Article Index


Responding to modern Dilemmas: an Interview with Leon Surette

15-28 FEBRUARY 2015

 by Roxana Preda

On January 5, 2005, Demetres Tryphonopoulos completed an interview with Leon Surette in which he discussed Leon’s career in Pound studies to date. His questions surveyed the classics: A Light from Eleusis (1979), The Birth of Modernism (1993), Pound in Purgatory (1999) and ‘I Cease not to Yowl,’ (1998) the correspondence between Pound and Olivia Rossetti Agresti they had edited together. The interview was published in English Studies in Canada in June-December of the same year. At that time, Leon Surette had just retired from full-time teaching and was deep in a book on Eliot and Stevens, which would later become The Modern Dilemma: Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot and Humanism (2008). The following interview takes up the thread where Tryphonopoulos left off and follows Leon Surette’s intellectual path for the past decade.


RP       Marjorie Perloff argued in “Pound/Stevens” that there was a choice to be made between the two poets, who are is so many respects opposites of each other. What made you cross from Pound to Stevens, what aroused your curiosity? 

LS       Well, I didn’t think I had a whole lot more to say about Pound than I had already published – even though several of my talks on Pound had never been published, and those that were published are seldom cited. Perhaps more importantly, I have always had a taste for what one might call romantic themes that one finds straightforwardly in Stevens, and more tangentially in Eliot.  By “romantic themes” I mean the concern with the relationship of mankind with nature, that is, the rest of the cosmos not specifically human.  Pound’s concern with that theme is much too close to the occult for my taste, and Eliot’s much too narrowly Christian.  Stevens’ poetry is clearly a continuation of the Romantic mode of Wordsworth and Shelley in a twentieth century context of nearly universal agnosticism – at least amongst the European literary audience.  I find Stevens’ approach very attractive on intellectual grounds, and positively enchanting on aesthetic grounds.


RP       So what is then the “modern dilemma” and how exactly is humanism a response or a solution to it?rsz modern dilemma

LS       I took the term from a BBC radio series of 1932 in which Eliot participated – as well as his old mentor, and prominent atheist, Bertrand Russell. The dilemma the BBC had in mind was the loss of faith among the nominally Christian societies of Europe and its overseas former colonies. That loss of faith presented society with a dilemma on the supposition that the ethical behaviour of citizens was dependent upon some belief system that constrained them from resorting to a dog-eat-dog world of unrestrained personal gratification. Humanism was widely offered as offering an alternative to religious belief that would similarly constrain and guide behaviour.  In his contribution to the series, Russell adopted the Arnoldian strain of humanism, which relied on imaginative literature to fulfil the role that the Jewish Bible and the Christian Testaments had played in European culture for two millennia. 

An alternative, powerful and prominent response to the loss of faith at the time, was Marxism. Marx had no interest in, or patience for, humanism, which he quite reasonably regarded as just another form of false consciousness intended to maintain the bourgeois status quo. Nor, of course, did he have any use for Christianity or any other religion, which he famously denigrated as the opiate of the masses.

Neither Eliot nor Stevens were drawn to Marxism.  And both rejected humanism as a solution to the modern dilemma – which they regarded as a crisis of faith, rather than the social crisis that industrialization represented, and that Marx addressed. It is to Pound’s credit that he did concern himself with economic and political issues.  Unfortunately those concerns led him into the dark realms of Fascism and racism.

Eliot, of course, believed that Christianity could and must be restored – especially in the form of Anglicanism, which preserves the liturgical practices of Roman and Orthodox Christianity, as other forms of Protestantism do not. Roman Catholicism would have served him just as well. Perhaps the ghosts of his Unitarian ancestors prevented such a radical apostasy.

Stevens’ posture is subtler – some might say conflicted. He rejected humanism since – as its label implies – it denies any transcendent realm or entity, such as Heaven or Hell, or God or gods.  Stevens’ whole poetic output circles around the problem of articulating the presence of a reality beyond ourselves without attaching any specific attributes to it.  For Stevens, “poetry is that discourse which deals with the transcendent, with the noumenal, the reality beyond human cognition” (“A Collect of Philosophy” The Moody Lecture delivered at the University of Chicago on Nov. 16, 1951.) Clearly Stevens had a personal sense of such a reality – as have mystics throughout the ages. But his culture and society did not permit any articulation of his “awareness” as medieval Christianity and Islam did.


RP       You were writing your book at a time when humanism as a concept was itself controversial, subjected to metaphysical and political attack. Foucault’s anti-humanist position in The Order of Things defined man as “an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end. … one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.” Did you focus on your authors in a historical way, bracketing out the present, or did the poststructuralist view influence your discussion?

LS       Foucault’s observation that “man” is an invention of recent date:  Although I read The Order of Things 25 years ago, that remark from his conclusion had not struck me as of great interest.  However, on looking into the matter with your help, I have discovered that Foucault’s book is essentially a cryptic application of the critique that Heidegger articulated in his attack on Sartre’s humanism in Letter on Humanism.  For a mystic like Heidegger, humanism represents a secularization of the sacred, and its disastrous child is the project of the physical sciences to reduce all knowledge to understanding of material processes.

I had not been aware that this aspect of the thought of the Nazi mystic had gone viral within what his student, Gadamer called the “human sciences.” For Heidegger, it was not the mystical nationalism and racism of the Nazis that was evil, but rather the physical sciences that made the gas ovens, carpet bombing, and other “scientific” means of destruction possible. That such a wrong-headed and vile doctrine could take hold amongst literary scholars in the 21st century is very difficult to understand.

Of course, those who revile humanism as an evil doctrine despoiling the environment have not the same motive as Heidegger. Heidegger’s opposition to humanism is the same as Eliot’s and Stevens’ – as I pointed out in The Modern Dilemma.  All three believe in the reality of a spiritual realm beyond the physical or material.  Humanism, in its modern form, denies the existence of any spiritual realm, and hence must be denounced (Heidegger), opposed (Eliot) or rejected (Stevens).  For his part, Pound had no problem with humanism or technology, but like the others, also had a substantial mystical streak.

Eliot, of course, converted to Anglicanism.  Stevens is rumoured to have converted to Catholicism when near death, but in his own published testimony, he remained essentially an aesthete, believing that the arts could provide intimations of the spiritual realm.  Pound, for his part, endorsed Social Credit as a humanist project – one that would make technology a boon to mankind, rather than a curse.

For all of Heidegger’s evasiveness, his Letter on Humanism amounts to a call for a return to belief, to a recognition that man is merely a creature – an emanation of “Being” (Sein).  As he famously puts in the opening page of the essay: “Language is the house of Being.  In its home man dwells.” For all its rodomontade, the Letter on Humanism amounts to a declaration of the creaturely condition of man: “Language is the lighting-concealing advent of Being itself.” Man is, he says, “Da–Sein,” that is, an off-shoot, a throwing off of Being: “Man is rather ‘thrown’ from Being itself into the truth of Being…” Humanism, of course, denies all this.  For the modern humanist, man is a descendent of some distant ancestor that he shares with chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas.

No doubt Foucault is so obscure about what it is that has displaced man, because he is shy of revealing his participation in Heidegger’s sentimental mysticism. Indeed, Heidegger’s name appears only once in the book. Instead, Foucault invokes Husserl, Heidegger’s teacher, a Jewish rationalist who had no truck with Heidegger’s post-Catholic mysticism.

So, to answer your question, Heidegger & Foucault had no influence whatsoever on my views or scholarly practices – except as an irritant I occasionally addressed.

Although I have written a number of articles on Saussure, Heidegger, Derrida, Gadamer, de Man et al and the issues they address that have inspired the critical movement labeled “Post-structuralism” (some of which can be found on, I have not encumbered my discussion of literary works with those issues. 

So far as literary commentary is concerned, the post-structuralist movements have served to replace any attempt to understand the intentions of the authors whose works are under discussion, with an inquisitorial interrogation of them.  That habit reflects the French and Marxist provenance of post-structuralism, as well as the politically innocent influence of Freud. 

Then, yes, I did bracket out present day attitudes in my discussion of Modernist writers. I am a traditional hermeneut or historical critic. I believe it is the critic’s duty to attempt to recover what the authors under discussion intended their readers to take from what they wrote. In order to do that the critic must put himself or herself in the position of the author under discussion insofar as that is possible.  To do so involves familiarizing oneself with the social, cultural and political environment in which the work was written, as well as what the author was reading and with whom he or she associated. 

The model of the literary critic that I want to be is a docent, in the root sense of a guide to the wonders and wisdom of literature. The current model of the literary critic is of the inquisitor seeking out thought crimes.


RP       Did Eliot’s views on humanism interact with his politics? I wonder how the idea of your next book, Dreams of a Totalitarian Utopia (DTU) was born.DTU

LS       Well, yes, in a sense. Eliot’s hostility toward humanism certainly influenced his politics. He saw the need to combat the secularism that humanism represented for him. He had no sense of humanism as a handmaid to the supposed evil instrumentalism of science and technology that offended Sein or Gea-earth as Heidegger and Ellul did.  He was quite willing to grant the natural sciences legitimacy, but insisted that there was also a spiritual component to man.

Eliot’s political inclinations were very similar to Pound’s, and Lewis’s but he was protected from endorsing Fascism, as Pound and Lewis both did, by his Anglicanism.  All three men feared popular democracy, preferring governance by a benevolent elite, made up of men like themselves.

As for the Totalitarian Utopia, it arose out of an expression of interest by the University of South Florida Press to publish an expanded version of a paper I read at a conference – I don’t remember which.  Anyway, I wrote the book, but U. of Florida rejected it, so I submitted it to McGill-Queen’s who published it.  It has been translated into Spanish, but I don’t know if the translation has been published.

It represents an effort on my part to contextualize the political views of three modernist authors (two Americans and one Briton), who between them orchestrated English language modernism in literature.  The argument of the book is that they were all blind-sided by the First World War that so altered the global political landscape that they were forced to regroup in an effort to salvage their imagined future.  All three came to maturity in a world economically dominated by the British Empire, scientifically dominated by Germany, and culturally dominated by France.  The two Americans sought to orchestrate a literary conquest of Europe – much like a Henry James heroine.  Lewis was equally ambitious, but lacked the political naiveté of the Americans.

The war brought an end to British economic dominance, and tarnished German scientific ascendancy.  Although France retained her cultural caché – at least among Americans, Paris no longer dictated cultural fashion.  Pound and Eliot were among those who had believed that a new civilization was in the offing in the pre-war.  But after the war, progressive thinkers mostly looked to revolutionary Russia as a harbinger of the future.  But Communism did not appeal to Pound, Eliot or Lewis, who were quickly dismissed as “reactionaries,” an accusation that has stuck (Harrison 1969). The label is not entirely unfair, but Harrison’s use of the Marxist term, “reactionary,” is an index of the early influence of Marxist attitudes in American literary studies, even among those like Harrison, who did not think of themselves as Marxists.


RP       Were these political utopias clearly articulated and defended by Eliot, Pound and Lewis? What were they exactly?

LS       Well, Pound decided that Mussolini’s Italy was a prototype for his notion of Utopia.  But, in the Cantos at least he dialled back to an imagined or ideal utopia, “in the mind indestructible” (Canto 74) similar to St. Augustine’s City of God.  Eliot came much closer to articulating his notion of a community of which he could approve in his March, 1939 lectures, published as The Idea of a Christian Society, just before the outbreak of WWII, and later in Notes towards the Definition of Culture, published in The New English Weekly in 1943 – in the third year of the war.  He does not articulate any political or economic structure in these works. Instead he insists that any political structure of which he could approve would involve distinct classes, a devout clergy administering to a devout congregation, and a monarch.  Beyond that he would permit its citizens to enjoy any harmless beliefs or no beliefs, so long as the nation was founded on Christianity.  He also supposed that it would be possible to maintain a primarily agricultural economy in the twentieth century, expressing admiration for the American Agrarian movement in After Strange Gods, lectures he delivered at the University of Virginia in 1933. It is remarkable that anyone as aware and intelligent as Eliot could put forward such a Quixotic model as the barbarians were at the gate. Lewis adopted a lot of postures toward governance, but they all amount to a cynical distrust of the intelligence and good will of the average citizen.  That posture is clear from Rude Assignment, his 1950 survey of his writing career: “in a mixed society, the sciences and the arts have to be protected against Caliban; against Matthew Arnold's Philistine, Flaubert's Bourgeois, or Swift's Yahoo”  (203).


RP       Would you say that Pound’s totalitarian utopia was a political one, modeled on Mussolini’s state or rather an economic system the way he outlined it in Canto 74: “you need not, i.e. need not take over the means of production; /money to signify work done, inside a system /and measured and wanted.”

LS       Pound was a political naïf.  He had no idea whatsoever of political institutions or structures. Despite his descent into anti-Semitism, Pound was well-intentioned, imagining that everyone would act decently and altruistically once they understood the basic truths about money and the economy that he was constantly espousing in books and articles.  When that naïve hope was disappointed, he could only understand the failure of his ideas to take hold as the result of opposition from those of evil intent who benefitted from the status quo.  It is clear to me that his political thought never got beyond the notion of a benevolent dictator – as he believed Mussolini to be.


RP       Reading DTU I noticed a change of tone in the way you related to Eliot, Pound and Lewis. In the Purgatory, you had a very intransigent attitude towards Pound’s errors in economics. This time round you were more inclined to give your authors “some slack” as you said in your preface, to understand them as relating to their own time, but preserving the epistemological benefits of a historian who knows the future. What changed?

LS       Nothing changed.  Purgatory was designed to articulate the genesis of Pound’s political, economic and racial views.  Since it inevitably had to trace the origins of his anti-Semitism, it was difficult to avoid a somewhat negative tone.  I was anxious to avoid giving the impression that I was an apologist for Pound’s Fascism and anti-Semitism, while at the same time contextualizing the development of those views.

In DTU my project was to contextualize the tendency of Pound, Eliot and Lewis to endorse totalitarian governance.  The context I articulated was their common distrust of popular democracy, which – it is not often remembered – emerged within their adult lifetime.  They all feared that the “masses” would be susceptible to manipulation by demagogues, and that everyone would be the worse for it.  Given that Hitler was elected and enjoyed great popularity throughout his regime, that fear was not ill-founded. Mussolini, it is true, came to power by a coup, but like Hitler, he was wildly popular, and would have won any election, had he bothered to hold one.  Lenin was in a similar position to Mussolini.  In short, their fear of democracy did not seem irrational in the 1930s. Today, the best we can do is repeat Churchill’s (apparently apocryphal) remark that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. 


RP       Was your postgraduate study with Marshall McLuhan germinal for your interest in technology which would flourish in Art in the Age of the Machine (AAM)? I know you discussed McLuhan in an interview with Bob Dobbs in May last year.

LS       A common thread in the speculation of McLuhan, Walter Ong, Lewis Mumford, and Eric Havelock is their belief that the technologies we use alter, not only the way we behave, but also the way we think.

Art in the Age of the Machine is a historical survey of prominent thought about the role of technology in society from Francis Bacon to Jacques Ellul.  As one might expect response can be plotted on an arc from the horrified opposition of Wm.  Blake, D.  H.  Lawrence, Martin Heidegger, and Jacques Ellul; through the cautious acceptance of Wm. Wordsworth, J. W. Turner, Thomas Carlyle and Lewis Mumford; to the enthusiastic embrace of (the little known) Horatio Greenough, Frank Lloyd Wright, Filippo Marinetti and Marshall McLuhan.rsz 51xmm6accxl 2

“Machine” in my title is really a synecdoche for technology in the age of power.  The machine is an autonomous tool – whether a turret lathe, a printing press, a cad-cam robotic factory or a 3D printer.  It is born out of the intellectual innovation of analysis – that is, the breaking down ideas or things into their component parts. Analysis, of course, goes back to Aristotle, but it took many generations before the technique was socialized in the general population.  That happened, Mumford argues, in the Middle Ages with the mechanical clock. The clock created seconds, and minutes, when before only hours and days existed.

To make a long story short: analysis applied to things, not thoughts, altered the cognitive patterns of men and women. That alteration had begun, McLuhan and Eric Havelock independently argued, with the invention of the alphabet. (The alphabet, of course, is an analysis of speech into its component elements.) 

Just as the mechanical clock altered our conception and perception of time, so the steam engine, by accelerating human movement, altered our perception of space and distance. And by magnifying power, altered our sense of strength. That we still measure mechanical power as “horse power” is a measure at once of the conservatism of human thought, and its malleability. Similarly the camera changed our perception of the world around us – at first by framing, freezing and preserving images, and then, with the cinema, by framing, capturing and preserving movement.


RP       AAM was published recently, in 2013. But maybe it is not too early to ask if you are involved in a new book-length project. I have recently read your article on the genealogy of structuralism on Is this piece a part of something larger or was it written in and for itself?

LS       I am beavering away on a reworking of a study I wrote 30 years ago in the first days of “theory,” but could not find a publisher willing to take it.  The original title was The Unruliness of Art.  It was a response to the structuralist project of articulating a grammar for literature, or perhaps for each of the literary genres.  As I wrote, structuralism was being displaced by “theory,” which still then presented itself as analogous to theory in the sciences, that is, as an articulation of first principles governing critical commentary. 

Of course, “theory” turned out to be no such thing, but rather a rhetorical imitation of scientific theory. By “rhetorical imitation” I mean the penchant of literary theorists to rely of jargon which neither the author nor the audience can translate into standard English, French, German or whatever.  Just as theoretical physics or chemistry is incomprehensible to non-physicists and chemists, so literary theory is incomprehensible to non-theorists. Of course it is also incomprehensible to theorists themselves as Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont demonstrated in the hoax they perpetrated on Social Text (See Fashionable Nonsense, New York: Picador 1998).

My new study is an account of literary criticism as an institution from the days of Matthew Arnold and Wilhelm Dilthey to the present in an effort to reconstitute the discipline that has turned into a social science rather than a humane study of the human imagination that it once aspired to be.


RP       Professor Surette, thank you for this interview.




Dobbs, Bob. Interview with Leon Surette. 5/05/2014. Web. Free online.

Eliot, T. S. After Strange Gods. London: Faber, 1934. Print.

Eliot, T. S. The Idea of a Christian Society. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1947. Print.

Eliot, T.S. Notes towards the Definition of Culture. London: Faber, 1948. Print.

Foucault, Michel. 1967. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.

Harrison, John R. The Reactionaries: Yeats, Lewis, Pound, Eliot, Lawrence: A Study of the Anti-Democratic Intelligentsia. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. “Letter on Humanism.” Web. 28/02/2015. Free online.

Lewis, Wyndham. Rude Assignment. Boston: Black Sparrow, 1974. Print.

Perfloff, M. “Pound/Stevens. Whose Era?” New Literary History 13.3 (1982): 485-514. Print.

Surette, Leon. Art in the Age of the Machine. Kindle, 2013. Web.

Surette, Leon. Dreams of a Totaliarian Utopia. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2011. Print.

Surette, Leon. Pound in Purgatory. From Economic Radicalism to Anti-Semitism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. Print.

Surette, Leon. The Modern Dilemma. Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot and Humanism. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2008. Print.

Tryphonopoulos, Demetres. “‘With usura hath no man a house of good stone (Pound, Canto 45): An Interview with Leon Surette.” English Studies in Canada 31.2-3 (2005): 273-292. Print.