Friday, October 10, 2008

Eliot, Forster, and Experience

This is another short paper written for a class that looked at how the concept of time worked in literature and theory. Every paper in the series takes up whoever we were reading and pairs them together. They aren't exactly haphazard pairings, but ya' know. It is an open question as to how forced brevity effected the efforts--good exercise; still not used to it. This one is more arbitrary than most, but it has a good bit about immediate experience.

You'll also notice the forced MLA. God I hate MLA.

*NOTE* The footnote links won't work unless you're on the specific post page (by clicking on the title link). You'll have to excuse my crappy coding.


Romanticism might be too broad and overworked of a term to blanket precisely a tradition of thought or artistry, but if we close our eyes and just concentrate on the fact that, in their criticism, T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis both considered themselves resurgent classicists and devalued the poetic accomplishments of Wordsworth and Blake, we might be as precise as we need to be. Eliot’s problem with the English Romantic poets was that, in Harold Bloom’s words about Wordsworth’s blessing (or curse) to modern poetry, “poems are ‘about’ nothing. Their subject is the subject herself or himself….” (Bloom, 239) Eliot’s chief remedy, which retroactively becomes his defining characteristic of what it means to be “classical,” is to reinstate a significant “other” to the poet: tradition, reality, God, what have you—“there is accordingly something outside of the artist to which he owes allegiance, a devotion to which he must surrender and sacrifice himself….” (Eliot, 13, italics mine) Eliot consistently and repeatedly uses the rhetoric of obeisance to characterize the classical attitude and irony and sarcasm to deride the romantic.

It is the turn inward, toward pure personality that has Eliot riled. In criticism and poetry, Eliot is angered by the ease of idiosyncrasies, critics and poets whose “chief task is the assertion of all the trifling differences which are his distinction….” (ibid., 13)[fn.1] Eliot uses Middleton Murry’s sharpening of the differences between classic and romantic, seizing upon the notion of an “inner voice” as suspiciously like “doing as one likes.” (ibid., 16) Murry in the end sees the same anarchy as Eliot, but asserts that we shouldn’t worry because we will all come to see the same, universal self, a notion Eliot laughs at being “an exercise far beyond the strength of our football enthusiasts.” (ibid.) This is Plato’s haughtiness from the Republic reverberating in modern elitism and it surfaces in Eliot’s suggestion to critic and poet alike to look to this vague notion of “tradition.”

If we move from this truncated discussion to Forster’s novel, we might be able to reflect further on this notion of “tradition.” Eliot’s enjoyment of Murry’s discussion, and his specific use of an antithesis between “Catholic” and the “Inner Voice,” is no accident, for Eliot has in mind, at least for the ultimate spiritual authority of Mankind, something like Divinity, an Authoritative God sitting in ultimate judgment. Forster portrays the Marabar Caves as beyond, if not exactly God, at the least any human vessel for it. In the very opening of the Caves section, Forster writes “Geology, looking further than religion…,” (Forster, 135) a very specific reference to a human institution that unfolds further: “To call them ‘uncanny’ suggests ghosts, and they are older than all spirit. Hinduism has scratched and plastered a few rocks, but the shrines are unfrequented, as if pilgrims, who generally seek the extraordinary, had here found too much of it.” (ibid., 136) Forster is putting the Caves beyond even the reach anthropomorphisms like “ghosts and “spirit” (both of which ultimately reach back to, or play off of, Greek and Hebrew notions of bodily life-force). Travelers to the caves are said to return “uncertain whether he has had an interesting experience or a dull one or any experience at all.” (ibid., 137) This, in particular, is significant given the importance of “experience” in the romantic and classic pantheon of concepts, for even if the romantic wants the experience of experience itself and the classic experience of something else, both need “experience.”

Perhaps most significant of all, however, is that “Nothing, nothing attaches to them, and their reputation—for they have one—does not depend upon human speech.” (ibid.) This nullification of human speech becomes very important as we travel into the Caves. For in the Caves, the force of echo reduces all sound to singularity: “Boum.” (ibid., 163) “And if several people talk at once, an overlapping howling noise begins, echoes generate echoes, and the cave is stuffed with a snake composed of small snakes, which write independently.” (ibid.) As allegory for the human situation, this impressively reduces us in the face of eternity. For Eliot’s conception of an “other” in tradition requires us to hold apart from our counterparts in the past, in something like on the analogy of a conversation. We do not talk to our selves, only listening to our own Inner Voice, we dialogue with the past, attempting to hear what the tradition has to tell us, becoming a medium for the voices of their spirits.

Forster’s reduction of the voices of time, “echoes generating echoes,” into an amorphous mass all “entirely devoid of distinction” (ibid.,163) wreaks havoc on the notion of a hearable divinity. But it also wreaks havoc on the notion that we could hear ourselves, for ultimately the Caves collapse the eternity of a Divine Authority and the immediateness of experience itself into each other: “no one could romanticize the Marabar because it robbed infinity and eternity of their vastness, the only quality that accommodates them to mankind.” (ibid., 165) True infinity swallows our voice, but so too does true immediacy—too far and we have no echoed sound, too close, a singular cacophony named Noise.


Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. The Western Canon. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994.

Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Critical Theory Since Plato. Ed. Hazard Adams. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, ?.

---. Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1956, 1936, 1932.

Forster, E. M. A Passage to India. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1952, 1924.


[1] In “The Function of Criticism” Eliot is focused more on the critic, but in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” focused more on poets, he says much the same thing. Eliot says ironically, “We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors … we endeavor to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed.” (Adams, 761)

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