T.S. Eliot as the solution to American literature

Over the past couple years, I’ve gradually arrived at the probably unfair opinion that most canonical works of American literature are repetitive diagnoses of a single perennial American problem: namely, the loss of transcendence in modern consciousness. Not that I don’t appreciate the brilliant modes by which various writers (Faulkner and James, for instance) express and diagnose this loss. But after a while, I can’t help growing tired and wishing more of them would work constructively toward its remedy.

Obviously, I have primarily in mind writers of the naturalist and modernist movements; but others factor in here as well. Stephen Crane is probably the worst offender, all things considered. His “A Man Said to the Universe” encapsulates, in just five lines, almost everything that bores me about the American canon:

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

I don’t even understand why Crane bothered writing stories like “The Open Boat” — this poem gets his point across sufficiently enough. He’s really not interested in working through the problem of man’s place in the cosmos, or in consulting the wisdom of other ages for possible solutions to that problem, or even in fostering a “natural” appreciation of life in the face of that problem (as, for instance, some of the more naturalistically-minded British Romantics did). Nor does he really even consider the possibility, here or in the bulk of his other work, that his naturalistic worldview might simply be incorrect, and that mankind might actually have a transcendent end toward which to strive. He simply takes naturalism as a given and devotes page after page to its pronouncement. And to an unfortunate degree, other major American authors and works (McCarthy’s The Road, for instance) do the same.

A clear exception to this trend is the literature of the South, which tends to retain a certain sense of man’s transcendent orientation that’s lost on writers like Fitzgerald and Pynchon. (African-American Southern literature, in particular, is almost wholly devoid of naturalistic prejudice.) As I mentioned above, I’ve primarily a beef with the naturalist and modernist movements. But even some Southern Christian writers, I would argue, present nature in an all-too-naturalistic way. In the celebrated religious stories of Flannery O’Connor, for instance, revelation and “grace” tend to enter characters’ lives only through rupture and violence, and readers are very rarely left with the biblical impression that creation declares the glory, beauty, and love of the Lord. (I must be missing something here, but honestly O’Connor’s stories strike me as more Barthian than Catholic.)

All that said, I’ve also gradually arrived at the opinion that T.S. Eliot’s poetry is the answer to the perennial problem(s) of American literature. His poetic career begins, in a sense, where Crane, McCarthy, and the modernists lazily finish: with the death of God and the suffocating boredom of modern life (“Portrait of a Lady,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”). But unlike Crane and so many others, he almost immediately turns to tradition, history, and foreign wisdom to find a cure for these modern troubles (The Waste Land). And some two decades later, he finds precisely the cure he’s been looking for: sacramental union with the divine (Four Quartets). Such union — or, as he refers to it, a “condition of complete simplicity” — is attained only through “prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action”; and, as history’s greatest saints and ascetics have all attested, it comes at the cost of “not less than everything.” In Eliot’s daunting words, our only hope lies in

Internal darkness, deprivation
And destitution of all property,
Desiccation of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy,
Inoperancy of the world of spirit (“Burnt Norton,” III)

And he continues:

       In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are,
to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way
wherein there is no ecstacy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way
which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess
what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way
in which you are not.
And what you do not know
is the only thing you know
And what you own
is what you do not own
And where you are
is where you are not. (“East Coker,” III)

And perhaps this is the real reason Eliot’s solution has never gained footing in American literary consciousness: it costs more than American writers are willing to pay.

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3 thoughts on “T.S. Eliot as the solution to American literature

  1. Very interesting piece. I think the point about O’ Connor’s work that you may be missing is that the violence is not meant to be seen as intrinsic to our encounters with grace, and neither is nature supposed to be seen as diametrically opposed to grace. The reason violence is so central to O’ Connor’s stories is that, in a world of men without chests — and in an age where naturalistic thinking has precluded the possibility of recognizing meaning of any kind– you need to shock people (to “show them fear in a handful of dust”) to horrify them out of their coma, precisely in order to bring life back to them. This is the first step towards transcendence in a cosmos gutted of everything but the sporadic movements of mindless particles, and it is only after we have been shocked that we will be able to see things as they really are. Granted, it’s something that Eliot was able to start with and then move beyond while O’ Connor was not, but remember she died at age 39, whereas Eliot didn’t write the Quartets until he was at least in his late 40’s or 50’s. And at a personal level, O’ Connor herself had already made the journey towards transcendence, even though she didn’t express anything beyond the first few levels in her work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very fair points. I hadn’t thought about O’Connor’s early death in this context before. But I mean, I still think it’s fair to read O’Connor as one voice among many in the American tradition here, which by and large wants nothing to do with the message of the Four Quartets. The fact that even O’Connor — despite all her metaphysical and Thomistic background — was never able to thoroughly communicate what Eliot did, even by age 39, indicates to me just how suffocating and endemic the naturalistic consciousness of American literature can be. It really shouldn’t take such a brilliant Thomist as O’Connor more than 39 years to communicate the analogia entis. And I really don’t fault O’Connor for this — I fault her context.

    But like I said, fair points. I almost didn’t mention O’Connor because I knew I’d be wrong about something.

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