- T.S. Eliot: The Critical Heritage edited by Michael Grant
Routledge, 408 pp, £25.00, July 1982, ISBN 0 7100 9226 1
These ‘Critical Heritage’ volumes on T. S. Eliot get off to a bad start, and persevere. The chosen items are ‘printed verbatim’, ‘apart from the silent correction of spelling errors and other minutiae’. Why then preserve ‘elegaic’ and For Launcelot Andrewes? Did F.L. Lucas really write, unremarked, that Eliot may have been indebted to something called ‘Childe Harold to the Dark Tower Came’? Yes he did, actually. But the editing and printing of these books are so slovenly that, half-unjustly, one is inclined to give everybody else the benefit of the doubt. Meeting a critic called Cleanth Brook, or a title The Romantic Image, or an Eliot work called ‘Eeldrop and Applepex’, one is in danger of what would here be called apopexy. French words are usually, though not with the assurance of invariability, docked of their accents. English words mutate into such forms as ‘notive’, ‘wordly’, ‘myseries’, and ‘conrete’. Sometimes you start to wonder whether it is the original author (in the following case, Harriet Monroe) or the editor (Michael Grant) or you yourself who must be getting giddy: ‘While stating nothing, it suggests everything that is in his rapidly moving mind, in a series of shifting scenes which fade in and out of each other like the cinema. The form, with its play of many-colored lights on words that flash from everywhere in the poet’s dream, is a perfect expression of the shifting scenes which fade in and out of each other like the cinema. The form, with its play of many-colored lights on words that flash from everywhere in the poet’s dream, is a perfect expression of the shifting tortures in his soul.’ Come again? Or rather, let the middle sentence go.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 5 No. 1 · 10 January 1983
SIR: In relation to Christopher Ricks’s review of my T.S. Eliot: The Critical Heritage (LRB, 2 December 1982), a few comments come to mind. Ricks is at pains to establish who is to blame for the misprints in the texts, and who should ‘take the rap’, the editor, the printer, or some other (unnamed, unnameable) figure or figures. However, despite Ricks’s assertions to the contrary, if in one area ‘responsibility’ can’t be ascribed with certainty, neither can it be elsewhere. We are dealing in this context with too many lacks, as of language. To deny this is to create an effect of disavowal, of present absence, such as that discernible in the automatism of Ricks’s punning. Or in his discussion of the misquotation ‘Where there is no secure foothold’. In Ricks’s correction, the deleted ‘there’ is returned by nothing less than the reading of its absence as the mark of Eliot’s ‘genius’ in its presence. And so it goes on, throughout the review. When Ricks says there is no secure foothold, he is speaking other than he knows. Nonetheless, even the Ricksian paradise would be a lesser place without ‘fing expression’: it is a veritable thing-presentation. For Ricks to construe this as my attempt to evade the ‘rap’ would be merely to compound the joke of his mistaking, the specifications of which are sufficiently obvious.
The question of ‘ear’: does Ricks consider ‘rhythm’ to be in some way inherent in the words on the page? Can this ‘ear’ ‘see’? A pearl indeed. Beyond price, and before what a swine. May not the ‘ear’ differ from the ‘eye’? However that may be, in the lines ‘A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many,’ the repetition/hesitation of ‘so many’ is the signifier of difference (death) across whose ‘undoing’ the crowd flows by an effect of retroaction. The play of (synchronic) difference constructs the (diachronic) text in a register that is not to be grasped by the regressive empiricism of ‘the words on the page’. ‘Rhythm’ is taken up and returned in the alienated form of a difficulty ‘literary’ preconception elides in the authorised banality of its apprehension. These, and related matters, are discussed in the Introduction, though there is, curiously, given the shrillness of the denunciation, no evidence that Ricks has read either that or the book more generally.
By the end of the review, the hallucinated object, ‘Mr Grant’, has been constructed, of which it is possible to know (disingenuously? sic?) what is ‘characteristic’. On the basis of this triumph, a final gift is now unveiled, a review of ‘Marina’ by Empson, thus annihilating ‘Mr Grant’ and ensuring an ultimate identification. In Empson’s review it is argued that the ‘humanist’ meaning of the poem can be taken as the symbol of its otherworldly meaning. Regrettably, for this position, the effect of the poem is to split reading, qua reading, away from the closures of analogy and symbol. The poem measures the space of its own construction across its distance from the notion of meaning such closures imply. In effect, the poem subverts the position of the father, the very thing Ricks, in his guise as Empson, wishes to keep in place. As usual, the misreading is total. I, too, regret that I could not include the item.
In view of the aggressivity of the positions marked out by the text of the review, it is proper to conclude that there is here the trace of a conflictual tension. The desire of the subject is always the desire of the Other; if any object comes to bear the brunt of that desire, particularly an object that is the (imaginary) object of desire of some (equally imaginary) other, aggression is the inevitable precipitate. Beyond this, to identify the signifier with the real is to effect an aggrandisement of the ego by way of a radical foreclosure of the lack of the psyche. It is significant that Eliot’s most important writing is a writing of alienation which renders problematic (to pin it mildly) the subject’s representation of itself as the Christ-bearing phallus. To begin to read Eliot it is necessary to begin to engage with what the Christian tradition has designated by way of ‘repentance’. Certain positions are defined from the outset as misrecognitions, misrecognitions of what, in Eliot’s art, is of genuine mystery. These ‘Critical Heritage’ volumes already have their vindication: they have effected the mapping of what determines at least one such position.
University of Kent
Vol. 5 No. 3 · 17 February 1983
SIR: You are not doing your job properly. An editor must give space to authors whose books have been critically reviewed, unless there is an overriding objection. Would not Michael Grant (Letters, 10 January), as well as your readership, have understood if you had withheld publication of his letter until it had passed a test of literacy?