Friday, March 25, 2011

T.S. Eliot on the Metra: Urban Alienation and the Urge for Community

Maybe it's appropriate that I've been doing all my thinking about T.S. Eliot on the train, from the windows of which I catch fleeting glimpses into other people's lives: a bent-over old man with a plastic shopping bag shouting angrily at a bent-over old woman; two kids in kelly green hoodies running down an alley, looking back over their shoulders; a laughing, shirtless, dreadlocked man seen through the open blind of his apartment window, a bottle of wine in his hand; other quick flashes of people living out their particular stories, in which I won't, in all probability, play even a walk-on role.  Eliot was, after all, a great poet of urban alienation, of the strange mix of intimacy and distance created by life in the modern metropolis.

Except for my commute on the Metra, where I've been poking around Eliot's Selected Poems on my Kindle, I haven't had much time to devote to Eliot lately, but I do want to start getting him into my mind, since the impossibly glorious summer, free of teaching and (I hope) free of administrative chickenshit, lies just a few weeks in the future, and I'm hoping to bang out two chapters of the big, boring book I've been writing (now called Power and Poetics: A Social History of Aesthetic Autonomy in Poetry): one chapter on the rejection of Tennyson by poets coming of age in the 1890s, and another on Yeats and Eliot. 

The interesting thing, for me, is how both Yeats and Eliot act out versions of Tennyson's old dilemma in radically different contexts.  Tennyson really does have two distinct careers: one as a writer of somewhat cryptic, symbolic, ambiguous poems — poems like "The Kraken" or "The Eagle" or even "The Lady of Shalott" — poems that resist being converted to moral messages; and another career as the writer of poems like Enoch Arden or "The Charge of the Light Brigade," which told the bourgeoise reader what he wanted to hear about decency, self-sacrifice, and the keeping stiff of the upper lip.  He had the dilemma because he inherited a tradition of aesthetic autonomy from one of the main strands of Romantic poetics (Keatsian negative capability, Coleridgean ideas of polysemous symbolism and organic form, etc.), but he wrote at a time when a certain kind of middle-class reader turned to poetry for a particular kind of self-affirming moral guidance.  By the 1880s and 1890s, though, the public that had sought moral guidance in poetry was finding it elsewhere, and publishers were less interested in poetry relative to other genres than they had been.  The public was rejecting poetry, and poets were rejecting the public right back, turning, with a new intensity, to aestheticism, to art for art's sake, and to an attitude that rejected poor old Tennyson as a stooge for the middlebrows.  When Harold Nicholson tried to revive Tennyson's reputation in the 1920s, he did it by disowning the "Charge of the Light Brigade" side of Tennyson's poetics, and embracing the Tennyson canon to which we still cling — the side of the work that shies away from overt moralism.  This was, of course, to truncate Tennyson in order to make him more amenable to our tastes, and in a way to kidnap him out of his own context and fit him to the Procrustean bed of our own time.  For me, this is a real loss, since we miss the struggle in Tennyson between two incompatible urges, the battle between the aesthete and the moralist, which was the real dilemma of the poet in his time.  It's a dilemma that Yeats and Eliot inherited differently.

Yeats is, of course, drawn to esoteric wisdom, arcane and polyvalent symbolism, and to ideals of transcendent beauty (for which one of his most famous symbols is the rose).  But he's also drawn to a very specific kind of politically and culturally engaged poetry, a poetry at the service of national liberation.  The gymnastics he goes through trying to square that circle can be excruciating.  Here's the beginning of the poem "To Ireland in the Coming Times," where he tries to make the rose of esoteric, otherworldy beauty compatible with the politics of Irish liberation:
Know, that I would accounted be
True brother of a company
That sang, to sweeten Ireland's wrong,
Ballad and story, rann and song;
Nor be I any less of them,
Because of the red-rose-bordered hem
Of her, whose history began
Before God made the angelic clan...
You can feel the anxiety: he wants to devote himself to the rose of eternal, autonomous beauty, but he also wants to write ballads of Irish nationalism — a heteronomous poetry if ever there was one.  He ends up claiming that esoteric beauty and Irish nationalism are compatible by making up a kind of bullshit history, where Ireland's past was devoted to this rose, and where that past endures now in the "Druid land" of Ireland.  Yeats wants to have it both ways, but only by pretending that Irish nationalism is also aestheticism because of an ancient-yet-enduring commitment to esoteric beauty can he do it.  And that's just one stop on the long, strange trip he took trying to work out those incompatible urges.

Eliot faces a different situation, since the politics of national liberation aren't really an issue for him, and there isn't really a strong constituency urging him to write for the greater glory of his nation.  The Irish eventually made Yeats a senator, such being the esteem attached to poets during periods of national liberation, but that sort of situation hasn't really been available for poets from powerful nations like 20th century America: when Yeats wrote to Ezra Pound saying "don't let them make you a senator" (or words to that effect), he must have known that such an event was impossible.  And it was just as impossible for Pound's more respectable friend Eliot.  In fact, Eliot was so far from being an American nationalist that he became not only an ex-pat, but a nationalized British citizen.  Instead, his dilemma had to do with the conflict between a commitment to French symbolist poetics, with all their glamorous obscurity and aesthetic autonomy — Eliot was so drawn to this that he even wrote some poems of that kind in French — and a commitment to poetry at the service of a community of Christians, a yearned-for society of people committed to the same principles, the same tradition, the same past, and the same places — the grounded community of "the same people living in the same place" for generations, as he put it in After Strange Gods (a people for whom he wanted to perform "the role of a moralist").

What I've been thinking about, as I read Eliot's early poetry between glimpses out the train window, is just how Eliot's need for a coherent, rooted, traditional society grew out of his experiences of alienation as a young man in London [correction: in greater Boston, given the dates of composition for "Preludes"].  Consider the experience of urban space in the famous "Preludes" from Prufrock and Other Observations.  The dominant impression is of a strange combination of closeness and distance, of constantly seeing other people in their private moments without actually knowing those people.  If you've lived in a little apartment in a big city, you know what he's talking about.  Here's the second section of the poem:

The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampeled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.

With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

This is the poem of a man whose senses always take in the intimate traces of other people's lives: he smells what the people around him drank last night, and what they're drinking this morning, he sees their footprints in the street, he sees their hands, and the dinginess that is the trace of the repeated actions of their hands, on a thousand window shades.  The bodily presence of others is near, and palpable, and not really meant to be the acknowledged public face — the "masquerade" — they present to the world.  There's intimacy, and bodily proximity, but there's also total anonymity.  Eliot doesn't know the people raising their dingy shades, and seems to glimpse them only partially.  It's proximity without community, the world of the lonely crowd, the depersonalized modern world of gessellschaft.

The impression in the final section is much the same, at least initially:

His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o'clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.

It's all in those stubby fingers, isn't it?  There's more of the intimate proximity of people in their private acts, but once again the people are seen only in parts — as fingers, as eyes — and don't belong to anyone known, to anyone with a proper name.  The poem ends with the speaker (let's call him young Eliot) feeling the pathos of this lonely crowd, perhaps yearning for some kind of connection to the people he only glimpses in brief vignettes of their private lives — until he breaks away with a brusqueness that seems like an attempt to place himself above his own yearnings:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

The imagination would provide some fanciful connection to the people around him, some emotional intimacy with those Eliot smells, hears, and briefly sees.  But then Eliot backs away, laughing at his pretense, and trying to be the tough-minded, cynical person the metropolitan way of life seems to demand.

"Rhapsody on a Windy Night" is even better (though here the setting seems more like Paris, and the critic B.C. Southern argues that the images are actually culled from Charles-Louis Phillipe's Bubu-de-Montparnasse, but that's neither here nor there, and only the most ink-stained of pedantic wretches would mention it in a parenthesis).  The imagery suggests a metropolis of the kind familiar to many of us, where the mentally ill wander, disconnected, through the uncaring streets, and where the illusion of intimacy presents itself in terms of base commerce:

Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drumm
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.

Half-past one, 
The street-lamp sputtered,
The street-lamp muttered,
The street-lamp said, "Regard that woman
Who hesitates toward you in the light of the door
Which opens on her with a grin.
You see the border of her dress
Is torn and stained with sand,
And you see the corner of her eye
Twists like a crooked pin."

The intimately-observed sordidness, the seeing-past what is meant to be seen (that stain, that strangely twisted eye), recalls the anonymous proximity of "Preludes," and the odd hesitancy, as the prostitute eyes young Tom Eliot up, trying to gauge whether he's too jammed up for the awful daring of a moment's surrender, is powerful stuff: we feel a strange stand-off, which could result in cold distance or an act of sexual commerce that is much like the alienated intimacy of "Preludes," where we can see, smell, and almost touch the closeness of others without any real intimacy.

The poem moves on to a string of images less literally connected to the street setting.  My favorite is this:

I have seen eyes in the street
Trying to peer through lighted shutters,
And a crab one afternoon in a pool,
An old crab with barnacles on his back,
Gripped the end of a stick which I held him.

We return to those eyes looking out from behind shades, seen by other eyes: a curious kinship between the observer and the observed, a kinship in anonymity and alienation.  And the pairing of this with the image of the stick-grabbing crab is wonderful, because the man-stick-crab combination is an intimacy, but also a distance: it's play, but it's also struggle for the stick, and the man and the crab, while involved in the same action, are such utterly different forms of life, so terribly alien to each other.  Like "Preludes," it's all about distance-in-proximity, the alienating condition of life in the rootless modern metropolis.

It's the notion of humanity under these conditions  as "some infinitely gentle/Infinitely suffering thing" that drives Eliot to dream of a more rooted world, a world united by shared traditions, shared religion, and the kind of stability of trans-generational habitation of the same space that the industrial world destroys.  Seeing this makes me about as sympathetic to Eliot's reactionary politics as I'm ever likely to get.  Glimpsing the world from my train window, I feel much the same as he felt, looking at those eyes  behind the shutters.  The difference was that he arrived at a prescription for the condition, in After Strange Gods, The Idea of a Christian Society, and Notes Toward the Definition of Culture — a narrow, somewhat authoritarian, hierarchical, and ultimately a xenophobic prescription.  Me, all I've got is a sense of the problem.  That, and a deep skepticism about people with comprehensive plans for the renovation of civilization.