Wednesday, April 09, 2008

T. S. Eliot

First, a brief autobiographical prologue. Following the example of my biological father (who really was that mythical creature, a rocket scientist), I was oriented to the natural sciences as a child. While my contemporaries were reading “Dr. Dolittle” and “Lorna Dune,” I was immersed in science-fiction.

In due course, influenced by my stepfather, a writer of fiction and poetry, I decided to defect from science, switching to the humanities. But where to start? The zeitgeist--we are talking about the early ‘fifties--provided a ready answer. T.S. Eliot was a double-barrel instrument in two senses. First he produced a compact, but sometimes powerful corpus of modernist poetry. Alongside this creative work, stood his criticism, ranging from Dante through the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists to John Donne. Eliot was a dual threat in another sense. While consummately modern, or so it seemed, he also stressed the importance of tradition--humanity’s heritage (at least in the West).

After Eliot’s death in 1965 a severe reaction set it. In part this shift reflected a rejection of the formalism of the New Critics, who had championed Eliot’s work. Other writers focused on his social writings, and his anti-Semitism. Some observers felt that the anti-Semitism (well-documented in Anthony Julius’ book) was a symptom of a larger fear of life, sometimes verging on inhumanity.

The ‘eighties witnessed renewed interest, much of it biographical. In an codicil added to his will, Eliot had sought to discountenance the writing of any biography. Why? One could say that this wish simply reflected the poet’s insistence on the ideal of impersonality. However, it may be that Eliot had something to hide. Much of his life was haunted, it is fair to say, by his 1915 marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a mentally disturbed woman.

This relationship was the focus of the London stage play “Tom & Viv” t(1984), turned into a movie ten years later (with Willem Dafoe, an unfortunate choice to impersonate the poet).

Others sought to document more fully Eliot’s American background, which (they believed) was formative. This approach figures in James E. Miller, Jr.’s “T. S. Eliot: The Making of an American Poet, 1888-1822” (2006). Of particular interest is Miller’s attempt to pin down the writer’s sexuality. For a long time those of us who are attuned to such things have been getting gay vibes from Eliot. While Miller has unearthed some suggestive clues, I don’t think that he has actually settled the matter.

I have just finished reading Lawrence Rainey's short book, "Revisiting The Waste Land," which strikes me as the most important TS Eliot publication in recent years. (I have not consulted the companion Yale volume, reprinting ten pieces written contemporaneously by TSE; this seems less essential.)

The foundation of Rainey's study is bibliographical in the technical sense, an effort to discern the rather disparate genealogy (the "strata") of the poem by identifying the typewriters (three) and types of paper. His more substantive conclusion is that the poem demonstrates a greater degree of histrionics, violence, and incoherence (the latter a positive quality singled out by Conrad Aiken as a strength) than previous interpreters have allowed. He is scornful of Westonian Grail approach, and especially of the rereading in terms of the neoclassicism that Eliot attained only in 1927 and after. Rainey particularly excoriates an essay of Cleanth Brooks of 1937. In the main, though, the study is a kind of archaeology of the years 1917-22.

I find all this convincing. What I miss in Rainey's account is that both faces of the Eliot of the 1920s are to be traced to Paris in the early part of the decade. These were the years in which Dada was morphing into Surrealism (with strong affinities with the "oneiric" qualities of “The Waste Land”), as well as the emergence of its opposite, the neoclassicism of Cocteau's manifesto “Le Rappel a l'ordre” and the contemporary works of Igor Stravinsky.

By way of a postscript I wonder whether Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” (the source for the long-running Broadway musical) could not have been derived, at least indirectly, from the tour de force of the Japanese novelist Soseki Natsume, first published a hundred years ago. In this amusing novel a cat offers sardonic comments on human beings and also about an array of other cats.



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