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TSE  August 2001

TSE August 2001

Subject:

Concluding excerpt of Perl lectures

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Mon, 13 Aug 2001 02:50:25 EDT

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8/13/01

  This is the final excerpt of the Perl lectures on Eliot that I have planned 
on posting for list discussion. It continues where my last excerpt left off. 

   In this final excerpt, Perl uses the material that he's previously 
presented on the distinctions between Paleo and Neo-Modernism, as well as the 
new material on the philosophical relativism of Paleo-Modernism (using 
Eliot's Ph. D. thesis as an example) to build to several conclusions about 
Eliot and Paleo-Modernism.

  Regarding Eliot, Perl shows that Eliot rejected the "theoretical" language 
that philosophy was using in 1915, and turned instead to the language of 
poetry. Perl shows that many of Eliot's objections to the theoretical 
language of philosophy in the 1915 time period are similar or identical to 
the objections today's philosophers have to that kind of language, suggesting 
that Eliot was "ahead of his time". Perl also ties Eliot's often-criticized 
extensive use of poetic allusions to a general philosophical underpinning in 
which "meaning is a matter of context" that must take into account a word's 
use throughout time. 

   To me, the most interesting of the general conclusions Perl reaches about 
Paleo-Modernism is his contention that Post-Modernism (and Neo-Modernism) has 
"depended on a premature consensus about the past" that "has required both 
mis-reading and under-reading" of Paleo-Modernist literature.

-- Steve --

===============================

[Perl]:

    Eliot's criterion for excellence in philosophy and his criterion for 
excellence in literary criticism are absolutely interchangeable. And his own 
critical practice represents his notion of appropriate philosophical method. 
What I'm suggesting is that Eliot never really quit philosophy -- he simply 
determined that it was literary criticism and continued doing it in that 
form.  Let me look at one piece of literary criticism, Eliot's essay in 1944 
called, "What is minor poetry?" An innocuous little piece, but 
philosophically interesting. In this essay he raises the expectation of 
'definition' ("What is  minor poetry?" -- you think he's going to define it), 
he raises the expectation of 'definition' in order to defeat the expectation 
of definition. He knows the audience is going to want to know to know what 
minor poetry is, and then he will defeat their expectation. He says, "'Minor 
poetry' is a conversational usage, which means different things to different 
people at different times in different contexts. It cannot be made into a 
dictionary term. It has connotation and no denotation." For Eliot, this kind 
of reticence about the philosophical method **IS** the method of good 
philosophy. . . The theorist, on the other hand, the philosopher, regards the 
received meanings of words as mistakes, as errors that the philosopher must 
resolve in proper definition. (Think for a moment about what Socrates does to 
the word 'justice' in 'The Republic'. He says, "you are all mistaken about 
the meaning of this word, and I, at incredible length, will show you what it 
actually means"). The philosopher thinks that he is supposed to resolve into 
'proper' definitions the 'bad' definitions that society holds for a variety 
of terms. This attitude Eliot called "ruthless and piratical", and, of 
course, pirates do not make very good partners in conversation

 . . . The solution to this problem, according to Eliot, was  not to 
homogenize theory and description, not to blur genres, as post-philosophers 
say now. The solution was "to acknowledge the contiguity and continuity of 
the various provinces of thought." What philosophy required, he said, was an 
infusion of mature common sense, and, to go with that, a language rich in 
complexity and nuance, a language sensitive to changing perspective, a 
language attuned to the vocabulary of the educated non-philosopher. In this 
respect, he said, contemporary philosophy was an absolute and ghastly failure 
.. . . 

   . . . Eliot's argument against theoretical explanation could be compared 
with that of W. V. Quine. Eliot's endorsement of contextual explanation, of 
what he called 'dense description', might be said to resemble the 'thick 
description' that Clifford Gertz proposed in "The Interpretation of Cultures" 
and that Michel Foucault practiced. Finally, Richard Rorty may want to claim 
in Eliot's Harvard papers and in Eliot's life a precedent for his 
post-philosophical era, in which theorists become essayists, and system 
builders become historians of metaphors. 

   What we may be tempted to remark, then, is that, as a philosophical 
thinker, Eliot was ahead of his time. Eliot would have found that wording, 
however, richly comic. And by the time he was convinced to publish his Ph.D. 
dissertation, a half-century after he had written it, Eliot said that he 
"could no longer pretend to understand it". 

   I have now arrived finally at my point. When in 1916, Eliot completed his 
critique of theoretical language, theoretical method and theoretical 
presuppositions, he left them. He turned decisively toward those of poetry 
and literary criticism.  This is my point. So much so, that in 1964 he could 
no longer understand his dissertation. In unpublished lectures of the '40s 
and '50s, Eliot was still posing an unbridgeable choice between two worlds of 
discourse, two kinds of language: the discourse of theory and the discourse 
of poetry. 

.. . .Eliot thought that the alternative to philosophy was not a new genre, 
but a set of old, already existing genres, because, he asked himself, what 
mode of description could be thicker, what mode of description could be more 
comprehensive than those of Henry James or Homer?  Which could be less 
theoretical than that of old fashioned literary scholarship or old fashioned 
historical or art-historical scholarship? 

    . . . Our knowledge of Classic Modernism, our knowledge of Paleo-Modern 
literature is incomplete. Post-Modernism has depended on a premature 
consensus about the past. Post-Modernism, I said a while ago, is the 
fulfillment of a Neo-Modern dream. Its fulfillment has required both 
mis-reading and under-reading. Mis-reading that cannot, I think, survive the 
materials that are emerging now from attics, and trunks, and university 
archives. Eliot's philosophical papers, for instance, trace an origin for 
Paleo-Modern aesthetics that runs contrary to prior conjecture. The 
difficulty, the complication, the allusiveness, the obscurity that 
Neo-Modernists and Post-Modernists disapprove of in classic Modernist 
literature descended from a philosophical position whose spokesmen are  more 
numerous and more accepted now, when Eliot's reputation is at low ebb, than 
in the high tide of the 1920's when the currents of philosophy ran against 
him. In their present attraction to each other, literature and philosophy are 
working at cross-purposes. In literary circles, 'theory' is a status word of 
the avant-garde. For the philosophical avant-garde, 'theory' is a term of 
accusation. 

  Paleo-Modernist poetics arose in opposition to theoretical philosophy and 
responded to a need for a kind of language that would be its opposite, that 
would be the antithesis of theory. It is that kind of language that our 
post-philosophers are now seeking, and that Eliot, out of concerns comparable 
to theirs, embraced. 

  The Paleo-Modern premise is that meaning is a matter of context. This 
premise, Eliot thought, required that all uses of language take into account 
the emotions that cling to words and take into account the variety of every 
words' uses through time. A type of language that aims to 'purify' the word 
of emotional and historical 'baggage' could be said to deprive language of 
human content, and this attempt, Eliot believed, "would be suicide". You are 
removing the humanity from your words. 

   Eliot found the tendency of this suicidal type not only among 
philosophers, where he expected to find it, but also where it least belonged: 
among Modernist poets. "The effect these poets pursue", he wrote, "is an 
arrest at the object in view. The effect is of an ingenious, if sometimes 
perverse visual imagination, in complete detachment from every other 
faculty". Now who did he have in mind? He had in mind the Imagists, he had in 
mind the British Georgian poets, I think he mostly had in mind American poets 
like our old friend William Carlos Williams, American poets whose attention 
to nature as nature seemed to Eliot both arbitrary and dependant on a 
discredited philosophical position. The classic Modernist, on the other hand 
"fixes on definite tokens because of associations with passions that are 
specifically human". And I think it's interesting, given the accusations 
against classic Modernism . . . that Eliot should have found the 
Neo-Modernist aesthetic 'inhuman'.  

   The aesthetic that Eliot distrusted is a dominant aesthetic now. More 
poets are likely to claim William Carlos Williams than T. S. Eliot as their 
ancestor.  And a preponderance would, I think, agree with the critic Robert 
Creeley that the classic Modernists were "wrong from the start" . . . Even 
Donald Davie, the contemporary poet who has taken greatest pains to criticize 
the direction of post-Modernism, even Davie has called for "ordered statement 
and purity of diction in verse". In addition, and as this agenda requires, he 
has sought to portray T.S. Eliot as the tombstone of an era in whose 
literature "there is such subtlety and intricacy that the true key is never 
sounded but exists only as the  norm by which all the voices that speak are 
heard as delicately off-key". This preference for objective statement, in 
Creeley, in Davie, in Williams, this preference for objective statement is, 
from a philosophical point of view, a reactionary preference. It is a return 
to the preference for pure theory. The critics of Paleo-Modern verse are 
responding to a 'theoretical' impulse, historically speaking, they are 
responding to an anti-poetic impulse, when they yearn for a literature that 
says what it means, in a simple world that means things that can be said. 

   But in concluding, I want to return to my main point, and at this time I 
think I can now underscore it, and that is that Classic Modernist procedure, 
in its nuance and complexity is the literary counterpart of a scrupulous 
Relativism. 

======================================================
   -- end of excerpts --

-------------------------------------------------------------------
All excerpts are from a six-hour taped lecture series by Dr. Jeffery Perl, 
"Literary Modernism -- The Struggle for Modern History". The audio tapes are 
offered by "The Teaching Company". They can be purchased by phone: 
1-800-TEACH12, or at www.teachco.com, course #PA292, $39.95.

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