Letter to jesse, after my reading of Orwell’s essay on T.S.Eliot

I went out to the manitoba bush for two days, in a cabin by the Lake of the Woods. There are more fluffy deer than I’ve ever seen, and they’d built a great feeding relationship with the humans… Also, silence is crisp out there. I stood by the thick iced enormous lake last night in the dark, and the silence was astounding… I thought of you, and wished for you to be transported there. I also wondered how it would feel to be in the middle of the frozen lake; my friend Rhys said we could on the ski-doo… but I’m chicken shit.

Anyways, he has this Book, and I think it could make it to your favourites. Its a compilation of Orwell’s Essays – about every subject he deemed fit to ponder on (which I believe is everything)… I read one he wrote on T.S. Eliot; about Orwell’s disatisfaction with the direction of his poetry in Eliot’s latter years… I wanted to share some parts with you… Here it goes, if you have time, its not the full essay, but it will give you a good grasp of it. Orwell is a gem…

(T.S. Eliot quote) “I have seen them riding seaward on the waves, Combining the white hair of the waves blown back, When the wind blows the water white and black. We have lingered in the chambers of the sea, By the sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown, Till human voices wake us, and we drown”

There is nothing like that in the later poems, although the rentier despair on which these lines are founded has been consciously dropped. But the trouble is that conscious futility is something only for the young. One cannot go on ‘despairing of life’ into a ripe old age. One cannot go on and on being ‘decadent’, since decadence means falling and one can only be said to be falling if one is going to reach the bottom reasonably soon. Sooner or later one is obliged to adopt a positive attitude towards life and society. It would be putting it too crudely to say that every poet in our time must either die young, enter the Catholic Church, or join the Communist Party, but in fact the escape from the consciousness of futility is along those general lines. There are other deaths besides physical deaths, and there are other sects and creeds besides the Catholic Church and the Communist Party, but it remains true that after a certain age one must either stop writing or dedicate oneself to some purpose not wholly aesthetic.
Eliot’s escape from individualism was into the Church, the Anglican Church as it happened. One ought not to assume that the gloomy Pétanisim to which he now appears to have given himself over was the unavoidable result of his conversion. The Anglo-Catholic movement does not impose any political ‘line’ on its followers, and a reactionary or austrofascist tendency had always been apparent in his work, especially his prose writings. In theory it is still possible to be an orthodox religious believer without being intellectually crippled in the process: but it is far from easy, and in practice books by orthodox believers usually show the same cramped, blinkered outlook as books by orthodox Stalinists or others who are mentally unfree. The reason is that the Christian churches still demand assent to doctrine which no one seriously believes in. (…)
All writers who are any good develop throughout life, and the general direction of their development is determined. (…)
Neither feudalism nor indeed Fascism is necessarily deadly to poets, though both are to prose-writers. The thing that is really deadly to both is Conservatism of the half-hearted modern kind.
It is at least imaginable that if Eliot had followed wholeheartedly the anti-democractic, anti-perfectionist strain in himself he might have struck a new vein comparable to his earlier one. But the negative, Pétainism, which turns its eyes to the past, accepts defeat, writes off earthly happiness as impossible, mumbles about prayer and repentance and thinks it a spiritual advance to see life as ‘a pattern of living worms in the guts of the women of Canterbury’ – that, surely, is the least hopeful road a poet could take.

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