He was sent down from Cambridge for his part in a brawl. He hung Wyndham Lewis from the railings of Great Ormond Street. He was described by the sculptor Jacob Epstein as being “capable of kicking a theory as well as a man downstairs if the occasion demanded.” One suspects that T.E. Hulme was admired by his modernist peers for his pugnacity as well as for his intellectualism.
Hulme’s manner was reflected in his prose. One suspects, on reading his philosophical works, that he felt compelled to beat sense into the world around him. Defending Epstein against the artistic criticism of Anthony Ludovici – a traditionalist blood-botherer whose pro-fascist leanings consigned him to obscurity after World War 2 – he dismissed the critic as a “charlatan” who “would have been more suitably employed indexing” but whose “curious kind of vanity” led him to write “comical books” full of “stupid and childish things”. “The most appropriate means of dealing with him would be a little personal violence,” Hulme reflected, before deciding that “pity for the weak, which, in spite of Nietzsche, still moves us, prevents us dealing drastically with this rather light-weight superman”. How sad that the age of gentlemanly discourse passed.
Hulme was less abusive towards his political opponents but he was uncompromising in his opposition. He appears to have grasped where the winds were blowing, and how fashionable liberalism was set to become. His impatience with what he believed was the smugness of progressives might amuse readers who feel that his response applies to their descendants…
The most characteristic thing about them is that they are…people who mistake the fact that they hold certain opinions for that entirely different thing – intellectual superiority. They thus form a little orthodoxy of superior people, and they tend to look on all attacks not as due to real objections springing from intellectual difference, but as the crude gesture of the “outsider”… it is only necessary to shout “You read the ‘Express,’ ” and the necessity for a serious consideration of the objection is avoided.
To the matter of his objections. Warrior spirits lean towards dichotomous thought, and Hulme saw a divide between men who upheld fantasies of human progress, celebrating the all but inexhaustible promise of the analytic and emotional life of the species, and men who emphasised its essential wretchedness, encapsulated in the dogma of Original Sin. Seeing this as the difference between “romanticists” and “classicists” was arguable but he identified real trends in post-Enlightenment Europe.
Some romanticists would distance themselves from utopianism. One thing that the age upheld, however, was emotional intensity. Hulme thought that this was a vapid and destabilising force. Though religious, he appears to have been unmoved by the supposed consolations of faith. His was a thing of hard truths…
I have none of the feelings of nostalgia, the reverence of tradition, the desire to recapture the sentiment of Fra Angelico which seems to animate most modern defenders of religion. All that seems to me to be bosh. What is important is what nobody seems to realise – the dogmas like that of Original Sin, which are the closest expression of the categories of the religious attitude. That man is in no sense perfect, but a wretched creature who can yet apprehend perfection. It is not, then, that I put up with the dogma for the sake of the sentiment but that I may possibly swallow the sentiment for the sake of the dogma.
“Romanticism”, for Hulme, was based on a Rousseauian image of man that held him to be essentially good. Without faith, and without sin, this was a dangerous perversion of reality…
The instincts that find their right and proper outlet in religion must come out in some other way. You don’t believe in a God, so you begin to believe that man is a god. You don’t believe in Heaven, so you begin to believe in a heaven on earth…The concepts that are right and proper in their own sphere are spread over, and so mess up, falsify and blur the clear outlines of human experience. It is like pouring a pot of treacle over the dinner table. Romanticism then, and this is the best definition I can give of it, is spilt religion.
There is some rough justice here. On the banks of the Cam, English intellectuals were re-imagining social mores with as much careless audacity as they exchanged partners. Across Europe, radicals were leafing through pamphlets as they plotted for the next stage of history. “Progress” was about to go into overdrive.
Such a temperament, and such concerns, befitted a reactionary. Hulme upheld the need not just for conservation but for “constancy” – an unchanging state preserved by fixed hierarchies and absolute values. This, he wrote, would also demand “re-generation” – “an heroic task requiring heroic qualities”; exemplified in armed struggle. In translating Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence, he felt no enthusiasm for its anti-capitalist spirit but a great deal of interest in its depiction of violence as an energising force.
Militarists of his age had an advantage over hawks of ours in that they followed their convictions. Hulme was an enthusiastic volunteer in 1914. The “War Notes” that he filed his Belgian trench were perceptive in their analyses of military tactics and life on the front lines. They upheld the need for war as a means of resisting Germanic imperialism but also reflected disillusionment with war itself. “I am writing now,” he said, even before the Somme Offensive, “At a period when any…bellicose impulses in us…have been cured by experience; I don’t think I have an ounce of bellicosity left”. It would have been interesting to see how his ideas might have evolved had he survived the war. His earlier, romantic conception of violence seems to have been incoherent as well as disagreeable.
I am no pacifist, as to maintain such a principle is to subordinate all of one’s other values to the cause of non-violence. To defend them, indeed, can be honourable. Yet war remains atrocious even in necessity, and has been more so for being so futile on so many occasions. What is more – it has not served to restrain man’s destructive potential as much as it has encouraged its realisation. War is as potent a force of disorder as any, and, as it inspires the creation of ever more effective tools of large-scale killing, has allowed humans to be foolish and malicious on a fearsome scale.
Hulme’s theoretical writings are pitiless in an intriguing sense. His perspective on nature blurs a recognition of man’s limits with dislike for its reality. This was clear in his writings on art. Naturalism, he wrote, depicted “forms and movements…found in nature” to inspire “a feeling of vitality”. What he described as geometric art “exhibits no delight in nature” and “can be described as stiff and lifeless”. Its “tendency to abstraction” was more valuable to him as “a refuge from the flux and impermanence of outside nature”.
An aversion to upheaval lies within the hearts and minds of all conservatives. What the historian Christopher Dawson called the “transitory character of the humanist culture” radically overstates the improvisational abilities of man, which needs stable infrastructure as a foundation for being. Hulme, though, was rare in elevating constancy to the highest good. His was a cold vision – shorn not merely of the sentiments attached to faith but of the vitality that exists within its stories and its songs. It was also a doomed one. Man will move, whatever the direction that he takes. He can be slow, and retrace his steps, but he can never stop. Ours is an energetic species, in an impermanent world, and can no more achieve stasis than perfection.
Hulme was right that human beings are selfish, petty, asinine and often malicious, and that this had to be asserted in an age of “the most precarious, difficult and exigent [tasks]” of our existence. This remains true. Yet anti-humanism does not require that one becomes its antithesis. There is indeed a “war of instincts” inside us. It is the potential for affection and inquiry – much of it vital in nature – that gives the struggle to maintain our social existence hope. It may be insufficient for the task but that is true of everything.
Hulme was killed in 1917, weeks after his 34th birthday, when a shell “literally blew him to pieces”. Robert Ferguson writes in his biography that “absorbed in some thought of his own he had failed to hear it coming and remained standing while those around threw themselves flat on the ground”. It is tempting to imagine that the thought was a revelation in a new intellectual venture, but perhaps it was related to the condition of his boots. His untimely end made sure that he left a body of work that fascinates without fulfilling.