Mastery and Escape: T.S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism

By Jewel Spears Brooker | Go to book overview

The Case of the Missing Abstraction
Eliot, Frazer, and Modernism

It [the mythical method] is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.--T. S. Eliot ( SP, 177)

The "material of, art", T. S. Eliot wrote in an early essay, "is always actual life" ( SE, 93). Early in 1916, Eliot confided to Conrad Aiken: "I have lived through material for a score of long poems in the last six months."1 This material included the illness of his wife, the death of one of his best friends, financial problems, and overwork. For Eliot, as for all artists, the material, the horror and ecstasy of everyday existence, is given; the method of transforming the chaos of life into the pattern of art, however, is not given; the method must be found.

Eliot frequently referred in reviews and essays to the need for a method that would enable modern artists to deal with their material. His obsession with method is an obsession with form, and it is at the center of the modernist crisis. He and many others early in this century felt that they had no method for shaping their material, the chaos of their own lives, the chaos of contemporary history, into art. Faced with the disappearance in many fields at once of shared assumptions about the nature of the universe, they were forced to work in a mythic vacuum. And this mythic vacuum, Auden claims in an essay on Yeats, is the modern problem. He defines it as "living in a society in which men are no longer supported by tradition without being aware of it."2 Lacking that broadly shared and largely uncon-

____________________
1
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound, ed. Valerie Eliot ( New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), x.
2
W. H. Auden, "Yeats as an Example", Kenyon Review 10, no. 2 ( 1948): 191.

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