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The Braver ThingChristopher Ricks
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T.S. Eliot 
by Peter Ackroyd.
Hamish Hamilton, 400 pp., £12.50, September 1984, 0 241 11349 0
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Recollections Mainly of Artists and Writers 
by Geoffrey Grigson.
Chatto, 195 pp., £12.50, September 1984, 0 7011 2791 0
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Peter Ackroyd has written a benign life of T.S. Eliot. Given the malignity visited on Eliot, this is a good deal. Fair-minded, broad-minded and assiduous, here is a thoroughly decent book. It has none of the sleazy sanctimony of Robert Sencourt’s biography, or the vanity of T.S. Matthews’. That it is a feat to be without spite is coincidentally manifested by the appearance of Geoffrey Grigson’s Recollections. Grigson’s jacket proffers, as a representative gnome: ‘I never heard T.S. Eliot laugh.’ Back in the book this stands on its lordly own in a section of ‘Items’. Some have never heard Geoffrey Grigson do anything but sneer. His Recollections are happy to rebuke everybody for sneering, especially at Eliot: ‘Eliot in those Thirties was still a name to earn a sneer’; Auden’s work ‘allowed for sneering much as Eliot’s The Waste Land only eight years before had allowed for the inimical sneering, which still had not died away’. Perhaps Grigson never heard Eliot laugh because Grigson’s company was inimical to laughter. Elsewhere Grigson likes to offer himself as better acquainted with Eliot than are those who wrongly suppose him a glum man. How gracefully the names are floated: ‘Braque might be there, or Jean Hélion, from Paris, or Eliot gayer than his reputation, actually singing “Frankie and Johnny”.’

Frankie and Johnny, or Tom and Viv? He was her man, but he done her wrong? The marketers of Ackroyd’s book have done both him and Eliot wrong in sensationalising it. The new Vanity Fair, which unlike the old one is not a magazine for which a T.S. Eliot would write, announced its excerpts as ‘The First Mrs E., No Mermaid She’. Ackroyd is entirely without such fishy vulgarity. Plainly it is the Tom and Viv bits which we are all likely to home in on; what can be said is that Ackroyd treats these painful and touchy matters of marital misery with dignity and delicacy. He shows for how long the marriage was not as black as the lugubrious relishers liked to paint it (both Bertrand Russell and Virginia Woolf were impure witnesses for the prosecution), and he shows too that there was often a sportive collusion, easily misconstrued, between Eliot and his first wife. The happiness of Eliot’s second marriage necessarily looms less large. Partly this is because loom isn’t what happiness does. Literary biography these days (Lowell, Berryman) is bad news that stays news. Anyway, for reasons of honourable privacy, we are not to know much about how it was that Eliot and his second wife, Valerie Eliot, made each other so touchingly happy. Hereabouts there is little news, and for the biographer no news is bad news. Ackroyd, a good man, does not repine at this. He simply devotes to these last eight years of Eliot’s life only 15 pages: ‘Happy at Last’.

The lines of Eliot’s life are well-known, and Ackroyd does not effect, or seek to effect, any radical re-limning of them. His strength is local detail, patience, circumstantiality, respect. He denies that there lurks any secret which would unlock an enigmatic Eliot, though he argues that Eliot compacts even more paradoxes than the rest of us. He eschews psychobiographical plunges, and this makes the book at once more satisfactory to the hungry and less satisfying to the greedy. But who are we, to seek, as if in some duel with Eliot, satisfaction? Ackroyd does not bring himself to quote Eliot’s styptic comments on a biography in 1927: ‘The chief interest of this early biography of Spinoza by a mediocrity who knew him, but who could hardly have appreciated him, is that it shows that Spinoza had already become at his death a symbolical figure, without being in any way a myth.’ (Ackroyd need not wince: he is not a mediocrity except in the sense that we all are, in comparison with such a genius as Eliot.) One of the sadnesses of Eliot’s story is that at his death, nearly forty years after he wrote these words, he had indeed become a symbolical figure but had not managed to stave off becoming a myth. There is a poignancy of premonition in these words of 1927, the year in which Eliot became a Christian and an Englishman. You can hear it in the unenvious longing for composure in this man who was by no means merely discomposed but who did shudder at such a possibility: ‘Here and there is an anecdote, but all anecdotes of Spinoza are essentially the same, in that they all illustrate the same attitude of that composed mind.’ Ackroyd shows, as in a different way did Ronald Bush in his recent book,* that there is integrity even in Eliot’s disintegrative impulses, yearning for the stable repetition of ‘the same ... the same’. More simply heartening, Ackroyd’s book is a witness, oddly for a biography, to Eliot’s having achieved what he so admired in Spinoza: ‘He was a man of the greatest reticence, but with nothing to conceal; a man of intensely “private life”, but wholly transparent.’

Ackroyd’s telling of the facts deserves nothing but praise, and a good many of the facts are new. His interpretation of Eliot’s nature, though, deserves to be contended with, since it is properly contentious. In one continuingly important respect it distorts Eliot, though it does so with Eliot’s complicity, Eliot sometimes choosing – for reasons of modesty and pride and prudence – to present himself as being other than his doings. For Eliot is to Ackroyd a person of lifelong caution and even timorousness, whereas to me he is rather a person of diverse principled temerity. Being J. Alfred Prufrock would actually ask more courage than is usually supposed; writing ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ was an act of great courage. Ackroyd will say of Eliot in 1920 that his pride and self-preservation ‘did lead Eliot to a most extraordinary caution in both private and public affairs’. Ackroyd speaks of Eliot as ‘a timid man’; he quotes with concurrence Virginia Woolf’s wishing in 1923 that Eliot had more ‘spunk’ in him, and refers to ‘his tentativeness and indecision’. And this vein, of insisting on Eliot’s thin-bloodedness, runs right through to the end of Eliot’s life, where it is said of his efforts on behalf of the incarcerated Pound that ‘in this case at least his native caution was justified,’ and where it is equably reported that Pound and Wyndham Lewis ‘hoped that the Nobel Prize would free him of that cautiousness which had smoothed his ascent.’

Now it would be wrong to imply that Ackroyd nowhere speaks of Eliot’s resolve or willpower, but the prevailing impression is of the essential Eliot as quintessentially cautious. But this misreading, as it seems to me, can be plausible only if you positively disattend to what the man did. Caution was what Eliot sufficiently possessed to be able – with a discreet air, of course – to throw it to the winds. What after all are the great choices of life that a man might make? He might choose to leave his native land, and to take another nationality. He might choose to leave the secure prospects of a profession to which he had been trained, and to launch himself not even upon a boat but upon a raft. He might choose to marry a strange woman whom he suddenly and unexpectedly loved, against the manifest and unrelenting wishes of his family. He might later choose, against all his own hopes and his own sense of marriage as a sacrament and against his family’s codes, to admit that he had no choice but to leave this wife, despite his anguish at her anguished madness and despite his knowing how exposed to malignancy this decision would leave him. He might choose to become a Christian, a faith not held by his family (Unitarians were not, for Eliot, Christians) or by his most urgent admirers or by many of his truest friends. He might choose, again despite all the prurient gossip which it might excite, to marry at the age of 68 a woman 38 years his younger, a woman who had been his secretary. He might choose to write scarcely a poem for the last twenty years of his life. He might choose to embark upon a career as a popular playwright, when thought by most of his intimates to be old enough to know better. And, over and far above all this, he might, throughout a lifetime of his wrung poetry, choose always the braver thing, choose always to be profoundly inaugurative and never to repeat not only others but himself. If Pound and Wyndham Lewis thought that the publication of Four Quartets demonstrated a poet’s ‘cautiousness’, they should have thought again.

The point is not whether all of Eliot’s choices of life were wise, but whether they were deeply decisive. His life seems to me an awe-inspiring succession of great decisions. Ackroyd necessarily speaks of particular decisions, often humanely, but the atmosphere of his book tacitly disparages them. When he says that ‘Eliot’s life was governed by such choices,’ I want to say: no, Eliot’s life was the government of such choices. Since Eliot was not a buffoon or a pair of ragged claws, he indubitably had to steel himself. But the trouble with speaking, as Ackroyd does, of ‘his native caution’ is that this then becomes central or ruling, whereas for every ounce of native caution Eliot had at least an ounce of native boldness. Ottoline Morrell’s gibe at Eliot – ‘the undertaker’ – misfires, given that he truly undertook great things.

If this is so, Ackroyd underrates how sheerly unusual was Eliot’s course of life. Eliot may speak of his pusillanimity, but it may be pusillanimously self-gratifying of us to concur. Yet at the same time Ackroyd does the opposite: he finds Eliot more unusual, in my judgment, than is warranted by Ackroyd’s own adducings. Ackroyd repeatedly finds ‘odd’ or ‘peculiar’ or ‘curious’ or ‘extraordinary’ actions or reactions in Eliot which are not patently any such thing. To say this, is to agree restively with Donald Davie, who has praised Ackroyd’s book for demonstrating Eliot’s essential commonplaceness. To Davie, though, this makes the book valuable as the exposure of something lamentable, whereas others of us may judge it to be – both in Eliot’s life and in his art – a testimony to Eliot’s commonalty.

Ackroyd regularly registers with an air of mild surprise things in Eliot which are quite properly ordinary. It should not be cause for even one raised eyebrow that when Eliot’s friends sought to inflict charity on him in order to release him from working in Lloyds Bank, Eliot ‘seemed shy and awkward, covered with embarrassment when money was mentioned’. The episode is indeed worth recounting, but for a different reason: that Eliot was an honourable and decent and in this happy respect an ordinary man, and that honourable, decent ordinary men are embarrassed by such charity, not least when they simply don’t want it. A newspaper then printed a lying account of Eliot’s having pocketed the charity money while nevertheless staying on at the bank, and it referred to Eliot’s ‘nervous breakdown’. Ackroyd says: ‘not only was his nervous collapse trumpeted to the public – which for such a proud and reticent man was an intolerable intrusion – but he also believed his position in the bank to be jeopardised by this account of his supposed double-dealing.’ True, but the sympathy isn’t perfectly judged: Eliot was indeed ‘a proud and reticent man’, but even if he hadn’t been, this would still have been ‘an intolerable intrusion’. Ackroyd’s manner too much invites us to consider Eliot a special case in ways which minister to the condescensions of unneeded kindliness.

Again, there is Bertrand Russell’s going to bed with Vivien Eliot. Since Russell may have been as much a liar as he was a lecher, the facts are uncertain, and it is uncertain whether Eliot knew anything. Ackroyd says: ‘It was a situation with which he was not yet used to dealing, and no doubt, given his own reticent and defensive temperament, he would have found it peculiarly difficult to respond in an active or decisive manner.’ But ‘peculiarly’ is too slippery there: it is peculiarly difficult even for the very unpeculiar to deal with such situations. There are, and were, very few husbands simply and equably ‘used to dealing’ with such a situation, and a man would not have at all to be of a reticent and defensive temperament to find it peculiarly difficult to respond in an active or decisive manner. Naturally one knows what Ackroyd means, and he is well-intentioned, but the cumulative effect of these ways of putting it is to alienate Eliot from the central and ordinary human responses, as who should say: ‘For Eliot this was no joke.’ Vivien Eliot made lacerating scenes at parties and suchlike. Ackroyd’s solicitude for Eliot here seems to me punctilious and, though not misplaced, misvoiced: ‘For a man who was peculiarly attentive to manners and to the formal courtesies of “society”, the behaviour of a deranged wife would inevitably lead to anxiety and a sense of shame not far from panic.’ Well, yes, but again a man wouldn’t have to be peculiarly attentive to manners to find that the behaviour in public of a deranged wife would lead to anxiety. Exactly the wrong sort of specialness is being attributed to Eliot by this way of couching it. Davie’s attribution of commonplaceness would be nearer the mark, though without the perversity of simply scorning the commonplace.

The other question about Ackroyd’s very capable and capacious book may be as much a question for the Eliot estate as for Ackroyd. As everyone knows, this is not an official or authorised biography. Eliot wished there not to be one. True, everyone suspects that in the end Mrs Eliot will prefer there to be an unwished substantiated biography instead of unwished unsubstantiated ones. When the play Tom and Viv was exciting passions, the correspondence columns were full of the clang of claims against and by the Eliot estate. All this has now re-surfaced – cries of censorship, of obstruction, and so on. One is reluctant to add to the nagging, and clearly Mrs Eliot has more important things to do in her viduity than endlessly to set the record straight. The snag is that it really isn’t clear from Ackroyd’s biography exactly what the constraints now are. His acknowledgements pages end with an anti-acknowledgement: ‘I am forbidden by the Eliot estate to quote from Eliot’s published work, except for purposes of fair comment in a critical context, or to quote from Eliot’s unpublished work or correspondence.’ But unfortunately neither part of this is quite clear, and this matters because there are a great many occasions when, in simple fairness, one wants to know whether Ackroyd is paraphrasing because he is forbidden to quote. He is not a first-rate paraphraser, and when he is dealing with things in the public realm (where a reader or a reviewer can test the matter), he is inclined to be, not inaccurate exactly, but approximate. Thus Eliot did not ‘define’ wit as ‘the recognition, “implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible” ’. Eliot said of wit, ‘It involves, probably, a recognition ... ’, which is not the same as a definition. No doubt, though, Ackroyd is largely to be trusted. But when he hobbles, is it because his legs are tied? Forbidden ‘to quote from Eliot’s published work, except for purposes of fair comment in a critical context’: did this book have to accept a retrenchment such as was inflicted on Ronald Bush’s book? The proof-copy of Bush had many more lines of Eliot’s poetry than survived; he and the publishers were made to quote less, not from unpublished or uncollected or private materials, but from the poems themselves.

In 1917 Eliot wrote with prophetic exactness about Turgenev, expatriate in Paris: ‘A position which for a smaller man may be merely a compromise, or a means of disappearance, was for Turgenev (who knew how to maintain the role of foreigner with integrity) a source of authority, in addressing either Russian or European; authority but also isolation.’ Eliot published this but did not collect it. Did Ackroyd choose, mistakenly, to paraphrase it rather than to quote it? ‘In the same period he had written of Turgenev’s exile in Paris that the Russian knew how to make use of his transplantation – how, by maintaining his role as a foreigner, he could acquire authority.’ This, not surprisingly, is immeasurably weaker and less precise than Eliot’s words: it loses all the wit and penetration of the parenthesis – ‘(who knew how to maintain the role of foreigner with integrity)’ – a parenthesis itself exiled and authoritative and stamped with integrity whereas most parentheses are compromises or means of disappearance. If Ackroyd chose only to paraphrase, I think he chose wrongly, a false economy. All these choices have their relevance to Eliot’s life of choices.

Added to which, there is the ambiguity of ‘forbidden to quote from Eliot’s unpublished work or correspondence’. For it is not entirely clear whether ‘unpublished’ governs ‘correspondence’ too. From Eliot’s unpublished work or from his correspondence? From Eliot’s unpublished work or from his unpublished correspondence? If this biographer had any choice in the matter, it would be culpable (or rather the culpability would be his, since there exists a culpability in any case) that the book at some places constitutes a regression. Ackroyd has worked well and hard, and it is painful that the state of explicit and exact knowledge of Eliot is in some ways less advanced here than in, say, the collection which Allen Tate edited and which Ackroyd draws on, T.S. Eliot: The Man and His Work (1967). For the contributors to that volume, among them Stephen Spender, Herbert Read and Bonamy Dobrée, were all allowed to quote from Eliot’s correspondence. Compare Ackroyd with what Ackroyd was presumably not allowed to publish although it had previously been published (this being what I mean by regression):

To what territory or tradition he did belong is another question, and one which he himself found it difficult to resolve: in a letter to Herbert Read he described how he could not consider himself to be a Northerner in the United States because of his Missouri origins, and how because of his Northern ancestry he could not claim to be a Southerner. He did not believe himself to be an American at all.

Some day I want to write an essay about the point of view of an American who wasn’t an American, because he was born in the South and went to school in New England as a small boy with a nigger drawl, but who wasn’t a southerner in the South because his people were northerners in a border state and looked down on all southerners and Virginians, and who so was never anything anywhere and who therefore felt himself to be more a Frenchman than an American and more an Englishman than a Frenchman and yet felt that the USA up to a hundred years ago was a family extension. It is almost too difficult even for H.J. who for that matter wasn’t an American at all, in that sense.

The letter, made public nearly twenty years ago, is so much more illuminating and exact than Ackroyd’s approximation. It isn’t just that the words ‘an American at all’ were said by Eliot of Henry James, not of himself, but that the letter has comedy, pathos, resilience, and – because of the rueful third-person and the movement of it all (no pause after ‘and who so was never anything anywhere’) – an entire absence of self-pity. Ackroyd catches none of that, and it is very bad (differently bad) if this is because they pinioned his arms.

John Ruskin wrote to Charles Eliot Norton: ‘So, I know perfectly well that you would work for five years, to write a nice life of me; but I don’t care about having my life written, and I know that no one can write a nice life of me, for my life has not been nice, and can never be satisfactory.’ Eliot, who has his affinities with Ruskin, might have said much the same. Still, Ackroyd has written a nice life of Eliot. If this is more a matter of valuable niceness than of invaluable nicety, he could probably retort that because of the Eliot estate no one (yet?) can write a nice life of Eliot.

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Vol. 10 No. 21 · 24 November 1988

The reviews of Peter Ackroyd’s T.S. Eliot (‘The Braver Thing’, by Christopher Ricks, LRB, 1 November 1984, and ‘Eliot at Smokefall’ by Barbara Everett, LRB, 24 January 1985) raise questions that deserve comment, as does their failure to address other questions no less pertinent – a failure symptomatic of the approach of the ‘empirical’ English to the philosophical side of Eliot’s writing.

Ackroyd begins his book by remarking, in the ‘Prelude’, that Eliot ‘once confessed’, in an unpublished letter, that the best of his poetry ‘had cost him dearly in experience’, and he goes on: ‘the connection between the life and the work is here explicitly made, and it will be the purpose of this book to elucidate the mystery of this connection.’ And he concludes his book by quoting Eliot to the effect that ‘we also understand the poetry better when we know more about the man.’ Ackroyd is pretending, in these passages, to give Eliot’s views on the relation between life and work, but in fact he quite ignores what Eliot has to say. And what Eliot has to say, early and late, so far from sanctioning Ackroyd’s stated purpose, is a criticism of it.

Ricks, in his review, is concerned only with one side of the relation – the man apart from the work; and he offers an interpretation of the character of the man at variance with Ackroyd’s (‘For Eliot is to Ackroyd a person of lifelong caution and even timorousness, whereas to me he is rather a person of diverse principled temerity’). Though Ricks commends Ackroyd for eschewing ‘psychobiographical plunges’, and observes that Ackroyd ‘does not bring himself’ to quote Eliot’s styptic comments on a biography of Spinoza, he has nothing to say about Eliot’s views on the relation between life and work – the biographical relation. His other concern is with Ackroyd’s handling of his material. Forbidden to quote from the unpublished work or correspondence, Ackroyd reports on this material by paraphrasing it. Since the use of this material is the chief novelty of the book, the paraphrasing is a very real concern. Ricks, examining Ackroyd’s procedures in dealing with things in the public realm (where they can be tested), finds that Ackroyd is inclined to be ‘not exactly inaccurate but approximate’, though ‘no doubt … largely to be trusted’.

Consider, for example, the passage quoted above, the quotation from Eliot which, together with the paraphrase of a letter in the ‘Prelude’, serves as a framework for the book. In a BBC broadcast on Edwin Muir, Eliot says: ‘The work and the man are one: his autobiography, and the lecture on Orcadian folk poetry … help us to understand the poetry better when we know more about the man.’ That is presented as a quotation, but it is, apparently, a paraphrase. But the important point is that Ackroyd has made no effort to understand what Eliot is saying here (or elsewhere) about the man and the work.

As for the paraphrase of the unpublished letter in which what Eliot is said to have ‘once confessed’ is construed as making explicit the connection between the life and the work, one cannot help wondering about the ‘confession’. Is it supposed that Eliot had denied a relationship between life and work and is now confessing to such a relationship? ‘I do not say,’ Eliot wrote, ‘that poetry is not’ “autobiographical": but this autobiography is written by a foreign man in a foreign tongue, which can never be translated.’ The locution ‘written by a foreign man in a foreign tongue’ is taken from F.H. Bradley’s treatise on history. Similarly, in the world of a great poet, ‘the creator is everywhere present, and everywhere hidden.’ Again, if you attempt to explain a poem by tracing it back to its origins, you get ‘further and further away from the poem without arriving at any other destination.’ Ackroyd does not (to borrow Ricks’s phrase) bring himself to quote these, and similar, remarks, and it must be said that the two passages Ackroyd uses as a framework for his book are spurious reports of Eliot’s views.

Everett, in her review, is, unlike Ricks, much concerned with the question of the biographical relation. She accepts, in principle, the relation between the life and the work, but objects to Ackroyd’s account of the terms. He focuses, she writes, on the public or external existence of the man, and identifies the poet with this existence, whereas it is the inward life that gets into the poetry, and this life plays no part in Ackroyd’s account of the man or his work, the result being that both terms of the relation are distorted and falsified.

Thus, according to Ackroyd, biography is a ‘conventional fiction’, for one can report only the ‘observable life’, not its ‘hidden perceptions and experiences’. But, Everett says, poets almost by definition have the gift of being able through language’ to communicate their inward experiences to other human beings’. Indeed, the idea that ‘we have no means of understanding the inward life of a writer,’ she says, is contrary to what ‘all good writers … have assumed and stated’ – and here she appeals, not to Eliot, but to Borges.

Everett is hardly less attentive to Eliot’s views than is Ackroyd, whom she is criticising for his notion that biography can deal only with the outer, not the inner life. If what she is advancing is a ‘communication theory’ of poetry, such a theory, according to Eliot, ‘will explain nothing’. For one thing, it confuses the ‘poet’s feelings’ with the ‘poetry’. For another, the experience in the poem may be so different from the original experience ‘as to be hardly recognisable’. And though communication may take place, what is communicated ‘was not in existence before the poem was completed’.

The difference between Ackroyd and Everett is merely one of emphasis, not of principle or premise; and neither can be said to represent Eliot’s views – or to show any sign of recognising them.

To begin with, Ackroyd’s notion of biography as a ‘conventional fiction’, though he does not say so, may owe something to Eliot’s remarks, in this connection, about ‘external facts’ and ‘psychological conjectures about inner experience’, including ‘the putative antecedents in the mind of the poet’ – his remarks, not his meaning. Ackroyd’s distinction between the ‘observable life’ and its ‘hidden perceptions and experiences’ assumes the division of experience into inner and outer (mental and extra-mental, ideal and real): in short, separate private worlds and a common external world. But this division – the starting-point of dualistic realisms, and the common assumption of discussions in morality, history, biography and literature – is the object of detailed criticism by Eliot, so that it can hardly represent Eliot’s position. For Eliot, there are no inner experiences of the sort studied by traditional psychology (no special class of mental objects or independent psychological context), nor is there any such thing as introspection or internal perception. On the other hand, we can, according to Eliot, make an object of everything we experience, so that, in this sense, there are no ‘hidden perceptions and experiences’: all are, or can be made, public – all objects are public. Thus, for instance: ‘To say that one part of the mind suffers and another part reflects upon the suffering is perhaps to talk in fictions. But we know that those highly-organised beings who are able to objectify their passions, and as passive spectators to contemplate their joys and torments, are also those who suffer and enjoy the most keenly.’

This Prufrockian attitude is not an exercise in introspection – the ‘talk in fictions’. Nor are the objectified passions those of popular psychology, for the prejudice is, as Eliot says, that ‘feeling is something subjective and private’. But with Eliot the objectified passions are ‘real objects’ in the world of objects. Furthermore, the objectified passions constitute the special province of art (aesthetic objects). Thus, in one Dante essay, ‘no emotion is contemplated by Dante in and by itself,’ and, in another Dante essay, there is ‘the objective poetic emotion’. Elsewhere, it is ‘the impersonal emotion of art’, or ‘a presentation of feeling’ (not in the psychological sense: for the presentation is the object, not a part cut off as the mental aspect, the real object being something else).

The I, the subject, the self of popular psychology is an abstraction from a whole of experience, an abstraction treated as an independent reality; the object side, too, is an abstraction regarded as an independent reality, subject and object, self and world, being externally related. (The experiencing subject, in this division, is arbitrarily neglected: you abstract the mind from the world, and abstract the world with it, and double the world to get your world, which is not the world of the experiencing subject.) This abstracted subject – this unreal abstraction – is the subject of Ackroyd’s biography, and of Everett’s comments on the biography (in this sense, Ackroyd and Everett are, with few exceptions, any commentator on Eliot you care to mention). Further, the division of experience into inner and outer, which produces the self of popular psychology, also produces the popular theory of thought and expression. Words are signs of the inner life (thought and feeling), which is prior to, and independent of, the words in which it finds expression and through which it is communicated to other minds; and ‘ideas’ are signs of external things, which are independent of the ‘ideas’, and real because independent. (The division of experience into inner and outer sets up a system of terms and external relations which, though it has a certain provisional status in practice, is metaphysically indefensible.) The ‘ideas’ in this representational theory of knowledge are ideas in Locke’s sense of the term (still the basis of popular psychology). Again, the Lockian ‘plain historical method’ also accounts for the popular theory of explanation by origins or causal explanation: explanation of the work in terms of the life – as though the life were an indubitable datum, and not itself, like the work, an intellectual construction: an interpretation, and as such essentially unverifiable. These are the theories assumed by ‘Ackroyd’ and ‘Everett’, theories criticised and repudiated by Eliot. The theories have, of course, been repudiated by more recent philosophical criticism – which attests to the persistent popularity of the theories.

There are, then, two contexts: the ‘real world’ of popular thought (psychology and epistemology), and the reality of metaphysics. Eliot’s terminology takes its meaning from the metaphysical context, and outside that context is meaningless. (It is no good saying that, after all, Eliot and his commentators are talking about the same thing. There is no same thing – independent of context, and the thing varies with the context.) The difficulty is, as Eliot says, having to use the same words for different things. And the difficulty is compounded because Eliot, in his critical prose, suppresses the context from which his terms take their meaning. The result is a prose that is virtually intractable (not unlike the poetry in the sense that it cannot be paraphrased but only elucidated). Eliot’s uncritical readers appear to be satisfied with merely a grammatical meaning. His critical readers, for whom either Eliot does not mean what he says or what he says does not mean anything – although these readers, given their assumptions, are not wrong, they are mistaken: for what Eliot says has a definite meaning in the context of his philosophy – has in this sense a ‘literal’ meaning – though the meaning is unstatable.

Lewis Freed
West Lafayette, Indiana

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