'Religion and Literature' - T.S. Eliot

The essay ‘Religion and Literature’ written by T.S. Eliot can be viewed as a reaction against the tradition of viewing a literary work from purely aesthetic point of view. Many critics, especially the New Critics, believed that literature is not to be valued for its ethical and theological significance. But T.S. Eliot held the opinion that only literary criticism was not sufficient. After a literary work has been viewed as a work of imagination, it should also be considered from ethical and theological point of view. It is all the more important in our age when there is no agreement on ethical and theological values. For ascertaining the greatness of a literary work, that work of imagination should be appreciated from ethical and theological angles.
Although literature has been judged from moral standards, yet it has been believed for a long time that there is no relationship between religion and literature. T.S. Eliot believes that there is and should be a relationship between the two. In his essay ‘Religion and Literature’ he has discussed the application of religion to literary criticism. According to Eliot the essay is not about religious literature, but he as a degression, mentions three types of religious literature. First, is the religious literature, which has literary qualities in it. For instance, the authorized version of the Bible or the works of Jeremy Taylor. Those persons, who describe Bible only as a literary work and talk of its influence on English literature, have been referred to as ‘parasites’. According to Eliot, Bible is to be considered as ‘word of God’. Secondly, he mentions devotional poetry. A devotional poet he says is not the one who treats the subject matter in the religious spirit, but the one who treats a part of the subject matter. Eliot considers poets like Spencer, Hopkins, Vaughan and Southwell as minor poets while Dante, Corneille and Racine as major poets. Thirdly, he states, are the works of authors who want to forward the cause of religion. These types of works come under propaganda, for instance, Chesterton’s ‘Man who was Thursday’ and ‘Father Brown’.
Eliot laments over the irrationality behind the separation of our literary and religious judgment. Exemplifying literature by the way of novel (as it has the effect upon the greatest numbers), he says this secularization has been a gradual process for the last three hundred years. Since Defoe the process has been continuous. The process can be divided into three phases. In the first phase fall the novels in which Faith is taken for granted and omitted from its picture of life. The author belonging to this phase are: Fielding and Thackeray. In the second phase novels, Faith is doubted, worried about and contested. It includes authors like George Eliot, George Meredith and Thomas Hardy. The third phase is the age in which we are living and authors included are all contemporary novelists except James Joyce.
This secularization is evident in the way a reader reads a novel – without caring for the effect it has upon one’s behavior. The common factor between religion and literature is behavior. Our religion imposes upon us ethics, judgment and criticism of ourselves, and our behavior with our fellow men. Literature too has an effect on our behavior. Whatever the intentions of the author, his works affect us wholly as human beings. Even if we read a literary work purely for aesthetic purposes (keeping our ethics and morality in a separate compartment), it affects us as human beings, whether we intend it or not.
Modern readers have lost their religious values. They don’t have the wisdom to be able to obtain knowledge of life, comparing one view against the other. Moreover, the knowledge of life that we obtain from fiction is not of life itself but is knowledge of other people’s knowledge of life. What adds to the problem is that there are too many books and the reader is confused. Only modern writers of eminence have an improving effect, otherwise the contemporary writers have an effect that is degrading. The reader must keep in mind two things – ‘what we like’, that is, what we really feel; and ‘what we ought to like’, that is, understanding our shortcomings. As honest men we must not assume that what we like is what we ought to like; and as honest Christians we should assume that we do like what we ought to like.
Eliot is mainly concerned with secularization of literature. It does not concern itself with things of spirit. It is simply oblivious or ignorant of the primacy of the supernatural over the natural world. Most of the books are written by people who have no real belief in supernatural order. Moreover, they are ignorant of the fact that the world has still many believers. It is the duty of the Christians to use certain standards in addition to those used by the rest of the world. If a Christian is conscious of the gulf between him and contemporary literature, he won’t be harmed by it.
Majority of the people consider economic ills as cause of all the problems and call for drastic economic changes, while others want more or less drastic social changes. Both types of changes are opposed to each other but a common point is that they hold the assumption of secularization. Some want the individual to subordinate his interests to those of the state. But Eliot does not agree with these people. Eliot does not complain about modern literature because it is immoral or even amoral but because it instigates people to try out every kind of experience and not to stay back or miss any. A Christian reader should add to the literary criticism followed by the rest of the world. He should, in addition, apply ethical and theological standards to it.


surjit said...

I, too, hold the same opinion that
economic ills as cause of most of the problems.What T.S Eliot discussed was a true concern of his times.Thanks for sharing.
Good luck.

Naval Langa said...

To Ms. Amritbir Kaur

I have just read some of your posts. I liked the writing style.

I liked the way in which you put the words in creating the whole scene of a meaning. For other aspects of the writing, I shall talk later on.

Meanwhile, if you are interested in reading short stories and other writings by an Indian author, do visit my blogs.

Naval Langa

Tomas Karkalas said...

(...)Literature too has an effect on our behavior (...) - that's so indeed: I am happy to leave my Thank you for your post. It was as informative as thought provoking.

sanjita singh said...

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Anonymous said...

My favorite T.S. poem is Hysteria. It seems like a throw-away, but the more you read it, the more it reveals.

If you're like me and could use guidance, there is a great analysis here: http://www.examiner.com/examiner/x-13613-New-Classics-Examiner~y2009m7d7-Indepth-analysis-of-TS-Eliots-classic-poem-Hysteria