By Jon Cogburn
Carole Seymour-Jones' A Painted Shadow: A Life of Vivienne Eliot is an important book that needed to be written. Like Vivienne Forrestor's recently translated (Jody Gladding) Virginia Woolf: A Portrait, and many books on Zelda Fitzgerald, Seymour-Jones' book sheds bright light on what it was like to be a creative woman at the beginning of the previous century.* In addition to the clearly evident historical interest, these kinds of books are aesthetically relevant. Vivienne Eliot and Zelda Fitzgerald did far more for their respective spouses' arts than serve as muses. Vivienne proofread Eliot's material and pseudonomously contributed to the Criterion. F. Scott lifted whole paragraphs of brilliant prose from Zelda's letters.
At least in the way it is taught as something in the past tense, New Criticism (which T.S. Eliot helped inspire) absolutely prohibited taking information about an artist's life to be relevant to the task of interpreting and evaluating her art. Thinking otherwise was to commit "the intentional fallacy." In the introduction to her book, Seymour-Jones approvingly quotes Randall Jarrell's 1963's critique of this view with respect to T.S.:
Won't the future say to us in helpless astonishment: 'But did you actually believe that all those things about objective correlations, Classicism, the tradition, applied to his poetry? Surely you must have seen that he was one of the most subjective and daemonic poets who ever lived, the victim and helpless beneficiary of his own inexorable compulsions, obsessions? From a psychoanalytical point of view he was by far and away the most interesting poet of your century.
But the purported upshot of these comments is radically confused. First, the intentional fallacy concerns criticism of art, not art itself. It's perfectly consistent (albeit ultimately daft) for a new critic to say that T.S. Eliot's intentions and the history surrounding his work are entirely irrelevant to the appraisal of that work while (non-daftly) at the same time recognizing that auto-biography played a big role in the composition of said work. To think otherwise would be to think that New Criticism somehow automatically entails that most romantic poetry is bad. But a cursory examination of Eliot's own criticism shows that this is not the case.
But the nature of the slide actually validates T.S. Eliot's practice and undermines the lazy attacks on New Criticism. Yes, T.S.'s poetry was confessional. And, pace the new critic, studying his (and Vivienne's) life is an important part of opening up a space of good interpretations (plural) of the poems, essays, and plays. But a highly relevant part of Eliot's biography was his belief in ideas we associate with New Criticism. And if he hadn't believed those things, his confessional work would have been mawkishly sentimental. In the post to which I linked above, I wrote:
Prufrock paradoxicality is in some ways the converse of Wasteland paradoxicality. An artwork is Prufrock paradoxical to the extent that the artist’s intent to make it not exemplify a critical view of the nature of its genre results in the work better exemplifying that nature. Eliot the critic championed an impersonal approach to poetry as a reaction against mawkish confessionality of the romantic paradigm. Ironically, this merely served to allowe him enough aesthetic distance to write much better confessional work, such as Prufrock itself.
So it completely misses the point to sit on one's laurels after accusing an artist of hypocrisy. The realm of things we ought to regard as necessary fictions extends considerably wider than what you get with Straussian political thinkers or neo-Vaihingerian metaphysicians. In art and life, inconsistency with respect to one's own critical views and one's practice is often part of what makes one's practice something worthwhile.
This kind of thing is probably necessary: (1) history, (2) anti-intentionalism goes too far, (3) romantic glorification of the past is dangerous. On the other hand: (1) Tom and Viv, (2) reveling in how messed up people used to be too often serves the same purpose of much of our discourse about the Nazis, to blind us to our own barbarousness, (3) while the purpose is to get us to listen to Woolf, the end result of this kind of thing is often just the opposite. An English Ph.D recently informed me (in all seriousness) that the key to understanding T.S. Eliot’s poetry was his sexual repression. Who woulda thunk? Worse, the implicature was that since we’ve got human sexuality all worked out now, we needn’t bother with the poems any more. Within two decades from now people will start saying the same things, with equal justification and the same implicature, about canonical female writers and their oppression.
The New Critics were absolutely right to dismiss two tendencies: (1) reductively reading a piece of art entirely in terms of what one can glean about the artist and her society, and (2) conversely, using the artist's oevre to irresponsibly speculate about the artist's history and psychology. And, crucially, this latter point is aesthetic, not merely an issue of doing responsible history. In this post I touched on the theme of the distance between narrator and author. Everything that is horrible about Jack Kerouac's work comes from editors (after the success of On the Road) going along with his own false conceits about writerly immediacy ("spontaneous bop prosidy" etc.) and the consequent elision of the entities that are almost always better left apart.
If you confuse On The Road's narrator, Sal Paradise, with Kerouac-the-author you misread the book. Paradise does not get that many of his friends are horrible people and does not get how comical many of their misadventures are. Kerouac and the editors who helped him rewrite the book certainly did, and if you reread the book once you are out of high school you glom onto these things as well.
With the decline in New Criticism, people who should know better are forgetting this. I'm lucky that Seymour-Jones doesn't read Philosophical Percolations. In the above quote and the first footnote below, I advert to the fact that we don't actually currently live in the kind of sexual utopia that a slightly credulous reader of Rousseau might have briefly envisioned some time between 1967 and 68. Seymour-Jones would infer all sorts of things about me as a result of this. Just look at what she does to poor Eliot, outing him as gay on extraordinarily slender evidence (for a nice essay on this, see Suzanne W. Churchill's slightly reader-responsy, but no less interesting for that, "Was Eliot Gay?").
The way Seymour-Jones infers evidence about Eliot's own life from the poems and then circularly turns that back around to produce bad interpretations of the poems makes one long for New Criticism. Here's a representative passage:
So Eliot sat in the vacant square, watching other men come and go into the leering houses which 'exude the odour of their turpitude'. There was an obvious solution to his frustration: masturbation. In Inventions of the March Hare, Colombo's crew maturbate - on deck, and in their bunks. 'Imaginations/Masturbations/The withered leaves/Of our imaginations,' wrote Eliot in "First Debate Between Body and Soul,' in which the conflict between the flesh and the spirit which had so preoccupied his mother is expressed. But such short-term satisfaction did not assuage his loneliness.
This is appallingly bad, not because it's about masturbation. When Ray Monk deciphered Wittgenstein's diary code, one of the thing he was able to find out was that Wittgenstein noted in his diary when he masturbated. This was an interesting and relevant piece of information for his account of Wittgenstein. If Seymour-Jones had a similar diary, I'm sure it could be for Eliot as well. But she doesn't; all she has is some of his bawdy poems that he wrote to entertain members of a Harvard drinking society (to be fair, I'm not sure she knew that; this information is from Robert Crawford's new biography; but also see Loretta Johnson's 2003 "T.S. Eliot's Bawdy Verse: Lulu, Bolo, and More Ties"). Young Eliot was pathologically shy, but could write poetry that made people laugh. So he did. People in the Harvard drinking clubs, and then Ezra Pound after that, found his descriptions of a monomaniacly sexual sea captain and his unfortunate crew to be hilarious. It's absolutely surreal to infer anything about Eliot's own biography (other than what I have just written) from these poems.
Or consider this passage:
His alienation from the female sex is expressed in the image of the crab, the nervous sea-creature whose soft body is protected by its shell from attack as surely as Eliot's mask - the 'envelope of frozen formality' noted by Virginia Woolf - protected him from the world of other people
I should have been a pair of ragged claws // Scuttling across the floors of silent seas . . .
Eliot cannot even visualize himself as a whole crustacean; he is simply a pair of claws feeling across the sea bed, isolated form marine life a surely as he is form human life.
This is so bad in so many ways. First, she's reading the poem as if it's a Running With Scissors type memoir. Good confessional poetry does not exist because it amuses us about the poet's own weirdness, but rather, in most cases and certainly in Eliot's, because it tells us something universal. If you read Eliot's poem entirely in terms of his dysfunctional relationships with women, you're going to read it just as badly as if you read On the Road as a paean to beatnik kicks. Second, the context of the quote in the poem is completely ignored. The phrase is a horrified response to people leaning out of windows into a public street who are nonetheless themselves lonely and the narrator's realization that walking through streets looking at such people makes him even more lonely. It ties in interesting ways to the end of the poem where the narrator projects himself into the future on the beach. The ragged claws contrast with the rolled up pants of the future narrator and they would allow him not to drown when called out by the mermaids. Personifying the whole in terms of a part is a well-worn literary trope that does perfectly workpersonlike labor here. Seymour-Jones' bit about Eliot's inability (medical? aesthetic? metaphysical?) to visualize himself as whole crustacean is bollocks.
Yes the poem is, among other things, about the narrators' inability to get with the normal story about how sexual relations make everything OK. But this wouldn't be interesting unless it powerfully resonated with all sorts of ways every other sufficiently reflective creature is unable to get with the normal story. "Rolling the universe into a ball" might involve the narrator failing to proposition someone for sex. But it's also about trying to make sense of the world and the normal story in wisdom literature about how that could make everything OK. But the only sense Eliot's narrator can make is his inability to make sense.
The idea that there are easy solutions to our various illnesses just is the characteristic illness of our age. Perhaps the greatest symptom of this sickness is the way people who once occupied the role of cultural mandarins have stopped reading literature as posing universal problems, and instead arrogantly reducing all of literary truth to its minor role in the self-congratulatory history of how screwed up people used to be (or with contemporary literature, evidence of the badness of political views our facebook friends disagree with). Far, far better, for art and criticism, to err on the side of the New Critics. Cleanth Brooks never made so much sense as he does today.
*The most appalling thing, to me, from reading such books is the extent to which medicine was your enemy if you were female and sentient. I would like to do a post on this at some point in the future, as I don't think we're that far evolved from the kind of psychiatric hubris that led doctors to confidently prescribe walloping doses of Potassium Bromide** (for menstrual cramps and PMS) to the fourteen year old Vivienne Haigh-Wood. One of the many manifest virtues of books such as this is that, read properly, they radically ramp up your critical eye towards existing states of affairs. Read improperly, they do just the opposite of this. Look at how screwed up those people were. Aren't we*** great for getting sex and gender finally right.
**Now only widely given to breed-standard dogs that have epilepsy as the result of dog-show mandated canine eugenics. For side effects, read the wikipedia article on bromism, or Evelyn Waugh's The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinaford.
***And by "we" I don't just mean the society in which we find ourselves, but also the members of our facebook echo chambers. Hubris, like radical interpretation, starts at home.
****I realize the full extent of the odiousness involved in quoting one's own blog posts. (A) At least I'm doing it in a blog post? (B) It's Friday of the first week of classes; standards must be lowered across the board.]