The following text is the transcript by V.S. of the question and answer session following Jonathan Bowden’s lecture “T. S. Eliot” at the 34th New Right Meeting in London on Saturday, August 6, 2011. In editing this transcription, I introduced punctuation and paragraph breaks. You can view the lecture at YouTube here .
Since this Q&A is somewhat tangential to the topic of T. S. Eliot, I have given it the title “Speaking Freely,” which I plan to use as the title of a future collection of Bowden’s interviews, Q&A sessions, and political stump speeches. If anyone has recordings of these that do not appear on YouTube, please contact me at [email protected] .
Bowden: If anyone would like to ask any questions at all . . .
Question: Would you agree that the only way that the Left liberal establishment dominates academia can cope with the challenge posed by the genius of people like Pound, Eliot, and, in Japan, Mishima is by detaching language from literature? In other words, by simultaneously denigrating the writers’ ideas whilst championing the literary elements of his work. And, if so, does this not ultimately mean the destruction of literature, because literature is nothing but a vehicle for the communication of writers’ ideas?
Bowden: Yes. In contemporary academic discourse, there’s a theory, which you must know very well, called post-structuralism, which has another name called deconstruction. This is an idea based upon the death of the author. Foucault and Derrida and the others talk about the death of the author. This is the idea that nothing exists but the text. No one produced this. Indeed, as Derrida has it, no one conscious of the fact of the production has produced this. Let’s put it that way. Derrida, in particular, talks about texts emerging from this sort of cloaca of language, texts emerging from nothing at all, texts without biographical imprimatur. This is an attempt to sever all biographical and all subjective lived experience from the nature of the writer’s life. That’s paradoxical because contemporary liberalism faces several different ways. On the one hand, you have the demonization of people like Eliot, as attempted by [Anthony] Julius and his kindred. But on the other hand you have the denigration of the prospect of authorship itself.
Q: So it’s universally destructive.
Bowden: So, it’s universally destructive. But both can’t entirely coexist with each other, because even if you denigrate a man’s biography you are laying testament to the fact that he existed as a man. So, there’s a paradox there.
For those who are interested, there’s a significant story about deconstruction, because deconstruction had an enormous vogue in the Western cultural establishment for 20 to 30 years. It went virtually unchallenged from about 1975 to 2000. And then an issue of revisionism came up which involved Paul de Man. Paul de Man was Belgian and was head of the linguistics/literature program at Yale University or a constituent college part of Yale University, certainly their English Department. Paul de Man had written collaborationist articles during the Second World War. In fact, he’d written for the Rexist movement journal of Léon Degrelle. The articles were quite tame or quite moderate. For those interested in these things they would be the equivalent of rather mild articles in something like The Scorpion of yesteryear. But de Man had a crisis after the war, left Belgium, reinvented himself, and went to live in the United States.
De Man’s most famous book is called Blindness and Insight in which he declares no one is historically responsible for what they do in history. In other words, no one has any personal investment in history or is not any particular actor. Everything is fluid and indeterminate. What he’s escaping from, of course, is his own past. He’s escaping from his own Rexist articles.
There’s a famous moment when this is revealed. This was a scandal, of course, which is going to come up, isn’t it? And eventually somebody deconstructs Paul de Man’s past and discovers the Rexist material, and this creates convulsions in post-structuralism as a movement. They had a whole conference at a summer school in the University of Alabama in the Deep South of the United States to discuss how they are going to deal with the fact that this man, who is the head of deconstruction in the Western academy in the United States, wrote for a Rexist journal. You have to understand, this is essentially discovering that the present Pope, who was of course head of the inquisitorial wing of the Catholic Church for a period, head of doctrine, actually has a morality or a religiosity closer to Montague Summers or Aleister Crowley. This is essentially discovering the worst of the worst about somebody. You have to understand, it means now that within post-structuralist confines to write for a Rexist journal is worse than being a pedophile. It’s a lot worse!
And Terry Eagleton, who’s a Marxist at Oxford University, head of English for a while at Oxford University . . . Notice the Western academy has been given over to these people. Eagleton’s head of English at Oxford and is a mild Marxist deconstructionist, and he wrote an article in the Times Literary Supplement about Paul de Man’s “difficulties” in which he said, “It’s like a grenade or an incendiary device thrown into the center of an academic conference, because what they’re saying is deconstruct that, old man!” Deconstruct that! Writing for the Rexists! Because it’s what he means—even though they deny meaning—it’s what it means. It’s not that he wrote for one Right-wing group as against another. It’s the fact that everything they exist to oppose was once endorsed by this man, because the Right represents essentialism.
Q: And that side lost as well.
Bowden: And that side lost as well, and he’s got to reinvent his career in order to survive as an academic in the United States. If you ever do some of these courses at the more progressive universities there’s a phrase that’s used, and that is “Essentialism opens the door to Auschwitz.” That’s the phrase which is used, and so you understand that things which are quite abstract and quite abstruse are there at the heart of the Western academy. What are they saying by that remark? Just as Adorno, who is the leading figure in the Frankfurt School, once said, “After Auschwitz, no more poetry.” There should be no more poetry after Auschwitz, because the pain of human life is such that it came down to the Earth and touched it as a sunspot dwelling like an inferno upon the surface of the planet . . . which is sort of bad poetry, if you like, but there is a degree to which “there should be no poetry after Auschwitz.” And the way that you make sure that there won’t be any is to deny essentialism, which is the basis of the religious urge and the basis of an urge toward identity.
Q: Yes, well, actually, this is a question that’s occurred to me recently. “No more poetry after Auschwitz,” but then I’m stuck with Jewish-run gulags in the Soviet Union. So, what do these sort of academics have to say about the gulags and the use of any war captives that led to far more deaths than Auschwitz allegedly did?
Bowden: Yes, it’s an interesting one that. Western Marxism, in the post-Second World War period of course, liked to pretend that it was as anti-Soviet as it was anti-anything else. Herbert Marcuse, who was world famous for his book One-Dimensional Man in the 1960s and from his Freudian take on Marxist sexology in Eros and Civilization, wrote a book called Soviet Marxism. It’s a very thin book. But it’s an attempt to say that the Soviet Union is not our option; it’s not our Marx.
Of course, Adorno died as a result of a happening at a West German university. When some yippies, who were politicized hippies of that era, stormed the stage at one of his meetings and embraced him and kissed him and attempted to put flowers on him–this was the sort of thing people did in the late 1960s–and Adorno, like a lot of these people actually was a stiff, rather conservative man who very much wanted to keep the teacher/lecturer and student dichotomy going, was offended and slightly mortally put out by this, suffered a heart attack and died later.
Adrian Davies: The ultimate deconstruction!
Bowden: Another thing that is interesting, although slightly getting off your question, is that a lot of these figures were blamed, certainly the Frankfurt School people were blamed, by the Center-Right media, the sort of Christian Democratic media in West Germany, for the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon even though you could argue their theory was quite different than the Baader-Meinhof people. The Baader-Meinhof people were eventually trained by the Stasi, of course, to cause as much havoc inside West Germany, and West Germany’s new NATO alliance, as possible.
So, they would say that they were against the Soviet model, which means that they are opposed to Stalinism per se. But of course every denunciation of Stalinism is this big [holding fingers together] and every denunciation of things well to the Right of Stalinism is THIS big [spreading arms wide]. So, you can see that their consciousness about what was called real existing socialism–remember that? Real existing socialism?–was quite sort of nuanced.
The answer is they don’t have much to say about that and they would find it very offensive the way in which you put that question. Introducing an ethnic element into it when that had nothing to do with it. Aren’t you aware that Stalin was anti-Semitic, and that many Jews were purged, and they were only put to do those dirty jobs so that they could be purged later? Aren’t you aware of the dialecticism involved in that? The cleverness of his closet Russian nationalism which led to support for the Arab bloc? Even in the way you form that questions, there are insidious . . .
Q: Just another point. What you’re saying is that all academic infrastructure is inspired by Jewish thinking?
Bowden: It’s inspired by the idea that you tear down in order to create anew. The Frankfurt School is unique because they were all of a certain ethnicity, and that’s not true of quite a lot of theoretical Marxism. So, in some ways, the Frankfurters are is a very pure group. The key Frankfurt text is The Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno, which is all about the Second World War, of course. But it’s an attack on the Enlightenment. Because, don’t forget, we are living in the Enlightenment. When you go out there this society is based upon Enlightenment precepts. And yet they are against the Enlightenment because they are so far to the Left that the Enlightenment is not Left-wing enough. It’s just a callow liberalism. They want the burning sun. They don’t want a little patch of sunlight. The Enlightenment, in a complicated way, because it preaches the domination of nature by man, unleashed fascism as a radical return to nature. That’s Adorno’s theory about what fascism was.
Q: My theory is that fascism is a reaction to the clashes of Western culture, with the consequences of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.
Bowden: Yes, I’d agree with you.
Q: Jonathan, it’s interesting that you spoke of Eliot making this metaphysical choice of moving away from his Unitarian roots towards High Anglicanism and that brought us almost full circle to hearing about Joe Chamberlain’s Unitarian roots earlier today. Chamberlain, obviously being in an earlier generation, never lived long enough to have to make such a metaphysical choice even had he been inclined to do so. But do you see that move away from the essence of distilled liberalism, if you like, the Unitarianism, the teleology of science and liberal progress making a better society? Do you think the rejection of that is at the heart of Eliot? Do you think that there is any such distillation of 20th-century post-modernism or 20th-century liberalism, the 20th-century ideology we all live under that could be codified in quite such a way as a metaphysical choice? And, if so, do you see anyone moving as we see the collapse of the 20th century’s dreams, just as the Unitarian liberal dreams of the 19th century collapsed, do you see such a choice being made in the early 21st century by anybody in our own intellectual elite?
Bowden: That’s a very difficult question because until the middle of the 20th century liberalism was still wrapped up with many religious ideas. Tomislav Sunić, in his book Homo Americanus, deals with why is a certain cultural group so dominant in the United States. It’s because of Protestantism and the ease with which you can move within radical Protestant thinking, which is only at times a millimeter away from the ideas of a particular group, not just in the useful idiot sense, but also the believing sense. The main force in the United States is Christian Zionism without any fact. The fact that they are passive rather than active is outshadowed by their money and by their numbers. So, the point about Unitarianism is that is still a religious viewpoint. You know, at Oxford University there is a Unitarian college, Manchester College, which has this beautiful stained glass window, and it’s still a religious institution, even though it’s on the edge of non-religiosity.
We now have liberalism without any essentialism at all. We now have a sort of liberalism without any religious props at all. Iris Murdoch, who is a philosopher as well as a novelist, said that we should get rid of Christianity–she was a Quaker by birth–and keep the ethics. And that’s what liberalism has done. It’s kept the ethical postulations of late humanized, humanist Christianity.
Q: This is Matthew Arnold’s idea that the church should be preserved not as a metaphysical, but as an ethical institution.
Bowden: Yes. So there’s nobody now in the Western academy who believes in a religious doctrine of liberalism. Political correctness, and the desire to enforce it, is almost the negative side of not having a religious liberalism. Because you have to go around denying what people say, what they think, what they think in their own hearts, what they write in their own diary or on their own blogs. You’ve got to be concerned about all that trivia, in a way. You have to be bothered about that, because there is no overarching metaphysical certainty. That’s why you have to be so prissy and so puritanical. Freedom of the most libertarian sort is preached everywhere, but if anyone says the slightest remark people are in apoplexy, people are beside themselves with manic, with comic rage. So, in a way, I would argue that the crystallization of a non-religious liberalism is political correctness.