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TSE  September 2006

TSE September 2006

Subject:

Re: Some questions re The Cocktail Party

From:

Carrol Cox <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

T. S. Eliot Discussion forum.

Date:

Wed, 27 Sep 2006 20:05:11 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (89 lines)

Ken Armstrong wrote:
> 
> 
>    Sometimes Carrol I think your enthusiasms reflect a mccarthyite thinking
> from the other end of the political scale. It doesn't dress up any better
> on the left than on the right.
> 

[The term "McCarthyism" is one of the more misused words in English. It
was wrong to begin with: the real label for The Great Red Hunt of 1947
forward should be Trumanism, since it was his administration which
launched the hunt. McCarthy was a two-bit opportunist who (on the advice
of his secretary) attached himself to an already vigorous movement. But
let that pass. Back to the use and abuse of poetry.]

McCarthy's targets (as well as those of the Red Hunt in general) had
their careers, even lives, smashed, were threatened with charges of
perjury or criminal contempt. One, the great scholar F.O. Matthiessen,
was driven to suicide. It is childish to treat straightforward criticism
of a text with "McCarthyism." You remind me of students in freshman comp
who think their freedom of thought is threatened if you question their
logic. 

Ken seems to equate judgment of a poem with judgment of the poet, and
assumes moreover that "good poem" means "True" poem, or at least that
seems to be the implication here. But as I have pointed out in my other
post today, Eliot himself was intensely interested in the question posed
by "good poem/bad views." I myself am interested in the question, since
I see the "world views" of all my favorite writers* as profoundly wrong,
even evil. [*Jonson, Milton, Rochester, Pope, Austen, Dickens, James,
Pound] It would be sloppy criticism, it seems to me, if in an
appreciation of "To Penshurst" one did not _also_ acknowledge, even
emphasize, how complex the reality was behind the lines,

And though thy walls be of the country stone,
They're reared with no man's ruin, no man's groan;
There's none that dwell about them wish them down . . .

Here, of course, Jonson himself glances at the reality, while claiming
Penshurst to represent an exception. And that comparison grounds the
lines in a historical contingency, in contrast to the lines

The painted partridge lies in every field,
And for thy mess is willing to be killed.
And if the high-swollen Medway fail thy dish,
Thou hast thy ponds, that pay thee tribute fish,
Fat aged carps that run into thy net,
And pikes, now weary their own kind to eat,
As loath the second draught or cast to stay,
Officiously at first themselves betray.
Bright eels that emulate them, and leap on land
Before the fisher, or into his hand.

This is clearly neither a historical claim nor even merely an
exaggeration, but (along with other features of the poem) places the
poem firmly in the analogy of macrocosm & microcosm. It's a wonderful
poem, but one can't really ignore (even while admiring the poem) that
link to historical reality, and the almost certain falsity of the claim
made.

And something quite different but similar happens in that final bit on
Celia in The Cocktail Party. The play had incorporated two realms -- the
realistic realm of social comedy and the quasi-allegorical realm of The
Committee or whatever pulling srings behind the scenes. And Celia's fate
breaks loose from _both_ those realms, just as the "reared with no man's
ruin" breaks the frame of To Penshurst. And it does so by bringing in
the non-western world as merely a playground for western saints to find
their destiny  in. (That's too clumsy, but it points in the right
direction.)

And this of course pulls the audience in. Now, I can't remember whether
I saw the play in Washington D.C. in 1952 or 53, but the matter of
Celia's fate didn't catch my attention then, nor did it in the fall of
1955 when I wrote a paper on the play for Austin Warren's Major American
Writers class at Michigan. (I no longer have a copy of it, but probably
Ken would have liked it better than he likes my posts.) But about the
time I saw it in D.C. would have been when Eisenhower was offering
France a nuclear bomb to use at Dien Bien Phu, and Quentin Roosevelt &
crew were overthrowing the elected (secular & democratic) prime minister
of Iran, which was the real beginning of the present war in Iraq. That
didn't bother me then either. (At the time I was in the USAF, with a top
secret security clearance, attached to NSA, working on Czech border
guard traffic out at Arlington Hall Station -- NSA had not yet occupied
its sumptuous quarters at Fort Meade.) But whatever one thinks of The
Cocktail Party, something is left out of an account of it that does not
give _some_ attention to the implied relationship between the western
powers and the "rest" of the world.

Carrol

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