08 February 2007

With A Parricidal Toe

Call it one of the Not-So-Good Doctor’s little pet theories, that the greatness of a writer is often verified by the amount of awful criticism that’s written about him. (Or her, of course.) Witness Shakespeare, about whom entire libraries of critical pretense have been built; witness Milton, against whose influence so many Leavisites and anti-Leavisites stood their ramparts and took their aim. And then there’s Joyce, whose Wake effectively necessitated the invention of dynamite, for good and for ill. For reasons that sometimes seem to Bloomian (Harold, not Poldy) by half, great writers seem to attract the radicals, from poseurs to partisans, from revolutionaries to lunatics, from the very best and the very worst of the often motley lot of the committed and committable. Think Blake. Think Coleridge. Think Dickinson and Whitman and Tolstoy and Kafka. It’s as if their individual greatness is not just determined but enshrined by the elaborate and usually absurd catacombs erected around them--- and by the vandals Hell-bent on breaking in.

Mr EliotNo wonder, then, that so much genuinely dreadful criticism has emerged around T.S. Eliot. It’s rare anymore that I find anything about Big Tom worth reading, much less mentioning to anyone else not professionally obligated to do so something that should be read. Herewith, however, an exception. (Just cancel the print option following the link.) Can’t say I agree with all of the assertions contained therein, but the piece at least is lucid and relatively measured in its provocations. Speculations about personality and passion normally suggest a mug’s game, which Mr Eliot famously described poetry as at least once; but there’s a strong sense (as in sensibility), to my estimation at least, that the piece is hovering near something quite profound, even if never quite alights. I’d also take issue with some of the more sweeping-- one might say glib-- statements posed within (c.f., "Bloom’s whole protesting body of criticism"), and I’d complain too that most of the relatively few allowances for Eliot’s words in edgewise are of the all-too-common stock.

It occurs to me now that one of the least observed aspects about Eliot’s oeuvre is its prodigality, its initial rejection of and eventual reconciliation with so many of the literary, cultural, spiritual and intellectual forces that neared him, and of which the rejection and then acceptance of Milton is just the most obvious example. In a way, that’s part of what Four Quartets essays so carefully, the reconciliation of the many influences once chagrined and in those poems so sublimely included: Milton, the old man who died blind and quiet; the familiar compound ghost that Eliot claimed was both Yeats and Swift, but certainly seemed much, much, more like Yeats; even Shakespeare and Coleridge, included and responded to overtly yet gingerly, as if to negotiate less a peace than a detente with them and what they represent. The language of condition, of hypothesis and exploration, is as key to the Quartets as the language of negation is to King Lear. The possibility of resolution, of redeeming time and self, is pursued, or at least approached, forwardly yet tentatively, even parsimoniously, like the threading of a needle. Eliot as a critic never staked a position from which he could not retreat later. There’s something of this too in his poesis, of which every maneuver is less a step toward the block than the movement of a jar in a subtlety that minces subtlety; but it’s still a movement forward (or perhaps a still-move forward), which comprises, or seems to, the greater part of meaning. Criticism seldom has the patience for such progress, and so gets ahead of itself; no wonder, eventually, it typically qualifies or emends itself, often to the point of apparent contradiction. But apparent contradiction isn’t necessarily contradiction.

Yes, that’s the sort of thing nigglers and paradoxicists might say, often to cover their butts, and I’m sure that some would dismiss what I’ve postulated, tentatively and imperfectly, as kind of clerical obscurantism. (It may well be, though I don’t intend it.) But the quickenings of knowledge, much less realisation, are seldom if ever quick; and more, I’d suggest, they only manifest themselves, if they do, as small wisdoms from failure, from the exploration and discovery of inadequacy, and then humility. It’s only in and with humility that prodigality can come. The dystopic observations of The Waste Land (and the blitzed London in FQ) are thus just observations-- or figurations or characterizations, or whatever language suits you best. Traversion beyond requires the troubledness of self to know to go beyond the self and all its negative additions. The failure of this traversion is also the beginning of it, the servitude that becomes freedom, as humiliation and torment impend glory, a la the Christian example, and surrender inexplicably affirms. It’s so Heraclitean as to suggest an elementarity too causally neglected. Thus are the way up and the way down the same thing; thus are reconciliations born in the awkwardness of a return from the Garden of Gethsemane, and the genuine and cynical selves made new.

Or so I think right now, in what almost certainly qualifies as Intolerably Random Criticism. Were I smart, and I am very surely not, I’d prattle on about the misogyny against Celia Copplestone. But then, what was her fate, again? Hmmmmm....

This vague and surely failed approximation of depth is brought to you courtesy Dr J, in honour of a certain someone’s nearly-present birthday. We now return you to your regularly-scheduled prurience and vapidity. So, here ya go.

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