January 2010

I always go back to Eliot:

My interest in T. S. Eliot started when I was a sophomore in a two thousand level course. We read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and by the end of the class I had so many notes in the margins I didn’t know what to do with them. The notes didn’t help much, and I still didn’t understand what the poem was really about. Our professor for that class told us how he decided to become an English major when he found the poem when he was in high school. He saw all the notes on the poem and decided he wanted to be able to makes notes like that and understand the poem. I think I related to that as I, also, wanted to be able to decipher the meaning of the words I was reading. While at that point I didn’t understand the poem, I knew I wanted to be able to understand them because they were put together so beautifully:

Let us go then, you and I, 

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, 

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels

And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells

Streets that follow like a tedious argument 

Of insidious intent

To lead you to an overwhelming question…

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”

Let us go and make our visit.

All these years later and I still have trouble understanding what Eliot is saying. I ask, then, “And how should I begin?”

I began with the question of modernism and what it means. It seems the academic world is so concerned about putting everything into categories that Eliot gets the distinction, both an honor and a curse, of being the model for modernist ideals. Modernism, like the other categories (romanticism, post-modernism, etc…) seems to be a term used to try to corral where it is we put artists and “movements.” But Eliot, I believe, should be beyond these categories, as the categories seem to be reductive of the creative work put forth by a great author. Shakespeare is a great Renaissance writer, but he is in a category all his own. Borges and Neruda are Spanish authors, but they encompass art beyond a reductive category.

The critical scholars of Eliot’s work seem to embrace this idea of reductive categories as well. Ronald Bush in T.S. Eliot: A Study in Character seems to be more concerned with Eliot as a person in society and how Eliot’s life affected his art. Craig Raines’ book T.S. Eliot (for the Oxford Lives and Legacies series) is more concerned with the poetry as its own entity. The only one that looks at Eliot through the context of “Modernism” is Louis Menand in his Discovering Modernism: T.S. Eliot and His Context, but even Menand is more concerned with how Eliot used the ideas of his time (“modernism”) for Eliot’s own “literary opportunities” (Menand 14).

Bush’s main concern is the relationship between the character and style. By character I believe what Bush means is Eliot’s psychological character and how this relates to Eliot’s style. What is meant then is that Eliot’s personality influences the form in art. Bush claims that all theories are found in autobiographies. This leads to the main crux of Bush’s study. Bush claims how in Eliot’s development we have the question of modernism itself; that is: the romantic idea of intense emotions conflicting with a modern sense of intellectualism that is not concerned with (or skeptical) of intense emotions.

Bush then explores Eliot’s psyche and this tension between romantic emotions (feelings) and a classical ideal (skepticism of emotion), as Bush says:

Much of the work of this study involved tracing the way these two streams of modernism grew, interacted and diverged in Eliot’s poetry and criticism (X).
And then later in the same preface:
As his admirers have always known, the power of Eliot’s early verse comes from an almost unbearable tension between romantic yearning and intellectual detachment. Significant areas of Eliot’s psyche are invested in both, and, forced to choose, we would have to say that the yearning, not the intellect, dominates (X).

In the later verses, though, Bush tells us how the intellect takes over.

Bush looks at Eliot’s work chronologically with this thesis in mind. The first half of Bush’s study looks at Prufrock briefly. Bush states how Prufrock, like Eliot, is continually questioning the emotional life. By questioning this emotional life, Eliot/Prufrock is able to identify with it and thus become free, but in doing so, in finding this freedom, he (them) alienates himself. Stating further how Eliot’s characters are fragmented because Eliot is fragmented between this polarity of feelings and thought.

I get the feeling that Bush is too forcefully looking for the poet in the work. While it would be a mistake to not realize that no poet writes in a vacuum, completely detached from his emotions, his surroundings, or the historical and cultural context at the time the poem is composed, I also believe that looking too forcefully for the poet in the poetry is a mistake as well. Especially by a poet, as Bush points out, was influenced by the French Symbolist. The Symbolist, again as Bush points out, wanted to write a poetry with no outside reference—“A poetry, so to speak, of pure music” (Bush IX).

Bush looks at the tension in Eliot’s psyche in The Waste Land and how this tension between the romantic and the classicist play out in the poem. Noting how Eliot adjusts his style between the earlier poems, like Prufrock, through to The Waste Land, and then how Eliot adjusts his style for the later poetry like Four Quartets.

Bush looks at this split in Eliot by looking at his family background. Eliot’s family represented, what Bush calls, “Boston doubt.” The idea, an inheritance from Eliot’s grandfather, that what counts is the greater good or “duty” over romantic feelings that are a “self-indulgence.” Bush explores how when Eliot married out of romantic feelings this split widened. Eliot’s mother, then, becomes the representative of the “Boston doubt” and Vivien, Eliot’s wife, represents romantic yearning. And it is when these poles meet, when Eliot’s mother comes to visit the newlyweds, that Eliot is torn between the two poles and has his nervous breakdown. And here, again, it seems that Bush is too concerned with Eliot’s biography. While Eliot’s mother’s visit was likely one of the reasons for Eliot’s breakdown, I think it reductive to not think about other factors. We can never know the inner workings of Eliot’s mind and possible chemical imbalances, his wife’s health, his concerns about becoming a poet and not taking a good job as a philosophy professor—all factors that could have contributed to his breakdown.

Bush, rather, takes a theoretical Freudian approach between Eliot’s mother and wife with Pound as a midwife. Bush then interprets The Waste Land less as a poem about myths (the Holy Grail, Frazer’s Golden Bough) and looks at it as showing this conflict between the two poles of his psyche. Bush does praise Eliot as a master of being able to merge emotion and intellect using James Joyce’s “Mystical method” to organize the poem. And it is around the time of this poem, which shows the shift in Eliot from romantic yearnings to intellectualism. Bush says that Eliot was fixated by his mother but wanted to escape her grasp over him. And it is this feeling that led Eliot to shift from the romantic to yielding to intellect, insincerity, rhetoric and form. I feel Bush is placing too much emphasis on Eliot’s mother’s influence on him and on Eliot’s biography.

Bush then looks at Ash Wednesday and how Eliot converted childhood memories into this poem. He goes on to explain how the garden Eliot is recollecting in this poem, a garden in an all girls school are what led to Eliot’s first thoughts of sex.

Bush also gets into the charges of anti-Semitism, specifically in The Yellow Spot review. It is Bush’s claim that Eliot’s religious fervor led to Eliot’s insensitivity to other’s suffering, and that Eliot’s “fierce theodicy” and Little Giddings are due to his anti-Semitism.

seems that Bush is tackling something that cannot be tackled—someone’s psyche. And his claims would be easier to accept, as Bush does do a great job of analyzing the poems and looking at Eliot’s imagery, if it weren’t for his dogmatic claims. Bush leaves little room for suggesting that his claims are his interpretations: rather, he makes his claims as if they were the truth. While insightful at times, I fell a scholar should keep the idea of interpretation open, always trying to look at different angles rather than state those interpretations so forcefully, especially when trying to find the poet in the poem. I can see how Eliot seems to be troubled by the idea of intense emotions verses the skepticism of those emotions but to attribute it all to biography, I feel, is reductive. If anything, we can look at the symbolist influence that struggled with these same concepts as Wallace Fowlie points out in his introduction to Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil and other Works when he says, “Both Baudelaire and Valery argued that the poet’s drama is the struggle that is constantly going on between his sensuality [romantic yearning] and his critical mind [intellectualism]” (4).

Craig Raine is more cautious about biography, stating in his preface how you would be hard pressed to find Eliot in his poetry giving the example of how Prufrock was nothing like Eliot, but Raine admits that the theme of Prufrock , the failure to seize the day, the procrastination, avoiding risk is something Eliot had in common with his creation. Raine’s thesis, though, is along the same lines of Bush’s:

In ‘To Criticise the Critic’ (1961), he [Eliot] describes himself as ‘the mild-mannered man safely entrenched behind the typewriter’. And it is a theme of this study that the Buried Life, the idea of a life not fully lived, is the central, animating idea of Eliot’s poetry (Raine xiii).

This theme of the life not fully lived, Raine states, comes from literature (a common literary topos), and he states how the writer takes his themes from his predecessors and continues to develop it—explaining also how the fully-lived life for the artist is also the interior life.

Raine states that in finding the buried life theme of Eliot’s work, Raine will look at “the one poem.” In other words, Raine feels that this theme is consistent throughout Eliot’s work, showing itself in many different ways. And like Bush, Raine sees how Eliot is a modernist skeptical of emotions—and this leads to a conflict: Eliot wants to maximize emotions to have a life fully lived, but he is skeptical of emotions.

Raine immediately starts looking at the poetry, dissecting each line as skillfully as a surgeon. He is like an officer in a crime scene, looking at every detail, analyzing each word and line, and he masterfully moves from poem to poem with a nice lucid prose. Unlike Bush’s, at times, overly erudite writing, Raine is easy to follow and understand.

Raine deftly moves from looking at Animula to Gerontion describing how they are both about not living life fully. Raine, keeping with his notion that Eliot’s theme is a literary one, compares other authors when interpreting Eliot.
Raine moves form poem to poem outlining the literary topos: “I want to live” as he looks at The Hollow Men and, what Raine calls the most personal poem: Ash Wednesday. Raine never fails to go into a deep elucidation of a poem, looking at them section by section, line by line, and at times word by word, and he always reminds us how Eliot is borrowing these topos from other authors as he shows us how other authors have used similar themes.

Raine then traces Eliot’s anti-romanticism in Eliot’s essay on Dante, and in Eliot’s “Restaurant poems.” Raine looks at Eliot’s definition of classicist: which is the skepticism of strong emotion. It seems that Eliot’s main concern then is not so much with strong emotions, but rather with an excess of emotions—Eliot wants precise emotions. Eliot will use his skepticism to corral his emotions, as Eliot says: “What every poet starts from is his own emotions.” The idea seems to be: to take personal emotions and transform them into something universal. Raine then takes his razor sharp knife to dissect poems in which this is seen, and Raine states how he feels other critics have misread these poems. And while Raine comes off as too confrontational—again, like Bush, dismissing another way of interpreting a poem other than his, it does make for interesting reading.

Raine summarizes Eliot from two perspectives. The first being Eliot’s sense of a failure to live fully, “..to have a proper, vivid, satisfying emotional life,” (Raine 16) and Eliot’s yearning for romantic yearning which he inherited from Henry James.

In looking at Prufrock, Raine states, “Living ‘with all intensity’, for Eliot, as for Henry James, is to complicate life’s readied simplifications” (67), and that the “best illustration of this is the comic, antiromantic creation” Prufrock. Raine explores Prufrock’s complicated feelings—his feeling of insecurity, his fear of losing his head, of the butler, of social disadvantage and states how Prufrock has something on his conscious. That possibly the thing that is bothering his conscious is the inner life that is hidden not just from the reader (or the outsider looking in) but hidden from Prufrock himself.

The second half of the book contains extended analysis of The Waste Land and Four Quartets, in which Raine continues to dissect the poems to show how the buried life is the theme within them. While looking at them he connects the idea of the buried life with Eliot’s other poetry.

Raine goes on to look at Eliot’s drama where he continues exploring his thesis of the buried life within them, but concludes, “As drama, they fail in varying degrees, because we couldn’t care less what, say, Edward Chamberlayne really feels” (125). Here I feel that Raine’s dismissal of the drama is more out of the drama not showing his thesis as well as he would like.

After looking at the criticism, Raine attacks the charges of Eliot’s anti-Semitism. And while Raine makes a great case, he seems to be “protesting to much.” It surprises me how Bush and Raine take this aspect of Eliot without a grain of salt, seemingly. Defending or condemning rather than saying that it doesn’t matter as much as people make it out to be, especially Raine who spends more time looking at the poetry than at the biography. What matters for an artist is his art—and I believe we should be judging weather or not the art is good. What strikes me most about Raine’s defense of Eliot, and one of the reasons why I think it is so good, is that he points out how The Yellow Spot review that people use against Eliot wasn’t even written by Eliot, and that none of the scholars had bothered to simply look at the index where they would have seen that Eliot didn’t write it.

In Menand’s book, Menand looks at how Eliot changed the way we understand literature in the early part of the twentieth century. The way Eliot went about this, though, was to take the modernist effort to reestablish our conceptions of art and, “as a poet…find ways of transforming some of those difficulties into literary opportunities” (14). Which I find to be a little harsh, what poet, after all, didn’t use his current artistic philosophies to influence his writing and become a popular writer? Eliot, I fell, used what was at his disposal to create art within his context.

Menand points out how Eliot discredited the cultural values of the 19th century, but one can see these values underneath the modernist ones Eliot was using. But I think this goes back to the problem of using ambiguous terms such as “modernism” and “romanticism.” And while at first sounding very abrasive, Menand shows how Eliot’s genius was Eliot’s ability to properly fuse the contradiction between modernism and romanticism—the problem, I think, lies in when he says this genius was “literary opportunism.”

This was, for me, the hardest book of the three to read. Menand is without a doubt a very erudite scholar, and his prose comes off as such. At times I found myself lost in what it was I was reading, and I would have to go back to previous pages to remember how one point leads to the other. I feel that Menand is saying that Eliot was being insincere.

Out of all the books, I feel that Raine’s was the easiest one to read and follow. And while they all have their good points and bad points, I feel all these scholars take their views of the subject and their interpretation of the poems too serious and pronounce them too dogmatically.

Putting this on here, just because… To have it, to remember it… kind of like what the paper itself is about:

The Impossibility of Shared Experience

“Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.”
-Michel de Montaigne

Levi, like Dante, is trying to pass on the story of the people in hell in order to save the souls of other people. Dante, by telling the story of hell, is trying to turn people away from committing sins and is passing on the political story of his native Florence in hopes that the politics will change and that the proper people will be damned for the rest of history; Levi, by telling the story of Auschwitz, is trying to make sure that such atrocities never happen again while telling the story of people that suffered in order to keep the memory of them alive and to keep history alive. The problem arises when these writers try to explain the unexplainable. How can a writer possibly relate an experience to another person that is beyond words? These writers will fail. They will never be able to convey the “true” experience of what they went through, but the failure is important because the story must be passed on and must live on in the memory of history. The stories these writers try and tell will fail because language fails to convey true meaning and will always be interpreted, and because experience, like a text being read, will always be interpreted in different ways.

No one could ever come close to knowing what these writers went through when they were violently disconnected from their society because experience can only be experienced by the one that is present for the experience. For Dante, he took his experience and fictionalized Florence into a hell, and it was hell for him because it was not the land to which he had grown so attached. Dante’s identity was one of being a Florentine. Violently disconnected from this identity is hell for Dante, but it is a hell that he knows he has to get through in order to reach a paradise—which for Dante is reached only in losing himself completely and then finding himself. Whereas Levi’s hell is a real lived experience that Levi has to endure every waking hour. In both cases (and we always have to keep in mind that Dante being exiled to “hell” is not nearly as bad as Levi’s experience of a concentration camp that becomes a tangible, real life hell), these writers face the task of putting into words experiences that cannot be described or understood by anyone who did not actually go through them. This is why Dante turns his account into a fictional creation of a journey through hell leading to paradise because it is only through fiction that someone might get to the experience of being exiled. Rather than say “this is my experience,” Dante conveys this experience through fiction. As prideful as Dante is, he addresses the reader enough—in a desperate plea to be believed and in hoping the reader heads his message: “May God so let you, reader, gather fruit/from what you read” (20. 19-20)— Dante, in places, also lets the reader know that he doesn’t even believe what he is writing. That what he is writing is too unbelievable, and Dante therefore reminds the reader that this is just a story which alludes to reality.

Levi, on the other hand, is in hell and has the much harder task of conveying experiences of his reality in a fictional manner (through a book); furthermore, these are experiences that are so bad that “when you really seem to lie on the bottom—well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining” (Levi 131). Language is too insufficient to be able to convey a reality in which one goes on living because the thought of suicide gives them hope. And yet, like Dante (and to a much greater extent), Levi tries to write about experiences that can never be experienced in words through a text.

Although these stories fail to actually convey the mourning of their writers, it is this failure of conveying experience that is important in and of itself:

For mourning to fully succeed, we should be able to get over the loss of the other in question. But if we can get over him or her, something seems to have failed in the mourning […] From this perspective, a truly appropriate mourning would be a mourning we couldn’t accomplish, that continues until our death. Derrida claims that if mourning succeeds, it fails, and it must fail in order to succeed (Deutscher 71) .

Therefore, even though it would be impossible to transmit an experience through insufficient words, the story must be told and the failure that is achieved is important. It is important for Dante because the stories must be passed on in order for us, today, to sit in the classroom and learn about the ills of Florence and the people that did wrongs to Dante, and it is important for Levi (for an even graver reasons) because he is trying to tell his story in order to pass it on so that history does not forget these atrocities and keeps it from happening again. This is seen when Levi is telling the story of the prisoners who march out of the camp and says, “Alberto was among them. Perhaps someone will write their story one day” (155), but this is their story like it is Levi’s, like it is the failure of action of the world that let this happen. It is a story that will be written again and again in hopes that the world will never forget what happened and never forget to whom it happened to.