Temporal, Mnemonic, and Aesthetic "Eruptions": Recontextualizing Eliot and the Modern Literary Artwork

Article excerpt

When a theory of art passes it is usually found that a groat's worth of art has been bought with a million of advertisement .... A mythical revolution will have taken place and produced a few works of art which perhaps would be even better if still less of the revolutionary theories clung to them.--T.S. Eliot, "Reflections on Vers Libre"

Although revolutions in art and art theory do indeed occur on a "mythical" level--they are inevitably naturalized, they posit truth in a version of history, they manifest what is "new" in the landscape of what is "known"--they tend to be formed, as most explanations are, in retrospect. In T.S. Eliot's critical essays and in his poem, "Gerontion," he problematizes any such retrospective explanation, grappling with the subjective experience of time, the relationship of the artist to the past, and the creation of the "new" in the realm of what is already known. In this examination, "Gerontion" will serve as a basis of exploration for the mediation of memory (individual and cultural) in our conceptions of the past and future, as well as in the creation of literary artworks. These concerns are also foregrounded by Eliot in his critical works, where he seems to postulate an "ideal order" of art whose very existence must depend upon an act of valuation. (1) Of course, the evaluating force in this "ideal order" is never fully conceptualized, and the reader is left to ponder how new works of art are to be integrated into Eliot's standing notion of "tradition." It thus becomes important to consider how Eliot's notions of memory and time are made manifest in his poetry and criticism, how they disrupt those of the past, and how any act of evaluation concerning a work of art involves an act of recontextualization.


In order to examine these facets of his work, we must engage with current conceptions of the fallibility of memory and of the fictionalizing tendencies of recollection and of historicization. Very familiar now is the notion of the modernist preoccupation with the "new," even though artists like Eliot also struggled to maintain an ordered relationship to the past. (2) In particular, Eliot problematizes our relation to literary works of the past in a new way, creating poetry that, despite his constant use of juxtaposition and reference, still fosters a space of interpretation for the reader where multiple engagements are possible. As recent studies of Eliot suggest, his person and his poetry continue to remain fascinating to readers. (3) After an exploration of current theories about the narrativization of memory and history and the production of the new, this recontextualization of his poetry will show how even the most traditional modernist works deliberately allow for endless framings of meaning over time. In so doing, I reveal an are between modernist ambiguity and postmodernist indeterminacy, showing how Eliot's traditionalist work has, after close examination by the New Critics and then the postmodernists, inadvertently fostered discussion along both lines--a discussion that is only possible because of the liminal spaces retained in his poetics that point to an engagement with the new, the unknown, and ironically, the past.

While this task makes use of such typically postmodern concepts as "openness" and "indeterminacy," it is by no means meant to represent the only way to explore Eliot's work. Rather, we can embark upon a recontextualization of Eliot's poetry and attempt to make a case for how such works allow different framings of meaning over time. Much of the early criticism of his poetry focused on its linguistic opacity, its pervasive allusiveness, and its refusal to guide the reader to any sort of conclusive meaning. More than that, however, Eliot's poetry provided a discomfiting picture of society gone wrong, of the possibility of chaos surrounding those very elements that once provided a stable background for artistic creation--memory, history, and the conception of a longstanding artistic tradition. …


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