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Vol. 10 No. 21 · 24 November 1988

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Eliot and Biography

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Ackroyd begins his book by remarking, in the ‘Prelude’, that Eliot ‘once confessed’, in an unpublished letter, that the best of his poetry ‘had cost him dearly in experience’, and he goes on: ‘the connection between the life and the work is here explicitly made,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 Forbidden to quote from the unpublished work or correspondence, Ackroyd reports on this material by paraphrasing it.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

In and out of copyright

One aspect of the controversy over the text of Ulysses which was not dealt with in Professor Mendelson’s brilliant exposition of the respective positions of Gabler and Kidd (LRB, 27 October) concerns copyright. Bearing in mind that Ulysses will fall into the public domain in 1991, it may be surmised that the publication of a ‘corrected’ text represents an attempt to start a new copyright period running, so that rival publishers could be warned off from poaching for another fifty years. Other recent instances of a similar nature come to mind – of publishers hiring scholars to edit the texts of authors whose copyright is about to lapse, with the same object in mind. An extreme example was brought to my notice in which the textual editor himself is claiming personal copyright in the emendations, however trivial, he has made to his author’s work. It is time to scotch these ploys by bringing a test case, in which the court would be asked to rule (as I believe to be the law) that, when an already published text is re-edited, no new copyright period is established unless the re-edited text differs so substantially from the earlier one as to amount to a new work. Clearly the Gabler text of Ulysses would not satisfy this criterion.

John Whitehead
Munslow, Shropshire

Father’s State

Reviewing Michael Rogin’s ‘Ronald Reagan’, the Movie, Stephen Greenblatt says the author ‘makes as much as he can of the alcoholic shoe salesman from Dixon, Ohio’. But Reagan was brought up in Dixon, Illinois! Rogin got the right State.

Bernard Richards
Brasenose College, Oxford


In Barbara Everett’s article ‘Impersonality’ (LRB, 10 November), the following sentence should have read: ‘In this presentation of conjugal love as fairly dreadful and character-testing, but lacking any real alternative in experience, this theoretically realistic and humorous novel is not unlike The Waste Land, the show-piece of Modernism and Impersonality.’

Editors, ‘London Review’

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