George Scialabba: The Critic as Radical





[George Scialabba is the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For?]

Simone de Beauvoir wrote of the 20th-century conservative thinker: “Gloomy or arrogant, he is the man who says no; his real certainties are all negative. He says no to modernity, no to the future, no to the living action of the world; but he knows that the world will prevail over him.” That T.S. Eliot at least partly resembled this portrait he himself acknowledged. As he wrote to a friend in 1921: “Having only contempt for every existing political party, and profound hatred for democracy, I feel the blackest gloom.”

In daily life, Eliot was neither gloomy nor arrogant but serene and gracious, generous and humble. At the height of his fame, his courtesy even to the callow and importunate was legendary. Yet however Eliot achieved this extraordinary equableness, he doubtless saw himself as a man whose vocation was to say no, to stand athwart history strenuously wielding negative certainties. Why, exactly, did Eliot loathe modernity and what did he hope to conserve against its advance?...



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