I had a birthday a while back, as I do most years, and received as a gift the two recently published and obsessively annotated volumes of T. S. Eliot’s poetry overseen by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue. If the essence of nerdiness is a psychic need for completeness in any given undertaking — Oh, but do you know the expanded universe? — then there have never been Eliot nerds quite like these two.
Eliot has long been of interest to conservatives. Russell Kirk’s conspectus of rightward thinking was titled “The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot.” Anglo-American conservatism, as opposed to the Continental variety, is one part classical liberalism and one part . . . something else. Eliot was the poet and critic of that something else, a modernist who understood and perhaps even envied the orderliness of medieval intellectual life and the beauty in that order. But he also must sound a little exotic to us: “I am an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature, and a royalist in politics,” he said.
It may be that Eliot’s thinking in essays such as “The Idea of a Christian Society” is of limited use to modern conservatives. What I have found most interesting about the recent investigations into Eliot is not the high-minded work of the poet and critic at the height of his powers but the emphatically low-minded verse of his latter years, particularly the erotic poems that have produced so much eye-rolling and squeamishness among certain kinds of low-minded readers. The poems are not very good, but they are interesting companions to the important ones. Many of them detail Eliot’s encounters with the “Tall Girl,” his epithet for Valerie Fletcher, his second wife. She had been a secretary at his office and was, in the inescapable biographers’ cliché, nearly four decades his junior. What he found with her was simple domestic peace, something whose value is most apparent to those who have not known it or, as with Eliot, who had not known it for most of their lives.
Eliot’s life had been an unhappy one: the disastrous first marriage to a mentally ill woman, a job he hated in the subterranean offices of Lloyd’s bank that for all its demanding respectability failed to keep away financial difficulty, his own spiritual crisis and the convulsions of Europe. Like many great men, he also suffered from his own strange cultivation of personal unhappiness — he was, at times, positively creepy, sexually, socially, and otherwise. Louis Menand finds him more or less developing himself as a literary character: “It was in Eliot’s character to convert misfortune into fate, and he eventually undertook to normalize the abnormality. In 1927, he was confirmed into the Church of England, which made divorce essentially impossible; in 1928, he took a vow of chastity.”
The poetry was not very good in the years of his happiness. Eliot was remarried in 1957 and had a play performed in 1958–59, The Elder Statesman. It is the story of a distinguished and widely admired man intolerably burdened by the memory of his past and by the unexpected return of figures from it. The put-upon aristocrat’s internal conflicts and sexual guilt stand in the way of the marriage, happiness, and spiritual fulfillment of an attractive young couple. He dies, and they live happily ever after. Perhaps there is an element of spiritual autobiography in all that.
It is not true that great artists must suffer or that genius is only truly unleashed by unhappiness, though this silly romantic notion is immortal, and Eliot himself may have believed something of the sort. Graham Greene gave us a point of comparison: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love — they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Writing about Stockholm, the journalist Joshua Levine reports that the famed travel writer Jan Morris had called it “the most beautiful capital in Europe” and drily notes that “the city rarely elicits the kind of moist-eyed gushing that Paris or Rome does.” But it is experiencing a surge of tourism, partly, Levine says, because of the perception that it is safe compared with Paris and Rome. I am not sure that is true, but it certainly feels that way. The Swedish capital, like the Swiss capital, feels like the sort of place where they appreciate a well-kept train schedule, a tidy street, and maybe even a well-carved cuckoo clock.
It is not that conditions of peace and prosperity fail to inspire great art. J. S. Bach lived a life that was far removed from the great dramas of his time; his great conflicts were fighting with choristers and being briefly arrested when he caused a stink after being fired from a job.
Given a choice between domestic contentedness and the stuff of epic poetry, some people will always — foolishly — choose the poetry.
But Greene was on to something. Times of great pitch and moment tend to produce works of art, architecture, and innovation that are outwardly directed, meant for public use and consumption. Times of peace and prosperity tend to produce domestic refinements and innovations that are mainly intended to be enjoyed in private life. In the early days of our nation, with the revolution and related wars fresh on their minds, the mighty people in high places were very concerned that the United States prove, especially to the English and the Europeans, that it had earned its place in the world, and so it began to fill Washington and other places with buildings and monuments that were intended to be, as our contemporary municipal authorities and some presidential candidates like to say, “world-class.” Our capital was therefore filled with faux-Roman domes and columns, Egyptian obelisks, and Hellenic statuary to such an extent that Pierre Charles L’Enfant et al. might have been tempted to make the same boast as Augustus — that they found the capital a city of brick and left it a city of marble.
The years immediately following World War II were very different, a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity that was accompanied by a turn to private life and family, which in turn was accompanied by the development of the midcentury-modern style of architecture, which reached an especially high degree of refinement in the homes of southern California. There are many people who prefer the public-ness and grandiosity of D.C. to the privacy and restraint of Palm Springs, and those people are not to be trusted.
Given a choice between domestic contentedness and the stuff of epic poetry, some people will always — foolishly — choose the poetry. Unhappily, most of that poetry will not be the sort of thing T. S. Eliot wrote in his prime — it will be unfit for Hallmark cards.
But people seem to need the poetry.
Strong Men in Crisp Uniforms
“Say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, at least it’s an ethos.” National Socialism was also an aesthetic, and its sense of style may have been in practice more important than the mishmash of workers’-party socialism, nationalist mysticism, and Jew-hatred that constituted the philosophy, such as it was, of Adolf Hitler’s movement. Frederic Spotts offers a case for that in his Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics, though perhaps not enough of one. As The New Yorker put it in its brief review: “Spotts never really confronts the horror at the center of his story: the fact that Hitler not only knew the arts but made a religion of them, and probably believed in nothing else.”
But not rarefied high art alone: Like the Renaissance patrons who commissioned great works of art with an eye to matching the colors on the drapery, Hitler had an all-encompassing aesthetic that included not only painting, sculpture, and music but also architecture, interior design, and fashion. The agents of the Schutzstaffel were very sharp-dressed men and remain underground style icons to this day; as P. J. O’Rourke says: “No one has ever had a fantasy about being tied to a bed and sexually ravished by someone dressed as a liberal.” My first thought after finishing Spotts’s book was that the first American political movement that figures out a way to bring back uniforms would have some success. But that seemed to me impossible: Surely George Carlin, who was wrong about so much, was at least right when he said that an American fascist would not be dressed in jackboots and a brown tunic but in Nike sneakers and a smiley-face T-shirt?
The “Make America Great Again” trucker hat was a clever solution to that problem. Donald Trump may not know very much, but he does know marketing. The MAGA hat can be worn while one cowers behind the impenetrable shield of ironic distance as the hat simultaneously performs the function of a traditional uniform:
I am frightened, you are frightened.
Should we get our trousers tightened?
. . . We are marching as to war,
We won’t be obscure no more
The Trump movement, and the so-called alt-right that is its bulwark, is in fact a largely aesthetic phenomenon, an expression of a longing for banners, badges, uniforms, and for the underlying hierarchies represented by those things. Trumpkins adopt anonymous online personas with ridiculous Latin pseudonyms or else, Dungeons & Dragons–style, hearken back to a stylized pseudo-medieval sensibility, invoking Charlemagne or the Knights Templar or, the times being what they are, Charles Martel. They declare themselves “militias” or “brigades” or “armies,” making plain their longing to be ranked. They have a difficult relationship with hierarchy, at once resenting and abominating the elites they imagine to be plotting against them while adopting for themselves a kind of sad parody of the military system of gradations, so precise in real life, or else they posture as members (high-ranking members, naturally) of a highly developed aristocratic order.
Like Eliot before them, they find in the leveling liberalism and democratic ideals of the modern capitalist democracies something sterile, a sense that something is missing. That sense of purpose once was provided by fatherhood. Eliot had no children, and many of the alt-righters are sexually and socially disappointed young men to whom is denied both the stability and peace of settled domestic life on the old model and the lower if more varied pleasures offered by the savage meat market that has supplanted traditional marriage and family life. The obsession with Trump as “alpha male” and the homoerotic aesthetic familiar from both the Nazi and Italian Fascist styles are not tangential to the politics; rather, the politics are largely coincidental to these fascinations.
The alt-righters are not, in the main, deep readers. They would, if they were so inclined, find something of value — and something much better than what they have found for themselves so far — in an Eliotic conservatism. But the predominant political tendency on the Anglo-American Right is one of classical liberalism, or at least it has been since the end of World War II. That conservatism is both cosmopolitan and domestic, and it is strongly oriented toward commerce. When Napoleon dismissed England as “a nation of shopkeepers,” many of those who admired the little corporal’s splendid martial plumage nodded along in contempt. But there are few places where life is lived as well as it is in nations of shopkeepers, or nations of bankers and cuckoo-clock makers.
‘A Man’s Home Is His Castle’
An American conservatism should be organized around the pursuit of peace, prosperity, and purpose. And, if you will forgive further alliteration, deployed in the defense of privacy and property, which are the practical bulwarks of those loftier goals.
But these offer very little to the populist-nationalist, and it would be a mistake to think of the populist-nationalist tendency as being the exclusive property of the Trump movement or of the Right. When I was following Senator Bernie Sanders in Iowa, I saw a great many almost exclusively white, overwhelmingly male, and disproportionately blue-collar audiences who were enraged by liberal immigration arrangements — Senator Sanders assured them that he remained eternally hostile to the “open borders” policies that he attributed to scheming billionaire globalists plotting against the interests of American workers. And they were as hostile to free trade, and to global trade in general, as any Trump voter or antique Buchananite. They were angry white men who believed that their problems were the work of scheming brown people and the shadowy financiers behind them. They wondered why we could not be more like Germany and argued that we needed more ethnic homogeneity to achieve that. Their spiritual and political forebears are not those who fell for George McGovern in 1972 but the union-hall Democrats who backed George Wallace in 1968.
They are not interested in domestic peace, because they believe themselves to be kept unfairly at the bottom of the pile and desire to overturn that pile, to Burn It Down! as they insist. (I suspect that Russell Kirk would agree that Burn it down! Things couldn’t possibly get any worse! is the least conservative of all sentiments.) They are still less interested in the pursuit of peace abroad, which leads us into entangling and expensive foreign alliances. They are not especially interested in prosperity, either, inasmuch as they resent the success of American firms, especially those with worldwide business operations. Apple to them is just a profiteering Chinese sweatshop operator; Elon Musk, nothing more than the worst sort of abject crony capitalist; Silicon Valley, full of conniving cosmopolitans looking to throw over hardworking American engineers in favor of cheaper help from Bangalore. Their idea of prosperity is that of a zero-sum game: Make the Mexicans pay for it! is for them as much a moral maxim as a fiscal solution. But they are as happy as Senator Elizabeth Warren or any of the Left’s other class warriors to expropriate the wealth of more successful Americans and their companies.
The very idea of private property is in fact in some danger, as is the underlying idea of private life.
Partly, that is the doing of technology and organic social change. The prolific and well-paid novelist David Foster Wallace once ruefully wondered whether the prolific and well-paid novelist John Updike had ever had an unpublished thought, but the emergence of social media as the dominant voice in our public conversations has broadened that question: No one has an unpublished thought unless he makes a point of it. The immediacy of access to an effectively unlimited public forum has proven dangerous for certain political candidates and public figures given to tweeting after the cocktail hour. This has been amplified by the permanent grievance lobby — which is by no means limited to the Left and its social-justice warriors — and by the formal instruments of government as well. In the 1950s, people who were overreacting to trivial slights were advised: “Don’t make a federal case out of it.” We literally make federal cases out of those things today, holding out the threat of imprisoning dissident cake-decorators and nonconformist nuns who do not believe that celibate octogenarians should be obliged, as a matter of national policy, to insure themselves for contraceptive expenses.
Without private life and private property, we are defenseless against the descent into ever deeper and unlimited étatism.
To reestablish the idea of a truly private sphere of life, and the associated idea of private property, will require very substantial changes to everything from civil-rights law to tax policy. But those are relatively small and particularistic issues, the sort of politics that is, as Andrew Breitbart insisted, downstream from culture. To reestablish a cultural norm under which Halloween costumes worn without any malicious intent, the internal financial workings of religious orders, and the contents of homeschoolers’ curricula are first and finally private matters will be, if it even is possible, a long and difficult project, one that depends upon certain other deeper and more subtle changes in the culture. We once fought over where the line should be drawn; we now fight over whether there is a line. But without private life and private property, we are defenseless against the descent into ever deeper and unlimited étatism.
And it is here that the so-called social issues interact with questions of economic policy and international relations in ways that may not be obvious. To defend private life, private life must be cherished. For private life to be cherished, it must be worth cherishing. But how can real domestic peace be pursued and secured without a more enduring model of marriage than the degraded one we now have, in a society in which no more care is given to the conception and raising of children than to the whelping of pups? There is a great truth to the Confucian linkage between order in the family and order in the state. “A man’s home is his castle” is a maxim that is of limited interest to the man without a home, or to the family-less man renting a cheap one-bedroom apartment. Eliot’s Tall Girl may have been uncomplicated in comparison to his brilliant, vivacious, and utterly mad first wife, but she was a better foundation for happiness than a Nobel prize.
And a man tempted to strap on a pair of jackboots and a jacket with braid and epaulets is lot less likely to do so if there is a proper wife at home to laugh those fantasies out of him.
“These fragments I have shored against my ruins . . . ”
The achievement of peace and prosperity is not a small task; only a minority of polities over the course of human history has managed that. The discernment of purpose, and the communication of it, is more difficult still. We hear stirrings of that project among conservatives such as Senator Ben Sasse, who insists that there is more to the Right than tax cuts and more to the constitutional order than getting the outcomes we want on gun rights and free speech, as critical as those are. The populists-nationalists believe themselves to be part of a great crusade, and they are delusional. But they are not wrong in intuiting that there is something sick in our republic, and that it requires attention. What ails us, though, is not exotic, and it is not rooted in some faraway locale. It is close to home — closer than we might like to admit. There are still bricks underneath all that marble, and you need good sturdy ones to keep everything from crashing down on your head.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.