Academic journal article Yeats Eliot Review

T.S. Eliot's Virtual Europe: The Flaneur and the Textual Flanerie

Academic journal article Yeats Eliot Review

T.S. Eliot's Virtual Europe: The Flaneur and the Textual Flanerie

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

T. S. Eliot repeatedly shifted from one urban culture to another: from St. Louis to Boston, from Harvard to the Sorbonne, from Paris to London, and from Marburg to Oxford. The trajectory of Eliot's urban detour finally settles down in London, and Eliot's choice of living in London remains his signature effort to become attuned to the total phenomenon and sensibility of the age, a resolute advance to the city as the primary solution to the oscillation between social and intellectual conflict. However, Eliot is less a traveling poet than an avowed collector who abandons nothing en route, be it Shakespeare, Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen. (1) Of all the intellectuals writing in the first great heyday of modernism, in my view it is Eliot who turns out to be the one who speaks most eloquently to the postmodernist sense of de-centralization, fragmentation, syncretism, hybridization, and indeterminacy. Though a professed "anglo-catholic" (Eliot's own uncapitalized terms, see Eliot's preface to For Lancelot Andrewes vii), Eliot includes unorthodox, un-Christian, and even seemingly incompatible elements in his works. Though a great defender of tradition, Eliot is interested in the artist as alien and he aspires to "maintain the role of a foreigner with integrity," to be a perpetual outsider with "a source of authority" (Eliot, "Turgenev" 172; qtd. in Jeffreys 400). Eliot's life as a literary Baedeker is devoted to re/mapping a Europe and a European culture/literature imbued with alternate otherness, diversity, and heterogeneity: "It is the final perfection, the perfection, the consummation of the American to become, not an Englishman, but a European--something which no born European, no person of any European nationality can become" (Eliot, "In Memory of Henry James" 1).

As John G. Cawelti points out, exile is both a central theme and a characteristic biographical pattern of artistic modernism (38). With Eliot, exile was both voluntary and involuntary: it began before he was born, was repeated early in his life, and then became his own chosen way of life. Eliot's forefather, Andrew Eliott, emigrated around 1668-1669 from East Coker, Somerset, England to New England (Massachusetts, Bay Colony), America. Eliot's grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, left New England for St. Louis in 1834, where he established a Unitarian Church and founded Washington University. His father and mother brought the family back to the North Shore every summer, and in 1896 built a substantial house at Eastern Point, Gloucester, Massachusetts. In retrospect, Eliot is heard confessing a sense of alienation and displacement caused by such a complicated familial background: "I perceived that I myself had always been a New Englander in the South West, and a South Westerner in New England" (Eliot's Preface to Edgar A. Mowrer's This American World). In 1906, Eliot entered Harvard and remained there until he took his B.A. in 1909 and M.A. in 1910. Peter Ackroyd presumes that Eliot must have felt that he was not perfectly educated at Harvard, and that Eliot may have recognized--as most Bostonians did--"the narrowness of the horizon" (Ackroyd 39), for he eventually persuaded his father to subsidize his first trip to Europe in October 1910. He stayed mainly in Paris until July 1911, attended lectures at the Sorbonne University, and visited Italy and England briefly. Having been given a Sheldon Travelling Fellowship, which Harvard offered him to return to Europe in 1914, Eliot arrived in London by mischance in August 1914. The First World War made him an exile just as he had begun his study at the University of Marburg. Eliot stayed in London until the Michaelmas term at Oxford began in October, and then he took refuge in Merton College to begin work under Harold Joachim. Eliot took the first step of self-imposed exile in June 1915 when he married Vivienne Haigh-Wood on impulse at the Hampstead Registry Office, which shocked and agitated his parents. …

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