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"I bought and praised but did not read Aquinas": T.S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, and the Ontology of the Sign.

In W.H. Auden's sociological send up of England in the nineteen-twenties, that almost clinical answer to Wordsworth's Prelude titled "Letter to Lord Byron," he portrays himself as the bien pensant young poet, come from the provinces up to Oxford to imbibe the canons of high modernist sensibility. He makes, naturally, an exaggerated bow to the magus of modernism, T.S. Eliot, and his organ of good taste, The Criterion. "Eliot spoke the still unspoken word," Auden writes, teaching him to abandon the Georgian pastorals of Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy in preference for "gas-works and dried tubers" (Auden Prose 1.333). This obvious reference to The Waste Land is followed by a caricature of the young poet that effectively interprets Eliot's poem of 1922 in terms of the Classicism and Anglo-Catholicism its author would a few years later come to promote in his journal. Auden continues,
   All youth's intolerant certainty was mine as
      I faced life in a double-breasted suit;
   I bought and praised but did not read Aquinas,
      At the Criterion's verdict I was mute,
      Though Arnold's I was ready to refute;
   And through the quads dogmatic words rang clear,
   "Good poetry is classic and austere." (Auden Prose 1.333)

The "Letter to Lord Byron" does not set out to depict Auden as the idiosyncratic virtuoso who appears in so many of his other works. It attempts rather to portray its author as typical of his generation, and, for such a character as he, Eliot's Criterion was identified in some ambiguous fashion with St. Thomas Aquinas; or, to be precise, with the neo-Scholastic or neo-Thomist movements that had sprung up in all the Catholic intellectual centers of Europe, and above all in Paris, Rome, and Louvain. (2)

That Eliot was deeply influenced by the French intellectual culture of his day rests beyond doubt. His debt to Henri Bergson, Georges Sorrel, Julien Benda, and Charles Maurras have been noted and much speculated upon. (3) Scholars have not failed either to observe Eliot's multiple references in his prose to the French neo-Thomist philosopher, Jacques Maritain. (4) But, because Eliot's interest in and indebtedness to French intellectual life is so wide and multifaceted, it is tempting to assume that his substantial knowledge of Maritain's work can be understood merely as one among many French connections, rather than as the continuation of a long and sophisticated intellectual engagement with the ascendant neo-Scholasticism that would dominate Catholic political and intellectual life until the nineteen-sixties. If we are willing to contemplate Eliot's career as a whole, however, we will find this to be the case. That is, we can and should understand Jacques Maritain as standing alongside his sometime fellow traveler in L'Action francaise, Charles Maurras, as prominent influences on the development of Eliot's cultural vision in the nineteen twenties; we can and should look to them and other French writers in our efforts to define the key terms of Eliot's critical vocabulary, especially as he positioned himself as a conservative man of letters and an Anglo-Catholic in the pages of The Criterion. (5)

The significance of Maritain for Eliot's work cannot be so easily circumscribed, however. The neo- Thomist made plausible for the poet-critic the moderate realist metaphysics of Scholastic philosophy with which Eliot had become familiar in the years immediately following his abandonment of his dissertation on the British Hegelian philosopher, F.H. Bradley. (6) This afforded Eliot a foundation--namely, the foundation of being--on which to set the diverse critical assertions about poetry he had been making for several years. Moreover, the connection Maritain helped Eliot to make between aesthetics and metaphysics would strengthen Eliot's already marked desire to extend his critical gaze beyond the poetical to the political and the theological. The universal language of being made such translations not merely possible but intuitive, and it is arguable that the writings of Maritain and other neo-Thomists resulted in Eliot's forgoing his early intentions of writing more systematic treatises on meta-physical poetry, poetry and religion, and even on matters of Church and State. Maritain thus played a complicated role in determining how Eliot philosophically understood his own critical pronouncements and in Eliot's decisions as to what he need not say, but merely amplify in his critical essays and editorial capacities.

The fertile exchange between Eliot and Maritain beginning in the late nineteen-twenties--during which time Eliot pseudonymously translated Maritain's "Poetry and Religion" (Criterion January 1927), and during which they also exchanged letters, books, acquaintances, and Christmas cards--was prepared long beforehand through Eliot's graduate training in philosophy and his subsequent career as a reviewer of new philosophical texts for various English periodicals) Eliot was particularly cognizant of the significance of what came to be called neo-Thomism: first, because he was exceptionally well read in, and dissatisfied with, the post-Kantian philosophers and post-Lutheran theologians neo-Thomism sought to demolish; second, because his own dissertation work grappled with what he considered intractable epistemological problems, but which Maritain and all contemporary Thomists claimed to have solved; and above all, third, because Eliot had read appreciatively the early masterworks of this philosophical movement, when it was still usually called neo-Scholastic rather than neo-Thomist. Thus Eliot was able to see Maritain as part of a venerable tradition rather than as a dogmatic eruption within the cultural and religious backwater of the Franco-Catholic academy. (8)

The shared sympathies and cross-influences of Maritain and Eliot are intimidating in their multiplicity but share a common foundation in semiotics, or rather, the ontology of language. In exploring one particular instance where material that most readers of Eliot will find familiar takes on new meaning when brought into contact with Maritain's writings, this article will set modernist theories of language in the larger historical context of neo-Thomist metaphysics. Eliot's essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent," remains one of the charter documents of Anglophone high modernism, in part because of its stunning call for a revolution in taste under the appearance of an austere conservatism, and in part--perhaps the greater part in consequence of its best known idea, the doctrine of "impersonality" in poetry, having been so variously interpreted as to have become the starting point for a plethora of divergent literary programs. As I shall illustrate, tam of that essay's more compelling pronouncements on the nature of artworks in relation to tradition are intelligible in terms of Eliot's long reflection on the idealist philosophy of EH. Bradley consummated in his dissertation, Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley. They would thus appear to derive from such reflection. However, by the time he published "Tradition," Eliot had long since become disenchanted of Bradley's idealism and was demonstrably in pursuit of philosophical supports for his thinking that could be more firmly established in an ontological sense. "Tradition and the Individual Talent"'s formulations intimate the nature of this search, suggest that it had led Eliot to medieval Scholastic sources, and so, to that extent, invite us to re-conceive its meaning in terms of realist metaphysics rather than idealist epistemology. Such a re-reading I intend to perform, first, by situating Eliot's essay within a broader modernist context; and, second, by applying the Thomistic semiotic of Jacques Maritain, which was not yet written at the time Eliot published his essay in 1919, but which, in its most mature form, would draw directly on Eliot's essay. That is to say, the conclusion of this essay will reinterpret Eliot through the semiotic of a Maritain who had already absorbed Eliot's thinking and partially rearticulated it in terms of Thomistic metaphysics. We shall see that such worrying of the minutiae of signification naturally leads us to a hermeneutic of Eliot's most famous poem, The Waste Land.

To begin with context. In one of the passing observations that speckle A Singular Modernity, Fredric Jameson notes as a central attribute of modernist poetic discourse, from Mallarme onward, the "alternating celebration of 'poetic' or non-Euclidean language as either pure ideality or pure materiality" (148). We would not have far to look in the period to find advocates of a new, transcendental language of metaphor, an "Ur-speech" touching reality only ironically, like that M.A.R. Habib finds in the work of Jules Laforgue and T.S. Eliot (59). Alternately, the well known reflections Eliot offers on the effects the typewriter has on his prose, or, more remarkable, the experiments in typography that wink at the reader throughout William Carlos Williams' Spring and All (1923) suggest the modernist possession with language as text, as pure material. Both, for Jameson as for Mallarme, are strategies of transforming or trumping the debased language of newspapers and advertisements. They are also strategies for transcending the literal efficiency of modern scientific discourse by elevating the poetic word beyond all servile application.

Jameson is correct to frame modernist theories of language in terms of this dualistic current. And the invention of modern linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure and its later development into Jacques Derrida's grammatology ensures that the perceived instability of language as problematically material or ideal remains a matter of at least as great importance to critics in the present as it was for the poets and "typists" of high modernism. These were not the only alternatives for such figures, however: a fact that Jameson's interest in narrating theories of modernity does not immediately require him to address. As scholars of Eliot's work have noted for decades, neo-Thomist thought, particularly as developed in the writings of Maritain, exercised a considerable influence on writers in the modernist period, not least of all on Eliot himself. What this philosophic school offered was an alternative to alternatives: a refusal of either a positivist materialism that had, it seemed, all but enslaved western intellectual life to a vocabulary of experiment and progress, or to a defensive idealism, of which EH. Bradley was one of the last philosophical representatives but which would win new life in the surrealists of France and the romanticism of English critic John Middleton Murray. Regarding language in particular, Maritain forwarded an ontological account that challenged the tendency to consign it either to mere, but certain, materiality or to the increasingly mystified realm of non-literal transcendent language and writing, where the sign (the word) becomes absolute and incommunicable (the Word). Reading modernism's implicit semiotics in the context of Maritain's own writings on signs and symbols reveals that the dualism Jameson offers does not actually describe alternatives between which certain modernists vacillated, but two partial visions of a frequently unified modernist tendency. Modernist writing, particularly as exemplified by Eliot, manifests a realist metaphysics of the sign. The self-evidence of the material aspects of language call for our attention even as they direct us beyond themselves to that reality which conventional scientific, political, or "prose" discourses cannot access.

The inevitable starting point for all discussion of Eliot and the nature of language is his dissertation on Bradley, which argues that "everything can be experienced" (18) and everything is from some point-of-view real, because we have no access to a reference point outside the world of undifferentiated experience to which we may appeal for an absolute or metaphysical judgment. Knowledge is in experience rather than outside of it, and therefore the crude distinctions materialists make between reality and ideality, base and superstructure, are not distinctions between truths and fictions, or facts and superstitions. They are merely terms of description for different realities that are real only from certain points-of-view. Eliot does not intend, however, experience to mean personal experience, mine or yours, but undifferentiated experience out of which, through the process of abstraction that constitutes knowledge, our various selves emerge as subjects and half-subjects among objects. There is no self prior to this process of abstraction, only non-conceptual, undifferentiated, and immediate experience, and so Eliot's early refutation of materialism, linguistic or otherwise, attempts also to counter the solipsistic tendencies of much Idealist philosophy to subordinate reality to idea and will, as well as the Romantic tendency to subsume reality within the spiritual currents of the poet's self.

Eliot's interpretation of experience helps establish that present experience and memory, art and language, hallucination and epiphany, are all real in some, but not necessarily the same, way. As Jane Mallinson puts it, for "Eliot, as for Bradley, anything that can be denoted must have some type of existence and this means that it must have some degree of reality" (15). And as a logical extension of this, Eliot writes that it "is not true that language is simply a development of ideas; it is a development of reality as well" (KE 44). What he intends by this is not far to find. Eliot holds with Bradley's foundational assertion that the dialectical movement between the real and ideal aspects of an object is so rapid and continuous that dividing one from the other is impossible. But he departs from Bradley by insisting that the intricacies of language have their own reality and so enrich reality generally. Near the end of the dissertation he waxes bold by identifying language with cognition, or rather, with the conscious creation of a world that we can know out of unknown immediate experience:
   It is essential to the doctrine which
   I have sketched that the symbol or
   sign be not arbitrarily amputated from
   the object which it symbolizes, as for
   practical purposes, it is isolated ... No
   symbol, I maintain, is ever a mere symbol,
   but is continuous with that which it
   symbolizes. Without words, no objects.
   The object, purely experienced and
   not denominated, is not yet an object,
   because it is only a bundle of particular
   perceptions. (132)

It would take us too far afield to consider this passage in relation to Arthur Symons or the French symbolist poets (or, for that matter, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and W.B. Yeats). Nonetheless, we might fairly conclude that Eliot's effort here is to provide a philosophical justification for symbolism in their modern sense, where word and meaning, sign and signification cannot be distinguished in reality, though they may be cognitively. In symbols, the sign floods, and is flooded by, the real, until the symbol becomes reality. For the moment, let us simply note how central language is to Eliot's epistemology. The naming of objects is effectively the very instantiation of them. Words are the condition of possibility for worlds; and on this basis symbols, in the Mallarme-influenced concept of an Ur-language, become a kind of absolute case where we see that worlds are inscribed in language, not vice versa.

Eliot makes a concerted effort to explain how, within this realm, language can build up, and so in some respect constitute, reality. He insists, first of all, on distinguishing between the concept and the idea, which is intended as a correction of Bradley (40). To hazard an overly simple sketch, Eliot attempts to show that concepts are extramental and can be understood as various attributes that are pointed at by ideas. This means that concepts describe any number of ideas existent in the mind (or in minds). The concept of "greenness" is independent of, but pointed at by, ideas of frogs, grass, emeralds, and envy. Paradoxically, concepts are the elements of reality that combine to constitute the appearance of ideas. Words are signs of concepts, and so they are the extramental (non-subjective) lines of connection that make intelligible the terrain of all ideas together. I mean this figuratively, of course, but it seems that Eliot does intend them to be like the lines on a map that give definition to the topography of ideas. Words, thus, are not primarily building the world in the sense of putting something there that was previously absent. Rather, Eliot avers in terms that justify cartographic imagery, that "the development of language is the history of our exploration of the world of concepts" (46).

Indeed, even a single concept is never known, for it may always be more fully developed and explored (47). No single word signifies a concept exhaustively, because concepts are always a kind of extramental excess whose frontier words may push back but never eliminate as lexicons expand and individual terms grow polysemantic. Anticipating the point of departure for Continental phenomenology, this inexhaustible world, for Eliot, may be the only world we can know, but he does not dare claim his account as one of any putative metaphysical reality. In the world of experience, infinite, contradictory points-of-view of infinite often irreconcilably constituted objects are all the reality we may claim. As such, it is the total, often contradictory, structure of these views and objects that make the world. In true isolation, we cannot understand them, only as a whole. Such was his position in his academic philosophy. But on the strength of this idealist semiotic, Eliot felt justified to assert in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," an essay written four years later, that "[n]o poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone"; quite to the contrary, "[h]is significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists" (49).

Here, individual words are, as it were, expanded to comprise entire bodies of work, while the world per se becomes the historical complex of literary tradition. '{Appreciation" ceases to be located in the individual's subjectivity, which Eliot had greatly qualified anyway, taking its place within a less ephemeral, trans-historical concept of Bradleian experience. The individual author is an abstraction from a larger, undifferentiated totality. This expansion from words to works becomes clearer in the pages to follow, where he claims, "what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it" (50). Eliot here translates to a literary-critical vision the few ideas of Bradley's he retained beyond the writing of the dissertation. Tradition is not subjective, but is abstracted, like subjectivity, from undifferentiated experience. Like words as signs, words as part of a tradition increase, or, really, explore the dimensions of the world. And only as objects within the totality do they take on their true meaning. One final analogy that must be drawn between this passage and Eliot's dissertation is that the changes in tradition are akin to the successions of adjacent but continuous points-of-view which increase in number and are synthesized to result in both a self as well as the shared world of different selves.

This leads us to the larger question of measuring Eliot's achievement in securing the reality, or importance, of art in an ever more positivist civilization; we can answer it by interpreting these passages in two distract ways. Once again, in the context of Bradley's philosophy, Eliot is merely claiming that, since all knowledge consists of an abstraction from undifferentiated experience, past and present necessarily form a simultaneous whole that can be understood from various points-of-view at once. This composition of different points-of-view is always subject to novelty, and the addition of new points-of-view effectively forces previous ones into a new form of existence. Because Eliot is not concerned with what he calls "metaphysical reality," he can safely argue that experiential reality is changed, increased, even built up, by the different words, works, and objects we encounter. It is the description of experience he accounts for here, not some posited and unexplored reality to which we have no access. (9) However, it is clear from his rejection of rank materialism and especially his careful avoidance of radical subjectivism that more is at stake in his essay than the modulations of what Bradley called "finite-centers" of experience. He seems rather to be deploying the framework of Bradleian idealism in hopes of establishing a relative, or pragmatic, absolute that he sees cannot be justified within that framework. Because of passages like this one, which gesture toward metaphysical positions that cannot be satisfactorily explained by Bradleian idealism, Habib goes so far as to say that Eliot uses romantic terms to justify a classical Aristotelian understanding of experience (58-9). In other words, Eliot, evidently discontent with mere assertion about the nature of consciousness or subjectivity, looks not just to the non-subjective, but relative, reality of experience. The absolute terms of "Tradition," literally disconnected from the earlier dissertation work, hint at the direction Eliot's career as a critic would take as he moved toward Anglo-Catholic Christianity and, by sympathy if not full conviction, toward the medieval realism of Maritain's neo-Thomist philosophy. Eliot's "The Function of Criticism" would also gesture toward this movement without fully resolving it. He argues that, according to the as yet undefined principle of classicism he advocates, "there is something outside of the artist to which he owes allegiance, a devotion to which he must surrender and sacrifice himself in order to earn and to obtain his unique position (SE 13). And further, in language that speaks of Eliot's persistence in the habits of modern idealism and positivism even as he leans toward a "classicism" that embraces the moderate metaphysical realism of Thomist theology, Eliot explains,

If, then, a man's interest is political, he must, I presume, profess an allegiance to principles, or to a form of government, or to a monarch; and if he is interested in religion, and has one, to a Church; and if he happens to be interested in literature, he must acknowledge, it seems to me, just that sort of allegiance which I endeavoured to put forth in the preceding section. (SE 15)

In such a sentence, reality may still sound like a selective composition of the will, a matter of experience rather than metaphysical proofs, but it defends the concepts and experience of one who seeks a reality Bradley's idealism makes no effort to provide. Eliot defers to the psychologists and, by implication, modern idealists, because he has no firm argument to make against them; but, like Baudelaire before him, he does have a "tendency," an intuitive inclination, that sets him in defiance of their conventions. (10)

Maritain, as a realist, would have rejected Eliot's account of experience in the dissertation, but that does not mean he would have abandoned entirely the structure of knowledge and experience, subject and object, Eliot proposes. His philosophy, in several instances, simply appropriates the formulas of modern philosophers, from Kant to Bergson, and equips them with the essential toolbox of medieval metaphysics--the science of being--in order to cement their viability for a readership anxious for a variety of reasons to steady its collective gaze upon the Real. (11) Subjective "interests," as Eliot discusses them in "Function" must give way to ineluctable realities, inclinations to scholastics. According to Maritain, as with all neo-Thomists, our minds are ordered to being, and being is therefore the foundational term with which we understand and describe reality. (12) Any philosophy that fails to consider the thing itself qua thing, that is, as an independently existing substance, attending only to the object, as did Eliot, fails outright. Maritain, like Eliot, wished to defend the reality of ideas and especially the significant reality of language from its modern detractors, and so in his copious writings on metaphysics, epistemology, and semiotics, Maritain takes the one intellectual step the young Eliot could not and the one step necessary in the Thomist system. First, Maritain restores the thing to the object. No philosophy can attend to appearances alone, but must, if it is to be knowledge, come to know things as they are not merely objects as they appear. Second, and most importantly for us, he recuperates the traditional semiotics of Aristotle, Aquinas, and especially John of St. Thomas in order to establish an ontological understanding of the sign.

The effort Maritain makes to this end appeared initially in Reflexions sur l'intelligence et sur sa vie proper (1924), which Eliot praised in The Criterion as exemplary of the modern "classical" tendency, and was developed with far greater argumentative force in his Degrees of Knowledge (1932). (13) In both texts, he distinguishes between natural, that is, entitative, and intentional being. Natural being is anything that exists for itself in its own nature, whereas intentional being describes those existents whose proper act is not to exist for themselves, but in another without modifying that other's nature (DK 121). For example, one intentional being of a table would be my concept of a table, and this concept is identical with the table itself save that it is under another mode of existence (DK 135). One is no less real than the other; it is simply, literally real in a different way. In sum, Maritain claims that concepts and things themselves are both virtually identical and that both have a kind of being, but one is subsistent or natural and the other is mentally dependent or intentional. And he further insists that concepts are signs of things. This dual relation does not reduce to a merely contingent act of mediation, as it does in modern linguistics. Rather, Maritain first establishes as exemplary two kinds of signs that necessitate the immediate contact of signs (words, for instance) with things themselves. The first is the formal sign "whose whole essence is to signify" (DK 127). The only such sign we encounter is that of the concept, or "mental word" (DK 126), because it, except under the conditions of reflection that allow us to call it anything at all, does not manifest itself, but solely manifests something else to the intellect. Formal signs are presentative, and so that which the), signify is present under an intentional mode of existence within the mind of the knower. Ever), other sign we encounter must be understood not as formal, but instrumental. We hear a baby's cry as an object temporally if not conceptually prior to registering it as a sign of hunger. We see smoke in the sky prior to recognizing it as an instrumental sign of fire (DK 127). A written word is an instrumental sign. It has its own natural existence, but as a sign it brings forth intentionally another being. That being is a concept, which cannot be known in itself, but rather brings forth unmediated a thing. Many instrumental signs, Maritain acknowledges, are conventional; written words are evidently conventions of the cultures that invent their characters. But with John of Saint Thomas, he resists that this conventional quality does not lessen their ontological connection with the thing signified. He contends rather that the foundation of all the various species of signs is what is called the na/ura/sign. As Edward James Furton elaborates in his comparative study of John of St. Thomas, Saussure's linguistics, and grammatology, a natural sign is that in which the thing signified is immediately present to the sign:

In his commentary on Aristotle's De Interpretatione, St. Thomas notes that three things are at issue when investigating language: written characters (scriptura), vocal sounds (vox) and passions of the soul (passiones animae). Only the last is purely natural, for only the last involves a direct interrelationship between the things (measure) and the soul (the measured). Passions of the soul are said to exist naturally because "they are the same among all men." Indeed, all sentient beings are affected in a similar way by the things of experience. Brutes (nonrational animals) make use of the voice to exhibit feelings that are naturally present within their souls and so to express the immediate passions of the moment. Man (the rational animal) has, in addition, the capacity to abstract from the here and now and to consider things "not only present according to place and time, but also distant in place and future in time." (At Medieval Semiotic 36)

For Aristotle and his descendents, there is an aboriginal species of natural sign in which the virtual identity of sign and thing patently inheres, and further it is the form par excellence upon which all other signs are natural developments (rather than mere analogies). A baby's cry of hunger does not mediate that hunger but furthers its manifestation, so too does smoke as a natural sign of fire. These natural signs are the type on which all others are modeled and serve as the ontological basis for intentional being's virtual identity with natural or entitative being.

Maritain has therefore theorized that all ideas and concepts are a kind of being; they are no less real for being dependent on another, natural being. Natural signs make this most evident. Beyond this, he has, through the distinction of formal and instrumental signs, vouchsafed the sign in its signifying act as not simply a relation in a subject's intellect between instrumental sign and concept, but as itself consubstantial with being (DK219). To signify is to substitute not merely for a another sign, a formal sign, but to make present a being under another mode. A decade later, in Ransoming the Time (1941), he clarified this doctrine by claiming that "I see Socrates when I see his statue, my eye sees him in it" (220). A sign may exist independently of what it signifies as a thing, but as a sign it always brings into presence the intentional being with which it has effectively been charged or invested. If intentional being is mentally dependent, then it cannot exist in act without an intellect making it so. But this does not preclude the existence of intentional being in a potential or formal mode, which is precisely what an instrumental sign is when not in the condition of bringing being before an intellect. That is, as John

of Saint Thomas insisted, the words in a closed book still signify, and therefore, as it were, contain intentional being, but this being is only formally present, not actively. Pressing this insight to a vivid extreme, Maritain speaks of a statue of a pagan god as having intentional content which is "asleep" only until some intellect sensitized to it can bring it back into act:
   Hence the content of significance with
   which overflowed the statues of the
   gods. The gods did not exist; but all the
   cosmic and psychic forces, the attractions,
   the passions which took shape in
   him, the idea which the artist and his
   contemporaries conceived of him--all
   that was present in the statue, not in a
   physical sense, but in alio esse, in another
   mode of existence, and after the manner
   of the presence of knowability. For the
   statue had been made precisely to make
   all that known, to communicate it. In our
   museums, this pagan content is asleep,
   but it is always there. Let some accident
   take place, an encounter with a soul itself
   sensitized by some unconscious content:
   contact is established; the pagan content
   will be awakened and will unforgettably
   wound that soul. (220)

Such a thoroughly ontological vision of real beings as signs may hardly seem credible to us, living as we are in a period where the contention that signs even contingently refer to a closed system of concepts is a "conservative" position that seems quaintly comforting in comparison with the floating signifiers of Jacques Derrida. It is in contrast from Derrida, in fact, that the radical implications of Maritain's semiotics show forth. Words and other signs are not locked within independent, internally consistent closed systems whose hermetic stasis frees them for indeterminacy. Rather, for Maritain, even the most conventional sign, whether it is the word written on the page or the figure sculpted in stone, is ontologically contiguous with natural signs like the cry of an infant or the streaming smoke of a fire. This ontological status of the sign not merely as a thing, but as a thing that presents other things intentionally, leads to a vision of the world where all things become signs. That is, all things can be seen as saturated with intentional being, and therefore, with meaning. The meaning of things are not ideas projected upon objects, but intentional beings abstracted from the entitative beings in which they dwell. The familiar modern philosophies of language, from John Locke to Saussure, float inevitably toward the post-modern grammatology of Derrida precisely because they lack the ontological ballast Maritain sought to recover.

We could elaborate Maritain's claims further, but we have enough now to reconsider Eliot's "Tradition" essay in Thomist rather than idealist terms. In response to materialist tendencies to view reality in terms of quantifiable things, Eliot had claimed that no poet "has his complete meaning alone" but only in "his relation to the dead poets" (49). This appears less than fanciful given Maritain's ontology of the sign. The meaning of a word, much less an entire work, exists as a series, or even a complex, of ontic relations, where a sign brings us always into the presence of intentional beings. A word never merely signifies a concept, but through it the thing itself. And because instrumental signs have their own natural existence, within them intentional relations and the meanings they suggest can accumulate and adhere. That is, while some relations are merely of the reason, significant relations are ontic. The statue of Socrates is Socrates, but it also becomes the network of intentional beings that the statue and Socrates each connote. Maritain claims an entire culture can subsist intentionally within a single sign historically separated from that culture. Eliot's phrasing inverts this expression without losing its concept: the tradition or total corpus of artworks so inheres to the individual work, that the one must be seen always in relation to the complete order, if one is to educe its full meaning.

In still more challenging a notion, Eliot writes, "when a new work of art is created .... The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves" (50). While it is possible Eliot, under Bradley's influence, meant "ideal order" quite literally, and therefore intended to speak of experiential objectivity rather than metaphysical reality, the passage lends itself to a reading within Maritain's theory of the sign. (14) Again, signification exists intentionally in signs, and when a new work is created, the intentional being in those works which already exists is thereby altered, because the works take into their being a relation that even the destruction of those new works as existent natural beings could not itself destroy. Their words signify not necessarily in a different, but in a superadded way or ways. And this new signification is not subjective, but again, part of the very being of the works. (15) Though only an intellect can bring such intentional being into act, it exists there in potentia. As such, we might say that Maritain's ontology of the sign intentionally adds to the intentional being, or significance, of Eliot's essay, and that the purpose of my argument thus far has been to awaken that meaning into act.

As a way of bringing these meditations to a close by means of an example, let us turn briefly to one other well known document in the Eliot canon: specifically, to the notes Eliot himself appended to The Waste Land, shortly after its initial publication in 1922. It is a commonplace of Eliot criticism to note that the key passages from "Tradition and the Individual Talent'" that I have cited were intended to prepare the poem's imminent readership for the intertextual difficulties the poem itself displays. As detractors and admirers of the poem alike have observed, The Waste Land's four hundred thirty-four lines contain roughly one hundred that are either entirely or in part free quotations from other texts. Many of these quotations and allusions Eliot identifies or partly explains in the fifty annotations that follow the poem. In light of "Tradition," one almost inevitably concludes that Eliot's procedure has been such as to have the notes demonstrate that no poem has its meaning alone. The Waste Land depends for its full significance on the ideal order of works that preceded its publication and to which its lines allude. The notes clearly facilitate the appreciation of this full significance for the typical reader who will be otherwise unaware, for example, that the opening lines of the poem's second part, "A Game of Chess," are a brilliantly sordid parody of Enobarbus's soliloquy in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (Complete Poems and Plays 39-40, 51).

The notes, in this intended function, are purely heuristic. That is, they aid the reader to see the poem within the total order of what Eliot calls the "Tradition." A materialist or empiricist semiotics would object, however, that the notes do not reveal an intertextuality present in the poem, but of themselves bring such relations into highly contingent existence. Eliot's essay and Maritain's semiotics mount their offensive particularly against such a conclusion. The notes are merely heuristic, they would argue, because they facilitate the discovery of intentional beings, of meanings, that were already present within the lines of the poem. Shakespeare's Enobarbus is part of the being of Eliot's poem. One senses the order of "Tradition" giving the poem its meaning not as something external imposing upon what is internal, but as something external made virtually present within. The limit-case of this literary semiotic occurs, for example, in those late lines of the poem that begin with the speaker asking, "Who is the third who walks always beside you?" (Complete Poems and Plays 48).

Eliot evidently had little confidence that the highly associative and subjective "stimulus" for lines of this sort would impart itself to the reader, and so provides a relatively lengthy set of notes informing us that this passage derives, first, from an account of some forgotten Antarctic expedition (Complete Poems and Plays 54), and, second, from the "journey to Emmaus" recorded in Luke 24. To what extent does this genesis intentionally inhere in the poem? The easy answer would be to say, not at all. But the reply that Eliot's essays encourage, and that which Maritain's semiotic defends, is that it is necessarily present in the poem. The typical reader simply has not the eyes to discern such meaning, awakening it from its sleep between the lines. But the reader with eyes to discern intentional beings within the entitative beings that constitute Eliot's poem will see the text and through the text to a microcosm rich in meaning. What has often been read as high modernist elitism in Eliot's notes may be that, but it is not merely that. Behind the appearance of snobbery we find the main hermeneutic challenge of modernist writing more generally: to exercise the limits of language between its material and idea-signifying foundations to determine how far the work of art may go in manifesting within its form all that can be described as "the real." If Eliot is the chief practitioner of these limits, Maritain recommends himself as its most enthusiastic philosopher.

Works Cited

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Contra Gentiles Vol. II. Trans. James F. Anderson. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1956.

--. Summa Theologica. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Benzinger Brothers, 1948.

Auden, W.H. The Complete Works. Prose Volume 1: 1926-1938. Ed. Edward Mendelson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Eliot, T.S. The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1980.

--. FIB TSE/P2 "Three Essays on Kant." King's College Archive Centre, Cambridge, The Papers of the Hayward Bequest of T.S. Eliot Material.

--. Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley. London: Faber and Faber, 1964. Cited as KE.

--. Letter to Jacques Maritain. 24 July 1938. Maritain Kolbsheim Archives.

--. The Sacred Wood. London: Methuen & Co., 1953.

--. Selected Essays 1917-1932. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1932. Abbreviated as SE.

--. Review of "A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy." International Journal of Ethics, 28.1 (Oct., 1917): 137-140. (unsigned). Review of "Three Reformers." Times Literary Supplement, November 8, 1928: 818.

--. The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry. Ed. Ronald Schuchard. San Diego: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1996.

Freed, Lewis. T.S. Eliot: Aesthetics and History. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1962.

Furton, Edward James. A Medieval Semiotic. New York: Peter Lang Publishers, 1995.

Kirk, Russell. Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot's Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2008.

Kojecky, Roger. T.S. Eliot's Social Criticism. London: Faber and Faber, 1971.

McCool, Gerald. From Unity to Pluralism: The Internal Evolution of Thomism. New York: Fordham University Press, 1989.

Margolis, John D. T.S. Eliot's Intellectual Development 1922-1939. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1972.

Maritain, Jacques. The Degrees of Knowledge. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995. Cited as DK.

--. Reflexions sur l'intelligence et sur sa vie propre. Paris Nouvelle librairie nationale, 1924.

Marx, William. "Two Modernisms: T.S. Eliot and La Nouvelle Revue Francaise." The International Reception of T.S. Eliot. Eds. Shyamal Bagchee and Elizabeth Daumer. London: Continuum, 2007. 25-35.

Schloesser, Stephen. Jazz Age Catholicism: Mystic Modernism in Postwar Paris, 1919-1933. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005.

Stevens, Michael R. T. S. Eliot's neo-Medievalism and the "Criterion" years. Unpublished Dissertation. University of Dallas, 1999.

Takayanagi, Shun'ichi, S.J. "T.S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, and NeoThomism." The Modern Schoolman 73.1 (November 1995): 71-90.

Tomlin, E.W.F. T.S. Eliot: A Friendship. London: Routledge, 1988.

Torrens, James S.J. "Charles Maurras and Eliot's 'New Life."' PMLA 89.2 (March 1974): 312-322.




(1.) Auden's mention of Eliot's "still unspoken word" serves as a winking reference to the latter's Anglo-Catholicism, commemorated in "Ash-Wednesday" (1930), whose fifth part observes, "Still is the unspoken word" (Complete Poems and Plays 65). As such, Auden's lines regarding Eliot bracket in reverse-chronological order the two decisive poems of his career up to that point: from the anxious quest for religious meaning in modernity depicted in "The Waste Land," to the chronicle of detachment, repentance, and conversion in "Ash-Wednesday."

(2.) E.W.F. Tomlin confirms this intuition of Auden's in his memoir of Eliot. He and Eliot
   began talking in a general way about modern theologians.
   All of us young people, even unbelievers,
   had been taking an interest in Thomism. This was
   largely as a result of Eliot's own initiative; and
   what we knew of it was derived from the works of
   Jacques Maritain, which were largely the source,
   I suspect, of Eliot's own knowledge. (94)

Tomlin's recollections are particularly salient in this regard. Eliot furnished him with a letter of introduction to Maritain in July 1938, wherein he referred to the young cultural philosopher and future diplomat as a "cadet of the Criterion" (Kolbsheim), suggesting at once Tomlin's typicality as a member of the Criterion circle of young writers who surrounded Eliot during the 'thirties and the importance of Maritain, to whom Tomlin made a sort of pilgrimage. However, Tomlin has too modest an opinion of Eliot's familiarity with Thomism, which was extensive. Nevertheless, Eliot presumed most contemporary readers would know the work of Aquinas, if at all, through Maritain's books. In his review of Maritain's Three Reformers, Eliot observes "The influence of neo-Thomism has reached many persons who have probably never read a word of St. Thomas. Of this influence in the wider sense M. Maritain is the leading propagator and he occupies a dignified and distinguished position" (818).

(3.) See Torrens for an early account of Eliot's debt to Maurras, and Habib for a wide ranging account of Eliot's deployment of the ideas of various philosophers, including Bergson.

(4.) Shun'ichi Takayanagi's "T.S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, and NeoThomism" is an invaluable primer in the direct references and allusions Eliot makes to Maritain and Scholasticism in his writings, setting them in their proper chronology. The article makes little effort to evaluate the significance of these intersections, however. According to Takayanagi, the following works of Eliot criticism to give at least "cursory" attention to Maritain's influence on the poet: Russell Kirk's Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot} Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (1971); Roger Kojecky, T.S. Eliot's Social Criticism (1971); John D. Margolis's T.S. Eliot's Intellectual Development 1922-1939; and Lewis Freed's T.S. Eliot: Aesthetics and History (1962).

(5.) William Marx's "Two Modernisms: T.S. Eliot and La Nouvelle Revue Francaise" defines the discontinuity between Eliot's declaration of 1928 that he is "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion" and the French context from which he derives those three key words. See also Michael R. Stevens' unpublished dissertation, T. S. Eliot's neo-Medievalism and the "Criterion" years, which describes the "winnowing" process by which Eliot assimilated disparate intellectual influences, attending particularly to French figures like Maritain and Maurras.

(6.) Tomlin also recalls the need Maritain's writings met as well as Eliot's later reservations about the Thomist's work. Eliot was particularly interested in
   theological works, such as those of Jacques
   Maritain. He spoke about the need for an 'exact'
   theology, and Maritain, with his handbooks on
   logic, gave the impression of exactitude which
   most English theologians, brought up in the
   Hegelian tradition, failed to do. At the same time,
   although he much liked Maritain as a person (as
   who could not?), he felt that the French post-Bergsonian
   intellectual approach, even if called
   'Neo-scholastique', differed markedly from that
   of St Thomas himself: it was the difference
   between a hovering darting kestrel and a 'dumb
   ox' pawing at the ground. (73)

Eliot was in fact in a rare position for an Englishman to judge Maritain's conformity to the Thomist "intellectual approach." Contrary to Tomlin's assertion that Eliot knew little of Thomism (T.S. Eliot 94), Eliot had reviewed early neo-Scholastic textbooks and histories in various journals, and claimed to know directly the modern editions of the Summa Theologica and the diverse publications of the English neo-Scholastic Stoneyhurst Philosophical Series.

(7.) The Jacques and Rais sa Maritain papers held at Kolbsheim include five letters and two Christmas cards from Eliot. That cannot however be the totality of their correspondence since all these archived items date from at least eight months after Eliot's translation of "Poetry and Religion" appeared. This article would later be titled to correspond closer to the French as "The Frontiers of Poetry" in its official English translations.

(8.) In the review of Three Reformers, Eliot emphasizes the importance of Maritain for making neo-Thomism an intellectual force beyond Catholic circles, as does he in his first published remarks on neo-Scholastic philosophy, a notice of Cardinal Mercier et al.'s A Manual of Modern Scholastic Philosophy, where he admonishes, "No student of contemporary philosophy can afford to neglect the neo-scholastic movement since 1879" (137).

(9.) One of Eliot's graduate student essays on Kant (1913) interprets the German idealist in support of refusing all questions that would make reference to "metaphysical reality" or the "noumenal" rather than to the realm of experience or the phenomenal. Comparing Kant favorably with the agnostic skepticism of modern positivists like Herbert Spencer, Eliot writes,

In opposition to realism, Kant maintains that we have no knowledge of an external world, because the world so far as known is no longer external; in opposition to idealism that any conception of a total would be illegitimate. His position, however, is equally hostile to agnosticism and skepticism. The sceptic questions the validity of any particular knowledge, but he does not impugn the concept of knowledge. While the work of Kant goes to prove that there is no such thing as knowledge at all, in this sense. The agnostic, like the skeptic, clings to the illusions of knowledge. And the procede by which Spencer comes to the conclusion that the unknowable is unknowable, is, in spite of obvious resemblances, very different from those of Kant and very much less profound. For it is one thing to demonstrate that a problem is insoluable and a very different thing to demonstrate that it is one which we have no right to raise. (FIB TSE/P2 "Three Essays on Kant")

The last sentence suggests both the force and weakness of Eliot's thinking as it developed in the dissertation on Bradley. On the one hand, he can make a compelling case for why our language is strictly within experience and does not stand in reference to metaphysical reality, of which we can know and say nothing, and thus of which we have no "right" to raise questions. That we do still raise such questions is obviously underscored by this language of "rights," which always serves to insist that what appears a moral necessity is, in truth, a factual one. The refusal to inquire into the ontological or the real may be a moral consequence of Kant's philosophy, but it is clear that his philosophy cannot render questions on such matters unintelligible or insignificant to us in reality. Thus, in this single sentence the entire problem of reality and ideality presents itself and Eliot's language suggests that only a moderate metaphysical realism unconcerned about what we should investigate but only with what we do know can resolve the contradictions threading through Kant and Eliot alike.

(10.) The word "tendency" comes from Eliot's essay on Baudelaire, where he could well have been accounting for himself in describing Baudelaire's classicism:

It must not be forgotten that a poet in a romantic age cannot be a 'classical' poet except in tendency. If he is sincere, he must express with individual differences the general state of mind--not as a duff, but simply because he cannot help participating in it. (SE 340)

One way of describing the importance of neo-Thomism for Eliot's work is that it provided systematically and discursively what he sensed only intuitively and by inclination.

(11.) Stephen Schloesser writes, in his history of Catholicism in avant-garde circles during the 1920s, that the "Dialectical Realism" of the 1920s differs from the realism of nineteenth-century positivism:
   All these realisms attempted to combine, in a
   dialectical synthesis, both the positivist's observed
   world as well as something else unseen. These
   dialectical realisms promised the postwar epoch
   new possibilities: that the logical and linear world
   of our waking state is not the deepest truth of
   our lives (surrealism); that there are forces for
   change that escape both our observation and
   control (magic realism); that societal progress
   towards utopian equality is a real possibility (socialist
   realism). Avant-garde realisms - synthetic
   unions of both a nineteenth-century modernist's
   embrace of reality as well as an anti-modernist
   yearning for something beyond - we ambivalent
   reactions to an imagined 'generation of 1885'
   whose liberal rationalism was held responsible
   for the war. (7-8)

(12.) The distinction among the different varieties of neo-Thomism that sprang up during the Twentieth Century all assume that the mind is ordered to being, and yet it is precisely in disputing what such a claim means that neo-Thomism split into existential, "dogmatic realist," and transcendental schools, as Gerald McCool recounts in From Unity to Pluralism: The Internal Evolution of Thomism. For the primacy of being for the human intellect, see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, 5, 1.

(13.) Eliot's reference to Maritain's Reflexions appears in a list in the January 1926 number of The Criterion. Cf. Kirk, Eliot and His Age 105.

(14.) It is probable, however, that Eliot was already thinking in Scholastic terms when he wrote "Tradition." In passing, he proposes that his position attacks the "metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul" (SE 9). The debate relating to the soul's substantial unity was one carried on in the medieval period between Thomas Aquinas and other scholastics contending with the fragments of Platonism and, above all, with the commentaries of Averroes on Aristotle. In his reading of Aristotle on the intellect, Averroes insisted that the species man had only one intellect--the possible intellect--in which all individual men shared. The individual has only a "passive intellect," which unites the individual's sense data (represented in the "phantasm" of the imagination) with the ideas present in the "universal" possible intellect. Aquinas refutes this position thoroughly in Summa Contra Gentiles II, 59-61, where he argues that each human individual's soul is a possible intellect that is also the form of the individuating material body. Eliot, as the former student of Bradley, rightly saw Averroes as offering a metaphysical realism that would make possible an "ideal order" among works of art; in this case the "ideal order" would mean an order at the level of the possible intellect in which all human beings "participate" in order to think. The account of "Tradition" I offer, based on Maritain's semiotics, follows closely the Thomist position that stands against and corrects Averroes. Thus, what may appear a radical philosophical leap--from Braleyian idealism to Thomist realism--Eliot gives us grounds for thinking amounts merely to a shift from the position of a medieval Islamic commentator on Aristotle to the medieval Christian one par excellence (I owe this observation to William C. Charron).

(15.) Maritain's semiotics applies to the signification of artificial things what Aquinas argued inhered in created, natural things on account of their divine author in Summa Theologica I, 1, 10.
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Author:Wilson, James Matthew
Publication:Yeats Eliot Review
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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