T. S. Eliot's aesthetics of immediacy: Language and perception in Knowledge and Experience, The Waste Land and Four Quartets
PhD thesis (2011) University of York
By Jurate Levina
This thesis offers a reading of Eliot as a philosopher and poet whose creative career develops against the backdrop of a phenomenological world-vision which identifies reality with experience and defines experience as the interpretative process of perception. Eliot’s career appears as a series of attempts to express this world-view: he elaborates this notion of reality in his philosophical writing, translates it into a set of premises on aesthetics in his criticism on anthropology and Shakespeare,
and embodies it – as a realisation of these philosophical and aesthetic tenets – in his poetry.
Part I traces the development of Eliot’s aesthetic world-vision in his theoretical writing. Chapter 1 foregrounds the dichotomy that I see underlying Eliot’s thinking throughout his career, the dichotomy between linguistic structure and pre-articulate extra-linguistic experience. I interpret Eliot’s definition of the Absolute as the ideal of the linguistic order, while immediate experience is a term for the lived reality as meaningful, its meaningfulness shaped within and supported by language. Chapter 2 examines the relationship between Eliot’s thought and non-analytic philosophical schools, namely Indic traditions and ontological hermeneutics, in their common attempt to answer
the question of how experience is inscribed into the linguistic structure articulating its meaning. Eliot’s philosophical work answers this question by insisting on and elaborating the definition of reality as dependent on the intrinsic connection between direct experience and linguistic meaning, while his turn from philosophy to poetry appears as a turn to the most adequate discourse of truth. Eliot’s conception of reality underlies his notion of a work of art, the subject matter of Chapter 3. In his critique of anthropology and related literary criticism, Eliot identifies ritual as the perfect form for meaningful experience and as the prototype of the work of art: both are constructed forms that signify experienced reality, and both demand the immediate involvement of the sensing body in the act of interpretation. I demonstrate that this double requirement – for a work of art to be, paradoxically, both a form of mediating meaning and of
immediate experience – determines the shift over time in Eliot’s response to Hamlet, and define the Eliotic notion of aesthetic unity as the moment in which the two aspects of aesthetic effectiveness merge into the event of lived meaning.
Part II examines how Eliot’s poetry realises, intensifies and extends his aesthetic conception of reality. Chapter 4 shows The Waste Land to be a poem that overwhelms readerly perception with aborted possibilities of meaningfulness without articulating the event of meaning. This poem mimics in its language the structure of disordered reality, relying on the reader’s natural inclination to construct meaningful unities in the interpretative act of reading. The poem’s resistance to meaningful aesthetic unity is witnessed most clearly by the
functioning of the Grail legend and of the Tiresias figure, both presented as centring forces but failing to serve this purpose. Chapter 5 looks at Hamlet as a textual bridge between the two poems, containing models of aesthetic representation of both the structures of immediate effects that dominate The Waste Land’s vision of disorder and those of the unifying function found in Four Quartets. Chapter 6 reads Four Quartets as a quintessential poetic performance of the Eliotic aesthetic unity. This poem plays out the perceptual-and-signifying process of interpretative activity in which the world appears as a meaningful totality, directing the interpretative act towards the figure of complete meaningfulness that encloses the poem’s multiple motifs: the composite image of the fire and the rose articulates the oneness of the two constituents of meaningful experience, the fire representing the experiential immediacy and the rose the structural unit that
signifies the experience.
About Dr Jurate Levina