Eliot in His Time
Eliot in Perspective
The Political Identities of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot
Great Tom: Notes Towards the Definition of T.S. Eliot
In his essay “Literary Biography” in Golden Codgers, Richard Ellmann points out that even in the most candid biographical writings, like Michael Holroyd’s account of Lytton Strachey and his love life with Carrington, something is kept back, “the precise anatomical convolutions remain shrouded by the last rags of biographical decorum.” And commenting on Ernest Jones’s stopping short at certain points in his biography of Freud on the grounds that material has been touched on which is better left to the psychoanalysts, he observes that “one has the sense of descending into a cave only to be told that the real cave is further down, and unfortunately closed to the public.”
Ellmann goes on to state one objection to delvings into the unconscious life of the subject of biography. It is that we “lose sight of his conscious direction,” and are put in possession of material which enables us to make banal psychoanalytical interpretation. We fit the writer into some textbook category of childhood behavior: “Anality is banality.”
At the same time, Ellmann believes that we are committed to the psychoanalytic approach to biography. In this Freud remains the most helpful of our guides. With a penetration which is none the less acute for its being urbane and witty, Ellmann discusses examples of the use of analytic methods of biography by Sartre on Baudelaire and Genet, Erikson on Luther, and Edel on James. In practice the psychoanalytical approach results in each of these biographers substituting legend, myth, or rumor for verified historic fact. Sartre postulates a scene from Genet’s childhood in which the small boy is caught in the act of primal burglary by someone who enters the kitchen at the moment when he is opening a drawer to steal something from it. The intruder establishes the identity of Jean Genet by shouting, “You’re a thief.” Sartre having reconstructed the scene comments: “That was how it happened, in that or some other way.”
Erikson bases a whole theory about the “identity crisis” in Luther’s life on the account, put about by three contemporaries who were his opponents, of the fit in which Luther supposedly fell to the ground crying, “Ich bin’s nit! Ich bin’s nit!” or “Non sum! Non sum!” Ellmann quotes Erikson: “If some of this is legend, so be it: the making of legend is as much part of the scholarly rewriting of history as it is part of the original facts used in the work of scholars.” Ellmann comments, “Ultimately Erikson’s work is not so much biography as delineation of therapeutic possibility.” Edel takes a passage from James’s Notebooks, in which James, searching for a fictitious name, writes “Ledward-Bedward-Dedward-Deadward.” Edel interprets this as meaning “To be led to the marriage bed was to be dead,” but, as Ellmann points out, in searching for a name, James is trying out rhymes following on Ledward, in alphabetical order. It…
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