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 does seem to me though that James must surely have been aware, if only as a joke, of the deadly meaning to which Edel draws attention. Otherwise he would not have put two rhymes for D: first, “Dedward” and then, the very significant “Deadward.”
Although throwing doubt on these interpretations by Sartre, Erikson, and Edel, Ellmann accepts that biography is no longer concerned with the literal historic fact: “Biographies will continue to be archival, but the best ones will offer speculations, conjectures, hypotheses. The attempt to connect disparate elements, to describe the movements within the mind as if they were movements within the atom, to label the most elusive particles, will become more venturesome.”
The essays, mostly biographical fragments, in this book demonstrate the grace with which Ellmann himself can be venturesome. He carries much learning with lightness, and illumination. He employs the speculative psychoanalytical method in “Overtures to Salome” where, starting off from Wilde’s play, he traces back to Wilde’s Oxford undergraduate days his loyalties divided between Ruskin and Pater. Ruskin inspired the socialist and pre-Raphaelite preoccupations of Wilde, who, for a time, joined the team of undergraduates under Ruskin’s guidance who sweated to turn a muddy lane into “a flower-bordered country road.” Here Ruskin was being Wilde’s soul of socialism.
Pater’s writings signaled to him the aesthetic delights of decadence. The influences of Ruskin and of Pater meet and at the same point bifurcate in the ideas of each about the Italian Renaissance. Ruskin regarded Renaissance Venice as totally corrupt. In The Stones of Venice he attacked the degraded overluscious ornamentation of its (or “her” as he significantly calls Venice) carvings. Pater, in his Studies in the Renaissance, rejoiced in exactly those features of Italian art of the period which repelled Ruskin. What was for Ruskin “overcharged ornament” was, for Pater, “a languid Eastern deliciousness.” For Wilde Pater’s Renaissance writings were a secret influence on his whole life.
Ellmann detects the presence of Ruskin in Wilde’s portrayal of the prophet Iokanaan denouncing Sodom in Salome, and of Pater in the voyeur longings of Salome herself. This analysis of the early Oxford influences in Wilde’s life, which fused as dramatic elements in Salome, shows how psychoanalytic biography can add a dimension to the work.
Reading Ellman’s criticism, I was struck by the coincidence of an obsession of Ruskin’s with one of Pound’s—though the former takes a characteristically nineteenth-century form, the latter a characteristically twentieth-century one. Ellmann writes that Ruskin provided a precise date for the Fall of Venice. This was May 8, 1418, the day of the death of the Venetian military leader Carl Zeno. The force of the appeal of this date to Ruskin was, Ellmann argues, that it was exactly 400 years before the date of his own conception: the idea of conception signifying for him his parents’ fall in starting a baby—a degradation which Ruskin would not inflict on himself and his wife. Ellmann quotes Ruskin:
“The Stones of Venice had, from beginning to end, no other aim than to show that the Renaissance architecture of Venice had arisen out of; and in all its features indicated, a state of concealed national infidelity, and of domestic corruption.”
In the nineteenth century voluptuousness signified for Ruskin what in the twentieth century usury signified for Pound. In the mind of the purist of civilization of the nineteenth century sex is regarded as the root cause of the aesthetic corruption demonstrable in “overloaded ornament.” In the writing of Ezra Pound, the corresponding mind of the twentieth century, the economy—degraded by Florentine bankers who made great fortunes by lending money at rates of interest, and by the Jews—is blamed for the thickening of the line in the work of painters:
with usura the line grows thick
with usura is no clear demarca- tion….
Duccio came not by usura
nor Pier della Francesca; Zuan Bellin’ not by usura
In his introduction to the three volumes of Joyce’s Collected Letters (reprinted in Golden Codgers) Ellmann justifies the publication of private material in biography by providing examples of its relevance to our understanding of the artist in his work. From reading this introduction and the letters themselves we can certainly understand better the reasons for which Joyce was “compelled to set images of purity against images of impurity.” Ellmann believes that we are condemned to total—or almost total—biographical candor, but he sees certain disadvantages to this: in the minds of many readers it reduces the level of the art which is the result of the “complexes” of the artist to the level of the readers’ neuroses.
In a passing observation, Ellmann admits that “no one has any trouble understanding why T.S. Eliot and George Orwell both stipulated that no biography be written of them” (he might now add to that list the name of W.H. Auden, which doesn’t leave us with many names of major modern writers about whom authenticated biographies can be written). However Eliot, Orwell, and Auden perhaps had more serious grounds of principle for trying to turn the art of instant contemporary biography into a very obstructive obstacle race than their own self-concern. They drew strong distinctions between the private and the public life. They considered privacy a protected area of freedom. They felt that an artist creates most freely when he lives in conditions in which on the one hand he has freedom from censorship, and on the other hand protection of his private life from publicity so that it can develop freely without the intrusion of a public consciousness into his private affairs.
It may be very important for an artist, not just for his own sake but for the sake of his art, that he should be able to do things, say things, write letters, which are not for public consumption now or at a later date, though such private matters may well be the material which he transforms into his art, which is public. What is freedom for the biographer to say everything will become the destruction of freedom for his subject to have a private life, or if he does have one he may feel obliged to destroy all the evidence relating to it. These are reasons of principle which may have impelled Eliot, Orwell, and Auden to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to write their biographies. (They have, of course, to pay a penalty to the outraged public anxious to know the worst, in the form of ill-informed biographies which no one can stop being written: of which Mr. T.S. Matthews’s book on T.S. Eliot provides a grim warning.)
A phenomenon related to candid biography is for a literary work to become absorbed into all the criticism which has been written about it, and into the history of the work itself—sketches, drafts, variorum editions. The effect of this is that the work dissolves into the mass of documentation out of which it grew and of comment which has grown up around it—and, of course, into the author’s biography.
Eliot provides the classic example of this. With certain poems one can trace the process. To early readers of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Prufrock, like Sweeney, was taken to be a convincing poetic-fictional character. Virginia Woolf, writing in 1928, regards him as “real” not with the “Arnold Bennett kind of reality” but with that of Leopold Bloom. And “Where in modern poetry are there characters realized with such effectiveness as Prufrock and Sweeney?” asked F.O. Matthiessen in 1934. Today however we have it on the authority of Hugh Kenner that Prufrock is not a character or person at all, but a “zone of consciousness.” One wonders whether this shows a real advance in the understanding of the character presented by the poem or whether Prufrock has become concealed not by “the yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window panes,” but by the fog of explanations absorbing him. A very interesting study could be written about the dissolution of certain literary works (one might begin with “Kubla Khan”) into critical and biographical consciousness.