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.

F. O. Matthiessen On ‘The Value Of The Tragic Writer’

In The Achievement of T. S. Eliot (Oxford University Press, New York, p. 107),  F. O. Matthiessen writes:

The value of the tragic writer has always lain in the uncompromising honesty with which he has cut through appearances to face the real conditions of man’s lot, in his refusal to be deceived by an easy answer, in the unflinching, if agonized, expression of what he takes to be true. The effect of such integrity is not to oppress the reader with a sense of burdens too great to be borne, but to bring him some release.  For, if it is part of the function of every great artist to transform his age, the tragic writer does so not by delivering an abstract realization of life, but by giving to the people who live in the age a full reading of its weakness and horror; yet, concurrently, by revealing some enduring potentiality of good to be embraced with courage and with an ecstatic sense of its transfiguring glory. Through the completeness of his portrayal of the almost insupportable conditions of human existence, he frees his audience from the oppression of fear; and stirring them to new  heart by the presentation of a heroic struggle against odds, he also enables them to conceive anew the means of sustaining and improving their own lives. Only thus can he communicate both ‘the horror’ and ‘the glory.’

These remarks by Matthiessen express quite succinctly, I think, the heart of the best possible response to the charge that the ‘tragic’ or ‘absurdist’ or ‘existential’ attitude leads invariably to nihilism. (It is visible quite clearly, for instance, in Nietzsche’s amor fati, in his ‘joyful pessimism,’ in his rejection of Schopenhauer‘s grim view of the insatiable will: the unflinching life is only possible if imbued with a refusal to look away from the particulars of our lot; it may be seen too, in Sartre‘s ‘Existentialism is a Humanism.’) The ‘heroic struggle against odds,’ the ‘ecstatic sense,’ ‘the transfiguring glory,’ that is present in the tragic writer’s vision of life suggests that there is a romanticism here too, one that will not be satisfied with the easy consolations to be found in systems that explain all, in ‘abstract realizations’ that render everything reasonable and comprehensible.

The tragic writer brings a new mythology to life, placing by dint of artful location, the reader at its center (you may, if you like, cast your mind back to Joseph Campbell at this point); our onward journey now bears the possibility of meaning, because we venture forth into physical and psychic landscapes that await our presence and interaction with them for further definition and clarification. This world is not ready-made, oppressing us with the burden of matters predetermined and foretold; it awaits ‘completion’ at our hands. And that notion of the self as creator, of itself, of the world around it, is the tragic writer’s greatest value; if he or she displaces divinity from the world, it is only to place it within us.

My Mother’s Books: Symbols of Resistance

Among the many old books on my shelves are a couple of dozen especially battered ones. Some belong to my father’s collection (I will write on these on another occasion); some belong to my uncle’s. And then there are another two, especially fragile, their pages browned and brittle, also brought back from India, just like those previously mentioned, one missing a cover, the other about to lose it.

The former is: Herbert Schneider, A History of American Philosophy (Forum Books, Columbia University Press, 1946; republished by Forum Books); the latter, Albert D. Van Nostrand (ed.), Literary Criticism in America, Liberal Arts Press, 1957. Their former owner’s name is visible inside the Nostrand book, along with a note indicating her program of study at the time: Satish Sabharwal, MA Final.

Satish Sabharwal was my mother. She would change her names–first and last both–after her marriage to my father, after she had completed that final year, the ‘MA Final’ of her master’s degree in English Literature (with a specialization in American Literature).

It is an enduring legend about my mother, in my mind, that she resisted two attempts by my grandfather to get her married off before she had finished her graduate studies. He had first attempted to do once she had finished high school; then, she had indicated she wanted to attend university and obtain her BA in English Literature. My grandmother was suitably supportive then; later, when my grandfather again attempted to marry her off after her BA, she agreed to back my mother up when she rejected a suitor for her arranged marriage, claiming that she wanted to keep studying and earn her MA next. (That young man, recently returned from the US with a graduate degree in engineering would instead marry her younger sister and return with her to that distant land.) Finally, after she had finished her MA, she agreed to her father’s suggestions that she meet a young man, a dashing air force pilot, who seemed like a good ‘match’ for her.  She liked her potential groom, even though she thought he was a little stuck-up and distant; he, for his part, expecting a small-town girl to be considerably unsophisticated, was pleasantly surprised by her keen interest in his flying and his European travels. That pilot, of course, was my father.

I brought these two books back from India several years ago. Occasionally, I take them down from the shelves and glance through their contents. The Schneider book has chapters–among others–on ‘Platonism and Empiricism in Colonial America,’ ‘The American Enlightenment,’ ‘Nationalism and Democracy,’ ‘The Transcendental Temper,’ ‘Radical Empiricism,’ ‘A New Naturalism and Realism.’ The Nostrand book includes essays by–among others–Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, George Santayana, H. L. Mencken, Robert Frost, Edmund Wilson.

I do not know why I still have not read these books. They seem very fragile and I fear they will fall apart in my hands as I read them. My wife has often urged me to bind them and I suppose that if I want to own them for much longer, I will have to do so soon. But I resist; binding will shape their form, turn them into something else. As they are, they maintain a certain kind of continuity with their past, and thus, with their former owner. By doing so, they continue to remind me of very particular and distinctive acts of resistance, conducted many years ago, against someone who would have been surprised to have seen his directives so withstood.

These books aren’t just historical narratives of intellectual traditions; they are also testimonials to a life sought to be conducted on its own terms.