The paradoxes of self and world
T. S. Eliot was a creature of paradoxes, and paradoxes which he did his best to cultivate and sustain. He wrote a jumpy, fragmented poetry about terrifying isolation, while insisting he was keeping with the oldest traditions of civilisation and order. The Waste Land has come to be seen as the poem of the twentieth century, and yet Eliot was profoundly unhappy with that century, and distrusted his contemporaries’ reasons for thinking they understood him. He was the American who thought the English were so ‘very different from ourselves’ in 1917, while at the same time positioning himself as the guardian of the truest English culture. He deplored using poetic learning for the ‘more pretentious modes of publicity’, and yet worked night and day to write the literary journalism and cultivate the contacts which would make him the authority in mid-century English letters. Part of his campaign involved attacking other poets for insincerity and rhetoric, immediately after he had written a PhD thesis which argues that there is absolutely no fixed boundary between the inner life and social experience, and that ‘the self is a construction’. He criticised many rival poets for not being individual enough, and then advised them to ‘surrender’ to tradition. He felt good poetry would have only a small but discerning public, and that it depended on popular culture to survive. And these various judgements are each delivered with complete assurance and mordant criticism of his opponents. This mandarin conviction – and his own generation's willingness to be impressed by it – would give younger critics ample reasons to want to pull Eliot off his pedestal, and they have been helped by new information about his wretched first marriage, new searchlights turned on his anti-Semitic and misogynistic writing, and revealing detective work about the far-right politics of his associates.
Now that Eliot's reputation is not what it was, though, more sympathetic critics have turned back to these paradoxes as evidence of Eliot's relentless self-irony, undercutting all that he appears to say most dogmatically. Or they have seen his capacity to argue on either side of the case as a ruthlessly pragmatic way to outflank his opponents. Eliot's paradoxes certainly have these useful effects, allowing him to sound like he has anticipated all possible positions without being restricted by any of them. But part of Eliot's distinctiveness comes from the way he really believes in those paradoxes. His criticism works tremendously hard to insist that opposites really are related, that self and world really are two sides of the same coin, that the individual and the tradition or the elite and the popular are mutually interdependent. And the emotions around the separation and fusion of irreconcilable points of view are a signal feature of the poetry itself. ‘Opposition is true friendship’, remarked Blake, a poet whose influence is stronger in Eliot's oeuvre than Eliot's criticism would lead you to suspect, and it's a motto for the fencing-match between ‘you and I’ maintained by Eliot's most famous early success, J. Alfred Prufrock.
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Since we never learn anything more about the ‘you’ here, most people think ‘you and I’ are two aspects of Prufrock himself, and that the poem is about a pathological self-consciousness in which the ‘I’ is constantly seeing itself as ‘you’, like a vain TV actor wondering if the cameras are catching him in the best light (‘they will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”’). The idea is supported by a passage from Eliot's PhD thesis written a few years later, in which he describes how there is an unbridgeable gulf between the way we know the world by practical experience, and the way theoretical, objective philosophy knows it, because both ways make the world ‘a construction’:
We can never, I mean, wholly explain the practical world from a theoretical point of view, because this world is what it is by reason of the practical point of view and the world which we try to explain [theoretically] is a world spread out upon a table – simply there!
The engaged ‘I’ perspective can never share the same world as the ‘I’ described from the outside as a ‘you’ or ‘he’. This philosophical split between an internal and external knowing which must, on some other unattainable level, be part of the same thing, becomes in Prufrock's case a spiralling of perspectives; from the self he feels to the self known to others (‘upon a table’), to the self which knows and fears what others think when they see him, to the self which is then aware it is falsifying those original feelings by being so self-conscious about them, to a self which despairs of its own divorce from itself, and so forth. Prufrock is the ageing would-be dandy, a remnant of the type noted by Baudelaire and cultivated by Laforgue in the nineteenth century, who mentally ‘live and sleep before the mirror’. Possessed by the need to ‘make himself an original’, the dandy's self-appointed mission was to revolt against the soulless, democratic homogeneity of the masses through faultless self-possession in manners, and an expensively minimalist, ‘absolute simplicity’ of dress: ‘my necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin’ supplies the perfect touch of menswear-ad narcissism. Eliot was first attracted to the dandy ethos of individualism when he came across Arthur Symons's description of Baudelaire's and Laforgue's own verse as a ‘revolt against exteriority, against rhetoric, against a materialistic tradition’ and, like him, Prufrock loathes the ‘eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase’ and pin him ‘wriggling on the wall’ for all to see.