A Craving for Reality: T.S. Eliot Today

By Kimball, Roger | New Criterion, October 1999 | Go to article overview
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A Craving for Reality: T.S. Eliot Today


Kimball, Roger, New Criterion


It is not to ring the bell backward Nor is it an incantation To summon the spectre of a Rose We cannot revive old policies Or follow an antique drum

--T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding (194-2)

For the immediate future, and perhaps for a long way ahead, the continuity of our culture may have to be maintained by a very small number of people.

--T. S. Eliot, in The Criterion (1939)

It is now our unsparing obligation to disclaim the reactionary Eliot.

--Cynthia Ozick, "T. S. Eliot at 101" (1989)

Mistah Eliot--he dead. This is the message that the natives are sending back about T. S. Eliot. From our vantage point at the end of the millennium (maybe it should be called our "disadvantage" point), the extraordinary literary and critical authority that Eliot once commanded is almost incomprehensible. This is not simply because Eliot no longer occupies the exalted place he once did. It is also because that exalted place is itself largely unavailable. The culture that Eliot's authority both presupposed and helped to sustain--the culture of high modernism--seems to be everywhere out of stock, back-ordered: no longer carried because no longer called for. Today, Eliot subsists mostly as a toppled icon: the source of a handful of indelible phrases, a venerable addition to academic bibliographies, reliable sustenance for the literary jackals who practice the indelicate art of diminution-through-biography. Just so the culture that Eliot sought to salvage through his poetry and critical writings. One gets the impression that, especially for younger observers, the entire world that Eliot's sometime authority animated is irrecoverably strange and distant. For many, Eliot's vaunted power is little more than an occult blend of mystification and tyranny--a bit like the iron charisma exercised by Conrad's character Kurtz, whom Eliot famously memorialized in the epigraph to "The Hollow Men" (1925). It is difficult to say what is more remarkable: the potency of Eliot's influence at its peak or the suddenness of its eclipse.

It was not that long ago, after all, that Eliot was an inescapable presence. William Empson spoke for many when he confessed, in 1958, that "I do not know for certain how much of my own mind [Eliot] invented, let alone how much of it is a reaction against him or indeed a consequence of misreading him. He is a very penetrating influence, perhaps not unlike the east wind." It is worth noting, too, that Eliot's influence was many-sided as well as penetrating. It did not rest only on his achievement as a poet--though it was the poetry, I believe, that provided the ultimate imprimatur, the final sanction, for his authority. Edmund Wilson, a keen but far from uncritical admirer of Eliot's work, noted that "his verses have an emotional vibration, a curious life of their own, that seems almost to detach them from the author." The syllables of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915), "Gerontion" (1920), The Waste Land (1922), "The Hollow Men," parts of The Four Quartets (1935-1942), and other poems were for many people irreplaceable mental furnishings. The realities they evoke was--is?--our reality. Consider the following medley from several poems:

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

   "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?
   Think now
   History has many cunning passages,
   contrived corridors
   And issues, deceives with whispering
   ambitions,
   Guides us by vanities. Think now
   She gives when our attention is distracted
   And what she gives, gives with such
   supple confusions
   That the giving famishes the craving."

   "April is the cruellest month, breeding
   Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
   Memory and desire, stirring
   Dull roots with spring rain."

   "Unreal City,
   Under the brown fog of a winter dawn"

   "These fragments I have shored against
   my ruins. 

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