Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

On Comic Modernism: Impersonality in Eliot and Keaton

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

On Comic Modernism: Impersonality in Eliot and Keaton

Article excerpt

This essay seeks to illuminate the comic underpinnings of the modernist concept of impersonality in order to rethink the rhetorical affinities between T. S. Eliot and Buster Keaton. By rejecting romantic models of self-expression, the poet's compositional strategy in Inventions of the March Hare and the slapstick filmmaker's acting technique in The Playhouse exceed notions of fixed identity.

"If you're not here in person, are you in your books? I'm afraid to read your sacred books. I don't think you're in them either."

"To write a book is to try and be a person one never in real life actually is."

--Joseph McElroy, A Smuggler's Bible

Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in the theoretical doctrine of impersonality as it pertains to Anglo-American literary modernism in particular and cultural practice in general. Inspired in part by the work of Sharon Cameron and Tim Dean, the New Modernist Studies of Rochelle Rives and Christina Walter have convincingly moved the discussion of impersonality beyond the decades-old condemnation of it as a politically reactionary and ethically reprehensible compositional priority. No longer satisfied simply to condemn the rhetorical method as being either complicit with authoritarian social structures or as functioning as a means of evading responsibility for behaviour of which one should be ashamed, critical scholarship is currently revisiting the concept of impersonality in the hopes of better comprehending the philosophical and sociohistorical specificity of artistic (and scientific) production in the early decades of the twentieth century.

It is not surprising that, in their respective projects, the commentators mentioned above all confront the aesthetic formulations and poetic output of T. S. Eliot. For example, drawing heavily on Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, Rives argues, before engaging a broader selection of British writers, that "arguments embedded in [...] ["Tradition and the Individual Talent"] support a more nuanced, politically complex understanding of impersonality that interrogates the usefulness of locating emotion in the individual subject" (11). The progressive function of impersonality, according to this reading, is that it dissolves the boundary between subject and object at the level of affect, disrupting in the process conventionally humanist notions of the individual self in favour of more collective connections or new kinds of intimacy (14). Similarly, Walter, toward the end of her inquiry, seeks to move beyond established equations of Eliot's embrace of an impersonal aesthetic with his regressive investment in "misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia." Rather than take Eliot's critical stance as evidence either of his need to indulge in personal subterfuge or of his "cryptofascism," Walter focuses on the degree to which it reveals his "participation in the modern scientific vernacular of embodied vision" (215). For her, Eliot's summary accomplishment was to adapt for artistic use the ideas informing the research of J. W. N. Sullivan, who was science correspondent and deputy editor for the Athenaeum when Eliot worked there.

Equally central in the current return to the issue of impersonality has been a reconsideration of Eliot's practical achievements. Cameron, for instance, takes the poet's valorization of "the extinction of personality" (viii) as the point of departure for a sustained interrogation of the way in which key passages in Four Quartets enact (and thematize) a compromised individuality (145). For her, the radical discovery of the poem is that identity may be eliminated from experience so that "what is represented is experience that is particularized without being particularized as someone's" (149). This process of becoming no one involves as well an erasure of the opposition between the living and the dead. In the poem, the dissolution of individuality coincides with a collapse of the distinction between the living and the dead because both are shown to be caught up in a general state of dying that precludes identifying them as opposites (148-49). …

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