The respect, even adulation, accorded to writers and artists just because they are good at what they do seems to me misplaced and, in some cases, destructive. It’s a common human frailty to value the opinions of a writer, say, who just happens to have a talent for putting words together brilliantly. A case in point is the poet, T. S. Eliot, whom John Nassivera apparently regards as a sage for the ages in his Nov. 17 column.
Eliot was an effective writer whose poems I delighted in reciting during my adolescent years. He was also, however, a brutal snob and a purveyor of highly toxic ideas bearing a close resemblance to Nazi ideology during the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, his friend and literary collaborator, Ezra Pound, was tried and jailed for treason due to his pro-fascist radio broadcasts during World War II.
Cautious, well-connected Eliot, on the other hand, was lionized and celebrated by prestigious American university English departments right up until the literary rebels of the 1960s tore the mask off this most hateful of writers. Eliot was indeed a hater: of uncouth Americans — he abandoned his native America to live in presumably more refined England — of Irish “Sweenys,” of pimply young men, of women’s independence, of most foreigners and, particularly, of Jews, as evidenced by his poetry.
Indeed, Eliot was so offended by the messy, modern world that he took refuge in a rigid, insular version of Christianity which, I presume, is what Nassivera, a self-proclaimed Christian, finds so appealing.
When Nassivera talks about Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” and speaks of “our failures,” he is using the depersonalizing stereotypes so favored by totalitarians of all stripes. There’s no compassion, no attempt to understand or appreciate people as unique fellow humans — just blanket disapproval or condemnation.
To his credit, in the poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Eliot effectively portrayed the struggle many people of talent undergo in trying to choose between an often fruitless and unappreciated reach for great accomplishment and an ultimately sad life of ordinary comfort. Nobody is wrong all the time. Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to assume that good writing implies good ideas. Eliot’s ideas were generally worse than lousy.
Andy Leader lives in North Middlesex.