Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

T.S. Eliot's Etherized Patient

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

T.S. Eliot's Etherized Patient

Article excerpt

       [T]hese things may seem to you delusions, or truisms; but for me
       they are dark truths, and the power to put them into even such
       words as these has been given me by an ether dream.
       --"manuscript by a friend in England" qtd. in William James (309)

When T. S. Eliot wrote from his sickbed to his friend (and printer of the Criterion) Richard Cobden-Sanderson in September 1925, it was amid some of his most trying days since his arrival in London 10 years before. Since July he had been anxiously preparing for his upcoming Clark Lectures at Trinity College, and by September he was not only finalizing his next volume, Poems 1909-1925, for its upcoming publication in November but also assuming the editorship at Faber and Gwyer, a position he would occupy for the rest of his professional career. Over the summer he had watched his wife Vivienne sink rapidly into a state of virtual paralysis from pain and exhaustion, but amid the flurry of his own physical and intellectual activity, the last thing Eliot could have expected was to be himself, in his own words from a decade before, "etherised upon a table" (Complete Poems and Plays [CPP] 3). However, when he arrived at the doctor's office for an ostensibly minor operation on his jaw, he was startled to find a swarm of medical attendants, two dentists, a surgeon, and one particularly conspicuous anesthesiologist who administered ether to him at the outset of a procedure that lasted over an hour. The unexpected operation at the hands of these "masked actors," as he would later call them (CPP 307), brought his activity to an abrupt halt, and the sardonic, jocular tone of his letter to Cobden-Sanderson, scrawled in pencil and with an uncharacteristically shaky hand shortly after his operation, does not quite successfully conceal its disquieting effects on him (Letter). In the letter, Eliot vividly describes the disturbing aftereffects of the anesthetic and apologizes for the various delays and uncertainties over the future of the Criterion. He concludes by suggesting that perhaps things might have been better for everyone if he had not revived from the ether at all.

However serious this dark suggestion may have been, the operation likely compelled him to reexamine the proper role and value of the soul's passive aspects (for example, its potential to be moved or harmed, to receive and suffer rather than give and act) and to consider the merit of what he would eventually call the "immense passive strength" that alone promises spiritual freedom (Selected Essays [SE] 423). When can the body afford to surrender its defenses, or the intellect to suspend its active vigilance? Eliot would later search for answers to these questions in the mysticism of Richard of St. Victor and John of the Cross, but the questions reflect not only theology but also emotional turmoil, not only a desire to reach God but also his attempts to grapple with fear, vulnerability, and helplessness in his earliest poetry. (1) In "Prufrock" and the early poems included in Inventions of the March Hare, he begins to experiment with physical paralysis as a correlative to the spiritual condition of vulnerability and helplessness. But the tension underlying these experiments comes to a head when, in his early literary criticism, he addresses passivity as an essential but dangerous element of the poet's vocation. In the pages of the Criterion and elsewhere, Eliot and his circle undertook a scathing critique of "intuition" and the "inner voice," concepts that privilege passivity and reduce the creative process to bursts of "fitful lyric inspiration," thereby denying the active, rational mind of the craftsman its rightful place. (2) Quoting Paul Valery, Eliot maintains that the poet must be neither an automaton nor a madman but a "cool scientist, almost an algebraist, in the service of a subtle dreamer" (Introduction, Art of Poetry). But he also suggests that poets must cultivate "a kind of sense, a receptive medium" and that in all great poetry "there is always a hint of something behind, something impersonal, something in relation to which the author has been no more than the passive (if not always pure) medium" ("Commentary" Oct. …

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