Temporal, mnemonic, and aesthetic "eruptions": recontextualizing Eliot and the modern literary artwork.
Although revolutions in art and art theory do indeed occur on a "mythical" level--they are inevitably naturalized, they posit truth in a version of history, they manifest what is "new" in the landscape of what is "known"--they tend to be formed, as most explanations are, in retrospect. In T.S. Eliot's critical essays and in his poem, "Gerontion," he problematizes any such retrospective explanation, grappling with the subjective experience of time, the relationship of the artist to the past, and the creation of the "new" in the realm of what is already known. In this examination, "Gerontion" will serve as a basis of exploration for the mediation of memory (individual and cultural) in our conceptions of the past and future, as well as in the creation of literary artworks. These concerns are also foregrounded by Eliot in his critical works, where he seems to postulate an "ideal order" of art whose very existence must depend upon an act of valuation. (1) Of course, the evaluating force in this "ideal order" is never fully conceptualized, and the reader is left to ponder how new works of art are to be integrated into Eliot's standing notion of "tradition." It thus becomes important to consider how Eliot's notions of memory and time are made manifest in his poetry and criticism, how they disrupt those of the past, and how any act of evaluation concerning a work of art involves an act of recontextualization.
In order to examine these facets of his work, we must engage with current conceptions of the fallibility of memory and of the fictionalizing tendencies of recollection and of historicization. Very familiar now is the notion of the modernist preoccupation with the "new," even though artists like Eliot also struggled to maintain an ordered relationship to the past. (2) In particular, Eliot problematizes our relation to literary works of the past in a new way, creating poetry that, despite his constant use of juxtaposition and reference, still fosters a space of interpretation for the reader where multiple engagements are possible. As recent studies of Eliot suggest, his person and his poetry continue to remain fascinating to readers. (3) After an exploration of current theories about the narrativization of memory and history and the production of the new, this recontextualization of his poetry will show how even the most traditional modernist works deliberately allow for endless framings of meaning over time. In so doing, I reveal an are between modernist ambiguity and postmodernist indeterminacy, showing how Eliot's traditionalist work has, after close examination by the New Critics and then the postmodernists, inadvertently fostered discussion along both lines--a discussion that is only possible because of the liminal spaces retained in his poetics that point to an engagement with the new, the unknown, and ironically, the past.
While this task makes use of such typically postmodern concepts as "openness" and "indeterminacy," it is by no means meant to represent the only way to explore Eliot's work. Rather, we can embark upon a recontextualization of Eliot's poetry and attempt to make a case for how such works allow different framings of meaning over time. Much of the early criticism of his poetry focused on its linguistic opacity, its pervasive allusiveness, and its refusal to guide the reader to any sort of conclusive meaning. More than that, however, Eliot's poetry provided a discomfiting picture of society gone wrong, of the possibility of chaos surrounding those very elements that once provided a stable background for artistic creation--memory, history, and the conception of a longstanding artistic tradition. In the decades after his poetry was initially published, the critics tended to efface this chaotic element of his work by looking for linguistic patterns and allusions, and attempting to diffuse the multiplicity of meanings to be found in his poetry. This attempt to reduce and unify was certainly paramount for the New Critics, for as Craig Cairns has noted, these literary theorists taught students about "'traditions' which are the appropriate context of aesthetic memory.... an invitation to years of pedagogy with no certainty of outcome"(123). (4) They tended to focus on the picture of artistic creation and history that they found in his critical essays, with "Tradition and the Individual Talent" being the most obvious example. Citing Eliot's willingness to postulate an ordered concept of art, many of these critics felt that his new poetic form and disruptive content could be viewed simply as momentary reactions to that tradition. However, such studies fail to account for Eliot's creation of poems that deliberately invite recontextualization and exploration, rather than poems through which an ultimate "meaning" can be traced. A "space" exists for the reader to enter and interpret the text, and no matter the number of allusions traced or concepts defined, his poetry is never closed to further exploration or alternate interpretations. Using the work of Elizabeth Grosz and Theodor Adorno to frame Eliot's poetry and criticism, we will focus on an opening up of interpretation, as well as the critical impact that a concept of the "new" can have on the standing artistic tradition (with all its evocations of history). As Eliot himself acknowledges, such impact may be brief, but it is essential and never totally effaced.
1. Recontextualizing Eliot and Eruptions of the New
Indeed, many critical examinations of modernist literary artists explore the idea of a break from the past, coupled with an explosion of the "new." Could we go so far as to evoke the sense of eruption? An eruption, according to Webster's New World Dictionary, is "a sudden outburst, as of emotion or social discontent" (494). Furthermore, to move to the root of the word, to rupture is to "tear out, tear apart, break...the act of breaking apart or bursting, or the state of being broken apart or burst; breach" (1277). Many studies of the modernist literary artists--namely Woolf, Pound, Joyce, and Eliot, among others--examine a violent break from the past. Indeed, literary critics consistently examine how these artists perceived themselves as challenging traditional conceptions of art, particularly through their choice of subject matter, their aesthetic beliefs, and their technical manipulation of language. They are said to present a new level of difficulty to the reader, stretching the boundaries of language, and in almost entirely non-homogeneous ways. One cannot simply transfer the necessary reading skills directly from Pound to Joyce, from Joyce to Eliot, or from Eliot to Woolf. And yet, these artists are made to represent an entire period of modern aesthetics, for they destabilized or transgressed against commonly held notions of art and literature) This "disruption" of aesthetic practice has resulted in decades of criticism seemingly dedicated to resolving the reader's subsequent sense of trauma. It is ludicrous, of course, to postulate a universal artistic break from tradition at this time; however, there remains the sense of a breach in aesthetic practice (at least, as manifested in literary artworks).
These changes also did not occur in a cultural vacuum. In the first decades of the twentieth century, there was a greater emphasis on the nineteenth-century problematization of subjectivity, focusing on how we remember past events, and how those events are then incorporated into a larger conception of human history and the experience of time. Richard Terdiman outlines two primary theses concerning "the century that precedes and still informs our own" (5):
... first, that one of its most powerful perceptions was of a massive disruption of traditional forms of memory, and, second, that within the atmosphere of such disruption, the functioning of memory itself, the institution of memory and thereby of history, became critical preoccupations in the effort to think through what intellectuals were coming to call the 'modern.' (5)
Here, Terdiman claims that the nineteenth century brought about powerful changes in our conceptions of memory and time, changes which were taken up explicitly in modernist artworks. Furthermore, David Rosen notes that for artists like Eliot, the poetry was complicated by "an understanding of self that seemed less and less tenable as Romanticism receded" (475) and that he "made no attempt to salvage the visionary tradition after its collapse" (484). By examining Eliot's particular approach to memory, time, and history, it is also possible to see how the modernist grappling with an uncertain sense of time and self has been reflected in current poststructuralist theory, allowing for a greater celebration of opacity and constructedness concerning the past, as well as a certain amount of acceptance regarding the randomness of future events.
Such an acceptance is recommended by contemporary critics like Elizabeth Grosz, who provides one means of examining the new in relation to the known, and whose work forms one lens for recontextualizing Eliot's theories of art. Working from the theories of Bergson as well as those of Deleuze and Guattari, Grosz states that we now exist in a time when we should privilege the future over the present and past, and also feels that we should attempt to remove our anxiety concerning "the strange vectors of becoming that a concept of the new provokes"(15). Grosz approaches her study of futurity by examining the concept of the absolutely new--that which arises and erupts in every form of life and every discipline of study, but can never be predicted. She states that
While it is clear that newness, creativity, innovation, and progress are all terms deemed social positives, the more disconcerting notion of unpredictable, disordered, or uncontainable change--the idea of chance, of indeterminacy, of unforseeability--that lurks within the very concept of change or newness, seems to unsettle scientific, philosophical, political, and cultural ideals of stability and control. (16)
In this way, the manifestation of the new becomes an event/eruption that destabilizes the trajectory of what is known, and it is such a destabilization that she celebrates in her contemplation of the future. Although she acknowledges that "Power functions to make the eruption of the event part of the fabric of the known" (16), exposure to the new cannot fail to alter and re-order that which is already known, and in this way an essential relationship is maintained between the two: "criticism, commentary, categorization, and disciplinary conformity are all modes by which the uncontained is woven into a containing framework and the new is made recognizable and tied to the known" (16). Rather than mentally resisting the "uncontainable," however, she believes that we must seek an open-ended future that acknowledges "the capacity of any future eruption, any event, any reading, to rewrite, resignify, reframe the present, to accept the role that the accidental, chance, or the undetermined plays in the unfolding of time"(18).
If such an acceptance is to be realized, the future becomes a reservoir not only of time to come but also of what cannot be known until its arrival. It becomes, in other words, a temporal conceptualization of Otherness. (6) Although re-integration occurs almost immediately, the contact and randomness of the new is able to effect change. As Grosz notes, referring to Minkowski, "it is the outsideness, the fundamental alienness, of futurity to knowledge that is part of the awe and mystery, part of the hold that the future has over us as living subjects who are inevitably propelled forward"(21). She al so outlines the relation of memory to her conception of the future:
... what duration, memory, and consciousness bring to the world is the possibility of unfolding, hesitation, uncertainty. Not everything is presented in simultaneity. This is what life (duration, memory, consciousness) brings to the world: the new, the movement of actualization of the virtual, expansiveness, opening up. (25)
This "opening up" of the mind through an integrated awareness of duration, memory, and consciousness is what enables us to conceive of the new, the Other, and to allow that critical impact, however brief, to occur. Concluding such thoughts is Grosz's statement that "This is what time is if it is anything at all: not simply mechanical repetition, the causal ripple of objects on others, but the indeterminate, the unfolding, and the continual eruption of the new" (28). In Grosz's postmodern formulation, an openness to the new is essential, and cannot be predetermined, but as we will see, modernist poets and critics such as Eliot were concerned with many of the same issues in a very different way--they wanted to preserve a certain sense of the past and of a tradition, while postmodern critics like Grosz would turn to the future and the possible trajectories to come.
I have put forth the conceptions of such essential changes in near-geologic terms--the eruption and the rupture. The extreme connotations of these words are appropriate, I think, for evoking the shock of the new modernist works, as well as the tremendous discharge of literary and cultural analysis following this period. These terms do not, and cannot, stand as denotations of what actually occurred. Indeed, we have been trained, through literary theorists like Jacques Derrida, to develop a fundamental distrust of any direct relationship between language and the world. And yet, a relationship between them remains, however heavily contested and mistrusted. We use language to function in the world, to communicate, and by implication, to remember. Today, however, we function with the knowledge that relationships change, that certainties tend to become putative, and that language, in and of itself, has developed a "difficulty" as expressed in literary artworks. George Steiner argues that we are now in a position where
We do not 'read' the poem in the traditional framework of the author's auctoritas and of an agreed sense, however gradually and gropingly arrived at. We bear witness to its precarious possibility of existence in an 'open' space of collisions, of momentary fusions between word and referent. (46)
Such an openness to possibility, to momentary acts of "fusion" is represented in Eliot's literary criticism, but is primarily enacted in his poetry. However, in the period of criticism directly following Joyce, Eliot, and Pound's work in the twenties, an overwhelming amount of energy was expended in the search for static or absolute meaning in their texts--a search that groped after comprehensive understanding and thus often effaced the "precarious possibilit[ies]"(Steiner 46) of the language-acts with which these authors were experimenting. We can now turn to Eliot's "Gerontion," focusing on his particular experiments with language in terms of memory, history, and time. (7)
2. Memory, History, Tradition, and "Gerontion" Eliot's work can now be seen as an example of temporal anxiety and concern within the larger "eruptive" context I have established. Eliot's "Gerontion," like all texts, inasmuch as it recognizes an infinite debt to the past and to a tradition, must also work to establish a relationship with the audience in spite of continually changing external contexts. In this poem, the reader is left without a sense of transparent meaning, and is taken on a journey through what are named the "Thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season" (80). This journey begins with the very title of the poem, for although it evokes vague connections to old age, and is perhaps a created name or word for the process of aging, determining any finite definition of the word is impossible? In this way, "Gerontion" is framed with a title and a final line related to the process of aging, to the "drying" up of memories, and the poem itself deals with the speaker's experience of time. This experience is made manifest through a process of selection--of thoughts and images--and through eliminating the basic logical connections between statements, rather than creating a definitive statement of "meaning." Indeed, Eliot's poetry has been said to encapsulate the movement of a culture, but he does so through a process of selection--of thoughts and images--and through eliminating the basic logical connections between statements. This conception of intentional non-communication, of opacity, is one that critics have linked to the aesthetic movement we call "modernism" since it was initially conceived. Richard Terdiman claims that such opacity is linked to a nineteenth-century "loss of a sense of time's continuous flow and of our unproblematic place within it" (5), resulting in the twentieth-century's involvement in "an effort of memory that made the very lack of transparency of the past a conscious focus of concern" (6). If we agree with Terdiman that "Memory is the modality of our relation to the past," memory becomes inescapable and problematic, for it then becomes the modality of representation in any work of art (7). In this formulation, memory forms the entire basis for our human relation to what is already known--knowledge that must be eclipsed or momentarily escaped in order to create the new work of art. It is not surprising, then, that Eliot should choose to reflect upon various aspects of individual and cultural memory in this poem.
With this act of creation, Eliot seems to be attempting a fusion of literature and history--two ways in which cultures construct meaning through mnemonic references to the past. The epigraph and opening of the poem evoke the literature of the past (at least, for anyone with knowledge of Shakespeare and Henry Adams, or with an annotated version of the poem). Neither is cited as a source, so that this re-presentation of their work eclipses the literary source and forces the lines to function within the context of this poem. In this way, Eliot problematizes our relation to past literary works in a new way, creating a situation where certain readers will gain an emotional effect solely through his use of juxtaposition and the power of the language, and others will make the temporal and contextual leap to the two works from which these words are taken. (9) Many scholars have referred to such allusions as an elitist element of Eliot's work, and this may indeed be one aspect of his creative process. If, however, this element is present, the scholarly reader is not privileged since the poem will function whether or not one is familiar with each allusion.
It functions because a relationship is formed between the text and the reader, and a space exists that allows for interpretation of the words within the reader's particular context, whether or not they are familiar with specific allusions. In any given work of art, this space may be created by the artist's encounter (however brief) with the unknown or otherness. (10) In such a conception, the work of art is neither completely inside nor outside a perceived totality. It is the active movement beyond what is known that results in the creation of what is new, and future encounters with the embodiment of this otherness (in the form of the artwork) occur in a new moment or context. Thus, it is what is elusive or largely unknown that allows for the artwork to be recontextualized indefinitely. A liminal space is created in the poetry, which does not provide any final "answers" regarding meaning, allowing the reader or audience to conceive with the poet something new. This creative process is, however, largely unknowable and uncontrollable. Eliot himself admitted that the poet is "haunted by a daemon against which he feels powerless, because in its first manifestation it has no face, no name, no nothing; and the words, the poem he makes, are a kind of form of exorcism of this daemon" (On Poetry 50), even as creating poetry is a kind of bringing "to birth in order to obtain relief" (50). In addition to the process of creation being a sometimes violent birthing, even if it is followed by controlled editing, once the poem is written, it is disseminated and left open to interpretation outside the author's control. We may create categories of meaning for these poems but not anticipate all possible readings or categorizations. Indeed, nowadays modernist literary artworks are occasionally hailed as the fortunate forerunners or catalysts of modern theory, something which their creators never would have anticipated or even necessarily desired. (11) What I mean to highlight, however, is not such a linear model, but the fact that the poem is an artifact that is irruptive and that it also retains a space for interpretation that allows for multiple engagements over time. In other words, innovation occurs, but the work must still communicate.
To move on to Eliot's particular innovations and his evocation of history, in the first section of the poem "Gerontion," the reader is placed in a realm of pseudo-or-near-history--or, perhaps, is presented with a "mythic" sense of past events. As such, these elements evoke sensations in the reader, mostly through association, but are almost never definitively present as "actual" historic events, names, or places. Indeed, Grover Smith notes that "such figures as Prufrock, Gerontion, and the hollow men seem to be caught between incompatible inner and outer worlds of dream and actuality" (52). (12) For example, the speaker of "Gerontion" states that he "was neither at the hot gates / Nor fought in the warm rain / Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass" (6-8), and evokes a "decayed house" (10) where a "Jew squats on the window sill" (11). (13) While such images evoke a sense of battles fought afar, of Diaspora, of an experience of displacement and a sense of difference (or dislike) between cultures, there is no absolute meaning to be derived from these lines. Indeed, David Rosen argues that the use of language in this poem signals a change "from diction to syntax: the most important thing in his language is not the word, signifying an object of apprehension, but the larger language system, suggesting a frame of mind. Real things have their place, certainly, but it is subordinate or, more accurately, allegorical" (491). Similarly, Jitendra Kumar Sharma claims that in this poem "Phenomena which had previously no meaning are now invested with historical symbolism; consciousness imparts meaning to the meaningless" (55). As a result, in the final statement of this section--"I an old man, / A dull head among windy spaces" (18-19)--we are left with the sense of a psychic and imaginative space where memory has been unleashed--memory no longer solely connected to the "old man" (18) with the "dull head" (19). This section would seem to be a simultaneous evocation and dismissal of tradition, of history, and of literature.
As such, it seems to embody the sense of loss that Terdiman notes concerning our relationship to the past: "what we call the past is always already and irretrievably a profoundly altered or attenuated version of the contents that were potentially available to consciousness.... Loss is what makes our memory of the past possible at all" (22). In "Gerontion," there is an underlying consciousness of this loss, of the fact that memory does not work unproblematically, and of the fact that representation, as it occurs in art, cannot escape such considerations. According to ER. Leavis, "The poem opens with what is to be a recurrent theme of Mr. Eliot's: the mixing of 'memory and desire' in present barrenness" (84). If, however, the present revealed in the poem is "barren," it is because humans have not reconciled with or fully acknowledged certain changes--changes that do not represent an absolute break from the past, but establish a different relationship to it.
Eliot's poetry shows how if we are to explore the present, we must necessarily consider the past, even as we recognize that it is a constructed past. In "Gerontion," the speaker seems to occupy a space outside of history or the preconceived totality, but Eliot writes so that anyone can understand his presentation of how something has gone wrong in society. For example, in this poem the act of receiving the Eucharist becomes voyeuristic and "depraved" (24), and is likened to the dark ceremony of a seance. In addition, much like Yeats' "Second Coming," the poem posits the birth of a dark season, not of redemption but of ignorance and depravity, where "Signs are taken for wonders" and the divine "word within a word" is "unable to speak a word"(20-21). Not only that, but the Word is "Swaddled with darkness (22) and Christ arrives in the new year as "the tiger" (22-23). In this postulation of the old man's mind, the ignorant masses clamor for signs without any thought as to their meaning, and the voice of God is effectively silenced even as His son returns in bestial form. Because the Bible is deeply implicated in Western notions of space, time, and memory, this act of silencing/warping a primary philosophical narrative is a powerful statement of change.
TAdditional insight can also be gained by examining Eliot's scholarly work through the lens of Adorno's Aesthetic Theory. Adorno reinforces the idea of a "rupture" or break in modernist aesthetics, stating that "Scars of damage and disruption are the modern's seal of authenticity; by their means, art desperately negates the closed confines of the ever-same; explosion is one of its invariants" (23). (14) In this way, he characterizes modern art as eruption, as a violent outburst that "negates the closed confines of the ever-same" (1). How ironic, then, that these works (in all their desperation for the new) are now often characterized as homogenous bases for modernism, and beyond that, as the cage from which post-modernism is desperately trying to escape. As Adorno points out, modern artists reject the ever-same, and attempt to establish a relation without relation to the past, essentially through experimentation with how form produces meaning. In the course of such experimentation, they develop a profound distrust of "reality" as well as "transcendence," and it is perhaps in this sense that the true "eruptions" occur. He claims that "The constellation of the existing and non-existing is the utopic figure of art. Although it is compelled toward absolute negativity, it is precisely by virtue of this negativity that it is not absolutely negative" (233). In terms of Eliot's work, his negativity and his desire for a utopic and ordered system results in a visible struggle between the existent and non-existent, the same and the new, the tradition and innovation, and it helps to form the liminal space for interpretation in his poetry.
However, in order for art to perpetuate itself in the world, it must establish a relationship with the audience in spite of continually changing external contexts. In this way, the work of art becomes that which reveals no transparent or final "meaning" to the audience, for then re-examination would be pointless. Adorno notes that "It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist" (1). He posits a "reciprocity" (176) constituting art's dynamic, which is "an irresolvable antithesis that is never brought to rest in the state of being" (176). This type of continual movement, of an impossible negotiation resulting in profound doubts regarding the stability of any given artwork, may be linked to Eliot's criticism. While Adorno states that any movement beyond the "preconceived totality" (178) creates a point where "the gaping divergence tears meaning apart" (178), a shift in view opens the possibility of the multiplicity of meaning, of a liminal experience of the work of art. A work of art is produced in one particular form, a form that may or may not encourage a consensus as to meaning, and whose opacity is now most often taken for granted. Thus, it is not so much consensus that is ever produced by true works of art, but the sense of something not entirely answered, creating the impetus to explore the intricacies of the text. At this point, then, we may embark upon an exploration of Eliot's criticism in particular, highlighting his aesthetic and mnemonic philosophies and showing how his theory of art underlines the mystery and openness of the work of art.
4. "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and Eliot's Theory of Art In "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Eliot postulates that the artist is inextricably bound to, and yet curiously freed by, what he calls "tradition" (37). The artist is complexly related to tradition, for although many "pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man" (37) in any given work of art, Eliot states that "if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously" (38). In this way, the artist inevitably has a relation to those artists who have preceded him, but such a relationship does not prevent the essential "originality" that a "new" work of art must possess. Indeed, Eliot goes on to note that "To conform merely would be for the new work not really to conform at all; it would not be new, and would therefore not be a work of art" (39).
According to Eliot, then, there is a primary act of reaching-out that must occur before a work of art can be created. This reaching beyond, or the act of engaging ideas outside of the pre-conceived totality, results in what is "new" even as those ideas are brought back to the realm from which the artist began. Essentially, one could say that those ideas encountered outside the pre-conceived totality create what is momentarily new in the tradition of art--and yet, as the work of art becomes involved in economic and intellectual exchange, it will eventually become a part of what is known--the totality in which a historical tradition exists. According to Eliot, there is great complexity to this relationship, for he famously states that
Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence. (TIT 38)
The "historical sense"(38) is a composite knowledge of what Eliot calls the "pastness of the past"(38)--the rudimentary sense that what is past cannot be retrieved unproblematically, as well as a sense of how the past is made manifest in the present. Thus, Sharma claims that "along with emphasizing the need for human solidarity, [Eliot] looks upon history as the memory of the struggle and fulfillment of man's being in time" (51). Altogether, this historical sense is "of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together" (38), and it is what "makes a writer traditional" (38) while still making him "most acutely conscious of his own place in time, of his own contemporaneity" (38). Indeed, as James Longenbach writes, "Art emerges from this argument not as a singular achievement but as an on-going process of discovery: to move forward it will accept whatever it can use" (106). Eliot thus links together the timeless and the temporal in order to distance the personality of the poet from the poem's creation, and instead insists on an objective temporal and historical awareness on the part of the poet.
As these statements indicate, Eliot was acutely aware of the temporal and mnemonic act of writing--an awareness which led him to establish criteria for the valuation of an artist: "You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead" (38). In Eliot's case, literature is conceived of as "the literature of the world, of the literature of a single country, not as a collection of the writings of individuals, but as 'organic wholes', as systems in relation to which, and only in relation to which, individual works of literary art, and the works of individual artists, have their significance" ("The Function of Criticism," 68). The work of art, then, has a relation to the "'organic whole'" (68), a construct remarkably similar to Adorno's notion of the "preconceived totality" (178). However, Eliot goes on to state that there "is accordingly 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"(FOC 68, my emphasis). In the author's act of creation, there is an element of sacrifice, of surrender, that will result in the creation of something essentially new, even if an eventual return to what is known occurs. It is this type of return that prompts Eliot's conception of how art functions in society: "I do not deny that art may be affirmed to serve ends beyond itself; but art is not required to be aware of these ends, and indeed performs its function, whatever that may be, according to various theories of value, much better by indifference to them" (FOC 69). The work of art may be incorporated into larger discussions of historic movements, politics, aesthetic discourses, or what have you, but it is not in itself required to be aware of these inherent possibilities. The act of creation, of encountering the unknown to create something new, creates a liminal space within the work of art from which many thresholds of interpretation are possible. Indeed, as Eliot himself states in "The Function of Criticism," "We are not, in fact, concerned with literary perfection at all--the search for perfection is a sign of pettiness, for it shows that the writer has admitted the existence of an unquestioned spiritual authority outside himself, to which he has attempted to conform" (72). Paradoxically, then, the "perfect" work of art must remain imperfect--it shows an awareness of what is new, outside the realm of what is known, while retaining a sense of what is known, of the past, and of the functioning of cultural and personal memory. Somewhere in this simultaneity, in this engagement with otherness, spaces of uncertainty, reflecting the multiplicity of meaning in language, are created. The "perfect" work of art is that which keeps on giving--which allows and in fact inspires active contact with the reader of literature across time and cultural shifts in aesthetics.
In this sense, Eliot links the "self' of the poet to the contextualizing "mind of Europe ... which changes ... [and] abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen" (TIT 39). In order to evoke this "mind of Europe" (39), however, the mature poetic mind must become "a more finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations" (40-41). Here, the poetic mind acts as an instrument, as the medium through which one might bring together the "new" (extracting the essence of experience) and what is known in order to reconfigure the world in the work of art, a work saturated with associations because of its very condensation and/or "eruptive" contact with the new. As has been much discussed in Eliot criticism, according to Eliot, the "personality" of the poet should not form the basis of art, for "The mind of the poet ... may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material" (41). However, as this discussion has shown, any sense of "self" is complicated by the subjective act of memory. And, according to Rosen, Eliot's vehemence regarding maturity and the impersonal betrays an insecurity about his own place in the tradition, so that "disallowing any developmental or historical understanding of self" (487) is a means of self-defense.
Today, we no longer believe that we can separate the operation of the intellectual mind from our emotional capacities, and Eliot does not pretend that a complete separation is possible. He does, however, postulate that the mind can act as a receptacle of memory:
The poet's mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.... For it is not the 'greatness', the intensity, of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts. (41)
In the moment of intensity, or the moment of creation, the filter of the mind fuses disparate elements to create the work of art, a moment which, in "The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism," Eliot describes as "something negative: that is to say, not 'inspiration' as we commonly think of it, but the breaking down of strong habitual barriers--which tend to re-form very quickly" (89).
To move back to Adorno's theories of art, then, the inherent "negativity" of a work of art forms a "constellation of the existing and non-existing" (233), and thus is not completely negative. As Eliot outlines, our habitual barriers (the existent), must be broken down or broken through in order to encounter the new, or non-existent. It is, perhaps, at this "constellation" (Adorno 233) that the work of art is formed, but it is formed in such tension that there is inherently "space" left behind--room for various acts of interpretation. In "Hamlet," Eliot seems to acknowledge this fact: "Qua work of art, the work of art cannot be interpreted; there is nothing to interpret; we can only criticize it according to standards, in comparison to other works of art; and for 'interpretation' the chief task is the presentation of relevant historical facts which the reader is not assumed to know" (45). There is "nothing to interpret" here precisely because art exists only in context and through comparison, so that we cannot, and should not, be guilty of the assignation of definitive and final meaning to a work of art. When we approach Eliot's poems and criticism, we do so through the lens of all the interpretation that has followed them. Of course we interpret as we read, for our minds call forth information and associations relating to the text, and we continually attempt to understand what we encounter. The quest for understanding is as involuntary as is the mnemonic act that accompanies reading, and it is in this sense that we employ standards of comparison, relating new forms and their content to those of previous works of art.
Even further, however, Eliot postulates an "ideal order" of art that seemingly exists free from human interpretive acts. He states that
... what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all of the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. (TIT 38)
What is missing in this equation is the fact that any such modification can only take place through human memory. Interpretation occurs through the associations of memory, and in this sense Eliot's canon or "tradition" is entirely a result of interpretive valuation. In order for such an "ideal order" to form entirely amongst the works of art, an act of valuation must occur, and by what force? These works are "monuments" (38) only inasmuch as they have been erected as such, and if this order is to be modified by the introduction of the "really new" (38) work of art, any such modification becomes inherently individualistic and interpretive, for it occurs in one person's mind (through the interstices of memory).
Thus, Eliot seems preoccupied with a nearly Platonic realm of "Art" where changes in the "ideal order" (38) take place almost transcendently. He speaks of the maintenance of this order in entirely de-humanized terms: "for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new" (38-9). In this way, he seems to postulate artworks independently reacting to one another--a tendency which several critics have related to the Bradleyan Absolute. Robert L. Schwartz finds that the Absolute shows how "when disparate material is amalgamated the consequent experience brings us close to a feeling of the absolute unity that must lie behind the contradictions of appearance" (38), and this unity is linked to the ideal. It is an ideal that is, however, inherently connected to memory and to its inconsistencies. Bradley states that "though ideal, the past and future are also real, and, if they were otherwise, they could be nothing for judgment or knowledge. They are actual, but they must remain incomplete essentially" (As quoted in Schwartz, 39). While most critics would agree that we construct an "ideal" portrayal of the past and future, and that they are "real" in the sense that we can conceive of both a past and a future, they would also argue that no consensus can be reached about the "actual" nature of the past or future. As formations of memory that suffer constant additions or revisions, these conceptions of the past must certainly remain "incomplete essentially" (39), and as formations of the imagination (working in conjunction with memory), conceptions of the future must remain the same. In Eliot's criticism, the desire to efface the human element in his portrayal of tradition, where artworks arrange themselves according to some overarching ideal, would seem to create a new poetic order, a poetic order where the individual poet is both responsible for, and removed from, the creation and eventual success or failure of the work of art.
Indeed, when Eliot does discuss the artist at work, he states that this figure (if possessing the historical sense) will "be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities" (39), perhaps reflecting his own anxieties regarding the creation and dissemination of his work. In "The Metaphysical Poets," he explains a few of these difficulties and responsibilities of the artist as follows:
We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning. (65)
Here, then, we have the relation of difficulty to modernist form, and a new emphasis on the dislocation of language and meaning. Literary dislocation is based upon the fact that there is a conceived difference in the way poets were relating to the world, which is where the sense of an "eruption" or change in the artistic field becomes apparent. Eliot tries to elucidate this difference when he acknowledges that "We have to communicate--if it is communication, for the word may beg the question--an experience which is not an experience in the ordinary sense, for it may only exist. ... in the expression of it. If poetry is a form of 'communication', yet that which is to be communicated is the poem itself, and only incidentally the experience and the thought which have gone into it" (UOP 80). If there can be "only incidentally" a direct relationship between what is experienced and what is expressed, then there are several possible meanings to be taken from the expression of any given experience--a seeming premonition of the problematic of language itself.
Continuing with this vein of thought, Eliot goes on to state that "The poem's existence is somewhere between the writer and the reader; it has a reality which is not simply the reality of what the writer is trying to 'express', or of his experience of writing it, or of the experience of the reader or of the writer as reader" (80). What this signals is that both reading and writing are destabilizing acts, and because of the inherent relationship between our memories of what we read or write, and what we experience as "new," Eliot finds that "what a poem means is as much what it means to others as what it means to an author; and indeed, in the course of time a poet may become merely a reader in respect to his own works, forgetting his original meaning--or without forgetting, merely changing" (UOP, 88). How can an author "forget" his original meaning, or even change his interpretation of his own writing, without there being room in the original text to do so? He cannot. The author is creator and shaper of a text, but in the production of something new and in allowing a space of interpretation for the reader multiple possibilities are conceivable, for the poem does not tell readers (even the author himself) what to think or believe.
T.S. Eliot has been presented here as an artist and aesthetic theorist deeply concerned with "modern" literature and culture, and his work as an example of the "rupturing" occurring in aesthetics during the early twentieth century. In so doing, contemporary theory became an interesting sounding board for considering high modernist poetry. There is, of course, the danger of working backwards to re-create the artist or the artwork. This is an issue that John Harwood addresses when he argues that "the assertion that before Derrida, everyone was deluded by logocentrism, obviously requires some kind of historical rationale" (51), even as "In the literary version, 'modernism' and 'postmodernism' perform a similar function in preparing the way for theory. But if 'modernism' and 'postmodernism' have no historical substance, the rationale collapses, and we are left with the bald assertion that theorists are the only persons ever to have understood the nature of language correctly"(51). I am not making such a claim here, but rather pointing to Eliot's explicit engagement with many of the same aesthetic, mnemonic, and temporal concerns as those theorists who followed later in the century.
In so doing, I focused on the modernist artwork through the lens of contemporary theorists like Grosz and Adorno, acknowledging that my recontextualization of Eliot is also dependent on context. Eliot himself states that both "artist and audience are limited. There is for each time, for each artist, a kind of alloy required to make the metal workable into art; and each generation prefers its own alloy to any other"(UOP 87). As he also notes, however, in the space where memory and "actual" experience collide, there is an infinite amount of freedom and an infinite range of possible recontextualizations. As a result, Craig Cairns finds that "Eliot's focus is on the music of poetry as 'a point of intersection: it arises from its relation first to the words immediately preceding and following it, and indefinitely to the rest of its context; and from another relation, that of its immediate meaning in that context to all the other meanings to which it has had in other contexts, to its greater or less wealth of association'" (135). Such a freedom of contextualization is formed by an encounter with what is beyond the range of normal experience, with what prompts Eliot to say that artists must be "conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living" (TIT 44). They look to the future and to possibilities based on what they see in the present, attempting to formulate the new, and it is in this sense that an arc can be traced to postmodern theorists like Grosz, even though Eliot himself was a traditionalist at heart.
It is this simultaneous concern with the tradition and with the new that seems to have made Eliot such a representative figure of modernism. His technical manipulation of language and focus on cultural change makes his poem "Gerontion" particularly open to recontextualization, but I am not suggesting that we should privilege such works above all others, or use this discussion as a basis for determining an artistic canon. Rather, we should be aware of the ways in which Eliot himself thought through the process of writing, and what aspects of his work make him such a frequently cited representative figure of modernism. He recognized that "each generation, like each individual, brings to the contemplation of art its own categories of appreciation, makes its own demands upon art, and has its own uses for art" (UOP, 87). Therefore, the degree to which modernist works can be categorized as "eruptions" is dependent upon an individual re-examination and recontextualization of their works. As I have shown, the modernists perceived the impossibility of continuing with certain aesthetic and historical philosophies, even as they experienced what has loosely been termed "modernity"--a state related to awareness of economic circulation and exchange, interconnectivity, and a certain disruption in commonly held notions of self, memory and time. Eliot's "Gerontion" shows how each workgives something to the reader in its present form, and simultaneously withholds just enough information to allow the reader's interpellation into the text--in other words, the liminality of an encounter with the new, with the infinite, is translated into the text's form and content. It is in this "unreasonable space" that the work survives as art--through the shared arc of what is given, and what, impossibly, never arrives.
Works Cited and Consulted
Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Edited by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann. Translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Brooker, Jewel Spears. Mastery and Escape: T.S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism. Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1994.
Cairns, Craig. "T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards and Empiricism's Art of Memory." Revue de Metaphysique et de Morale 1(1998 January-March): 111-135.
Eliot, T.S. "Gerontion." Collected Poems 1909-1962. London: Faber and Faber, 1963.
--"Hamlet." Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. Edited by Frank Kermode. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1975.
--"Reflections on Vers Libre." Selected Prose of T.S.
Eliot. Edited by Frank Kermode. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1975.
--"The Function of Criticism." Selected Prose of T.S.
Eliot. Edited by Frank Kermode. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1975.
--"The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism." Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. Edited by Frank Kermode. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1975.
--"Tradition and the Individual Talent." Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. Edited by Frank Kermode. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1975.
--"The Metaphysical Poets." Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. Edited by Frank Kermode. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1975.
Freed, Lewis. T.S. Eliot: Aesthetics and History. Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company, 1962.
Grosz, Elizabeth. "Thinking the New: Of Futures Yet Unthought." Becomings: Explorations in Time, Memory, and Futures. Edited by Elizabeth Grosz. London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1999.
Harris, A manda Jeremin. "T.S. Eliot's Mental Hygiene." Journal of Modern Literature 29:4 (Summer 2006): 44-56.
Hart, Matthew. "Visible Poet: T.S. Eliot and Modernist Studies." American Literary History 19:1 (Spring 2007): 174-89.
Harwood, John. Eliot to Derrida: The Poverty of Interpretation. London: MacMillan Press, Ltd., 1995.
Kenner, Hugh. The Invisible Poet: T.S. Eliot. New York: Ivan Obolensky, Inc., 1959.
Leavis, ER. New Bearings in English Poetry: A Study of the Contemporary Situation. London: Chatto & Windus, 1932.
Longenbach, James. "Ashbery and the Individual Talent." American Literary History 9:l(Spring 1997): 103-27.
Mays, J.C.C. "Early Poems: From 'Prufrock' to 'Gerontion.'" The Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot. Edited by A. David Moody. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994.
Puchek, Peter. "The Tenuous Christianity of Eliot's 'Gerontion':
History as Pagan Whirlwind." Yeats-Eliot Review: A Journal of Criticism and Scholarship 15:1 (Fall 1997): 10-17.
Ricoeur, Paul. "Narrated Time." A Ricoeur Reader: Reflection and Imagination. Edited by Mario J. Valdes. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1991. 338-354.
Rosen, David. "T.S. Eliot and the Lost Youth of Modern Poetry." Modern Language Quarterly 64:4 (December 2003): 473-494.
Schwartz, Robert. Broken Images: A Study of The Waste Land. Lewisburg: Bucknell Univ. Press, 1988.
Sharma, Jitendra Kumar. Time and T.S. Eliot: His Poetry, Plays and Philosophy. New Delhi: Sterling, 1985.
Smith, Grover. T.S. Eliot and the Use of Memory. Lewisburg: Bucknell Univ. Press, 1996.
Smith, Grover. "The Structure and Mythical Method of The Waste Land." Modern Critical Interpretations: The Waste Land. Edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.
Steiner, George. "On Difficulty." On Difficulty and Other Essays. London: Oxford UP, 1978.
Terdiman, Richard. Present Past: Modernity and the Memory Crisis. London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1993.
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA AT IRVINE
(1.) For a discussion of the "ideal order" see Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent," page 38. All citations from Eliot's critical essays are from Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1975). The following abbreviations will be used throughout for Eliot's criticism: "FOC"--"Function of Criticism" "UOP"--"The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism" "TIT"--"Tradition and the Individual Talent"
(2.) Although John Harwood notes that the original uses of the term "modernism" or "modernist" were often derisive, several theorists began to use the terms "modern" and "modernist" interchangeably from the 1920s well into the 1960s, functioning simply "as shorthand for advanced, experimental, or innovative writing" (35). He goes on to note that modernism was conceived in terms of its current usage with Leslie Fiedler's essay "The New Mutants"(1965), and states that '"Modernism' and 'postmodernism', in other words, entered general critical practice almost simultaneously, and have been reified not sequentially, but in parallel"(39).
(3.) See Matthew Hart's 'Wisible Poet: T.S. Eliot and Modernist Studies," where he argues that Eliot "whatever his critics and defenders suggest, was deeply involved in the consumption, creation, and criticism of a popular culture"(177) and that Eliot helped create the "unpleasant myths"(179) now attached to him, even as they are "partly accurate"(179). These myths include his "sympathy with fascist politics, the neoclassical aesthetics, and the desire for religious and political order" (180).
(4.) It should be noted that not every critic working at this tune was drawn into such non-confrontational criticism, but that the majority of scholarly institutions promoted such an approach as being peculiarly suited to teaching literary analysis.
(5.) Much critical debate has focused upon the different expressions of "modernism" while trying to ascribe an overarching ideal or movement to which these artists were aspiring. While the range of modernist aesthetic theory is not within the range of this discussion, it seems likely that larger cultural changes, felt at all levels of society, were reflected in certain experiments in aesthetic creation. John Harwood argues, in his book Eliot to Derrida." The Poverty of Interpretation, that "To argue that modernism is a meaningless category is not to deny anything of the range and vitality of literary experiment during the first quarter of the century; only to insist that the changes can't usefully be accommodated within a single conceptual framework--or indeed within anything like the kind of approach employed within the modernism industry" (59). In my discussion of Eliot and early twentieth-century aesthetics, I will refer to the modernists and to modernism with this critique in mind.
(6.) Both Grosz and I would consider Derrida's concept of the tout autre relevant here, for the tout autre is outside what is comprehensible and is one way in which contemporary philosophy has approached primary otherness.
(7.) This act of recontextualization will necessarily, then, examine how Eliot and the other modernist artists became aware of fundamental changes in the ways that language might function. For a recent account of modernist approaches to language, see Morag Shiach's "'To purify the dialect of the tribe': Modernism and the Language Reform" (Modernism/Modernity 14.1 : 21-34).
(8.) According to Grover Smith, this name/title has the following origin: "Named for the Roman general Gerontius, Gerontion shares with his prototype the knowledge of past inaction" (102). However, there is no need to limit the possibilities inherent in the name/title to a basic historical reference to a general from 396 A.D., nor is there necessarily the need to assign this name directly to the speaker of the poem. If, as Smith postulates, this poem is concerned with "rendering agony into art" (102), then there are several layers of awareness that need to be considered.
(9.) With the idea of re-examining the text with different ranges of knowledge at hand, it is useful to consider John D. Caputo's explanation of the death of the author. As any author gives shape and form to a literary artwork, he or she must commit that work to speak without their interpretation or explanation. Indeed, Caputo states that "Literary gifts require a living author who by committing herself to words and texts agrees to death, agrees to deal herself death, donner la mort, to give a gift without return and let her text go up in smoke, or turn to ash, that is to say, to disseminate without return, however fit she may feel when she signs her contract and checks the royalty clause" (175). Here, the author commits the work to repetition with difference, to a continual encounter with the previously unencountered (a relation without relation). It is important to recognize that literature/art does not provide absolute truth, but a discourse which must be both grounded in its original context and possess the threshold from which to engage the new.
(10.) For a useful discussion of the creation of literary works of art in these terms, see Derek Attridge's The Singularity of Literature (New York: Routledge, 2004).
(11.) For example, see Jahan Ramazani's "Modernist Bricolage, Postcolonial Hybridity" (Modernism/Modernity 13.3 [Sept. 2006]: 445-63) and Matthew Hart's discussion of recent trends in Eliot criticism in "Visible Poet: T.S. Eliot and Modernist Studies."
(12.) In a similar manner, J.C.C. Mays notes that "the dry, barren, blocked situation the old man inhabits is invaded by promises of rejuvenation, which are grotesque and inadequate; memories of what might have been recreate an illusion whose temptations only underline failure" (113). However, Mays is startling in his assertion that the protagonist of this poem "turns out surprisingly to be female and peculiarly sexual in the knowledge she promises" (113). Such an interpretation is not echoed by the majority of critics, and seems a somewhat forced interpretation of the last passages of the poem.
(13.) The subject of Eliot's anti-Semitism has been covered extensively in the last decade, most recently in the series of arguments and defenses in Modernism/Modernity, but is not my focus here, other than to note that Eliot describes the Jewish people in animalistic terms in this poem and perhaps invokes a kind of historical hatred of otherness in the process.
(14.) It must be noted here that Theodor Adorno's aesthetic theories are primarily political in nature, and not removed from historical reality as a pure philosophical system. For the purposes of this examination, however, I simply wish to draw some parallels between Adorno's aesthetic terminology and that of contemporary critics in order to demonstrate how both shed insight into Eliot's work.
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|Title Annotation:||T. S. Eliot|
|Publication:||Yeats Eliot Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2009|
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