One of the best things in life for a writer who sets out to be an artist is to be appreciated by people whose opinions are generally respected and valued. That is the happy condition in which I find myself this evening, and I thank the directors of the Ingersoll Foundation and the Rockford Institute. I thank all of you for this expression of support.
I am particularly happy to be here tonight at this celebration. I want to tell you what happened the last time I received an award of comparable importance, many years ago, in Italy. The Italia Prize was awarded for a musical adaptation on radio of one of my novels. I shared the prize with the adaptor and the composer. Together we traveled from London to Verona where, in a magnificent castle, the prizes were handed out. The audience was composed of prominent townspeople and personalities from the international community of arts and letters, all dressed in formality and grandeur. A banquet was to follow in our honor.
So, after the prize-giving everybody left, but we three prizewinners stood looking at each other in the empty castle hall while slowly the lights went out. A guardian came and told us to go away. Finally, we three went to a restaurant for our supper, which was a very merry one. Obviously the organizers of the banquet had completely forgotten about us. It was not till next morning that our invitations arrived at our hotels. Plainly there had been a hitch, but the amazing thing was that we, the guests of honor, were never missed—not that evening, nor ever.
Well, this time, here I am. Here, I am proud and relieved to add, we both are.
As a recipient of the award that takes its name from T.S. Eliot and that, in the hands of the Rockford Institute, seeks an ethical consensus rooted in the fundamental ideas of Western culture, I was prompted to look back on Eliot’s writings on ethical and social questions and in particular on his book Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, first published in 1948. It was strange and haunting to look back on Eliot’s work almost 40 years after I had studied him so closely. It was haunting because of his continued relevance, the immediacy of his thought. Eliot was a prophet. What he had to say about the decline of Western culture in 1948 is valid today in an even sharper sense than he could have intended for his time.
By culture Eliot meant not only our art, music, and literature. He meant everything we do as a community, our customs and habits, our national events, “the way of life of a particular people living together in one place.” He wrote that culture is not merely the sum of several activities but a way of life. He defined culture as the development of every activity of the human race. He contended that our culture arose specifically from religion. Whether we can accept its perpetuation in religion or not, there is no doubt a strong spiritual element in what we call culture today. Again, in Eliot’s words, “Culture is something that must grow; you cannot build a tree, you can only plant it, and care for it, and wait for it to mature in its due time.”
And yet, over 40 years later, there would be no way of accepting, far less realizing, Eliot’s formula for the transmission of a civilized culture. Eliot’s utopia called for a spiritual elite, an aristocracy of taste, learning, manners, and morals. Nothing of that kind can now occupy the mind of any reasonable, educated, and full-blooded human being. Eliot’s analysis of the decline in ethical and aesthetic standards that he observed in the world around him was brilliant. But no one who fully loves life could possibly, now, accept his solution.
An American critic, the late Dwight Macdonald, whose writings on the subject of mass culture were respected by Eliot, also treated the deterioration of cultural standards. In his book of 1962, Against the American Grain, what Dwight Macdonald called Masscult and Midcult, he equally deprecated. He objected to the pressures of Hollywood on our spiritual lives and to the disintegrating effects of popular literature and television on what he called High Culture. But Macdonald offered a solution that Eliot himself described as an alternative to his own. “The mass audience,” Macdonald wrote, “is divisible, we have discovered—and the more it is divided, the better. Even television, the most senseless and routinized expression of Masscult (except for the movie newsreels), might be improved by this approach.”
Dwight Macdonald, in fact, finally refused to accept the masses as anything but an abstract. In his support he cited Kierkegaard’s rejection of “the public” as a concrete reality. Our cultural activities and our messages are addressed to groups of people. He foresaw the possibility that, in his own words, “our new public for High Culture becomes conscious of itself and begins to show some esprit de corps, insisting on higher standards and setting itself off—joyously, implacably—from most of its fellow citizens, not only from the Masscult depths but also from the agreeable ooze of the Midcult swamp.” As you see, I have only been able to skim the surface of a vast subject to which the nature of the Ingersoll award gives rise; it concerns the protection of our human standards, the spiritual lives of our societies.
Speaking for myself I find that both high culture and moral philosophy are too often in the hands of people, who, while they have excellent judgment, have a limited sense of humor. The arts of ridicule and satire can be employed to demolish vulgarity, stupidity, crude and cruel behavior. Ridicule is a strong and effective weapon. It should, I think, be studied as a means of expressing an honest literature in the world today.
For myself, moreover, I cannot dismiss any manifestation of mass culture en bloc. We should always observe; we should find what is preservable and precious among the welter of cultural phenomena with which we are constantly bombarded. This needs self-discipline, it needs self-training on the part of those gifted with ingenuity of approach and with comprehension. Culture, after all, concerns the human spirit. A too narrow and severe discrimination can tend to annihilate ourselves, everything around us. And all to no effect.
Once in one of my novels I was drawn into writing a sermon. Into the mouth of the preacher I naturally put what he might be expected to say. But I added one strong conviction of my own that I find relevant to repeat here: “In whatever touches the human spirit, it is better to believe everything than nothing.”