Eliot’s editorial legacy

"The purpose of this magazine, and the sign of its intelligence, is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind simultaneously"

Some sage advice arrives from T.S. Eliot, though this time as editor rather than poet. In October 1924, Eliot wrote to his friend and collaborator Herbert Read:

I wish, certainly, to get as homogeneous a group [of contributors] as possible: but I find that homogeneity is in the end indefinable: for the purposes of the Criterion, it cannot be reduced to a creed of numbered capitals. I do not expect everyone to subscribe to all the articles of my own faith . . . What is essential is to find those persons who have an impersonal loyalty to some faith not antagonistic to my own.

This editorial thesis would later be refined in “The Idea of a Literary Review”, in which Eliot cautioned against contributors, and therefore magazines, being either “too comprehensive” or “too narrow”. He believed in a “tendency”—a somewhat indefinite term—but one that aspired “toward a higher and clearer conception of Reason”. To be successful, a literary review needed to embody the “keenest sensibility and the clearest thought”. Whilst Standpoint may be a very different periodical to Eliot’s Criterion, one would hope that similar editorial principles apply. The high ambition for our magazine remains: to champion independence and clarity of thought wherever it might rest on the political landscape and, more importantly, to strive for excellence.

Even during an international pandemic, where one might have hoped for an element of rigour, the ubiquitous intellectual shortcut now seems inescapable. Expert opinion jockeys for position with common sense, the latter always having a ready answer, one usually hidebound by ideology. Overblown headlines, conflicting messaging and hackneyed reporting remain the order of the day. (Perhaps there should be a place in Dante’s “Eighth Circle”, among the seers, deceivers and falsifiers, for the over-users of phrases such as “we live in uncertain times”.) It is not for Standpoint to reiterate the obvious nor to report on that which is constantly being offered up on the rolling news channels and online. Of course this issue must address the coronavirus pandemic, both directly and obliquely, but it also suggests our own “tendency” of what is valuable in the present, of what may be of importance in the future. The purpose of the magazine, and the sign of its intelligence, is the ability to hold those two opposing ideas in mind simultaneously.

The novelty of the current pandemic imbues it with characteristics that it may or may not possess. Is it the societal game-changer that we are led to believe? Walter Scheidel considers the great historical levellers and their socio-economic impacts to assess whether the coronavirus can bridge the gap between rich and poor. With economic inequality variable across countries, Christopher Rauh reveals which countries are flattening the unemployment curve. In India, Rudrangshu Mukherjee upbraids Modi for his myopia when it comes to his country’s poor and those excluded from civil society. With sub-Saharan Africa in desperate need of radical reform, Remi Adekoya analyses a region where the power dynamics militate against ordinary citizens enacting real change.  John Keiger shows how the pandemic has brought into stark relief the problems that have beset France for years. Tom Feiling questions whether Japan can reverse her rapidly shrinking population.

For those living in cities, the environmental benefits of the lockdown are self-evident: the improvement in air quality a direct correlation with the decrease in domestic and international travel. Vanora Bennett looks at what is happening to the green agenda and whether it might suffer from a post-coronavirus recovery.

Critiquing ideas, old and new alike, has always been our mainstay. Andrew Doyle laments the demise of critical thinking and the rise of infantilised discourse; the latter now reduced to a binary wrong-and-right construct. An education underpinned by critical thought, he argues, must be the bedrock of civilisation.

Philosophy continues to be an integral part of the magazine. Ray Monk shows how Wittgenstein’s self-isolation in a Norwegian village became the most productive period of his life. Through Anthony O’Hear’s reading of Roger Scruton’s opera libretto, completed shortly before his death, the latter’s attitude to the sacred dimension to our existence is revealed and what may be lost in its absence.

Standpoint has at times been more of a stranger than it might to popular culture and sporting endeavour. We are now opening our pages to these important aspects of cultural life. Nick Samwell-Smith highlights the crisis facing the television production community at a time when there is more demand than ever for content. Peter Doggett reflects on the potency of popular music, from the First World War onwards, and whether lockdown will be a hothouse of artistic innovation. An English summer without cricket may have been unthinkable but this season now seems to be in the balance. Stephen Chalke considers the game’s significance in the country’s cultural calendar. A former England cricket captain and psychoanalyst, Michael Brearley, writes his lockdown diary.

And finally some more advice: this time from T.S. Eliot the poet. Douglas Murray makes the case that it is to Eliot that we should turn when faced with the most profound questions of life. The poet remains that rarest of writers: one that reminds us how we might better understand both the power and the passage of time.


This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.

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