T. S. Eliot and the Fragmented Selves: From "Suppressed Complex" to Sweeney Agonistes

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When lovely woman stoops to folly, we do not think of death; we think of suppressed complexes ... --ALDOUS HUXLEY, Jesting Pilate (1926)

T. S. Eliot, during ten years of personal stress commencing in 1915 used in poetry the psychological phenomenon of dissociation. The term can mean escaping magically from the body, as a wraith; medically it has meant being taken over in hysteria by a subconscious rogue self. Eliot's adaptations lent strangeness to a variety of poetic explorations.

The short poem "Suppressed Complex" heads the list. It has been in print since 1988 in the Eliot Letters (volume one) published that year. It was sent in typescript along with a letter to Ezra Pound of February 2, 1915. A handwritten copy, evidently with variants, accompanied a letter from Eliot to Conrad Aiken a little over three weeks later.(1) Only one of the variants, "stirred" in line seven was lexical, probably an inadvertent repetition by Eliot of the same word in line five. The Aiken manuscript has become unavailable for editorial comparison; it dropped from sight after Aiken sold it. He did, however, make a typed copy, and from this and from a slightly conflicting typed copy made by a third party, Jane Quinby, its textual details have been inferred. Christopher Ricks in editing Eliot's Inventions of the March Hare (1996), put in the footnotes the peculiarities of the Pound typescript, and printed the presumably later text of "Suppressed Complex" (which varies from the Pound typescript only in punctuation), that of Eliot's holograph from the Berg Collection Notebook in the New York Public Library. His adoption of this text is a questionable choice. In the Berg Notebook the second line has no end-stop after "think." A stop does occur in the Pound typescript, as Ricks records in his textual notes.(2) In printing the line as unstopped he maintained his declared editorial practice of presenting the Notebook poems "in the final form in which the poet left them."(3) Ricks did not report from any text an end-stop in line five, after "fingers." The editor of the Letters uniquely placed one there in printing the Pound typescript version, perhaps with the thought of creating a diplomatic reading.

It is legitimate to read the second line as closed with a stop, accepting "begin to think. / I was a shadow" instead of "begin to think / I was a shadow"-- for Eliot would hardly have introduced the end-stop first, had he not intended to avoid the implication that the woman fears to see, or to imagine, a shadow, when what she fears is something known to her and to be divined by the reader. Eliot was accustomed to omit line punctuation (and he did so even from the terminal line of the companion poem "Afternoon," in the Berg Notebook) if its effect was achieved by an equivalent breath pause. After the second line of "Suppressed Complex" a more definite break, or prolonged juncture, was required. A determined performer of manipulative hermeneutics could ignore the blocking end-stop and locate the shadow solely within the woman's consciousness notwithstanding; but doubtless Eliot assumed a normal reading. Certainly the woman may sense the shadow's presence. What defies probability is that she may be trying not to think that a perceived person in her room is only a shadow. It is comically possible; but in such terms the whole poem would collapse into bathos.

The poem "Afternoon," written some weeks or months earlier, is occupied with trivial appearances theoretically reconcilable in some elusive stable fabric of meaning, the Absolute. The appearances in this snobbish and peevish sketch are derided as a mere shimmer, shrugged off as a clown show. The poem is dismissing the Absolute of F. H. Bradley, which Eliot, in his dissertation in progress, was engaged in repudiating. But "Afternoon" is Bradleyan in having an epistemological focus. "`Suppressed Complex' is psychological" exhibiting behavior on levels of pathology and bizarre psychical experimentation. …