T. S. Eliot’s ‘Is That All There Is?’

In The Idea Of A Christian Society, T. S. Eliot wrote:

Was our society, which had always been assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends?

Eliot wrote these lines shortly after the 1938 Munich Agreement, as Britain and France bowed and scraped before Hitler’s demands for more territorial gains in Europe.¹ The idea expressed at their heart has not lost any of its pungency. Eliot sought to contrast the faith of the Christian, a belief in something more permanent, lasting, morally-inflected, with the commodified, fashionable foundations of the commercial society. But even if you, perhaps of secular persuasion, do not want to fall back on religious faith as an alternative to the call of commerce, there is an acute question that remains raised: what is the great prize of our civilization, the one we offer and hold forth and aloft in front of the gaze of those eager applicants, ‘our youth,’ ‘our best and brightest’?

Something like the following: Go to school, go to college, get good grades, study business, or accounting, or finance, get to work, make ‘good money’–or rather, as much as money as you can, your money-making endeavors unrestricted by any kind of moral impulse. Disdain art and the humanities and all else as not being the real world, as useless and impractical, unsuited to the needs of our times. Regard the history of the world as a mistake, one to rectified by throwing money or weapons at all of its recalcitrant problems. Regard the weekends as a bonus allotment of time to ‘catch up on some work in the office that needs to get done by Monday.’ Birth, (business) school, work, death? The physical details of this are as equally grim: rise and shine, dress up, put on a tie, get in a car and get into traffic, or get into crowded public transportation, and then spend roughly ten hours–if you’re lucky–indoors in climate controlled environments. Rinse and repeat. The utter vacuity at the heart of these pursuits is almost frightening in its blandness, its lack of emotional and spiritual sustenance; the commodification of life and love it promises is genuinely terrifying.

Small wonder so many who live this dream ‘stumble’ from boardroom to bar to coke spoon to therapy couch to the grave. And small wonder that when the allure of something more substantive, more emotional, is held out as bait, so many snap and bite. Perhaps religion, perhaps a ‘new-age cure,’ perhaps, in the most extreme circumstances, an abandonment of family and an older life altogether. We will join these travelers, like all others, in their final destinations, the grave, but we can exercise some measure of control over the paths we take there.

Note: As quoted by Edward Mendelson while reviewing Robert Crawford’s biography of Eliot and a collected edition of Eliot’s poems.

Edward Mendelson on Anthony Hecht and the Palliations of Poetry

In writing on Anthony Hecht‘s poetry in  (‘Seeing is Not Believing‘, The New York Review of Books, 20 June 2013), Edward Mendelson remarks:

In a familiar paradox of art, Hecht’s poems got their structure and strength from his irrational judgments and defensive vulnerability. But Hecht did something deeper and more complex than finding compensations in the perfections of art for the faults of life. What is uniquely unsettling about his poetry is his insistence that its aristocratic poise is helpless against the inner terror that gave rise to it. As he suggests in ‘A Birthday Poem,’ he finds in art ‘a clarity that never was,’ a clarity outside of time that offers only an illusion of escape from the tangled misery of actual and specific moments, naming as an example ‘that mid-afternoon of our disgrace.’

These statements need some untangling.

First, I think Mendelson means to say that it is ‘a familiar irony of art.’ There is no contradiction here.

Second, it is not entirely clear what Mendelson has in mind when he talks about ‘finding compensations in the perfections of art’. Does he mean the compensations are found in the acts and processes of creation, or in the contemplation of the finished work of art? (It is also not clear what Mendelson means by the ‘perfections of art’ but I’ll let that slide for a moment.) To use the taxonomy of palliative measures that provide relief from life’s miseries that was suggested by Freud in Civilization and its Discontents, the former might be considered a deflection, the latter a substitutive satisfaction. The former is a re-channeling of our desires into domains where their satisfaction is more tractable, more easily attained. Freud included in this category scientific activity and other methods of professional achievement (the world of business and finance, for instance). By their grounding in the everyday and their engagement with other forms of human activity this method of escape from the trials and tribulations of life retains the most connection with reality. The latter is a form of compensation for lack of pleasure elsewhere. Freud included in this activity all forms of illusion or fantasy: religious fervor, day-dreaming, the enjoyment of artistic products such as music, sculpture and painting.

It should be clear why the former is a deflection; even in the act of creation, the artist may be confronted with the familiar frustrations of life and unblinking presence of the reality principle–the blank page or canvas, the long torturous path from conception to final product–but expressed in a form that he has the means and resources to combat. In the latter, we are merely consumers of art–we may not be artists ourselves–giving ourselves over to the enjoyment of the work before us.

Mendelson, of course, is suggesting that Hecht’s poetry makes the claim that these palliations do not work, that their relief is illusory. But this should not be ‘uniquely unsettling’; such a notion is present in the very idea of a palliative measure itself: it does not cure, it merely provides temporary relief.