Friday, March 01, 2013

T.S. Eliot and Skepticism

This is the fourth in a series of short essays that I plan to write and post on this blog about
T.S. Eliot and religion, prompted by recent publications of the T.S. Eliot Editorial Project.  These essays will also be something of a supplement to my 2009 book The Making of T.S. Eliot, which tracks the poet's intellectual and spiritual development through 1930.  As with any serious study, this is a work in progress -- so your feedback is very welcome!

Nagarjuna (150-250 AD)
One of the reasons I set out to examine Eliot’s “conversion” so closely is because I found it difficult to comprehend how such a thoroughly intellectual skeptic could suddenly overcome all of doubts and reservations.  The deeper I dig into this subject, the more I think that maybe I’m confused because I’m starting from wrong assumptions. 

When Eliot embraced orthodox Christianity, many of his contemporaries saw this as an embrace of the doctrine of religious exclusivity, and a simultaneous rejection of all other philosophies and religions.  Personally, I have always been leery of organized religion in general because I have major problems with the idea that any one religion has exclusive access to Truth.  (Jews and Christians may have exclusive access to the salvation of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and Buddhists may have exclusive access to nirvana… but, in my mind, that’s not the same thing as saying that the followers of a particular religion have exclusive access to Truth.)  So, like many of Eliot’s contemporaries, I was dismayed when I first learned, after reading so much of myself into “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land, that the poet had later converted to Christianity.    The main question behind ALL of my studies of Eliot is this: How did he get from such a thorough skepticism to such a seemingly rigid system of belief?

I recently found some incredibly illuminating insights in Jeffrey Perl’s 1989 book Skepticism and Modern Enmity: Before and After Eliot.   I have been aware of Perl’s 1985 study of Eliot’s Eastern influences for several years, but I only recently read his book, which puts that earlier study into a broader context.  Perl combed through Eliot’s papers and notes from graduate school and concluded:  “Eliot’s conception, as early as 1912 or 1913, was of subjectivity and objectivity as identical (though not indistinguishable)” (Perl 47).  That would explain why Eliot claimed -- even after his embrace of Anglo-Catholicism -- that the only real “conversion” in his life was to the philosophy of Henri Bergson, in 1910-1911.   Any subsequent “conversion” would have to allow for the belief that Truth is both relative and absolute.

After Bergson, Eliot turned to Eastern metaphysics -- eager, as Jewel Spears Brooker suggests, for a “system of ideas” that he could accept and live by (Brooker 124).  Perl notes that Eliot studied Indic Philology during his first two years of graduate school (1911-1913), paying particularly close attention to Advaita Vedanta, a school of Hindu thought, and then turning to Madhyamaka Buddhism in his third year.  My own knowledge of Madhyamaka Buddhism is limited, so I’ll have to (for now) rely on Jeffrey Perl’s assessment.  He says that this particular school of thought originated with a teacher named Nagarjuna (150-250 A.D.), who created “a set of exercises intended as an antidote to the ontological urge,”  “a systematic divestment of theories and ideas, rather than a systematic accumulation of them” (Perl 53). 

From what I can tell, Nagarjuna’s teachings seem to have much in common with Advaita Vedanta, which I studied a few years ago via the writings of A. Parsatharathy, as well as the teachings of modern gurus like George Gurdjieff (1866-1949), Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897-1981), and Eckhart Tolle (b. 1948).  All of these teachers emphasize a Now-moment that transcends analytical thinking, acknowledging that analytical thinking may be precursor to apprehending the Now-moment.  In order to apprehend the Now-moment, a person must first satisfy his intellect, then meditate on the Now.  Perl explains that this “middle way” between intellect and intuition is much more than a system of ideas:

Truth, reality, and the systems approach to them comprise the problem, not its solution.  Yet for Nagarjuna, philosophic thought is a means, with good result, of altering the psyche.  One metaphor is the journey - farther and farther from one’s home; though the end of exploration is simply home itself.  Philosophical positions, put another way, are points upon a wheel, and of its tyranny one is not free until the circle is complete and one’s desire to continue extinguished in the understanding that continuation leads to nothing better than one more turn around the wheel (Perl 54).

The journey, of course, is the central metaphor in Eliot’s later poetry, beginning with "Journey of the Magi."   Perl suggests that the study of Madhyamaka “liberated” the poet from the type of dualistic thinking that supposes one system of ideas cannot be accepted unless all other systems of ideas are rejected.  

Though Buddhism might have liberated Eliot in this respect, it is important to note that Eliot did not become a Buddhist -- because, Perl writes, “the solution of an ancient Indian dilemma cannot resolve a modern European one” (Perl 56).   Buddhism may have satisfied Eliot’s intellect, but it did not fit his temperament, education and environment.  Instead, after abandoning academic philosophy (following a penetrating study of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and the completion of a dissertation on F.H. Bradley in 1916), he began exploring Catholicism a bit more studiously.   In his book “Anglo-Catholic in Religion”: T.S. Eliot and Christianity, Barry Spurr points out a 1917 review in which Eliot writes that the Catholic Church is “the only Church which can even pretend to maintain a philosophy of its own” (Spurr 19).  This was, of course, only the beginning of a long journey.

In Mastery and Escape, Jewel Spears Brooker argues that during the following years (1918-1922) Eliot tentatively adopted “the mythical method” as his main system of ideas -- essentially testing a theory of the “religion of art.”  This period culminated with the writing of The Waste Land, which shows Eliot beginning to integrate Anglo-Catholic ideas into his worldview, alongside Buddhist and Hindu ideas.   The truth is that Eliot never forgot or discarded any of these systems of ideas.  He was, to use the designation of his mentor Irving Babbitt, an assimilative artist -- one who strives for timeless Truth rather than a more myopic kind of "originality."  That helps explain why, in 1925, Eliot wrote, “A mind saturated with the traditions of Indian philosophy is and must always remain very different from one saturated in the traditions of European philosophy” (quoted in Perl p. 50).  His path through Bergson, Vedanta, and Madhyamaka led to a unique type of Christian faith -- one that could be conservative, yet non-exclusive. In this respect, he was very much like his grandfather William Greenleaf Eliot, as Charlotte Eliot described him:

Conservative he was, by nature and training [...] yet his conservatism was based on reverent faith, and bore no relation to dogmatism.  His mind was constructive rather than destructive, cherishing all that was sacred and memorable in the past, as a priceless legacy, a repository of truth, even though commingled with error" (Charlotte Eliot 238).

A major difference is that T.S. Eliot did not necessarily associate religious exclusivity with "dogmatism," as a 1924 letter to Herbert Read illustrates.  Eliot writes:

It seems to me that at the present time we need more dogma, and that one ought to have as precise and clear a creed as possible, when one thinks at all [...] When I write, I must write to the limit of my own convictions and aspirations: but I don't want to impose these on others, any more than I should be willing to reduce myself to the common denominator of my colleagues.  What is essential is to find those persons who have an impersonal loyalty to some faith not antagonistic to my own. (Valerie Eliot 514).

In his 1971 memoir of Eliot, Robert Sencourt writes that Eliot eventually grew “accustomed to think of [the Roman Catholic Church] as something intolerably rigid and narrow and exclusive, a Church which denied salvation to those outside of it […] He looked, he said, with a deep respect on the great cosmopolitan church, but he could never regard the hopes of humanity as confined to one institution” (Sencourt 134-135).   As a result, Eliot embraced the less exclusive Anglo-Catholic tradition rather than joining the Catholic Church proper.  Perl sums up:

He rejected the philosophically standard presupposition that belief in one explanation, or in one ideology, necessitates belief in its exclusive access to truth.  Eliot’s sense of ideology is the least understood facet of his ideological commitments.  For him, a perspective (what he calls in the dissertation a “point of view” or “finite centre”) should involve the recognition of a multiplicity of valid views, each merely provisional but correct nonetheless in context (Perl 58).

Just as importantly, Perl adds, “Eliot is not arguing that truth can be distilled from a multiplicity of views, rather that the whole truth simply cannot be affirmed from the standpoint of an individual” (Perl 58).  Eliot did embrace Anglo-Catholicism, rather than simply adopting an inter-spiritual perspective.  He did put his faith in one specific tradition and in the supra-personal entity at the center of that tradition.  But, that said, he did not merely choose Anglo-Catholicism over alternative systems of belief.  He took a position of cultural relativism, accepting the idea that an individual can believe in one religion or philosophy absolutely and still allow for other individuals to believe in a completely different religion or philosophy.  His rationale was simple: Since every individual's world view is unique, it makes practical sense that all those viewpoints should be allowed to complement each other rather than being forced into competition.  With that in mind, when Eliot embraced Anglo-Catholicism, what he was rejecting was skepticism.  Skepticism, as Perl points out, was Eliot’s final system of ideas to fall.  After this, there were no more substitutes for religion. 

Brooker, Jewel Spears.  Mastery and Escape: T.S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism.  Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1994. 

Eliot, Charlotte C.  William Greenleaf Eliot: Minister, Educator, Philanthropist.  Boston: Houghton, 1904.

Eliot, Valerie, ed.  The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 2: 1923 - 1925.  London: Faber, 2009.

Perl, Jeffrey.  Skepticism and Modern Enmity: Before and After Eliot.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1989.

Sencourt, Robert.  T.S. Eliot: A Memoir.   New York: Dodd, 1971.

Spurr, Barry.  ‘Anglo-Catholic in Religion’: T.S. Eliot and Christianity.   Cambridge: Lutterworth, 2010.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Joe, for another insightful essay about Eliot's "Journey." As a Director of a Multifaith Center at a small liberal arts college, I deal with Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Agnostic, Atheist, and Secular Humanists both among the students and the faculty. The most common spiritual affliction in this setting is the fear of loss...loss of identity if people dare to take the texts and stories of others seriously. Well, as you point out, Joe, Eliot had the courage to take the risks that the "Journey" demands. It is an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual struggle to arrive at the destination that bears our name.
    As usual, your essay made me think of Thomas Merton, the monk. His contemplative life was grounded in a Christian monastery. But, his journals and correspondence make it clear that he was in daily communication with Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Sufis, etc. Why? Because Merton knew that they had ancient methods and practices that would help him to become a better Christian contemplative. In that sense, he was fearless in his pursuit of his discipline. Merton was willing to learn from anyone who took contemplation seriously. At the end of his life, Merton died on a trip to Asia...something he had dreamed of his whole life. It was in the presence of those enormous reclining Buddhas that all became clear for him. The Christian monk died in a Buddhist world...and that seemed just right to him.
    Again, thanks, Joe!