Saturday, April 01, 2006

looking for the salvageable in Eliot, part one

Of an ill-formed series taking issue, circuitous and oblique, with Terry Eagleton; why not? Lots of people bash New Critics; these people don't always entirely convince. Fight for yourselves, New Critics! Here then, is potential ammunition (beware of smug, ye Agambenians):

From "Tradition and Individual Talent:"
The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all. And emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him. Consequently, we must believe that "emotion recollected in tranquillity" is an inexact formula. For it is neither emotion, nor recollection, nor, without distortion of meaning, tranquillity. It is a concentration which does not happen consciously or of deliberation. These experiences are not "recollected," and they finally unite in an atmosphere which is "tranquil" only in that it is a passive attending upon the event. Of course this is not quite the whole story. There is a great deal, in the writing of poetry, which must be conscious and deliberate. In fact, the bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him, "personal." Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things...

To divert interest from the poet to the poetry is a laudable aim: for it would conduce to a juster estimation of actual poetry, good and bad. There are many people who appreciate the expression of sincere emotion in verse, and there is a smaller number of people who can appreciate technical excellence. But very few know when there is expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.

-T.S. Eliot, in The Sacred Wood

See what you have gone and ruined, even smugger age of (hyper-cyber-crypto-uber) analysis.


CR said...

Totally, Matt. I'm a pretty smug Agambendian myself, but in the desert island situation, forced to choose only 2 works of lit crit to take, it'd be Illuminations and The Selected Essays of T.S. Eliot.

(Oh, petites madeleines! Purchased the latter, it comes back to me, in UK Faber & Faber edition at Shakespeare and Co. (vastly overrated, that place) in Paris when I was but 19 years old. Probably went and drank merlot and smoked a cigarette or several just afterward with the now-wife at the Tabac de la Sorbonne on Blvd. St. Michel... Shit shit shit...The time it flies...) Still have it, right here, and heavily underlined.

I can't believe it was already a decade ago. I can't believe it was just a decade ago.

Can find an image of said cafe here:

Sorry about this.

Matt said...

I do think Agamben may be, in a certain re-storative or limited sense, more faithful to 'Eliot than one might be inclined to assume.

spleen said...

"the emotion of art is impersonal"

I understand Eliot's implied critique of Wordsworth here, I believe, but his alternative to Romantic concepts is not clear. The emotions caused by art are (must be?) impersonal, or the poet's emotions must be impersonal? Is there some easy way to separate the personal from impersonal? Perhaps Eliot was suggesting theme as much as emotion.

I for one prefer writers--say Melville-with a big canvas, lots of color, contrast, complexity etc., but then others might prefer a more minimal or even "confessional" approach. In some sense, poesy seems sort of innately personal and subjective; and a big novel--Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment, Ulysses, etc.-- more suited to producing the sort of impersonal, objective emotion Eliot was suggesting.

Conrad did the TS Eliot-sublimity thing better than Eliot himself could ever do.

Matt said...

Less sure about the desert island bit.

(Some less-than-secret utopias being hardly worth keeping, &c.)

CR said...

Two recommendations:

Take a look at the Hamlet essay on the objective correlative (you probably already know this one...)

And the Othello essay on Othello's final speech.

Terrific stuff.

Jonathan McGee said...

I understand that Agembenians are the second leading producers of smug, right behind drivers of hybrid cars.

Matt said...


surely you mean strict Eliotonians and anti-Eliotonians (or is it Eliotites, I can never remember) :)

Anonymous said...

but in the desert island situation, forced to choose only 2 works of lit crit to take, it'd be Illuminations and The Selected Essays of T.S. Eliot.

surely this was ironic?

and yes, one need only look to South Park these days, for the devastating critiques of Bonoism.

Matt said...

People, there is a Haloscan commenting system in place now. Please stop making me work.