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TSE  August 2010

TSE August 2010

Subject:

Can Eliot bve Excused? Truth & Poetry 2

From:

Carrol Cox <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

T. S. Eliot Discussion forum.

Date:

Sat, 7 Aug 2010 22:59:04 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (188 lines)

[Note: I wrote the first post off the top of my head because I was bored
to tears with the nonsense be endlessly spewed by our lists solipsists
who enjoy talking to themselves and themselves in the mirror or others
equally indifferent to the outer world. It is accordingly pretty
disjointed, but on rereading it I believe it sort of gestured in the
right direction, hence this continuation.]

From my earlier post: John Arthos noted of Milton's poem that in it "we"
see" ourselves, at any time in history, setting forth on an unknown
life." [quoted from memory]  Modern literature since then has been
consumed by the 'task' set us by the freakish social relations of
capitalism. 

Expanding on this a bit, a major feature of these freakish social
relations is the absolute separation of act and motive, present and
future. Consider the checkout clerk at the suermart. What is the motive
of this visible action -- the _necessary_ motive and not any passing
interest in the act on her part. That motive lies far outside the bounds
of her daily activity at the checkout cunter. It may be to have a place
to sleep (she owes MasterCard on the bed, and her landlord for the
apartment.) Or it may be to hire a gunman to shoot her idiot lover. It
may be _anything_, except the visible results of her action at the
checkout counter. Even for those fortunate few who "love their work" --
that is a secondary motive, not a _necessary_ one. How many university
professors would continue to teach, _could_ continue to teach, were they
not paid! And in either case the individual has no _necessary_ material
link with his or her "occupation." She could equally well fulfill any of
a number of functions (all quite different actions in appearance) in the
social division of labor. (I'll probably have to explain why this is not
the case, or not the _defining_ case, of all pre-capitalist social
formations, but I'll take that for a given for now.)

These abstract -- isolated -- human individuals come from nowhere as it
were and (attempt to) define themselves by abstract choices of 
"occupation." (Note the difference between John the Smith and John
Smith; the former defines _who_ the smith is; what he is; the latter
defines nothing: it is a mere ___ in the total of social relations.)

-----

So much for background here. Turning to Eliot's poem, the chief
difficulty it poses, I believe, is its genre: that by which it defines
the reader's relationship to the person(a) who speaks. This difficulty
of making genre clear appears quite early in modern literature. Milton
can arbitrarily assume a guise given from the past, of the epic poet,
who speaks directly to the visible audience before him. This is clearly
a fiction in Milton's case (as it had been in Virgil's and Dante's for
that matter, but it works. Just a generation or two later Pope has to
ludly signal the genre: "Awake, My St. John, Leave all meaner things To
low ambition and the pride of Kings." The reader can relax: he is
overhearing a conversation between cultivated gentlemen, and he/she can
enjoy following the ripples of thegive and take that follow. The poet
(of flesh and blood or virtual) and his reader (also either flesh and
blood or virtual) form a virtual relationship which mimes that, or is
mimed by, the action 'within' the poem.  Wordsworth adopts essentially
the same strategy in the Prelude. Browning gets clever: "Who will may
hear Sordello's story told"; "Who would has heard Sordello's story
told." This is a direct challenge to the reader; Poet (virtual) and
Reader (Virtual) mime the tortured search by Sordello (within the poem)
to make sense of his world and his relation to it. It is stretching it
only a bit to say that these are all conversation poems: both internal
conversations and an implicit external conversation between implied
wrriter and implied reader. A sort of miniature  social relation is
formed between virtual persons who  come form nowhere, isolated dots,
and form a relation whee none existed before. Milton's Adam and Eve
remain the structure of them all.

Now the 4Q, and especially the opening of East Coker.  Eliot has his 
own twist, here, on this basic structure. The genere seems to tbe the
Meditation, the Poet's Conversatin with himself. Meditations are not a
body of literature with which I am very familiar, but I believe the
traditional ones were firmly grounded in a given structure, just as John
the Smith is grounded in his visible community as John Smith is not.
Eliot does not follow any traditional form at all but creates his own,
almost solipsistic, mode for meditation, studiously ignoring both
tradition and implied reader. (The reader is implied by the physical
presence of the  printed, bound, copyrighted book.) What I don't
understand (by lacking the musical knowledge necessary) is the
significance of the title. Quartets (specifically, I believe,
Beethoven's late quartete, of which Iknow nothing): First Violin; Second
Violin; Viola; Cello. Four voices. Probably one or many critics have
traced the 'voices' which make up each Quartet, but I am also innocent
of the critical tradition.  But let's blunder along a bit. One voice,
that in each quartet which meditates on language, is distinct enough,
and this, along with the impervious nature of the poems as a whole, give
the poems a tug towards epistemology. How do we know? How do we know
ourselves? And above all, how do we know others? Is the imperviousness
total, writer and reader both windowless monads, reflecting a world
which they cannot know, self-consciously islolated from all others. This
of course is a theme that echoes throughout Eliot's poetry from Prufrock
through the plays. (The only paly I'm familiar with, the Cocktail Party,
I find particularly repellant in its refusal of human community.)  

If human community is not simply a _given_ (as it is in the Iliad and
Dante) but something _created_ by the isolated acts of will of
individuals living in dot-like isolation, then there exists the
_possibility_ that no community, no true society, exists at all, that
the apparent acts creating social relations (the checke begins to ring
up the shoppers purchasers) are in fact illusory, as in the forced
smiles of the Walmart greeter! (I understand that in fact many Walmart
greeters actually _mean_ those smiles I know not how to interpret that.)
The ring gears that left their steel shavings in my hands during my two
months at Detroit Transmission Division of General Mortors (summer of
1955) constiuted a social relatinship between me and the drivers of cars
with a hydromatic transmission, but certainly neither they nor I could
or cared to make much of that relatinship. It seems the (ephemeral?)
relationship between the implied author and the implied reader of these
Meditations is equally indifferent: they seem, even, to celebarate the
impossibility of human community. This opening pasage of East Cokere
focus on a ceremony betokening marriage, dubbed as significant, but then
reduced to dung and death, the cocord reached by those 'ancient' rural
yokels a spurious one, without substance. The poet is trying, of course,
to find himself: The meaning of an entity is its origin (the premise of
historicism), and if that is so, then his "end" (his present existence)
can be visibly grasped in that beginning. But his link to that beginning
is an illusion: the 16th-c rural dance recapitualted in fancy on a
summer evening in the 20th c. His "end" is not explained by his
beginning because that beginningis the fanciful creatinof the end,
signifyign nothign it would seem.

Not making much progress in my meditation on the Meditations of the Rev.
Mr. Elioot. Well, it will have to do for now.

Carrol


Carrol Cox wrote:
> 
> East Coker, especially the passage under consideration. But it is also a
> vile attack on humans as humans, and ultimately quite stupid and,
> apparently, capable of stultifying some readers.
> 
> Auden (quoted from memory)
> 
> Time that is intolerant
> Of the brave and innocent,
> And forgetful in a week
> Of a beautiful physique,
> Worship language and forgives
> Everyone by whom it lives.
> 
> Time that with this strange excuse,
> Pardoned Kipling and his views,
> And will pardon Paul Claudel,
> Pardons him for writing well.
> 
> (Perhaps tomorrown I'll look this up for to check for accuracy.)
> 
> Can Eliot be "pardoned" for East Coker.
> 
> I have recently argued on another list that social or ontological truth
> of literature has to be constructed by the reader, and is seldom to be
> found in the texts themselves. Can we do this for East Coker?
> 
> The passage isolated Eliot from other humans, giving him a dotlike
> existence,  washing  out the whole of the social relations that
> constitute us all in actuality. In my end is my beginnin g and vice
> versa. Wonderful words to play games with for the "abstract individual,"
> existing autonomously and prior to all social relations, entering into
> those relations with an abstract act of will, thereby becoming "his own
> person." (I think I'm quoting a Mary McCarthy novel thee?) And of course
> that is where 'we'(the modern) started, in 1665. John Arthos noted of
> Milton's poem that in it "we" see ourselves, at any time in history,
> setting forth on an unknown life. Modern literature since then has been
> consumed by the 'task' set us by the freakish social relations of
> capitalism. And his poem has set the agenda for a modern poet or
> novelist wrestling to make sense of that unreal reality, The Individual,
> existing apart from and prior to all social relations (human life) and
> choosing to enter into those relations which, he/she hopes, will confirm
> his/her humanity. And this is what, in one way or antoher, each reader
> does with the text in her hands.  This, for exampale, is what the irony
> of the opening sentence of Pride & Prejudice achieves. Near the end
> Darcy tells Elizabeth that she has given him the chance to become human;
> he thought he was human witthout choosing to be, and she showed him how
> inadequate his pretensions were to form a social relation (marriage)
> with a woman really worthy. A man of fortune (in the world Austen
> creates) exists like the persona in East Coker, in inhuman isoaltion,
> and only by discovering that he wants  a wife, namely Elizabeth, does he
> finally choose to be huan, and thereby become human.
> 
> Eliot seems almost to reverse this in the first page of East Coker,
> moving from those who have chosen to be human (in the 16th-c) to his own
> rejection of the possibility of being human in the 20th. His end indeed.
> 
> What can we make of this powerful nonsense? I'm busy on other things now
> but I'll try to do some more thinking on this.
> 
> Carrol

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