Saturday, May 27, 2023

A cat must have three different names: Eliot as a young critic


Cynthia Ozick wrote a famous reckoning with  T.S. Eliot – and his problem with the Jews – for the New Yorker in  1989. The beginning of the essay is marred by the “impression journalism”that identifies Ozick with the proto-cultural warriors, always on the lookout, then, for the decline in Western Civ. Ozick claims, without any references whatsoever, that Eliot is no longer taught in the colleges and the universities, and that he is only remembered for Prufrock. This, at the end of a decade in which the longest running musical on Broadway was called Cats. Ozick, like her soulmates on  the conservative cultural magazine of that decade, the New Criterion, dispenses with providing evidence as though that, itself, were some persnickety politically correct trick. Thus,  there is no grubby looking through actual college catalogues to prove her point, or looking at Anthologies to see if Eliot has so palpably dwindled. In this kind of journalism,  impression quickly reduces to fact and one can move on to nostalgic evocations of better times. While Ozick did not  debase herself by going to actual anthologies, I did.  The 2003 Norton Anthology includes The Wasteland, Prufrock, and one of the Four Quartets. I am almost positive the edition in the 80s included the same material.

Cultural warrior stuff always turns out to be a dinner table impression among emeritus professors viewing the youth with the usual bitter eye.

However, Ozick, while ticking off the cultural warrior boxes – the decline of high art, the substitution of “equal opportunity for minorities” rather than canonical reading lists that include Shakespeare and Jane Austin, etc. – does see two things about Eliot: the anti-semitism and the Prufrock-ery of the “impersonality” urged on the poet – the latter a canonical motif among the New Critics. For coming out foursquare against Christian nationalism, Ozick probably earned some demerits from her rightwing comrades.

Good for her.

It is true, though, that English departments in the fifties and the sixties were crammed with people who thought “real” literary criticism began with Eliot’s collection, The Sacred Wood, 1920. However, the young bucks in the English departments in the seventies had access to and enthusiasm for a whole buncha translated material – and here I don’t just mean the French theory tribe. Bakhtin and Benjamin opened people’s eyes to the 20s. Bold spirits, who went on to found October Magazine, also discovered the Russian formalists and futurists. In the light of, say, Skhlovsky’s Art as Technique from 1917, T.S. Eliot’s once admired The Perfect Critic from 1920  looks positively provincial.

Partly, this is a matter of style. The great essayists of the 1920s, Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, all brought a voice to the essay. From Montaigne’s essays on down, the voice has made its uneasy truce with history (personal and suprapersonal) in the essay. Musil, at the time Eliot was writing, was brooding on how the essay was working its way into the novel.

Eliot brought into the essay his prestige as a great poet and his vocational uncertainty – or rather, the uncertainty of where, outside of poetry, he fit. He was not a teacher, but he adopted the teacher’s tics in the essay. Thus, there is a rumble of great names, often for effect; there are adages that would make good witticisms, but are poor proofs; there is Eliot’s conflicted sense of the modern, and his resolve to close down all those uncertainties with doctrine.

How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot. Indeed.

The Perfect Critic begins with a quotation from one of Eliot and Pound’s enthusiasms of the time: Remy de Gourmont.  de Gourmont’s heavy fan, Pound, made large claims for him that have no corresponding echo in France, or elsewhere. Eliot, like Pound, seems entirely oblivious of Mallarme. Gourmont was a member of the Mercure clique, until he fell out with Rachilde, the wife of the editor. Still, he was a considerable figure in the symbolist circle around the Mercure. The Mercure, In October, 1935, devoted most of an issue to Gourmont, while acknowledging that after World War I, he was not a much quoted man. “Remy de Gourmont, who had enchanted the friends of letters by the openness of his mind and because he joined boldness to clairvoyance and the sense of ideas to that of language, was soon cast aside. His name is not forgotten, but when young litterateurs cite him, they distance themselves from him with a summary judgment that shows that they know neither his work nor him.”

If I had world and time, perhaps I would know Remy de Gourmont and his work – but I know enough of it to know that Eliot’s yoking of Aristotle and Gourmont in his essay was, to say the least, ill-judged. Although since Eliot takes Aristotle on such general terms, perhaps it was the best he could do for Gourmont. Nothing, to me, is more embarrassing in Eliot’s essays of this time than his presentation of major “Western” figures in a sort of powerpoint way, evoking their greatness but forgetting to explain their pertinence. The pertinence of Aristotle to Eliot’s own sense of criticism seems to consist of the fact that Aristotle analysed tragedy. And you can too!

Such is the spirit.

Eliot was very concerned to exhibit his disaffection with the modern era, that age of disintegration, but his essays in the twenties bear the mark of the twenties. For instance, the decade’s appetite for record making: most homeruns hit, fastest Transatlantic plane time, etc. In that spirit, Eliot likes to begin by giving you the recordholders.

Coleridge was perhaps the greatest of English critics, and in a sense the

last. After Coleridge we have Matthew Arnold; but Arnold I think it will

be conceded was rather a propagandist for criticism than a critic, a popularizer

rather than a creator of ideas.

The paltering perhaps, the I think it will be conceded no wonder Eliot overlooks Hazlitt, or Ruskin, or the romantic critics de Quincey, the Keats of the letters, Shelley who would put down Coleridge was the greatest if they felt it was, and would dare to be damned assertively. I think it will be conceded is the kind of pleading one leaves to the family soliciter, fudging the will.

What Eliot is pleading for, in this essay, is a criticism that takes its objects objectively and without emotion. Now, it is true that the emotion of a geologist finding an unusual rock compound must be separated from the compound itself, though it may be a clue to its rarity or the surprise of its being where it is. But there is little reason to think cultural products are best viewed in that same light or even that they can be viewed in that same light. The argument that even texts with which one violently disagrees can be understood formally is true. But we distinguish criticism from a lesson in grammar by something other which is what I would call voice. Eliot knew his voices the Wasteland is full of them but he didnt know what voice to do literary criticism in. Woolf inherited her right to literature, and Lawrence fought for his. Eliot, on the other hand, writes as though he were turning it in for a grade.

Which is unkind. Eliot, like any other freelancer, had to make his way around a literary scene in England that was either avant-garde and run on the trust funds of some rich heirs and made by Wyndham Lewis types who were cadging drinks and dwelling places and counting their pence, without any retirement plan. Eliot, one feels (oh, I am doing it!) always had a retirement plan.

Eventually, of course, Eliot gave up the notion that criticism must, done right, be done without any passion and plumped for the sensibility, a word that can encompass instinct and intellection without too much question.

Whenever I think I am being too harsh on the T.S.E I love as a poet, I return to his essays and find things like the following, the first paragraph in an essay on Hamlet:

Few critics have ever admitted that Hamlet the play is the primary problem,

and Hamlet the character only secondary.  And Hamlet the character

has had an especial temptation for that most dangerous type of critic: the

critic with a mind which is naturally of the creative order, but which

through some weakness in creative power exercises itself in criticism

instead. These minds often find in Hamlet a vicarious existence for their

own artistic realization. Such a mind had Goethe, who made of Hamlet a

Werther; and such had Coleridge, who made of Hamlet a Coleridge; and

probably neither of these men in writing about Hamlet remembered that

his first business was to study a work of art. The kind of criticism that

Goethe and Coleridge produced, in writing of Hamlet, is the most misleading

kind possible. For they both possessed unquestionable critical

insight, and both make their critical aberrations the more plausible by the

substitution of their own Hamlet for Shakespeares which their creative

gift effects. We should be thankful that Walter Pater did not fix his attention

on this play.

That last line sticks its thumb in the whole massive buttocks of this opening. Poor Coleridge and Goethe, to be condescended to by such a prick! However, perhaps this made them laugh at the high table and Eliot so thirsted and hungered for the high table. Later, in the high Cold War, when Eliot men were nestled in their English departments, probably somebody who also wanted his seat at the high table made heavy weather of this Hamlet, Coleridge and Goethe business.

Eliot himself, to give him a bit of credit, latter cut his Hamlet article for an American edition of his essays, pronouncing it callow.

Callow, the fidgety flitigy filtering cat.







Thursday, May 25, 2023

defining hatred, deflating hatred


Yeats is the great poet of defining hatred – the hatred that makes the self definite to itself.  He is the great poet of the moods of this hatred: he understood, as well, what sacrifice it coerces from the heart, what a burden it is to perpetually carry around an enemy’s list. Of course, being a Tory of the ultra kind, he saw hatred as being a property of the Left. Being a poet, though, he suspected it was a property of being Yeats.

In the Prayer for his Daughter, there’s a marvelous, a legendary account of this:

My mind, because the minds that I have loved,
The sort of beauty that I have approved,
Prosper but little, has dried up of late,
Yet knows that to be choked with hate
May well be of all evil chances chief.
If there’s no hatred in a mind
Assault and battery of the wind
Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

Of course, we know Yeats’s circus animals, and this loveliest woman born has a name and a habitation and a place in the revolt against the British and the Anglo-Irish elite. But it is Yeats’s grudging and not fully uttered sense that his love of a “sort of beauty” has become an excuse for a free-ranging hatred, a justification for failure and bitterness – the failure, indeed, to avoid the bitterness of age.

I’m of an age, myself, when many of my hatreds, at least in the realm of the beautiful and the ugly, are disappearing. Disappearing not through my conscious effort, but because…. Partly this is having a young son whose gothic tastes are so different from mine that I long ago gave up arguing, and partly this is because the nursing of hatred is a thing that goes counter to my bent. Or rather, if I hate, I want to do it enthusiastically. My hatreds are political and existential and pop out of me in that way. But as for aesthetic hatreds…

I remember, when I was in my twenties, that my Dad once said something about how he liked Dylan. This shocked me to my soul. My teens were devoted to Dylan’s music, partly out of love, and partly because my parents hated it. How can you like the music your parents like? That at least was the era of teenhood in which I grew up. Admittedly, helicopter parenting was unknown in the  suburbs of Atlanta at that time. The kids scattered and played and came home from the streets and the little bits of wood that the developers hadn’t gotten around to bulldozing, and the parents never kept a close tab on it all. An unimaginable laxity, from the p.o.v. of the 21st century.

As part of that teenworld, you expected complaints from your parents about the music you played. Those complaints helped define you.

I wonder if this happens anymore?

So, I was naturally shocked by my old man’s comment. How could such things be? Had it been a game?

Well, of course it was a game. Now I’m older than my Dad was then. And I surprise myself. When I was a teen, I had distinct and fierce hatreds, especially for the faddish music of my high school peers. Elton John? Are you kidding me? Z.Z. Top? Southern rock in general? Myself, I found this stuff hugely offensive to who I wanted to be. And yet, decades later, I am watching a movie, Almost Famous, about that seventies teen-rock scene, and the sound of some Elton John song slithers out on the soundtrack, and I have only, only … recognition. What a strange thing that is.

The teen I was is caught in the parent I am. And all I can say to the acned glare of that distant pup is: An intellectual hatred is the worst. And so they go, into the dark…

Wednesday, May 24, 2023



I am oddly proud of the fact that I lived about a bicycle ride away from ground zero of the start of the second Drug War.

That war started in a birthday party in Decatur, Georgia. in his book about the drug wars of the Reagan era – which stretched into the Clinton era, until the pharmaceutical companies got seriously into getting Americans wasted -  Dan Baum makes the claim that it all started with  Ashley Schuchard, the thirteen year old daughter of an English prof at Emory, whose invitees to her birthday party in 1976 all got stoned, shocking her mother:: “During Ashley’s birthday party, Schuchard was amazed to see twelve and thirteen year olds stumbling around red-eyed, giggling, and obviously stoned. She saw the flicker of matches in dark corners of the back yard. She could smell burning reefer.”

Carter was elected president that year. As Baum puts it, drug enforcement was a low priority for the Carter administration. In general, the middle class, or the upper middle class that controls the discourse in the U.S., was generally unconcerned about marijuana and much more concerned about sex – watching it, getting it, reading about it, and undergoing a great long bubble of divorce that often involved it. Xavier Hollander, a D.C. madam, was the celebrity of the season.

Sex went with drugs. In 1976, for instance, when I was a freshman at Tulane, my entire dorm room floor was either stoned on weed, high on acid, or kicking back with cocaine. The speeches my roommate would make to me when he was snorting cocaine! Fortunately, I have forgotten them all.  I have a vague sense that they were about fucking while running on coke. Wasted and fucking. His suggestion for all mankind.

Schuchard went on to found a parents organization that lobbied politicians to do something about the spectacle of 12 and 13 year olds getting wasted, but for a while it looked like decriminalization of marijuana and a general relaxation about cocaine was in the works. This, as it happened, didn’t happen. Schuchard and other parents across the country began to organise against drug tolerance. This was picked up by the right – Reagan, among other things, had no tolerance for any libertarianism about marijuana or cocaine. Although, of course, once in office the country was flooded with cocaine, and a bit of the profit was siphoned off to the Contras. U.S. intelligence agencies have long carved out their own domain in the global commerce in drugs, for their own purposes.

They torture, they profit from drugsales, they overthrow governments. We don’t what they do, we don’t know what they did in Korea in 1951 or what they are doing now. American democracy, man.

In my high school, I was a pretty good buddy of the local “pusher” – although he was less of a pusher than a pothead who chose selling pot and cocaine – which was beginning to get popular, especially with the football team -  over a newspaper route, as he could never afford the amount of pot smoke he lived in  via working the latter.

The name for his usual condition, and the name for the condition every boy in my class aspired to at least on certain weekends, was wasted.

The term wasted existed long before the riotously funny ad, put out by the Just say no groups under Nancy Reagan, showed “your brain on drugs”.  It is a measure of the distance between the establishment (in its charity mood) and the rest that a play on the term wasted went right over their heads. Wasted was considered an honorable estate, an all around excuse, a modest brag. Man, I was wasted, was not the confession of a boy ashamed of the chemical injuries to which he had submitted his brain. There was no shame in wasted.

It did play the role of an excuse, though. Being too wasted meant that you could not be responsible for whatever shit you did.

I myself was never wasted. I never touched marijuana until I was almost nineteen. I went through high school a virgin.

But, as per my friendship with the school drug supplier, I was ever ready to extend my tolerance – or perhaps it was just an early display of my gift for enabling. Enabling, tolerance, two sides of the same coin? Always a big question.

Waste, etymologically, is part of a network of words having to do with devastation and spoiling. Words that have a menacingly military aspect. To lay waste. To be wasted and to kill – waste – someone track together in the common American tongue. To waste a village, such was the war in Vietnam, where being wasted and wasting were joined at the hip.

The time of “wasted” might be passed. The kids today might say trashed. Wasted has acquired a certain retro aura. At the same time, wasted is a pretty good macromood word for neolib culture, as it ends in heatwaves and fascism.

We were all wasted.





  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...