Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Conservative Director of the Spectator Fouls the Breeze: T.S. Eliot and Mass Media

I'm at least two weeks behind in my email, I've got three stacks of essays to grade, three exams to write, two writing deadlines to meet and a Gordian knot of editorial hoo-hah to untangle.  So the only rational thing to do is to hole up in a coffee shop with good internet access, paw through the Selected Writings of Jules LaForgue, and blog about the things I've been reading on the commuter train.  And those things have been the poems of T.S. Eliot.

Last time I blogged about reading Eliot on the train, I let the juxtaposition of Eliot's urban street scenes and the glimpses of greater Chicago I'd had out the window of the train dictate the direction of my thoughts.  This time I'm letting the fact that I read Eliot surrounded by commuters immersed in various newspapers, magazines, Kindles, and iPads point me in the direction of Eliot and the mass media of his day.  There are a surprising number of references to the mass media in his poetry, and I think I see what it means to him.  It's a part of his critique of the modern world, with its social atomization and its failure to communion with the timeless, the life-forces of fertile nature, or true community.  In fact, we can find in Eliot's representations of the mass media in his early poetry a kind of dress-rehersal of the main themes of that miraculous poem, The Waste Land.

Consider the deeply underrated little poem called "The Boston Evening Transcript," from the 1917 volume Prufrock and Other Observations.  It opens with a depiction of the mass-media audience:

The readers of the Boston Evening Transcript
Sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn.

Right away we get one of the most common criticisms of the mass media, then as now: the notion of the passivity of the audience or readership, blown helplessly hither and yon, without the wherewithal to resist the power of the public word.  It's an idea as old as Plato's "Ion," or book ten of his Republic, and it will probably be with us as long as we have intellectuals ready to feel contempt for the real or perceived intellectual passivity of others. 

But this isn't just any mass media outlet being criticized.  Eliot has singled out the Boston Evening Transcript.  Why?  In part, I suspect it's because of the way the name of the paper scans: BOS-ton EEEEEV-en-ing TRANS-cript: there's a certain wonderful drawl to it, a falling rhythm with a good long vowel stretch in the middle, depriving the phrase of energy and allying it with a kind of lifelessness that echoes the passivity of the newspaper readers as Eliot depicts them (scansion, of course, is a performance, so your reading of those syllables may vary).

There's more, though, to the selection than a love of the scansion and a desire to represent for Boston.  The Boston Evening Transcript had a very particular place in the media culture of Boston in the early years of the twentieth century.  First of all, it was venerable, even then, having been founded in 1830.  Secondly, it was an icon of middlebrow, respectable literary taste: it had for many years in the nineteenth century been edited by the poet Epes Sargent, founder of the literary magazine of the Boston Latin School, contributor to the Harvard Advocate, and writer of such well known poems as, uh... well, writer of some poems.  Around the time Eliot was writing Prufrock and Other Observations the paper was publishing poems by Hazel Hall, who was to become a favorite poet of needlepoint enthusiasts looking for Uplifting Phrases to frame and put on a wall over a pianola or potted dieffenbachia.  Thirdly, it was stuffy to the point of snobbery, becoming well-known for its column on bridge and, especially, its weekly feature on genealogy, a field of immense importance in brahaminical Boston.  The stuffiness was truly legendary: in fact, some have argued that the etymology of the term "fuddy-duddy" can be traced to allegedly humorous little dialogues in The Boston Evening Transcript between two characters, one named Fuddy and the other Duddy.  This one appeared in November 1895:

Fuddy: So Miss Dandervecken is going to marry an Englishman.  A lord, I suppose?
Duddy: Well, no, not exactly: but I understand that he's often as drunk as a lord.

This dire attempt at humor — clearly the product of a mind fed only on Unitarian tracts and watery chowder — is not something I  made up.  The paper was actually pitched at that level of squareness.  One can almost see the heavy lace curtains hanging sadly by the china cabinets, hear the slow, somber ticking of the grandfather clock, and smell the faint, lilac odor of inner desolation floating over the tea cups and saucers.

It's the association of this particular newspaper with stifling respectability that gives additional resonance to that cornfield image, especially when we read it in conjunction with the next three lines:

When evening quickens faintly in the street,
Wakening the appetites of life in some
And to others bringing the Boston Evening Transcript,

The juxtaposition between those with life-appetites and those who subscribe to the Transcript gives a certain ironic tinge to the earlier image of the paper's readers as blowing in the wind like a field of ripe corn.  One can certainly see in the ripeness of the corn a kind of ready-to-be-reaped, end-of-life quality.  But ripeness is a funny thing: simultaneously an end and an apex, it can read as death-ready or as filled with the juice of life, as a kind of primal fertility.  So along with the windblown passivity of the readers, we get two more ideas attached to them: death-readiness and life-fullness.  But the lines that follow the initial couplet cue us to view the life-full sense as ironic, as something distant from the actual lives of the readers.  The life-full sense of ripeness is called to mind in order for us to see how far from its pagan, fertile vitality these Transcript readers have fallen. Eliot will go on to use imagery this way throughout The Waste Land, where a fertile and glamorized elsewhere is juxtaposed to a lifeless and debased here-and-now.

The critique of mass media takes a different form in the next few lines, where Eliot juxtaposes the world of the newspaper with another kind writing ecosystem altogether:

I mount the steps and ring the bell, turning
Wearily, as one would turn to nod good-bye to Rochefoucauld,
If the street were time and he at the other end of the street,

Who's this Rochefoucauld?  He's Francois, the sixth Duc de Rochefoucauld and the Prince de Marcillac to you, bro.  He's famous as a writer of pithy little maxims, and as a habitue of some of the finest literary salons in seventeenth century France.  If the newspaper is devoted to the moment, maxims were thought of as being little nuggets of wisdom that endured forever, touchstones to which generations might gratefully return.  And if the readers of the Transcript live in stifling bourgeois Boston, Rochefoucauld makes their lives seem petty and repressed indeed: he cut a swaggering swath through a world of glittering intellects and dallying ladies.  So there's a great doubled feeling to that street image: on the one hand, the speaker treats Rochfoucauld the way a tired, respectable Bostonian on the way home from the bank or law firm might treat a neighbor, with a curt, none-too-warm nod.  On the other hand, we get a sense of the distance — all the way down the street of time — of the present repressed world of isolated, respectable newspaper readers and the more lively and glamorous world of the salons.  Salons, after all, are places of face-to-face interaction and sparkling wit.  Newspapers are just things you hide behind in the parlor so your maiden aunt wont bore you with tales of her dying ficus.

The real kicker comes in the final line, though, where Eliot's speaker himself becomes the vehicle through which the lifeless, graceless, passive world of the newspaper enters the home:

And I say, "Cousin Harriet, here is the Boston Evening Transcript."

There's that great complicity thing we see so often in Eliot — it's there in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" — Prufrock knows all about his condition, his failure to enter a world of active, fertile, human association, but he can't make himself do anything about it, so he remains in the lifeless passivity and stodgy formality of a world much like that of the readers of the Boston Evening Transcript.  I think it's something Eliot gets from Jules LaForgue.

Another relatively unsung poem early poem of Eliot's, "Le Directeur" from Poems (1920), presents a similarly dark take on the mass media, this time in the form of a depiction of the editors of a magazine. Although the poem is set in London, and the magazine is The Spectator (not Addison and Steele's worthy journal, but the nasty right-wing publication founded by the Barclays in 1828), Eliot wrote the poem in French, and the rhymes in that language are wonderful to quote along with an English version of the poem.  It starts by presenting The Spectator as a kind of curse hovering over the Thames estuary:

Malheur à la malheureuse Tamise
Qui coule si preès du Spectateur.
Le directeur
Du Spectateur
Empeste la brise.

Evil to the unhappy Thames
Which flows so close to The Spectator.
The conservative
Of The Spectator
Fouls the breeze.

But what, other than the afflatus of the editor, constitutes the accursed nature of the publication?  We'd do well to remember the nature of the publication before we proceed.  Under the editorship of John St. Loe Strachey, who published and edited the magazine in the early years of the twentieth century, The Spectator was already taking on the self-consciously provocative right-wingery it retains to this day.  In the 1930s it would become associated with the journal Everyman, a Fascist publication, and in our own time it continues to run the anti-black, anti-poor, openly anti-semite screeds of one Taki Theodoracopulos, who has said that he wishes he could have been a Wehrmacht officer in the 1940s — I am not making this up.  (Theodoracopulos, it is worth noting, is one of the founders of The American Conservative, a journal associated with many current members of the Republican Party and several right-wing think tanks, including The Heritage Foundation).  So let's bear that in mind when we read the next lines:

Les actionnaires
Du Spectateur
Bras dessus bras dessous
Font des tours
A pas de loup.

The reactionary
Shareholders of the
With folded arms
And stealthy step

There's a strange, menacing kind of ritualism here, as if the stakeholders of the right-wing media were a kind of cult, or a coven of warlocks preparing a spell.  They present a strongly unified little group, secretive (those folded arms) closed to the world, and working stealthily to project their schemes upon it.  But what of the world outside the circle of monied shareholders and their editorial mouthpieces?  Well, here it is:

Dans un égout
Une petite fille
En guenilles
Le directeur
Du Spectateur
Et crève d’amour.

In a gutter
A little girl
In rags,
With flattened nose
Looks at the
Of The Spectator
And starves for love.

Well, "starves" isn't quite right.  "Bursts with love" might be more like it.  Anyway: how to interpret this?  Clearly the editors and shareholders don't care for the well-being of this girl.  She's an outcast, a product of the atomized urban society Eliot so despised, and the editors feel no sense of community with her, no desire to nurture her as part of a communion of fellow humans.  But she, from her position of isolation and poverty, looks with love and longing on the spectacle of the mass media, as represented by these men.  I'm tempted to say the relationship is much like that between the cynical people running Fox News and the economically and socially threatened people in the Tea Party movement: those people turn their yearning eyes toward a media empire that, in actuality, supports a monied class that doesn't give a damn for their wellbeing.  Eliot was no leftist, but his particular form of conservatism was all about community and communion, about people feeling for, and caring for, their fellow humans across space and time (there were limits to this: step outside Christianity and you leave Eliot's circle of sympathy).  The kind of right-wing media represented by The Spectator could only seem as malevolent to him as the worst excesses of the media seem to many of us today.