Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Great Disparager

In the current issue of The American Conservative (not yet online,) George Scialabba writes of T. S. Eliot, whom he characterizes as a "great disparager." I am not as well read in Eliot as I should be, and this article is certainly an encouragement to learn more. Scialabba writes:

He praised Baudelaire, who, in an age of "programmes, platforms, scientific progress, humanitarianism, and revolutions," of "cheerfulness, optimism, and hopefulness," understood that "what really matters is Sin and Redemption" and perceived that "the possibility of damnation is so immense a relief in a world of electoral reform, plebiscites, sex reform, and dress reform...that damnation itself is an immediate form of salvation--of salvation from the ennui of modern life, because it gives some significance to living."

And this from Eliot:

To me, religion has brought at least the perception of something above morals, and therefore extremely terrifying; it has brought me not happiness, but the sense of something above happiness and therefore more terrifying than ordinary pain and misery; the very dark night and the desert. To me, the phrase 'to be damned for the glory of God' is sens and not paradox; I had far rather walk, as I do, in daily terror of eternity, than feel that this was only a children's game in which all the contestants would get equally worthless prizes in the end....And I don't know whether this is to be labeled 'Classicism' or 'Romanticism'; I only think that I have hold of the tip of the tail of something quite real, more real than morals, or than sweetness and light and culture.

12 comments:

elizabeth said...

Eliot; I have read some but have more that I have not read.

This bit you quoted reminds me of St. Siluoan - keep your mind in hell and dispair not - ...

Kirk said...

Damnation be salvation from two more years of Crazy Louie?

Kirk said...

Add a "would" in there somewhere.

James the Thickheaded said...

A very good tonic to the end of another dyspeptic election cycle.

John said...

Elizabeth, I agree about the comparison with St. Siluoan.

JtT, I am so glad the latest cycle is over with as well. I am once more reminded of one of my favorite bylines--"Situation hopeless, but not serious."

melxiopp said...

All I learned of Eliot I learned from Wright:

"Memories, all alone in the moonlight..."

I should read more of him, too. I'd just thought that recently. Oddly, I get him mixed up in my mind with e.e. cummings and regularly spell t.s. eliot all in lower case.

melxiopp said...

Interestingly, "The songs of the musical Cats comprise Eliot's verse set to music by the composer, the principal exception being the most famous song from the musical, "Memory", for which the lyrics were written by Trevor Nunn after an Eliot poem entitled "Rhapsody on a Windy Night".

Milton T. Burton said...

Another interesting recent Eliot article is found here:

http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/t-s--eliot-and-the-demise-of-the-literary-culture-15564

Milton T. Burton said...

I have read a lot of an by Eliot, so I will herein give my opinion: though born and raised in St. Louis, he was descended from a long line of long faced Puritans and kin to all the Right People. As a consequence of this Puritan background, Eliot was never quite able to accumulate enough personal guilt to satisfy himself. As the fellow who put the "P" in "persnickety," sinning did not come easily to him. In fact, I am convinced that the great secret tragedy of his life is that his turds did not come out wrapped in cellophane

Milton T. Burton said...

A further note on Eliot. If one takes such poems as "A Cooking Egg" and "Sweeney Among The Nightingales" (both readily available online) one soon realizes that any meaning to be found in much of Eliot's is so intensely personal as to be useless to the general reader. If one takes seriously H.L. Mencken's observation (and Mencken was a first class literary critic) that poetry should strive to be nothing more than gorgeous word music, then Eliot is indeed---in his rhymed and metered poetry at least---a first class poet. If one thinks that poetry should be more than that, then it is obvious that such poems as "A cooking Egg" are meaningful only to the seventeen people in the entire world who are fluent in French and conversant in Greek mythology, British finance, and London urban geography in the 1930s. That's a rather small audience.

John said...

Milton,
Like I say, I haven't had much exposure to Eliot, but what I have had has been more with his essays, rather than his poetry. That is why this article interested me. Had it just been poetry, I would have probably given it a pass.

Milton T. Burton said...

Oh, I grant that he is interesting. Any educated person who declares "Hamlet" a failure is interesting. I have read a great deal about him myself.