The greatest writers and critics get ironically short shrift at the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting so it is worthy of note when they get their due.
T.S. Eliot, like G.K. Chesterston, is “concerned with illustrating the limiting and crippling effect of a separation from tradition and orthodoxy upon certain writers whom I [Eliot] nevertheless hold up for admiration for what they have attempted against great obstacles,” quotes Utah State University’s Associate Professor of English, Alan Blackstock, in his speech “Chesterton, Eliot, and Modernist Heresy” at the Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention in Chicago last week.
Blackstock states that Eliot and Chesterton utilized the notions of orthodoxy and heresy to evaluate and critique the works and sway of a number of the most well-known literary figures of their day. Some of the literary giants these men took on were admired and held in high esteem, while others had a cultural influence which Chesterton and Eliot found problematic, or worse.
As Chesterton wrote in the introduction to his work, Heretics,
I am not concerned with Mr. Rudyard Kipling as a vivid artist or a vigorous personality; I am concerned with him as a Heretic—that is to say, a man whose view of things has the hardihood to differ from mine. I am not concerned with Mr. Bernard Shaw as one of the most brilliant and one of the most honest men alive; I am concerned with him as a Heretic—that is to say, a man whose philosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong.
Similarly, in a series of lectures which were compiled and published as one work, After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy, Eliot set out to communicate the “deleterious cultural effect” predominant unorthodox writers may have.
Mainly referring to poets and artists such as Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, Thomas Hardy, and Irving Babbitt, Eliot wrote that,
If we value them [heretical writers] as we value ourselves we shall go astray. And in the present state of affairs, with the low degree of education to be expected of the public and of reviewers, we are more likely to go wrong than right.
Blackstock explains that Chesterton would have drawn a correlation between literary modernism and the Modernist movement in the Catholic Church, as a result of his strong Catholic identity. The latter was pronounced heretical by the Holy See in 1907 for throwing the “authority and infallibility of the Church and Bible” into doubt. Chesterton had a “fiery resolution” to prove his pen mightier than those who challenged the traditions that, as far as he was concerned, gave meaning to literature and life in general. Eliot, too, deplored the erosive quality of modernist literature.
Blackstock points out that Chesterton “reserves his sharpest criticism for those writers and critics who sought to divorce art and literature from their ethical tasks.”
Chesterton and Eliot agreed with one another that the primary threat to orthodox traditions and beliefs is heresy, Blackstock reiterates.
T.S. Eliot sums up Professor Blackstock’s purpose:
All I have been able to do here is to suggest that there are standards of criticism, not ordinarily in use, which may apply to whatever is offered to us as works of philosophy or art, which might help to render them safer or more profitable to us.
Orthodoxy calls for the maintaining of a relationship between tradition and moral criticism.