Literary B-Sides, the Legacy of T. S. Eliot, and Kenotic Art
What do Stephen King’s The Dark Tower Series, Cats: The Musical, and “hipster-ism” all share in common? T. S. Eliot, of course. Book III of The Dark Tower is the name of Eliot’s most famous poem, The Waste Land; Cats is based loosely on Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”; and The Atlantic has explored the primacy of Prufrock’s rolled-up pant-cuffs arguing that, in fact, he may have been the archetypal hipster.
Christian readers have a literary, moral, and theological obligation to assess the materials they consume and the character of their originators.Eliot remains today a fixture in modern literature and popular culture. One cannot peruse an anthology of modern poetry without encountering his works. For many of us, it was an unforgettable awakening when we first read of the “life measured out with coffee spoons,” in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and a delight, albeit a perplexed one, at encountering “fear in a handful of dust” in The Waste Land with all its angst and esoterica. For the Christian reader, there is the more complete joy at discovering that the once dark, abstruse Ezekiel allusions in “The Burial of the Dead” blossomed into an exquisite collection of Christian poetry in Four Quartets. In short, for many Christians, Eliot is a touchstone, an undeniable, intellectual fixture of his era, counted among the likes of John Donne, Blaise Pascal, Kierkegaard, Lewis, Tolkien, and others. He is a go-to figure whenever Christians are berated as anti-intellectual and prudish, or even unartistic.
When one reads this hauntingly beautiful description of Jesus from “East Coker” (Four Quartets II), it is not difficult to understand his Christian appeal:
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Indeed, his late poems are widely regarded as some of the greatest Christian verse from the 20th century. Given such a rap-sheet of righteous words, it would seem that T. S. Eliot left an unequivocally Christian literary legacy.
But did he?
Many scholars, Anthony Julius notable among them, have shown that some of Eliot’s poetry and prose—works spanning the duration of his career—employ anti-Semitic language. By implication, Eliot is often charged with having been unremittingly anti-Semitic in his literary and personal life. What can be said for this?
Sure, it turns few heads nowadays when another gnostic “gospel” appears in the headlines, or yet another Da-Vinci-Code-esque biblical fragment is unearthed claiming that Jesus of Nazareth was married. Within the music industry our listening joy isn’t derailed by some lost Beatles B-side or bootleg album with poorly tuned instruments or remarkably colorful language. Even when confronted with Chopin’s later, experimental pieces, we still love his waltzes and études because we know the artist’s primary works still stand.
So too, major authors in popular and erudite circles, in Christian and secular literature, may have collections released posthumously, literary “B-sides” if you will, which, odd or bland as they may be, reveal little more than the eccentricities one might discover by perusing, say, my church bulletin doodles after my death. Eliot, however, is perhaps, a major exception. His “B-sides” are not simply “bad” art—off-key or unfinished or immature—they’re blasphemous, anti-Semitic, and hyper-sexual. They contain lines which, to echo Louie Menand “would almost make a rapper blush” and at times are difficult to distinguish from lavatory stall graffiti.
In 1910, in “The Triumph of Bullshit,” T. S. Eliot wrote,
Ladies who think me unduely [sic] vociferous…
Engines vaporous—all this will pass;
Quite innocent—“he only wants to make shiver us.”
For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass. (“Triumph,” Lines 17, 22–24)
And that’s not all. His prose does not fail to shock us as well. In “After Strange Gods” (1934) Eliot wrote,
What is still more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.
Perhaps it is a temporary relief to discover that the gratuitously sexual poems were composed prior to Eliot’s conversion to Christianity. However, this did not prevent him from continuing his favorite bawdy mini-series “Columbo & Bolo” in letters for many years after he came to identify himself as “Anglo-Catholic in religion” in the late 1920s. So, perhaps, you prefer to euphemize these as “scabrous exuberances” as crude—sure. Disgusting? Undoubtedly. Groundbreaking and controversial? Perhaps not. Yet to try either of these options is to ignore what Eliot himself asserted in his 1935 essay, “Religion and Literature,”
It is our business, as readers of literature, to know what we like. It is our business, as Christians, as well as readers of literature, to know what we ought to like. It is our business as honest men not to assume that whatever we like is what we ought to like; and it is our business as honest Christians not to assume that we do like what we ought to like. (105)
In other words, Christian readers have a literary, moral, and theological obligation to assess the materials they consume and the character of their originators. Hence, if we are going to like Eliot, or any other writer, we ought to know why. So what are we to do with this “new” Eliot? Are we to accept him when he seems to speak, like Balaam, blessings and curses out of both sides of his mouth?
I propose that we temporarily suspend the belief that we already know Eliot, that we fully understand his contributions to religious, literary, cultural, and political thought, in order that we see him and his work afresh. To invoke The Cocktail Party, we must “approach the stranger,” and thereby “invite the unexpected” by revisiting the vexed facets of Eliot’s works.
Few scholars disagree that early in Eliot’s career he also wrote a number of poems which feature both overt and subtle anti-Semitic motifs: “Gerontion”, “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” and “Dirge” to name a few. Though alternative readings have been proposed, at face-value, the most obvious interpretation of the poems is that they manifest the overflow of an ugly prejudice towards Jewish people, one confirmed by the excerpt from After Strange Gods. Yet in the ’90s a correspondence was discovered between Eliot and his fellow Harvard alumnus, Horace Kallen, a Jewish philosopher. This complicated the previously uncontested position of scholars such as Anthony Julius who claimed not only that T. S. Eliot had written anti-Semitic poems but that anti-Semitism was an essential foundation to his innovative, modernist aesthetic.
Still, in the same decade, poems were released from one of Eliot’s earliest recovered journals—dirty limericks, also known as “blue-verse”—in which he improvised his own bawdy renditions of poems like “The Jolly Tinker.” These reveal more anti-Semitism along with explicit language, sexual violence, bestiality, and racism. Because of his widespread influence within literary criticism, the search for the real Eliot, which portrait of the poet best represents the whole of his works, has broad implications for Western literature. The more vexed his oeuvre becomes, the more his credibility as a paradigm-shifting Christian and literary thinker is potentially obscured. Contemporary scholarship regarding these works delights in highlighting their most perverse elements. So failing to account for these moral misgivings is to acquiesce not only to possible misrepresentation of the poet, but to eventually, perhaps, turn the whole literary tide.
In 1934, ironically the same year which Eliot’s “After Strange Gods” was published, Eliot released a pageant play titled, The Rock. Oddly subtitled “A Book of Words by T. S. Eliot” many scholars are dismissive of The Rock in their studies of Eliot and from their discussions of his anti-Semitism, citing this and the play’s foreword in which Eliot more or less says the play wasn’t his idea and that only a few of the choruses are wholly the product of his imagination. Only the choruses of the pageant have remained in print and thus, many assume that Eliot wasn’t pleased with the play, and thus, we really shouldn’t be either. Not only does this conclusion ignore that Eliot himself deprecated his most revered works (he castigated The Waste Land for its “grumbling”), by doing so, many have overlooked or underemphasized these texts. More’s the pity, since they contain the potential to answer our questions about Eliot’s Christian legacy.
In the early manuscripts of the play, (now housed at the Special Collections of Oxford’s Weston Library), two unpublished excerpts from The Rock may force us to avoid reductive understandings of Eliot’s literary legacy. Immediately following “Chorus VI” in the original play, a Chorus composed “of Prophets only,” (according to Eliot’s stage direction in the original manuscript) engages a series of potential friends and foes, testing their credibility and allegiance to the cause of the Church.
Having only pages earlier in the play depicted the plight of Nehemiah, it is clear that this choric character designated “(of Prophets only)” was, in Eliot’s view, a group of Jewish prophets, as they first engage the mob of “Blackshirts” by saying,
Friends, kindly solve the riddles in your speech:
Are you obedient to the Law of God?
Are you with those who reverence the Temple?
The reference to “the law of God,” in proximity to the “reverence” of the Temple, is clearly an allusion to the Torah. This is further confirmed by the “Blackshirts,” who counter the prophetic chorus, saying:
Your vesture, your gesture, your speech and your face,
Reveal your extraction from Jewish race,
We have our own prophets who’re ready to speak,
For a week and a day and a day and a week
This being the case we must firmly refuse
To listen to speeches from anthropoid Jews. (139)
This “Chorus (of Prophets only)” promptly dismisses the fascist agitators in the lines following:
There seems no hope from those who march in step,
We have no help from those new evangels. (139)
An investigation of the manuscript’s marginalia reveals that Eliot was brainstorming here about how to make these antagonists more repulsive and objectionable in their speech to the proponents of the Church. For instance, he noted that he might have the “Agitator,” who is the leader of a mob, shout things like “Down with the opium of the people!”—clearly an allusion to Marx’s dismissal of religion—and “Down with the God of the Jews!”—which obviously references the Jews, placing them in a sympathetic light.
The poet, to be a good one, must, in a sense, die to himself, to live onward in tradition.Hence, these lines, which were omitted from the published version of the play, reveal that the prevailing emphasis of Eliot’s characterization of the “Blackshirts” was not their fascism so much as their anti-Christian and anti-Jewish animus towards the builders of the church, and in particular the “chorus of Prophets.” And it is clear that this implicit critique of anti-Semitism in The Rock is not merely motivated by Eliot’s political ideologies as has been argued elsewhere. We might say, rather, that it is less anti-Communist or anti-fascist than, as it were, anti-anti-Semitic. And it seems unlikely that an author who held deeply-rooted anti-Semitic views would be likely to write it.
This reading is consistent with what Eliot said elsewhere in The Idea of a Christian Society:
The term “democracy,” as I have said again and again, does not contain enough positive content to stand alone against the forces you dislike—it can easily be transformed by them. If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.
A venerable political framework, to Eliot, is not the opposite of evil. Faced with raw hatred, even the most virtuous political ideology is subject to the vices of its enemy. Indeed, it seems that to Eliot, what often is perceived as an ideological struggle—“democracy” versus “communism,” say—in fact masks a deeper spiritual struggle. Eliot starkly contrasts faith in a jealous God to allegiance to the most infamous anti-Semite—Hitler—affirming that Eliot likely was not interested in invoking prophets merely to denounce ideologues in his play so much as to condemn anti-Semites as enemies of the Church.
The Choruses from the play are unquestionably some of Eliot’s most theologically driven verses; he alludes to Ezekiel, Genesis, Ecclesiastes, and more all within the ten choruses of the play. And so, it seems that the point in his career when Eliot began to adopt a wholly spiritual overtone is precisely when his characters (and his verse) became most vehemently opposed to anti-Semitism.
Granted, Julius is aware of these lines and discusses them in his book, T. S. Eliot and Anti-Semitism, but they do not prevent him from concluding that Eliot remained an anti-Semite throughout his life. Such a conclusion seems incompatible with the play which climaxes in its prophetic choruses which repudiate anti-Semitism outright, yoking such prejudice with the very opposition to Christianity’s most foundational institution, the Church.
In his poem “Marina,” Eliot wrote:
What is this face, less clear and clearer
The pulse in the arm, less strong and stronger—
Given or lent? More distant than stars and nearer than the eye . . .
Even after considering The Rock, Eliot’s legacy is perhaps, altogether “less clear and clearer.” It bears indelible and undeniable marks of his human weaknesses which he came to confess (“less strong and stronger”) following his conversion. Thus, it is only through re-engagement with the “stranger” parts of Eliot’s oeuvre canonical or not—with the “knowledge” of him we’ve lost in such varied, new textual data—that we can sufficiently account for his achievement.
Sparring about Eliot’s legacy has spanned at least three decades and so no exhumation of evidence like that from The Rock will effect a major upheaval of his reputation. Nevertheless, such dialogue exposes the artifice of our contemporary religious and political discourse.
To be sure, with The Rock, Eliot did not produce a monument either of drama or theology; at most, the play remains a pebble in the boot of those who would opt for simplistic readings of his legacy. However, through its remaining choruses, he revitalized the office of the prophetic voice in literature, not as a divine forecaster or oracular sage, but as a poetic observer, situated between the porous spheres of religious and political life, who because of his theological disposition was uniquely situated to trace the intellectual and artistic disintegration of an epoch.
Whichever poems constitute a true “beginning” or “end” to Eliot’s poetry, whether in his parroted blue verse mailed to his friends, or with the later Prufrock, this era of his artistry must itself be reordered by his later articulation in “East Coker:” “In end is my beginning.” Understanding Eliot requires that we read from end to beginning, as opposed to the converse, in order to avoid being misled by the primacy of his bawdy poetry. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot wrote, “What happens [to the artist] is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality” (44). The poet, to be a good one, must, in a sense, die to himself, to live onward in tradition.
In 1919 it could scarcely be assumed that Eliot, in exploring “depersonalization” in poetry, had arrived at any kenotic notion—to empty oneself of oneself in humility, after the example of Christ. By the end of his career, however, he had begun to surrender himself and his published poetic voice to Someone he regarded as infinitely more valuable than Prufrock and all of the “other echoes” of voices which occupied his art. Eliot acquiesced not merely to the literary traditions which stood before him, but also to a faith tradition which imbued his later poems with prophetic force—with Spirit and truth. Some of his “B-sides” are bawdy, some blasphemous, but others, nearly beatified. All of his works compel us toward more emptied selves, emptied for the sake of art to the emptied One whose work on the Cross is the greatest work of art in human history.