Vishvesh Obla wrote:
> I pick on ‘you’ since you have been hurling a lot of
> what seems to me as abuse on a great poet.
What's wrong with abusing a great poet? Notice, no one on this list has
(at least recently) abused Eliot's _poems_, and Yeats's great rooted
blossomer to the contrary, it is possible to separate (I think I'm
quoting Eliot himself here) the man who suffers (or is on occasion a
perfect asshole even) from the poems he writes.
Reading one of the essays in the Laity & Gish collection, I came upon
this statment Eliot made in 1919: "[M]ost people are too unconscious of
their own suffering to suffer much." Badenhausen quotes this in
connection with his discussion of Celia in _The Cocktail Party_, in
which he tries (somewhat successfully) to show that view of women
Eliot's poems was richer & less misogynistic than is often assumed. But
it caught my attention for quite other reasons.
Eliot ("the person who suffers" as Eliot says someplace, in contrast to
the person who writes) is long dead, and can be neither harmed nor hurt
by what we think of him personally. But this statement (or its
equivalent) lives on in the thought of all too many and, besides being
flatly false, it is contemptible. Moreover, there is in this case no
dramatic or poetic context to control or focus its sense: it is a flat
declaration on human reality.
Badenhausen cites this sentence in contrasting Celia with the
The drama finally approves Celia's choice of martyrdom -- and the
poetic language employed on her way to that martyrdom -- because she has
chosen the opposite path of the Chamerlaynes. After acknowledging that
Celia "will go far," Reilly constrasts her choice with that of Edward
and Lavinia, who will return at the end of the play to "[t]he stale
thoughts mouldering in their minds./ Each unable to disguise his own
meanness / From himself, because it is known to the other" (CPP, 420).
The play circles back to where it began, a geometrical demonstration of
linearity, unity, and reconciliation. Yet these qualities have been
entirely subverted by this point -- through Celia's revolt -- so that
the closing of the curtain on this symbol of marriage highlights the
deficiencies of a culture that endorses it as a fit model and projects a
grotesque hollowness, as the specter of Celia hovers above that couple.
The great irony of the drama is that Celia's heroic silence allows her,
alone among the characters, to act. For the Chamerlaynes, numb to their
surroundings and their inner thoughts, life becomes a series of evasions
designed to avoid self-examination and intimate communication. As Eliot
pointed out in an early essay for _The Athenaeum_, "most people are too
unconscious of their own suffering to suffer much." Celia, on the other
hand, like the Chorus before her, recognizes that the way to growth and
redemption leads through the pain of self-recognition that results from
any authentic witnessing ("martyr" means witness in Greek). . . .within
the model I have drawn that privileges absence, lack, and silence,
Celia, despite her tragic end, is the only "successful" character. . .
.Celia's absence at the end of _The Cocktail Party_ operates as a foil
to highlight the shallowness of those characters left on stage, wasting
away in their presence.*****
Though I wrote a paper on this play for Austen Warren in the fall of
'55, I can remember now neither the paper nor (very well) the play. From
a Washington D.C. performance I saw in 1952 I can only remember Reilly
taking gin & water -- a glass of gin with one drop of water. Accepting
Badenhausen's interpretation, then, I find the play hard to swallow --
and I accept a good deal of poetry, fiction, and drama that manifests
views to which I am antipathetic. Personally, I find martyrdom offensive
-- having for nearly forty years pushed the political slogan, We will
accept casualties but no damn martyrs. I did my best to dissuade a
former student from deliberately courting arrest in the symbolic attack
on nuclear warheads. (I agreed with his purposes, but thought he would
be more of use organizing than sitting in prison.) This, I would
suggest, was also the (much healthier) attitude of Webster's Duchess and
of Sophocles's Antigone. The Chorus attempts to console the latter:
And yet, of course, it's a great thing
for a dying girl to hear, even to hear
she shares a destiny equal to the gods,
during life and later, once she is dead.
To which Antigone sensibly and wrathfully responds:
O you mock me!
Why, in the name of all my fathers' gods
why can't you wait till I am gone --
must you abuse me to my face.
Antigone is no martyr -- had she the power, it is clear, she would tear
Creon's heart out with her bare hands. I find Eliot's demeaning of
ordinary life as contrasted to martyrdom as perverse as any of the bits
of obscenity printed in _March Hare_.
Four Quartets have poetic virtues that make their distasteful world view
acceptable. Celia's martyrdom (her isolation - or idiocy as the Greeks
would have said) is too much. Running out of time, though I have more to
say on this.
*Richard Badenhausen, "T. S. Eliot Speaks the Body," Laity/Gish p. 211,
citing _The Athenaeum_ (May 30, 1919): 392.