Friday, June 23, 2006

On Liking T.S. Eliot And Being Okay With It, Thank You Very Much

An argument tonight over literary aesthetics and the value of poetry/fiction (hard to believe, but there are those who would disagree with you on almost anything you would believe in) brought me back to one of my great loves--T.S. Eliot's poetry.

I've been reading poetry for a long time. I even tried my hand--often badly, sometimes successfully--at it. Since I was a young girl, I've aspired to be more intellectual than I actually am(to wit: a 11 year reads The Republic and Madame Bovary at an age where she didn't even know what an "allegory" was or what "cunnilingus" meant when the editor wrote a sordid mini-bio of Flaubert's sexual inspiration for the book). And so it is strange that my favorite book should be one from that incredibly naive stage. No, it's not Huckleberry Finn. Although that's close (I read that at 9). No, it's David Copperfield. What can I say, I love a good bildungsroman. To begin with "I Am Born" and to follow David from youth to experience--it's like a good Blake poem. Or rather, two volumns of Blake poems. It's just grand. It sweeps you into the character's life. I felt like I was growing up with David, just by reading his story. I recently re-read the book--it's still as good and as satisfying as I remembered it. I really like this book. It's one of those books I can get lost in and re-read, over and over again, without being bored by some of the technical ship descriptions in Moby Dick or feeling really depressed by reading You Can't Go Home Again.

I suppose I could have post-colonial anxiety about liking Dickens so much (I am a Dickens fan, having read most of his works)---particularly since he wrote the anti-Asian, "yellow peril" essay "Perils of a Young English Prisoner." But you know what, I don't. You can't view things too anachronistically or reflexively dislike something for being canonical or colonial. To be reflexively anti-canon bewilders me--what are anti-canonists or small-minded post-colonialists reacting to if they haven't read the primary texts? Try reading Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea without first reading Jane Eyre. Or try reading Ahab's Wife without first reading Moby Dick. You'll enjoy the retooled stories--but you won't get as much out of them. Similarly, I have found my understanding of Critical Race Theory to be deepened by my reading of Critical Legal Studies--a movement it broke off from and intensely critiqued. You know you like the anti-canon--but read the canon so that your arguments can at least be informed.

I say this defensively. I had a friend once who would say things like "I don't like Shakespeare" without reading him. She also said that a John Singer Sargent exhibit was too "eurocentric" for her liking. Come on! The exhibit was called Sargent in Italy, where he painted his best portraits of the aristocracy! Of course it's eurocentric! But it doesn't mean it's not good. And no, not everything created as a reaction by the dispossesed is necessarily good. The Color Purple has fine politics and themes that I'm very sensitive to. But in terms of its narrative structure and use of language--ehhh. Sorry, I'm just not a relativist in everything. I don't think all aesthetic judgment is merely subjective and thus epistemologically unreconciable with another's. It's not like I make an aesthetic judgment, which you then deem to be epistemologically unverifiable, because there is no way of ascertaining whether my judgment is "true" or how my judgment is based on any "knowable" knowledge. What is the good? etc. etc. Give it up! Even Descartes had to get out of bed to go to the bathroom, even if he wasn't sure he was really in bed or if the bed really existed. You can know things. Or at least try to. You cn judge things for their value, and there is "objective" criteria by which to judge. And though there may be different "versions" of the truth, that statement doesn't deny that the truth "exists."

I think most people aren't relativists. In the name of tolerance we will say that I am no better than you are, that my personal morality is no better than yours, my god isn't your god. But really, most think "I am right and you, because you are in disagreement with me, are wrong." If in my politics I can say that I believe in _____ (affirmative action, right to abortion, separation of church and state) and I believe my choice to be both right and moral--why can't I make the same determination with respect to aesthetic choices? Must everything be relative? Is an aesthetic judgment an essentially "moral" choice (we are talking about the "good"), or are we to submit to the vagaries of taste and individuality such that nothing can be declared as objectively "good"?

There is good art and bad art. And good literature and bad literature. And yes, there's objective criteria by which to judge what is "good." There are formalistic considerations--quality and fluidity of prose, plot, characterization, theme--you will know a "good" book from a Dan Brown book. Dickens is good. Heartbreakingly so--some of the saddest and most moving passages are in Dickens. I am moved by Dickens, and care deeply about his characters. His use of language moves me, and I can see the elephantine structures of industrial age London in my head. I believe that Dickens, notwithstanding the politics of his age running through his literature, or his personal politics, is good. You may disagree. But I still think I'm right. Just as a post-colonial anti-canonic deconstructivist may think s/he is right in disagreeing with me. The difference is, I won't call him or her a lunkhead, but s/he would probably call me a eurocentric "statist freak posing as a liberal. When it's just about "what moves you," it's a matter of preference. I can't argue with the point that you don't find Dickens' prose engaging or moving. But if you disagree with Dickens or refuse to read him on the basis of his him being a "colonial" writer--well, you and me 'bout to fight. The illiberalism of liberal discourse consistently astounds me. In the name of "liberalism" so many are so quick to reject anything as being remotely challenging to their own "enlightened" world view. And that's a shame.

So how does this relate to T.S. Eliot? I like him. He's good. He's one of the founding fathers of modernism. His poetry can be sometimes incomprehensible, but if you have a good translation of the Greek and Latin and the Upanishad excerpts, you're fine. And if you have a critical guide, you can pick up most of the literary allusions you didn't get through your own reading experience. Actually, in college, I made a comparison between "The Wasteland" and Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" that the professor considered "brilliant analysis"---and no, I didn't get that comparison out of a book. When I was in law school, nursing my wounds after a B or my first C, I held onto that moment as evidence that I should have gone to grad school.

What pisses most people off about Eliot is that he's a difficult poet to read--too many literary references, too much foreign language, too elitist--and wasn't he anti-Semitic? (there's still a debate about that, but if you want a real anti-Semite, go to Ezra Pound). If Eliot doesn't move you, fine. If you don't like him for his politics, or if you think poetry in general is contrived and too enslaved to formalistic requirements to be of real beauty--you and me 'bout to fight. Eliot may be elitist, and he may be accused of being personally anti-semitic, but his poetry is beautiful, from the early poetry that spoke of the fragmentation of post-War modern life to the the later poetry that was affected by his conversion to Anglicanism. I'm a secularist, and still I love The Four Quartets. Prose and verse may appear too "contrived" for realists--but that is their beauty. That humanity is capable of such invention, such pleasure. I am not one to endorse the Romantic vision of "art for art's sake"--I am more of the mind that it is art for humanity's sake--that things created to move and delight perform a necessary service to mankind. Through beauty, we are transported to a higher plane--not merely delivered from the mundane, but elevated to a greater consciousness of our intellectual capacity.

Evidence of Eliot's greatness? So many beautiful images. And no, he wasn't a slave to form--he reinvented it. His use of chiasma, lacunae--so effective. There are only a few poets I commit to my fractured memory. Shakespeare. Gerard Manley Hopkins. W.B. Yeats. Dylan Thomas. Ranier Maria Rilke. And Eliot.

I have three books on Eliot. The Collected Poems. An early 20th century edition of The Wasteland I had a friend pick up for me in London. A paperback of "The Four Quartets" that fits in my purse.

Some of my favorite passages from some of his poems:

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.

Come in under the shadow of this red rock,
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Those were pearls that were his eyes.

Let us go then you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;

Footfals echo in the memory
Down the passage we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.


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