, "instead of sticking to his business of pure thought or pure art, has descended into politics in the widest and sometimes the lowest sense. M. Benda's instances are mostly contemporary and mostly French. For the sake of completeness, no doubt, he has added a few foreigners, such as D'Annunzio, Kipling and William James. Among these three "clercs" I can see nothing in common. D'Annunzio is a brilliant prose artist of pseudo-decadence, who took up with Italian nationalism as a new excitement; Kipling (it seems to me) writes of the Empire because he was born in India instead of Sussex (and as Mr. Dobree has said, part of his interesting peculiarity is that he makes the deck of a P. and 0. liner seem as much British soil as Sussex or Shropshire); James is included merely because he voiced a rather silly enthusiasm for the American war with Spain. M. Benda is more exact with his own compatriots. Two of those whom he accuses are Barrés and Péguy. But one asks the question: has he carried his analysis far enough? I dislike both of these writers as much as M. Benda does. But the question is: are these writers dangerous because they have concerned themselves with practical and political matters, or rather because their attitude, both in art, speculative thought and practical thought, was wrong? Let us undertake to consider what are the causes of the inclination of men of letters—including poets, novelists and even painters (there is as yet no instance of a musician)—to occupy themselves with social theories: and second, to distinguish the artists or men of letters who excel in their proper sphere, but fail in their public occupation, from those who exhibit the same faults in their art as in their public activity, and finally from those who (if there are such) excel and are right in both.
Ours is an unsettled age. No one is sure to what "class" of society he belongs; at no time has "class" been more uncertain, and yet at no time has the consciousness of "class" been greater. Everyone is now conscious of class, but no one is sure what class is; everyone is conscious of nationality and race (our very passports impress that upon us), but no one is sure who or which or what is what or which race, or whether race is divided north and south or east and west or horizontally, or whether any of us is anything but a mongrel, and we suspect that the more we know about race the more clearly we shall see that we are all merely mongrels. We are conscious of these questions as a man with indigestion is conscious of his stomach. It might almost be said that everybody is conscious of every question and no one knows any answers. This has been called an age of specialization, but it is very much the age of the amateur. Not long ago I attended, with some curiosity, a "religious convention"; I heard a popular novelist and a popular actor talk nonsense for half an hour each, and then I left. There is, in fact, very little respect for authority: by which I mean respect for the man who has special knowledge of some subject of which oneself is ignorant.
The causes are, of course, many; and I merely mention these things in order to point out that the meddling of men of letters in practical affairs, to which M. Benda objects, is only one phenomenon of a general confusion. The publicist who writes about everything on earth responds to the demand of a public which has a mild and transient interest in everything on earth. All this is perfectly commonplace, and I only mention it in order to point out that it is, in practice, extremely difficult to draw a line between the mere vulgarizer of knowledge and the...
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