The Braver Thing
- T.S. Eliot by Peter Ackroyd
Hamish Hamilton, 400 pp, £12.50, September 1984, ISBN 0 241 11349 0
- Recollections Mainly of Artists and Writers by Geoffrey Grigson
Chatto, 195 pp, £12.50, September 1984, ISBN 0 7011 2791 0
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.’
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
[*] T.S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style by Ronald Bush. Oxford, 299 pp., £17.50, 17 May, 0 19 503376 0.
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.
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