More on T.S. Eliot as the solution to American literature

I argued sloppily in my last post that the bulk of canonical American literature is devoted to diagnosing a single perennial problem (viz. the loss of transcendence in American consciousness), and that Eliot effectively solves this problem in his Four Quartets. For anyone interested, I’ve written more about this subject here (with regard to the ways Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby and Wharton’s Age of Innocence present the world in purely immanent terms) and also here (with regard to the ways Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury and James’ Beast in the Jungle present temporality in purely chronological terms). Many of the insights of these papers, I should acknowledge, I received directly from Roger Lundin.

And since I’m on this Eliot binge, here’s a blurb from Russell Kirk on the Four Quartets:

Eliot was not ignorant of the strength of convictions contrary to his own; nor did he commence with prejudices. In Four Quartets, he does not assume the prophet afflatus: instead, he opens to inspection all the doubts and difficulties of his position, with a candor seldom encountered. Over a quarter of a century, he had been searching; he had come to certain beliefs by experience of life, by reading of books, and by much exchange with other minds of his time. What Eliot offers in this last and most meditated of his long poems is a picture of the insights he had obtained.

These insights may be accepted or rejected; but it is not well to reject or to accept them from ignorance or prejudice. Here a powerful intellect and an earnest conscience regard ultimate questions. Of course one may sweep aside all such questions as irrelevant to this life of the senses. But such an unexamined life is not worth living; and besides, while an individual may survive in disregard of all such questions, any society that ignores ultimate questions must find its tenure nasty and short.

And, in closing, here’s Eliot’s own description of his intellectual journey:

The Christian thinker—and I mean the man who is trying consciously and conscientiously to explain to himself the sequence which culminates in faith, rather than the public apologist—proceeds by rejection and elimination. He finds the world to be so and so; he finds its character inexplicable by any non-religious theory; among religions he finds Christianity, and Catholic Christianity, to account most satisfactorily for the world, and especially for the world within; and thus, by what Newman calls ‘powerful and concurrent’ reasons, he finds himself inexorably committed to the dogma of the Incarnation. To the unbeliever, this method seems disingenuous and perverse: for the unbeliever is, as a rule, not so greatly troubled to explain the world to himself, nor so greatly distressed by its disorder; nor is he generally concerned (in modern terms) to ‘preserve values.’ He does not consider that if certain emotional states, certain development of character, and what in the highest sense can be called ‘saintliness’ are inherently and by inspection known to be good, then the satisfactory explanation of the world must be an explanation which will admit the ‘reality’ of those values.


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