Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot: The Critical Edition

After many years of hard work, the team behind the T.S. Eliot Editorial Project has completed the first two volumes of The Complete Prose of T.S. Eliot: The Critical Edition, now available via Project Muse.  This is important not only because literary scholars now have definitive editions of the poet’s influential early essays (including “Tradition and the Individual Talent, “Hamlet” and the whole of The Sacred Wood) but because scholars and non-scholars alike now have access to a wealth of previously uncollected material by one of the 20th century’s most influential writers – material that has been teasing readers since the 1952 publication of Donald Gallup’s Eliot bibliography.

VOLUME ONE, edited by Jewel Spears Brooker and Ronald Schuchard, is divided into three sections.  The first section gathers a few pieces of juvenilia, including a pair of college essays on Rudyard Kipling, and a few early prose experiments that (ironically, given the “unduly harsh” nature of the aforementioned essays) demonstrate the strong influence of Kipling on the young writer.

The second, and most intimidating, section collects Eliot’s philosophy papers from his years at Harvard and Oxford.  During the author’s lifetime, the only remnant of the period that saw publication was the poet’s PhD dissertation, Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley – which has now been out of print for many decades.  When I first discovered Eliot, one of my favorite teachers kindly loaned me her personal copy, with a warning that it might not help me to understand the poet any better.  Eliot himself issued a similar warning when he published the thesis in 1964, saying, “Forty-six years after my academic philosophising came to an end, I find myself unable to think in the terminology of this essay.  Indeed, I do not pretend to understand it.”

Understanding the dissertation—or at least understanding the mind that produced it—is made a bit easier by the publication of the academic essays that Eliot wrote immediately prior.  The point of departure is a trio of essays on the idealist philosophy of Immanuel Kant.  These notes toward a philosophy of nondualism should be read in conjunction with editor Jewel Spears Brooker’s related essay “T.S. Eliot’s Theory of Opposites: Kant and the Subversion of Epistemology,” included in her 2001 book T.S. Eliot and Our Turning World.   Eliot’s subsequent essays on F.H. Bradley, Henri Bergson, and Walter Lippman’s A Preface to Politics show the development of a personal philosophy, which Eliot attempts to sum up, in an essay called "The Relativity of the Moral Judgment," as a kind of thoroughgoing idealism without the feeling of pessimism.

The second section also includes analyses of works by sociologist Emile Durkheim, ethno-psychologist Luciene Levy-Bruhl and anthropologist James George Frazer—all of whom would prove to be lasting influences on Eliot—as well as one essay on Plato and four on Aristotle.  One of the shorter essays in this section also references the Monadism of Gottfried Leibniz, an important clue to Eliot’s perception of Bradley.  (Two of Eliot's later essays on Leinbiz were originally appended to the 1964 version of Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley, at the urging of  editor Anne C. Bolgan, who recognized their importance.  Those essays are included elsewhere in the Complete Prose, but Brooker and Schuchard have helpfully added footnotes that link them to the newly-edited Knowledge and Experience.  How I wish I’d had this scholarly edition when I was studying Eliot's dissertation for the first time!) 

The third section of Volume One is, for me, the most exciting.  It reveals Eliot’s initial efforts to distinguish himself as a professional critic, developing and testing his own nascent theories about art and religion.

In a 1916 review of a book by Paul Elmer More, for instance, he asserts his own intellectual conservatism and lays a foundation for future Classicism v. Romanticism debates with John Middleton Murry.   His subsequent review of Reflections and Violence illustrates the pivotal influence of T.E. Hulme on Eliot’s concept of Classicism.  (Ronald Schuchard elucidated this important connection many years ago, in the essays that led to his book Eliot’s Dark Angel, but it's nice to see the proof for oneself.)

That same year, in reviews of books by Clement C.J. Webb and Durkheim, Eliot ruminates on the nature of religious instinct, providing notes toward a type of religion that might be worthwhile to  him.  Reviews of Mens Creatrix by William Temple and Religion and Philosophy by R.G. Collingwood suggest a surprising open-mindedness to the teachings of the Anglican Church, while expressing the poet's intellectual reservations about religious conversion.

In his review of a contemporary translation of Euripides, Eliot hints at defining statements to be made in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” about the alchemy of poetry – his paramount obsession during these early years.  He writes:

“… the value of translation lies in the exact combination of fidelity and originality.  Faithful, because otherwise the translator will produce only eccentricities; he would do better to write an original poem than to devote himself to a false veneer: original, because the fusion of the minds of two languages, the vivifying force, takes place within the translator’s mind.  What he produces must be foreign, but not strange, something that is new, but to which we have rightful claim.” 

He might just as easily have been talking about his own future – as a poet who would take the old, the primitive, the traditional and make it new and modern by recalling and rejuvenating the original essence of printed words.  In “A Note on Ezra Pound,” he seems to justify the allusive style he will use in The Waste Land.  In a subsequent review of Wyndham Lewis’s Tarr, he states his mission as a poet:

“A poet, like a scientist, is contributing toward the organic development of culture: it is just as absurd for him not to know the work of his predecessors or of men writing in other languages as it would be for a biologist to be ignorant of Mendel or de Vries.  It is exactly as wasteful for a poet to do what has been done already, as for a biologist to rediscover Mendel’s discoveries.”

Eliot was at the same time asserting the importance of intelligent criticism, in his essays “Observations” and “Studies in Contemporary Criticism.”  These are perhaps the most useful fragments in the volume, because they begin to elaborate a scheme for the seven volumes to come, and for the future of literary criticism.

VOLUME TWO, edited by Anthony Cuda and Ronald Schuchard, is subtitled “The Perfect Critic” because much of the writing collected therein elaborates Eliot’s personal critical theories.   While developing his own alternative canon of English literature (in a series of essays for the London Times Literary Supplement and the 1926 Clark Lectures at Cambridge), he offered insights on literary criticism itself.  These essays are well worth collating for the Internet age.

In a pair of articles that appeared in The Egoist in the fall/winter of 1918, Eliot divides critical writing into three main categories: (1) biography, (2) historical criticism, and (3) philosophical criticism.  (“Reviews” are a less important fourth category – serving only to “call attention to something good and new,” and useful only in the most practical terms, to help a writer make a living.)  He seems to value philosophical criticism above the others, and writes that the useful critic compares and analyzes, rather than merely judging and appreciating.   Writing in The Athenaeum a few months later, he adds that the best criticism expresses the “personal point of view” of the critic.  A careful reading of Eliot makes it clear that he is not talking about opinions, but about a thoroughly educated perspective on art. 

Like a lot of readers, I have always been slightly baffled by Eliot’s “impersonal theory of art” (espoused in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” 1919).  On one hand, Eliot says that true art is never a reflection of personality or an expression of personal emotions.   On the other hand, it’s easy to read Eliot’s own poetry as pseudo-autobiography, and he himself once claimed that The Waste Land was a personal “grouse against life.”   Setting aside the fact that no poet is obligated to follow his own critical prescriptions, I have always wondered if I have misapprehended the precise meaning of Eliot’s impersonal theory of art.    The new essays provide some clarification.

The important critic, Eliot says in a December 1919 article for The Athenaeum, is “the person who is absorbed in the present problems of art, and who wishes to bring the forces of the past to bear upon the solution of these problems.”  The same is true for artists, because “the critical genius is inseparable from the creative” and “every form of genuine criticism is directed toward creation.”  Although the artist-critic has a heightened awareness of the past, he does not repeat it.  By combining a comprehensive awareness of historical philosophies and techniques with an intense absorption in the present problems of art, the artist-critic transmutes the old into something new.

One of the most revealing new essays in Volume Two is “Modern Tendencies in Poetry,” published in Shama'a magazine in April 1920.  This essay reiterates that poetry must be more than a product of youthful personality.  Eliot writes: “[I]f we take poetry seriously as a work and not as the mere ebullition of a personality, we shall find that the poet’s training and equipment is parallel to the training and equipment of the scientist; we find that his purpose is parallel; and that his attitude toward his work is parallel.  First, his equipment: his knowledge of what has been done in the past.  This is germane to the question of modern tendency; for it is only in relation to the past that anything is new.” 

Eliot goes on to suggest that too many “contemporary” poets merely pour out their feelings, without considering the fact that these feelings have already been expressed better by someone else.  The value of poetry as true art, he says, is comparable to the value of science in that both are discoveries, and both must be cumulative.    A scientist does not start from scratch.  He stands on the shoulders of giants and, if he makes a genuine contribution, he in turn provides the same support for future scientists.  Eliot says the same is true for artists – and that is the key to understanding his impersonal theory.   The personalities of great poets disappear into “one great Mind.” 

There is a profoundly spiritual quality to this theory that I’ve never fully appreciated before.  In deep meditation, a person surrenders his or her individual "story" and embraces a larger consciousness -- what many Eastern philosophers refer to as The Self.  The implications of this concept are simple: Individuals do not create stories, or poetry, anymore than we create science.  Rather, we find these already-existing truths.  Perhaps more to the point, we allow them to find us. 

Eliot uses the metaphor of alchemy to explain this idea, which is why I wanted to title my Eliot book The Alchemy of Words.  For the medieval world, alchemy was never simply a matter of combining two base elements to create gold.  It was not a hard science.  There was always a mysterious spiritual component to the process--something beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend and express.

Eliot's later essays in Volume Two explain and develop his ideas within the context of other art forms (modern theater and, briefly, cinema) and criticism (literary reviews and anthologies), and begin to stray cautiously into the realm of religion and politics, his main arena in years to come.  For me, the most compelling instance of foreshadowing appears in a 1925 essay from The Nation, in which Eliot reflections on the distinction between urban and rural poetry.  He seems to regard the latter as an anachronistic product of Romanticism (although he never says so explicitly).  Still he refuses to dismiss it, instead expressing a curiosity to better understand the impulse behind it.  Just as in Volume One he showed an openness to the teachings of the Anglican Church that would significantly define the second half of his life, so this essay hints at his future as a poet—suggesting a point of departure for the rural meditations of his mature masterpiece Four Quartets.

No comments:

Post a Comment