English Letters in the Age of Boredom

By Russell Kirk

Some day I shall write a book with the title The Age of Eliot. The span of Mr. T. S. Eliot’s life, extending from the ascendancy of President Cleveland and Lord Salisbury to our present troubled hour, has been characterized by as much material change as any age in the whole of history; and this alteration of society and the very face of the world has been paralleled by a profound change in the realm of letters, and that not a change for the better. When Mr. Eliot was a boy, the great Victorians still thundered, and American letters ranged all the way from Henry Adams to Mark Twain. Since then, much of the virtue has gone out of English and American literature. The English literary world suffers from the disease of acedia, the American from the disease of concupiscence; and both these maladies, I believe, are at once symptoms and products of a deep-seated boredom.

Mr. Eliot’s literary career has been a protest against the causes of this boredom. The terror of the Wasteland is life without purpose. Mr. Eliot himself is not bored; he has resources that transcend the follies of the time; but I take him for the central figure of our time, in letters, because he describes this condition of social and private acedia with a high and gloomy power. Indeed, he was one of the first to give the malady its name: see his essay on Marie Lloyd, written in 1923. I select as the most striking spirit of the age, then, a man of letters quite out of harmony with his time; nor is this mere perversity. Samuel Johnson was opposed to the great currents of his age; so was Cicero.

It is quite within the realm of possibility that the Age of Eliot will be succeeded by a long gulf of vacancy in the history of literature, rather as after Ausonius followed the night. Universal war and social dissolution might bring this calamity upon us, a dismal prospect; and yet the calamity may come in a fashion still worse—I mean the degeneration of letters into the condition of mere mass-propaganda, for the ends of the impersonal and conscienceless mass-state. I think it would be better, if the choice could be made, for society to be dissolved into its constituent atoms than for the society to become one featureless bulk of production-men and consumption-men, whose reading, such as it might be, would come from the typewriters of the miserable creatures who sit, alternately listless and trembling, at the tables in the Chestnut Tree Cafe of Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Having no literature is better than having degenerate literature. Far from being a fantastic vaticination, this latter eventuality is soberly contemplated by a wise and witty editor, Mr. Malcolm Muggeridge:

A recurrent nightmare, with me, is that in our inimitable English way we are allowing a servile State to come to pass of itself without our noticing it; that one morning I shall wake up and find that, with the Monarchy still extant, Honourable and Right Honourable Members still meeting in Westminster, the Times and the Manchester Guardian, the New Statesman and the Spectator and Punch still regularly appearing, the cricket still being played at Lords, and the B.B.C. still providing its daily offering from “Bright and Early” to “Good-night everyone, good-night,” we have nevertheless become a totalitarian society. In this nightmare it seems clear that all the faceless men, the men without opinions, have been posted in key positions for a bloodless take-over, and that no one is prepared to join a Resistance Movement in defense of freedom because no one remembers what freedom means. The walls of Jericho fell down, not because the trumpet blast was strong, but because the walls themselves were crumbling. People, that is to say, are never enslaved unless they have become slaves already. They swim into the Great Leviathan’s mouth. He does not need to chase them.

A subtle statesman now coming back into his own, Prince Metternich, remarked near the end of his career that states fall only when they have lost faith in themselves. Boredom, the condition of the “indifferents” in Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd and in Rowntree’s and Laver’s English Life and Leisure, in essence is the product of a conviction that life is not worth living. Such boredom does not rise up from the proletariat like a miasma from the mud: it is as fallacious to make the proletarians the villains of the modern tragedy as it is to pretend that the proletarians are the heroes. Social boredom in part is produced by a pattern of life (which in one my age may be caused by industrialism, and in some other age by different factors), and in part by the ideas which men hold about themselves. Both causes of boredom descend upon the masses from above. The ordinary man can conceive of no way of life substantially different from that in which he happens to find himself, and so accepts boredom, if it is the pattern of his age, without articulate protest; the ordinary man takes his ideas from the leading minds of his time or of the time just preceding, though those ideas filter down to him only gradually and in vulgarized form. So if the disease of acedia oppresses the great mass of men, the blame, after all, lies with the shapers of national destinies and the philosophers in the Academy. Nature does indeed imitate art. The realm of letters is not a reflection of the mood of society: it is a principal cause and forerunner of the mood of society. With the greatest misgivings, then, I have been prying into the fatigued state of mind which glows dully out of a great part of modern literature. I have been trying to discern by what processes this fatigue of spirit is communicated to the multitude, and by what processes a bored society, in turn, blunts the sensibilities of its literary men.

Let me say here, before I go further into this trouble, that I am not advocating “social consciousness” in the novel, or Marxian theories of literature as an instrument of social control, or Benthamite notions of the “utility” of books. We have had altogether too bitter a dose of those specifics in these past few decades. It is my conviction that the end of literature is the elevation and pleasurable exercise of the private reason, not the manipulation of men in the mass. I am examining the relationship between modern letters and modern society, in my ineffectual way, with an eye to the salvation of both; but though the two are intricately bound up together, still I think that letters and society, like church and state, ought to be distinct entities—mutually respectful, yet never confounded in one ponderous corporation.

My master in these matters is Coleridge, who combined his genius for private fancy with a wonderful understanding of the problems of society. Coleridge did not try to make The Ancient Mariner into a tract for the times: he wrote that poem simply out of an awe for the mystery which envelops human life at all times, and out of a love for the beauties of the English language. But Coleridge, knowing that private imagination and private contentment flourish only in a decent society, was also the author of Lay Sermons, a work of Tory politics upon the highest plane of politics. The author ought not to be the servant of the society in which he finds himself; but he ignores the tendency of that society only at his own terrible peril.

Now I have no intention of examining the whole question of literature and social boredom just now: that subject requires a book, and more than one book. What I propose to do here is to offer some comments upon the present state of letters in England in relation to the temper of English society at this hour. I have spent a good deal of time talking with all sorts of people in Britain, and I subscribe to most of the serious English journals, and I try to keep up with the more important works of fiction and polemic and even statistics which are being published in London nowadays. The general subject is quite as important here in the United States. If I were to discuss the American aspects of this problem, I should pay especial attention to the cult of violence in fiction; to the decay of the old-fashioned yarn in the popular magazines, and its replacement by boy-and-girl-flirtation stories; to the gulf between the critical quarterlies and the popular press; to the triumph of the comic-book and all those abominations of the printed page which Mr. Geoffrey Wagner describes in his Parade of Pleasure; to the unhealthy dreariness and empty introspection of aspiring young writers from “P.S. 149” as represented in anthologies like Discovery and New Voices; to the sour disillusion of the contributors to Partisan Review. But I return to my immediate concern, the state of letters in the United Kingdom.

Most serious students of English letters today seem to find that literature does not much flourish in modern Britain; and this decline has two principal aspects: a dearth of important writers, and a dearth of intelligent readers. I do not desire to exaggerate. The standard of serious journalism remains as high in Britain as anywhere in the world; a large number of well-written and intelligent books is published every year; and the really educated public, per head of population, is larger than the same body in the United States. In America, any book of which more than ten thousand copies are sold is considered remarkably successful; in Britain, a sale of five thousand copies is similarly remarkable; but, total population taken into account, this ratio is to the advantage of Britain. British book-shop counters are not covered with books translated from other languages, as in Italy, nor are serious critical journals withered away almost to extinction, as in Sweden. Yet the symptoms of a melancholy decay of letters are unmistakable. I propose to examine the first matter of a dearth of readers.

A large public for serious literature existed for about a century in Britain; and that period coincides closely with what is often called “the liberal era,” extending from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the beginning of the First World War. The first author whose books were sold to a large public at a low price was Walter Scott; the last—why, possibly we may see the last such authors in our own time, and already authors have ceased to exercise any such influence as Scott did. This period of the serious reading public was the age of the great middle-class ascendancy. Before that time, the country-house patron and the wealthy subscriber to small editions of expensive books kept the man of letters in pocket; and earlier still, of course, the patron of literature had been the Church. Nowadays, as influence and wealth of the middle classes (in the true meaning of that somewhat amorphous term) contract, it is the modern proletariat—I use this latter term not for commination, but as the most nearly satisfactory label for the condition of man in what Sir Osbert Sitwell calls our dreary “proletarian cosmopolis” that dominates modern society—which has patronage to bestow upon letters. And that modern publicity generally prefers to spend its l. s. d. for the greater good of Woolworth and Guinness and Rothermere.

One index to the decay of serious reading is the fate of the magazines of opinion, criticism, and respectable leisure. These have been going down the track to dusty death since 1914, and more sharply since 1937. I need not dwell upon the demise of the Mercury, Life and Letters, and other such journals; they have been gone for more than a decade, and have not been replaced. I need hardly mention the extinction of Criterion, Horizon, and Scrutiny, on a somewhat different plane. The process is now accelerated: during the past two years, for instance, World Review and The Fortnightly have ceased to be. Only a few months ago, the most interesting of the newer reviews, The Cambridge Journal, came to an end. The survivors, like Twentieth Century and The Dublin Review and The Contemporary Review and The Month, do not have easy sledding. As for the serious weeklies, they hold out somewhat more successfully, but consolidation or elimination afflict them, too: the Guardian, the only serious Anglican weekly, went under two years ago, and Time and Tide, The Spectator, and The New Statesman and Nation contend fearfully against increased costs of production and distribution. Among the magazines of decent fiction and the essay, the Cornhill, last of an old breed is reduced from monthly to quarterly publication; the most recent venture, The London Magazine, is not very lively; while more specialized recent undertakings like History Today fight against the current. The universities possess no equivalent of the critical journals published by American colleges.

Nor have the serious reviews been replaced by more popular decent publications. The Strand, last of the mass-audience monthlies of some repute, has expired after various twists and turns; John Bull and such periodicals are on a level lower than that of the Saturday Evening Post. One of the principal expectations of Victorian champions of the democratic dogma was that free and compulsory schooling would give to literature an immense new public of persons intent upon intellectual self-improvement. This has not come to pass. Late in the nineteenth century, five or six weekly magazines intended to bring literary culture to the masses were established; but they flourished for scarcely more than a generation; as literacy became general, it ceased to be prized. The last survivor among these publications, John o’ London’s Weekly, gave up the ghost only a few months ago. The mass public of England reads, instead, News of the World and the Daily Mirror. Half a century ago, the new illustrated weeklies were viewed with alarm by some critics, who saw in them a formidable threat to serious reading. Well, we have got far beyond that stage now, so that the older picture-weeklies, like The London Illustrated News and The Sphere, are become bulwarks of literary taste. The newer picture-weeklies, however, are inferior to Life, and the news-magazine like Time or Newsweek has not succeeded in establishing itself in England. As the media for expression of thought decay or expire, the parlor-tables in British hotels are covered with a new spawn of trade-journals and automobile-company magazines, luxuriously printed, fat and glossy, published out of the ample advertising-funds of the great stock-companies. A mad world, my masters. The average Englishman reads nothing except a thin and vulgar daily newspaper, though he has been compelled to go to school for half a century; while in Portugal, the state with the highest rate of illiteracy in western Europe, the reading of serious books and journals, per head of population, is much higher than in enlightened Britain. The broad nineteenth-century public for English literature, in short has very nearly ceased to exist.

Now what of the writers of modern Britain? Some three years ago, while the Attlee government still held power, an English editor of equalitarian opinions, travelling in America, happened to lecture at a state college on the condition of English writing. He was well pleased with that condition, for the most part, though he confessed to a slight uneasiness at the lack of talent in the rising generation. And it was true enough, he agreed, that the leading poet and critic, Mr. Eliot, was really an American; that many of the most interesting novelists and poets, like Laurens van der Post and Roy Campbell, also were not really English; that some of the most influential writers, like Sir Osbert Sitwell and Robert Henriques, were dismayed at the state of both English letters and English society. Moreover, he reflected, no one seemed much interested in new directions in literature. But all this, he concluded, was the result of a great social contentment, brought about by the welfare state: all classes were so satisfied with life that there was no strain and struggle to provoke men into writing and reading. All the battles had been won; the earthly paradise was at hand.

At this juncture, an elderly American professor of English literature arose and inquired, very modestly, “Are there any wits among modern English writers?”

The editor was taken aback; he pondered; at length he came forth with the name of John Betjeman; but the subject appeared rather to disquiet him, and perhaps he was not sorry when the question-period was concluded. That question, indeed, however innocently intended, was fatal to his thesis. For satire and irony are the only corners of the old realm of letters which remain popular and prosperous in Britain at present; and these redoubts are garrisoned by Tories, who hold the terrestrial paradise of collectivistic Britain in a profound contempt. It is sufficient merely to mention the names of Evelyn Waugh, Malcolm Muggeridge, Wyndham Lewis, Sir Max Beerbohm, Osbert Lancester, C. S. Lewis, and John Betjeman. Some of these writers are more than wits, and Mr. Wyndham Lewis is not, strictly speaking, a Tory; yet their principal influence has been satirical, and they all dread and detest the age of collectivism. The spirit of Juvenal thus scourges the naked follies of the time, in Britain; the terrible whip of irony, snatched from the hands of the socialists and apostles of progress, now gives to English letters most of what vigor is to be found in recent writing.

Satire dominates letters in an age of decay and boredom. Very often it is the instrument of the old order, moral and social, against the triumphant and vulgar new order. For satire to have meaning, the vices of the ascendant forces in society must contrast forcibly with the accepted, or at least traditional, principles of morality. Even in the Rome of Petronius, a sufficient residue of taste and principle remained for the purposes of irony; even in the Enlightenment, sufficient sense of justice remained for Voltaire to make a mock of the age of phantasms and buckram masks. Mr. Wyndham Lewis argues that true satire cannot flourish in our time because men no longer repair to accepted standards of morality by which the monstrous and the ridiculous may be judged; and it seems true that satire wakes to life at a certain stage of social decay, but loses its power to move men after that decay has progressed yet further. Whether or not the work of these writers is true satire, at any rate they have turned their wit against the grand assumption of the men who advocate an equalitarian and collectivistic society, from their melioristic secularism to their notion of economic justice. The terrestrial paradise, Bellamy-style, seems to the leading writers of the time to be intolerably boring and base.

Now a literary period which experiences a startling decline of the serious reading-public, which confesses to decay of the vigor and influence of writers, and which (within its diminished confines) is dominated by satirists and wits who belabor the age mercilessly, seems to be suffering from some serious affliction. I am inclined to think that this ailment, in considerable part, is ennui, world-weariness, social boredom. I think that literature has had a part in bringing this boredom to society, and that society has had an even greater part in afflicting literature with this curse of acedia. I do not think that either society or letters can cure itself unaided. Yet I think that hope remains, though it is chastening to recall that the last malady which flew out of Pandora’s box was delusory hope. I do not yet agree with Mr. Whittaker Chambers’ conclusion that it is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. “It is already a wreck from within,” Mr. Chambers says. “That is why we can hope to do little more now than snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots, and bury them secretly in a flower-pot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.” Much in modern letters seems to sustain Mr. Chambers’ diagnosis; yet the fact that, in Britain at least, it still is possible to face satirically the follies of the time—this fact encourages me to believe that some standards of judgment remain to us, and therefore some opportunities for regeneration.

Regeneration, literary or material, is possible only when the causes of an affliction have been properly apprehended. People who hope for a renewed vigor in English and American letters need, then, to ascertain just how far the present apparent lassitude in the world of literature really is the product of social boredom, and what are the conditions that have brought such boredom into being. We ought not to exaggerate. Reading in the sense of mere amusement, for instance, seems to have decayed among us rather because of the rise of new amusements—principally automobiles, television, radio, and motion-pictures—than because of more subtle social influences (though automobiles, television, radio, and motion-pictures, once their initial charm has departed, may become direct causes of boredom and at the same time may have permanently alienated people from the printed page.) But there is much more to the decay of reading habits, and to the decay of vigor and purpose in writing, than this. Mr. Eliot observes that he finds it difficult to read the novels published nowadays. He is scarcely alone in this: something is wrong with the novelist, as well as the novelist’s public. The two of them, it seems to me, are even more bored with art than with life.

Literature thrives in an age of variety; it sickens in a time of uniformity. And it seems to me that we have been working with a perverse will to reduce our civilization to an equalitarian uniformity. The consequences are remarked by Mr. Lionel Trilling, in the concluding pages of The Liberal Imagination, when he writes that for contemporary liberal-democratic writing we obtain little to establish in our minds and affections; nor do we return to such writing. “The sense of largeness, of cogency, of the transcendence which largeness and cogency can give, the sense of being reached in our secret and primitive minds—this we virtually never get from the writers of the liberal democratic tradition at the present time.” In Europe, the leading writers of the age reject the dogmas of liberalism and democracy, Mr. Trilling says: “For it is in general true that the modern European literature to which we can have an active, reciprocal relationship, which is the right relationship to have, has been written by men who are indifferent to, or even hostile to, the tradition of democratic liberalism as we know it. Yeats and Eliot, Proust and Joyce, Lawrence and Gide—these men do not seem to confirm us in the social and political ideals which we hold.”

Elsewhere, Mr. Trilling has advanced the theory that the principal theme of important novels is the relationship between individuals of different classes, with all the complexities which a sense of class, of duty, and of aspiration bring. It is not necessary for us to subscribe fully to this theory when we recognize the importance of social variety to a vigorous literature; yet I think there is much truth in Mr. Trilling’s remarks. Sir Harold Nicholson recently touched upon a similar matter when he wrote that the great age of the novel was the century of middle-class ascendancy, during which the reading public—that is, the educated middle classes—feeling secure in a world of solid facts, enjoyed the novel as a realm in which the dramatic or unexpected or improbable contrasted with the confident reality which they perceived all about them. But nowadays the catastrophes of our real world, in which the middle-class reading public is perilously adrift, put fiction to shame, and the fascination is gone out of the novel; the novelist himself is overwhelmed by a sense of the pettiness of his craft in the face of tragic reality.

These theses deserve a detailed criticism which I cannot give them here. I do venture to suggest, however, that Mr. Trilling’s and Sir Harold Nicholson’s ideas go far to establish the fact of close relationship between the condition of a society and the quality of that society’s literature. It is my conviction that the present tendencies of society, supposing they continue unchecked, will put an end to elevated literature. The culmination of the equalitarian dogmas will repress that proliferating variety among individuals and classes which stimulates the imaginative writer and gives him an inquiring public. The triumph of an unfeeling technology, of the sort Mr. Friedrich Juenger describes in The Failure of Technology, will impose upon the human mind a boredom and lassitude probably unequalled in any previous age of decadence. The decay of religious faith will make men ask again that persistent question, “Is life worth living?”—and make them answer it in the negative. When life is not worth living, it is not worth writing about. I do not say that these things are inevitable; I say merely that they are all too possible, and that the student of English letters and society can perceive an ominous progress toward such an end—a progress which continues to gain momentum. A literature which is the intricate creation of seven centuries may be effaced in a generation or two.

Men read and write only because they are convinced that certain great subjects are worth reading and writing about. Four great themes, it seems to me, have been the inspiration of most important imaginative literature from the dawn of Greek civilization down to our own age. The first of these is religion: the description of the relation between divine nature and human nature, as in Hesiod and Dante and Milton. The second is heroism: the nobility of strong and earnest men, as in Homer or Virgil or Malory. The third is love: the devotion beyond mere appetite, as in classical legend or medieval romance. The fourth is the intricacy of character and class, ranging all the way from Chaucer to Conrad. Now a society which has lost its religious convictions and its piety denies itself the first theme. A society which denies the right to greatness and to distinctions among men deprives itself of the second theme. A society which takes love for no more than the carnal appetite cannot attach real significance even to the novel of adultery. A society which looks upon men as mere production-and-consumption units of interchangeable value cannot understand the subtle shadings of personality and rank of a different sort of age. The springs of the imagination thus are dried up. For a time, satire can exist by pointing out the decay of faith and heroism and love and variety; but when even the memory of these themes fades, then satire, too, comes to an end. Then boredom triumphs in life and in art.

Imaginative literature is not the whole realm of letters. History, biography, and criticism, together with philosophy and theology and the sciences, to some extent remain independent of the sources for fiction in poetry and prose—though not wholly independent. Most imaginative writers, indeed, derive their postulates from the preacher, the scholar, and the chronicler. We may take some comfort, then, from the present revival of serious writing and reading in this other province of the realm of letters. People in England do still read Mr. C. S. Lewis and Mr. Arnold Toynbee: historical and moral speculation, indeed, enjoy today a vogue unequalled since late Victorian times. As thinking men become aware of the advances of social boredom, they turn to knowledge of the past and to a re-examination of the ethical life in search of remedies. It may be that the poet and the novelist, in the next decade or the next generation, will take their tone from the resurgent scholarly speculation of the present hour. That speculation does not leave religion, heroism, love, and social variety out of account. As Dante made the arguments of the Schools into great poetry, or as Scott metamorphosed the principles of Burke into the novel, so the poets and novelists of the latter half of the twentieth century may find purpose in existence through the inquiring scholarship of this day; and those new works of poetic imagination, in turn, may help to convince the mass of men that life has more in it than mere gratification of appetite and acquisition of creature-comforts.

Reading books cannot of itself make a man whole. The bulk of humanity is affected only indirectly and slowly by the tone and temperature of letters. Purposeful work, the restoration of a sense of duty, and a state and an economy in which the individual is something more than a consumer or a machine-tender are indispensable to any enduring defense against general boredom. Yet letters may point the way; and any society which is regaining the conviction that life is something more than mere subsistence will provide a public for the imaginative writer. When we begin to recognize the claims of true leisure—as opposed to mere idleness or amusement—then we may think twice before imposing a condition of dead-level equality upon society; when writers begin to perceive afresh the reality of faith and heroism and love and personality, then their natural public will give them a hearing. Our legacy of English letters is very great; our dead authors give us life; and loyalty to life and art, luckily, dies very hard, even in the domination of Giant Boredom.