Port and Nuts with the Eliots: A Review of Notes towards the Definition of Culture

Feast of St Andrew the First-Called Apostle

LIKE MOST important writers, Mr. T. S. Eliot is not a single figure but a household. This household has, I think, at least three permanent residents. First, there is the archdeacon, who believes in and practices order, discipline, and good manners, social and intellectual, with a thoroughly Anglican distaste for evangelical excess:

… his conversation, so nicely
Restricted to What Precisely
And If and Perhaps and But.

And no wonder, for the poor gentleman is condemned to be domiciled with a figure of a very different stamp, a violent and passionate old peasant grandmother, who has witnessed murder, rape, pogroms, famine, flood, fire, everything; who has looked into the abyss and, unless restrained, would scream the house down:

Reflected in my golden eye
The dullard knows that he is mad.
Tell me if I am not glad!

Last, as if this state of affairs were not difficult enough, there is a young boy who likes to play slightly malicious practical jokes. The too earnest guest, who has come to interview the Reverend, is startled and bewildered by finding an apple-pie bed or being handed an explosive cigar.

From its rather formidable title, it is evident that Mr. Eliot’s latest essay is officially from the pen of the Archdeacon, who is different about his powers but determined to do his social duty even under very unpropitious circumstances:

In a society of smaller size (a society, therefore, which was less feverishly busy) there might be more conversation and fewer books; and we should not find the tendency – of which this essay provides one example – for those who have acquired some reputation, to write books outside the subject on which the have made that reputation.

With a proper caution and a schoolmaster’s conscientiousness, the Archdeacon begins by defining the various senses in which the word ‘culture’ is used: to mean (1) the conscious self-cultivation of the individual, his attempt to raise himself out of the average mass to the level of the élite; (2) the ways of believing, thinking, and feeling of the particular group within society to which an individual belongs; and (3) the still less conscious way of life of society as a whole.

There are always two cultural problems: cultural innovation, i.e. how to change a culture for the better, however ‘good’ may be defined; and cultural transmission, i.e. how to transmit what is valuable in a culture from one generation to the next. It is to the second problem that Mr. Eliot addresses himself – and rightly, most people, I think, will agree, for in the unstatic and unstable societies of our age, transmission, or cultural memory, is the major problem. Starting from the premise that no culture has appeared or evolved except together with a religion, whichever may be the agent that produces the other, he states and develops the thesis that the transmission of any culture depends on three conditions: (1) the persistence of social classes; (2) the diversity of local or regional cultures within a larger cultural unit; (3) the diversity of religious cult and devotion within a large universality of religious doctrine. The premise is, I think, undeniable, even by the most violent atheist, for the word ‘religion’ simply means that which is binding, the beliefs or habits of conduct that the conscience of an individual or a society tells him he should affirm, even at the cost of his life (and nobody has a personal identity without such). For example, a Logical Positivist is a person who is prepared to be shot rather than say that metaphysical statements about value are real statements. If he is not so prepared, or if, recanting under pressure, he is not ashamed, then he is not a Logical Positivist.


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Nor will anyone quarrel, I think, with Mr. Eliot’s contention that in a civilized society religion and culture, though interdependent – “bishops are a part of English culture, and horses and dogs are a part of English religion” – are not and should not be identical; e.g. it is only in a barbarous society that to drive on the right or to eat boiled cabbage or to listen to the music of Elgar would be regarded not as matters of habit or convenience or taste but as matters of ultimate significance.

This, however, involves the conclusion that the religion of a civilized society is distinguished by the existence of dogma as separate from mythology and cult, and at this word ‘dogma’ the hackles of the liberal are apt to rise. He immediately has visions of Torquemada and the stake, and, like Dr. Humdrum, in Macaulay’s poem, begins to wonder:

…how we should dress for the show,
And where we should fasten the powder,
And if we should bellow or no.

Yes his experiences of the last twenty years have perhaps made him less likely to be alarmed by that word, for the all too successful anti-liberal heresies have compelled him to recognize that there is a liberal orthodoxy, of which he was unaware only because for so long it was never seriously challenged; he is forced to admit that there are beliefs from which, if he can, he must convert and which, if he cannot, he must, in however genteel a manner, persecute.

Nobody has ever really believed in Freedom of Religion. Where religion is concerned, the hardest virtue is tolerance, and to find out what a person’s religion is one has only to discover what he becomes violent about. If one has never heard of a riot in the streets of New York between Greeks and Italians over the Filioque Clause, or of an elder from the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church defending Predestination with an umbrella against the Arminian onslaughts of a vestryman from Trinity, Wall Street, this means merely that to the majority of Americans today Christianity is not religion but only culture, and not an important aspect of that.

In a revolutionary age like the present, the greatest threat to freedom is not dogmas but the reluctance to define them precisely, for in times of danger, if nobody knows what is essential and what is unessential, the unessential is vested with religious importance (to dislike ice cream becomes a proof of heresy), so the liberal who is so frightened by the idea of dogma that he blindly opposes any kind, instead of seeing that nothing is made an article of faith that need not be so, is promoting the very state of tyranny and witch-hunting that he desires to prevent.

However, it is not Mr. Eliot’s views on religion that are going to get him into hot water with a great many people but his approval of hereditary classes and his doubts about universal education, for here the Archdeacon is from time to time replaced by the boyish practical joke, whose favorite sport is teasing the Whigs, particularly if they happen to be Americans:

In a healthful stratified society, public affairs would be a responsibility not equally borne: a greater responsibility would be inherited by those who inherited special advantages and in whom self-interest, and interest for the sake of their families (“a stake in their country”), should cohere with public spirit.

A high average of general education is perhaps less necessary for a civil society than is a respect for learning.

In justice to Thomas Gray, we should remind ourselves of the last and finest line of the quatrain, and remember that we may also have escaped some Cromwell guilty of his country’s blood. The proposition that we have lost a number of Miltons and Cromwells through our tardiness in providing a comprehensive state system of education cannot be either proved or disproved: it has a strong attraction for many ardent reforming spirits.

This is the hotfoot treatment, and the howls of anguish and rage that have already begun to go up are not altogether displeasing to at least one listener’s ear, for one of the more unattractive characteristics of the Enlightenment is their almost total lack of a sense of humor. The Archdeacon in me, however, must regret them, because an enraged audience will not listen, even to refute. The value of Mr. Eliot’s book is not the conclusions he reaches, mot of which are debatable, but the questions he raises.

For instance, how has culture been transmitted in the past? If the methods of the past are no longer possible, how can it be transmitted now? Mr. Eliot is only partly right, I think, in asserting that in the past the role of transmission was played by a class or by classes. For many centuries, it was transmitted by the Church; i.e. by an institution with a hereditary status whose members could be drawn from any social class. In England, it was only during the last two centuries or so that the responsibility for culture passed to social classes, first to the landed aristocracy, and then, when they became stockholders without responsibility, to the professional classes – the clergy, the doctors, the lawyers, etc. And even then it was certain institutions – the greater universities, the cathedral closes – that were really responsible. In Scotland, moreover, it was not only, or mainly, the rich who attended the universities.

The American problem has been unique. Jefferson and Hamilton read no different from Europeans; then, between 1830 and 1870, say, there emerged a culture that was definitely non-European but also entirely Anglo-Saxon; after that, in a sense, America had to begin all over again.

It was perhaps unfortunate that, with the exception of the Germans of ’48 and the Jews who came to escape persecution, the stimulus to immigration from Europe during the nineteenth century was so simply poverty, for this meant that of, for instance, the Irish and Italians who came, few were conscious of their native culture and few had many memories they wished to preserve.

This, and the absence of any one dominant church, has placed almost the whole cultural burden on the school, which has had to struggle along as best it could, with all too little help from even the family. It is a very encouraging sign that social groups within American society – the Labor Unions, for instance – are beginning to go into education instead of leaving it all to the state. I have never understood how a liberal, of all people, can regard the State education as anything but a necessary and – it is to be hoped – temporary evil. The only ground for approval that I can see is the authoritarian ground that Plato gives – that it is the only way to insure orthodoxy. Well, if it comes to that, the more the total task of education can be shared among different groups, the smaller the educational unit can be. It is almost impossible for education organized on a mass scale not to imitate the methods that work so well in the mass production of goods.

The greatest thing that could descend on Higher Education in this country would be not the erection of more class barriers but the removal of one; namely, the distinction drawn between those who have attended college and those who have not. As long as employers demand a degree for jobs to which a degree is irrelevant, the colleges will be swamped by students who have no disinterested love of knowledge, and teachers, particularly in the humanities, aware of the students’ economic need to pass examinations, will lower their standards to let them.

So one could go on chatting and wrangling with the Archdeacon all evening. If, from time to time, a small head has popped around the door and shouted “Boo to Jefferson!” or “Excuse me, are you out of the top drawer?,” it could be politely ignored. The talk has been stimulating, the port excellent. Do go on. I am not questioning the usefulness…

Ichabod! Ichabod!

(Heavens! What was that extraordinary noise?) You were saying, Sir, that the zealots of World Government seem to assume…

Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.

(There it goes again.)

The conversation trails off into silence. Whig? Tory? All flesh is grass. Culture? The grass withereth. One realizes that one is no longer reading lucid prose of following an argument; one has ceased trying to understand or explain anything; one is listening to the song of the third Eliot, a voice in Ramah, weeping, that will not be comforted.

*Originally published in The New Yorker, 23 April 1949.

"Notes towards the Definition of Culture" available in Christianity and Culture
216 pp. paper $15.95

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