Τ.S. Eliot: The man of letters and the future of Europe

Reprinted from The Norseman (July-August 1944): 243-48, by kind permission of the Editor.

t.s.eliot

I WISH first to define the sense in which I shall use the term ‘man of letters’. I shall mean the writer for whom his writing is primarily an art, who is as much concerned ‘with style as with content; the understanding of whose writings, therefore, depends as much upon appreciation of style as upon comprehension of content. This is primarily the poet (including the dramatic poet), and the writer of prose fiction. To give emphasis to these two kinds of writer is not to deny the title ‘man of letters’ to writers in many other fields: it is simply a way of isolating the problem of responsibility of the man of letters qua man. of letters; and if what I have to say is true for the poet and the novelist, it will also be true for other writers in so far as they are ‘artists’.

The first responsibility of the man of letters is, of course, his responsibility towards his art, the same, which neither time nor circumstance can abate or modify, that other artists have: that is, he must do his best with the medium, in which he works. He differs from other artists, in that his medium is his language: we do not all paint pictures, and we are not all musicians, but we all talk. This fact gives the man of letters a special responsibility towards everybody who speaks the same language, a responsibility which workers in other arts do not share. But, in general, special responsibilities which fall upon the man of letters at any time must take second place to his permanent responsibility as a literary artist. However, the man of letters is not, as a rule, exclusively engaged upon the production of works of art. He has other interests, like anybody else; interests “which will, in all probability, exercise some influence upon the content and meaning of the works of art which he does produce. He has the same responsibility, and should have the same concern with the fate of his country, and with political and social affairs within it, as any other citizen; and in matters of controversy, there is no more reason why two men of letters should hold identical opinions, and support the same party and programme, than why any other two citizens should. Yet there are matters of public concern, in which the man of letters should express his opinion, and exert his influence, not merely as a citizen but as a man of letters: and upon such matters I think that it is desirable that men of letters should agree. In proceeding to suggest some of these, I have no expectation that all men of letters will agree with me: but if I confined myself to statements to which all men of letters, as men of letters, could give immediate assent, I should only be uttering platitudes.

The man of letters as such, is not concerned with the political or economic map of Europe; but he should be very much concerned with its cultural map. This problem, involving the relations of different cultures and languages in Europe, must have presented itself first, to the man of letters, as a domestic problem: in this context, foreign affairs are merely an extension of domestic affairs. Nearly every country, that has been, long settled, is a composite of different local cultures; and even when it is completely homogeneous in race, it will, between east and west, or more often between north and south, exhibit differences of speech, of customs, and of ways of thinking and feeling. A small country of course, is usually assumed by foreigners to be much more unified than it realty is: and although the educated foreigner is aware that Britain contains within its small area several races and several languages, he may underestimate the importance of both the friction, and the often happy combination toward a common end, of the different types. It is a commonplace that industrialism (of which totalitarianism is a political expression) tends to obliterate these differences, to uproot men from their ancestral habitat, to mingle them in large manufacturing and business centres, or to send them hither and thither as the needs of manufacture and distribution may dictate. In its political aspect, industrialism tends to centralize the direction of affairs in one large metropolis, and to diminish that interest in, and control over, local affairs by which men gain political experience and sense of responsibility. Against this tendency, ‘regionalism’—as in the demand, from time to time, for greater local autonomy in Scotland or in Wales—is a protest.

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