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.