A Review of T.S. Eliot’s Dialectical Imagination by Jewel Spears Brooker

T. S. Eliot’s Dialectical Imagination
Jewel Spears Brooker,.
(Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2018. 240 pages.)

On the back of its dust jacket, a shower of accolades descends upon Jewel Brooker’s most recent contribution to Eliot scholarship, T. S. Eliot’s Dialectical Imagination. Notably, the encomia come from the finest scholars in the field: “A tour de force for the new era of Eliot scholarship”—Ronald Schuchard; “excels on Eliot’s religious and moral intelligence”—Lyndall Gordon; “a permanent part of the critical canon”—Anthony J. Cuda; “Fresh knowledge and insights abound. . . brilliant readings of Four Quartets”–John Haffenden; “an authoritative, splendidly lucid guide to Eliot’s major poems”—Jahan Ramazani.

Given her career-long dedication to Eliot studies, one cannot be too surprised at this outpouring. Some thirty years ago, as president of the T. S. Eliot Society—a somewhat moribund entity until she stepped in—Professor Brooker displayed her rare gifts as a scholar/leader with two capstones. For the 1988 Eliot Centennial, she persuaded Michael Butler Yeats to come to Saint Louis to give an excellent talk on “Eliot and Yeats,” Michael’s poet-father. And she also arranged to have the TSE Society travel to Gloucester to tour the summer home of the Eliot family, along with taking a boat ride to view the Dry Salvages. Since then, no scholar has been more deeply immersed in the oeuvre of this poet.

Before engaging with her text, we must linger a moment over Ronald Schuchard’s foregoing comment about “a new era of Eliot scholarship.” Despite a near-century of intensive scrutiny, a vast store of Eliot’s papers have come into play only during the past decade, notably including The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot (7 volumes to date; Brooker is co-editor of Volumes 1 and 8) and The Letters of T. S. Eliot (7 volumes to date). Brooker indicates the new era in her Notes, which include frequent references to “forthcoming” letters and prose works by Eliot. But the new era also includes original thinking about established opinion, including her own. Combining new research and rethinking of her earlier books, particularly Mastery and Escape: T. S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism, T. S. Eliot’s Dialectical Imagination is especially astute in finding new ways of relating Eliot’s intellectual biography to his poetry. New insights thereby arise from sources as disparate as F. H. Bradley, Julian of Norwich, and the prophet Ezekiel.

In Brooker’s book, Eliot’s dialectic begins, we may infer, as early as the portrait on the dust jacket—a copy of Gaugin’s painting Le Christ jaune (The Yellow Christ). This painting, which Eliot displayed on the wall of his room while doing graduate work at Harvard, renders an extreme instance of Eliot’s ground theme of the debate between body and soul. Apparently, Brooker chose this gruesome image for the jacket because, for Eliot, the mystery of the Crucifixion mainly lay in the way Christ’s spirit freely accepted and somehow prevailed over the unbearable torture of his body—a dialectic of ultimate opposites. (Something similar can be said of Eliot’s obsession with the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.)

Passing beyond the dust jacket, the book proper begins with an epigraph from Eliot’s dissertation on F. H. Bradley (1916) about “passing. . . from two or more discordant viewpoints to a higher which shall somehow include and transmute them.” In Brooker’s account, Eliot’s discordant viewpoints evolved across the decades: “In 1910, the dissociation was between intellect and feeling; in 1914, between refinement and desire; in 1925, between the idea and the reality; in; 1928, between asceticism and sensuality; in 1934, between time and the timeless; and in 1942, between the fire and the rose.” Eliot’s manner of resolving such dualities, in Brooker’s judgment, reposed on two principles that prevailed across his entire literary corpus. One was the dialectic—his search for a way to include and transmute opposites; the other was the principle of relativism, the idea that truths are valid only in relation to other truths.

Eliot derived those two principles, Brooker says, mainly from his studies in the philosophy of F. H. Bradley. Eventually, however, Eliot rejected Bradley’s resolution of the mind-body dualism through recourse to something Bradley called “the Absolute”—a notion that violated the principle of relativistic truth. After citing Bradley’s closing claim in Appearance and Reality that “Outside of spirit there is not, and there cannot be, any reality,” Brooker quotes Eliot’s marginal scribble in reply: “I cannot see my way to the admission that ‘Reality is spiritual.’” Like Henri Bergson’s Elan Vital, the Absolute came to seem just another humanistic attempt to will the triumph of spirit over matter.

For a time, Bergson—whose lectures Eliot attended in Paris—held powerful sway over Eliot’s thinking. In her chapter “Eliot’s First Conversion,” Brooker cites Eliot’s reminiscence, in 1948, of his “temporary conversion to Bergsonianism.” What attracted Bergson’s youthful acolyte was the idea that memory presented a resolution to the mind-body duality. In Matter and Memory, Brooker argues, Bergson conceives of memory as “the intersection between mind and matter. . . . a halfway house in which matter. . . interacts with spirit.” Given the importance of “memory and desire” in The Waste Land and the play of memory in Four Quartets, one can infer a permanent effect of Bergson on Eliot’s poetry. But neither memory nor the Elan Vital proved a credible answer to the problem of duality.

Eventually, Eliot’s disdain for philosophical idealism (Brooker’s term for it) showed up not only in such poems as “Whispers of Immortality” but in a claim of outright fraud. By the mid-1920s he was writing to this mother that “I found modern philosophy to be nothing more than a logomachy, believed in by its professors, chiefly because they had to make their living out of it.” The bitter disappointment underlying this statement goes far to solve a puzzle in earlier Eliot studies: the question why he chose to grub a bare livelihood in London rather than take up the professorship in philosophy that Harvard was holding open for him.

It is significant that Eliot would not accept the status and security of that appointment just to make a living. On the other hand, Brooker’s study certifies the burning hunger, in successive phases of Eliot’s life, that stoked his search for beliefs to live by. Lasting into the War years, Eliot’s hope to find those beliefs in philosophy fueled intensive study in diverse sources. “Acutely conscious of the split in himself between mind and body,” Brooker writes, Eliot was baffled by the spectrum of conflicting answers: “For Descartes, the rationalist, these opposites met at the top, in the cogito, in which the mental absorbs the physical; for Kant, the idealist, they meet in the unknowable mind of God; and for Darwin, the materialist, they meet at the bottom, where mind collapses into matter.” Eliot, she goes on to say, “was unable to accept either the Cartesian or Kantian granting of ultimacy to mind or the Darwinian reduction of mind to matter.”

So the search for a dialectic resolving this disjunction continued into the next phase of Eliot’s thinking, but not before casting off one masterpiece, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and a batch of lesser poems such as “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” and “Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service.” And Eliot’s early mentors also left their stamp in Eliot’s lifelong meditation about time. From Bergson, Brooker writes, Eliot derived the two notions of time at play in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night.” One concept, clock time, is artificially divided into minutes, hours, years, denoting quantity; the other, Bergson’s duree reelle, occurs within the play of consciousness, denoting quality of experience. In “Rhapsody,” the stanzas move inexorably through clock-time (“Twelve o’clock,” “Half-past one,” “Half-past two”) while the narrator divides the time between memory (throwing up “a crowd of twisted things”) and immediate observation (a prostitute who “hesitates toward you in the light of the door,” a cat licking up “a morsel of rancid butter”). Neither concept of time, it would seem, offered either comfort or a way out of duality.

Though Eliot rejected F. H. Bradley’s “Absolute” as the answer to the mind-body duality, he did absorb from his intensive study of Bradley the concept of dialectical thinking. Having already done pioneering work on Eliot’s debt to Bradley, Brooker here digs a little deeper. Surveying Eliot’s chief mentors, she defines Bradley and Harvard professor Josiah Royce as “idealists”; Bertrand Russell and Ralph Barton Perry as “realists”; and Bergson (“vitalism”) and William James (“pragmatism”) as “fence-sitters.” Rather ingeniously, she associates Eliot’s literary/cultural essays with the idealist thinkers—

“hls criticism. . . is drenched in idealism”–and his poetry with the down-to-earth realists. She even excavates a speech by Eliot’s father, Henry Ware Eliot, on the occasion of his commencement from Washington University in 1863. Titled “Philosophy the Science of Truth,” it ascends from the truth of science, including Darwinian evolution, to the prospect of spiritual evolution, and finally to the role of Jesus as the ultimate “witness unto the truth.” With serious reservations, especially concerning Henry’s lack of a sense of sin, one can perceive some rough resemblance between Henry’s speech and the spiritual odyssey of his son.

Having abandoned philosophy, Eliot next took his search for truth into a broader cultural matrix of religion and literature. Scrounging through millennia of writings in multiple languages, he dredged up remnants of vital relevance to his own chaotic time. Brooker classifies these fragments that Eliot shored against his ruins into three categories: allusions, translations, and “survivals.” Brooker cites “April is the cruellest month” as an allusion to the Canterbury Tales; “Because I do not hope to turn again” as a translation of Guido Cavalcanti; and the epigraphs of Eliot’s poems, up through The Waste Land, as survivals. By culling multicultural, polyglot excerpts from long ago, maintaining their original language and voice, Eliot’s survivals serve “as a dialectical bridge both connecting and transcending history and myth.” One such bridge, quite plausibly, connects the beginning and end of The Waste Land. The first words of the poem—“The Burial of the Dead”—are an allusion to the funeral liturgy in The Anglican Prayer Book; the poem’s last words—“Shantih, shantih, shantih”—are a survival voicing the final chant of a Hindu funeral service.

As he approached the great turning point of the mid-1920s, Eliot’s search for survivals correlated perfectly with his study of ancient religious practice. Unlike the philosophers, Sir James Frazer and other anthropologists who studied religious origins eschewed theory in favor of accumulating facts. Those facts, in turn, enabled a reader to “probe the sources of primitive cultural vitality and to discover the foundations of the modern self,” Brooker says, citing Eliot’s assertion in a 1918 book review that “The artist. . . is more primitive, as well as more civilized, than his contemporaries; his experience is deeper than civilization.” A dialectic thereby ensues in Eliot’s seminal essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” which (Brooker says) “posits a dialectical triad in which the primitive mind and the modern mind are at once included and transcended in a greater mind—the ever-changing mind of Europe.” In similar fashion, she says, Eliot “divides the self into a suffering self (associated with feeling) and an observing self (associated with thought) and sees these binaries as at once contained and intensified in a written self (associated with art).”

Perhaps these earlier binaries were resolved in the mind of Europe or the written self, but as Eliot’s career surged to its apex in The Waste Land and The Hollow Men, his dialectical imagination failed to deliver. In The Waste Land there is no credible myth of rebirth to shore against the Burial of the Dead, and in The Hollow Men the desire for rebirth (“the supplication of a dead man’s hand”) leads to terminal self-mockery (“the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper”). Bad as it was, however—to such a degree that Eliot later called The Hollow Men “blasphemous”—his intellectual impasse evoked his deepest powers of artistic creativity. The imagery, the diction, the incantatory rhythms, the design, the plain ingenuity of these two poems suffice to override a reader’s concern with the dialectic. Brooker, however, proceeds to combine aesthetic insight with her dialectical paradigm. After locating a reference to Shakespeare’s Brutus, the “noblest Roman” (“Between the acting of a dreadful thing/And the first motion”—Julius Caesar, ii.63-64), she links it with Dante’s profoundly ignoble Brutus at the bottom of the Inferno, and then fuses them in an ambiguous synthesis: “Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow.”

Brooker moves into high gear in the last third of her book, dealing with Eliot’s “Second Conversion.” In her reading, Eliot took Lancelot Andrewes as his model Christian, as opposed to John Donne, a model to avoid. Her discussion of Dante and Descartes in Eliot’s thinking is too intricate to explicate here; suffice it to say that her discourse is incisive and thorough. Her subtitle to Chapter 8, “Eliot’s Second Conversion: Dogma without Dogmatism,” however, seems overstated. Powered by a convert’s zeal, Eliot was dogmatic enough to tell a friend that he intended to write an essay (never written) about the devil—not portrayals of the devil, but the presence of the devil—in modern literature. In After Strange Gods, he likewise decried “the intrusion of the diabolical [emphasis his] in modern literature.” In “Religion and Literature,” he defined its diabolical essence more precisely, describing “the whole of modern literature” as “corrupted by what I call its Secularism, . . . it simply cannot understand . . . the primacy of the supernatural over the natural life.” It seems reasonable to say that Eliot’s dogma deserved its ism.

It appears that in the end Eliot resolved his body-spirit duality via his own version of F. H. Bradley’s Absolute, with the proviso that Eliot’s Absolute—as represented in the Incarnation—really exists, in contrast to the philosopher’s humanistic fantasy. With her dialectical design thus brought to fulfillment, Brooker devotes her closing chapters to some outstanding textual analysis. In Chapter 9, “An Exilic Triptych” she treats The Waste Land, Ash-Wednesday, and “Marina” in terms of Eliot’s experience of exile. “One remains always a foreigner,” he wrote to his brother from London, and after his long sojourn in England he likewise felt foreign when visiting his birth country. In The Waste Land and Ash-Wednesday, Eliot’s surrogates include Ezekiel, the prophet in exile; Dante, the poet in exile; and Guido Cavalcanti, who, dying in exile, declared (as translated): “Because I do not hope to turn again.”

The third poem of exile, “Marina,” presents a dialectical pattern as Brooker sees it, in its counterpoint between Pericles and Hercules. Pericles, overjoyed by unexpected reunion with his daughter, contrasts with Hercules, who emerges from a fit of madness to discover that he has killed his wife and children. This tragic episode seems oddly placed in what otherwise is, for Eliot, an unusually happy poem, but Brooker’s sense of a movement “from suffering” (Pericles’ lost wife and daughter) through tragedy (Hercules’ madness) to joy (the family reunion) is a plausible explanation.

In real life, Eliot’s exile included estrangement from people closest to him, including his brother Henry and his intimate friend Emily Hale. Ironically, his spiritual dialectic, ending in Trinitarian belief, was largely responsible. In an April, 1933 speech to an audience of Unitarian ministers where his brother was present, he launched what Henry called “a fanatically intolerant and shocking tirade” attacking the liberal Unitarian heritage, thereby betraying his family’s eminent religious legacy. The Unitarian embrace of a wide range of beliefs likewise meant, Brooker avers, that Eliot could never marry Emily Hale, herself a Unitarian parishioner.

Brooker is at her best while discussing Four Quartets, with special focus on Burnt Norton. Eliot’s alienation from family and friends in America, she says, helps explain why the poem’s memories of childhood are deceptive (“Into our first world, shall we follow/The deception of the thrush?).” Over those bright memories falls the shadow of strained, lost, or broken relationships for the reminiscing adult. He knows what the child does not: that Time is a one-way arrow, and the lost paradise may not be re-entered. Eliot’s instances of time as “memory and desire,” Brooker says—the desire to return to a might-have-been and do it over—play off against the “still moment” that “opens a window on ultimate reality.” Through the dialectical interaction between time and the timeless, the poem aims towards Eliot’s final goal, to “redeem the time.”

Regarding Four Quartets as a whole, Brooker finds new precursors to Eliot’s motifs in sources ranging from The Rock and Murder in the Cathedral to the Bible (from Numbers to Philippians) and Greek drama (Aeschylus, Sophocles). Especially useful, I think, is her analysis of the dialectic between Augustine and Dame Julian of Norwich. Brooker’s research reveals an implicit dialectic even within the Trinity, counterposing Augustine’s God the Father against Julian’s regendered Christ (“Jhesu Crist . . . is oure very moder [mother]”), with the Holy Spirit resolving the contrast as the genderless Comforter. The main issue between the two theologians engages that most intractable of all theological problems, theodicy. Whereas Augustine ascribed the sufferings of the world to human agency, via Original Sin, Dame Julian’s mystical visions enabled her to consign the issue of theodicy to the sovereignty of God, wholly assured that “All manner of thing shall be well.” Though Eliot never renounced Augustine, his affinity with Dame Julian may be inferred from his three repetitions of this phrase, the final one occurring in tandem with “the tongues of flame” as Four Quartets ends.

Brooker’s final chapter traces Eliot’s struggle with theodicy to his final fusion of the fire and the rose—which he had “used as separate images for three decades.” (She aligns the fire with Augustine and the rose with Julian.) Eliot understood this dialectical synthesis, Brooker argues, as an achievement attainable in the realm of art and imagination, but not as a palpable here-and-now reality. Realization of the limits of human understanding, Brooker says, obliged Eliot to accept the premise that in this life no theodicy is satisfactory, dualism is intractable, and “faith is the sine qua non in philosophy and religion.” Having taken his quarrel with himself to this degree of closure, Eliot’s work as a major poet came to an end.

As an Eliot scholar, Brooker’s great strength has always been illumination of the intellectual/cultural context of the poetry. If there is a weakness in her approach, it is one that she shares with other highly sophisticated critics: bypassing an obvious answer. Two examples, both broached in her book, will serve. One is the passage from The Waste Land, Part V, that begins “My friend, blood shaking my heart,” and the other is the refrain in The Hollow Men, Part V, “Falls the Shadow.” The purpose of the first passage is to answer its preceding question: “Datta: What have we given?” The obvious answer is sexual intercourse, described as a young man of Eliot’s upbringing would regard it:

My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed

Eliot’s point is that alleviating the sufferings of the Waste Land will require giving more than sexual conjunction, yet brute sexuality seems to prevail with ruthless, compulsive force, as was seen the bulk of Eliot’s earlier poems as well as in The Waste Land itself. Confirmation of last line above—“By this, and this only, we have existed”–seems evident in the frightening risks taken by public figures from John F. Kennedy to Charley Rose. Ironically, the pursuit of sex as their chief source of meaning had to be omitted from the record of these actors’ lives—their obituaries, their diaries (“memories draped by the beneficent spider”), and their wills (“seals broken by the lean solicitor”).

Although the commands of the Thunder—translated as Give, Sympathize, and Control—would, if obeyed, alleviate the behavioral causes of the Waste Land, the poem posed no answer to its other main question, how to cope with the Burial of the Dead. That question, carried over to The Hollow Men, is the obvious interloper in all the “Betweens” of the poem:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

When asked, Eliot agreed, as Booker and others have noted, that the Shadow may relate to Ernest Dowson’s poem, “Cynara.” Old Possum neglected to disclose, however, as was often his way, that the Shadow best known to the whole English-speaking world was the one in Psalm 23, the most famous psalm in the Bible, well known because it was so often recited in the daily routine that began the class day in public schools (in Eliot’s time and in mine): “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Like sexual turpitude, the fear of death was a dominant theme in Eliot’s earlier poetry, culminating in the reversal of the Easter message in The Waste Land: “He who was living is now dead.” Here I would argue for the Ockham’s Razor thesis, that the simplest explanation is preferable. Sex and death, which Faulkner called the front door and back door of the world, were paramount issues in Eliot’s thinking and were addressed as such in the two passages in the foregoing lines of his poetry.

One other instance of a missed critical opportunity relates to Eliot’s view of Henry James. “Eliot argues that . . . Henry had the ability ‘not to think,’” Brooker writes, alluding to Eliot’s remark about “a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” But thinking is what drew Eliot into the Waste Land, and thence to the “blasphemous” despair of The Hollow Men. Because thinking is involuntary, Eliot’s penitential stance in Ash-Wednesday includes a prayer for God’s help to stop thinking: “And I pray that I may forget/These matters that with myself I too much discuss.” Surrendering his pride of intellect was a necessary step on the aged eagle’s road to conversion, and the basis for being able to claim that “I rejoice that things are as they are.” Henry’s innate ability “not to think” must have seemed enviable to a man who had to struggle so mightily to attain it.

Despite these quibbles about interpretation, Jewel Spears Brooker has written a book fully deserving of those accolades on its dust jacket. Its originality, intellectual heft, and clear, graceful style make it appealing to Eliot’s general readership and essential for Eliot scholars. “We are in the dawn of a renaissance in Eliot studies,” she writes in her Introduction. T. S. Eliot’s Dialectical Imagination is a distinguished contribution to that renaissance, taking it beyond its dawn to full sunrise.

Victor Strandberg

Victor Strandberg

Victor Strandberg (A.B. Clark University, 1957; PhD Brown, 1962) has taught English at the University of Vermont and, since 1966, at Duke University. His publications include numerous essays on 19th and 20th century American writers, as well as books on Robert Penn Warren, William Faulkner, William James, and Cynthia Ozick. During sabbaticals, he has taught American Literature in Sweden, Belgium, Germany, Morocco, Japan, and the Czech Republic. (His course on T. S. Eliot is available on YouTube.)
Victor Strandberg

Author: Victor Strandberg

Victor Strandberg (A.B. Clark University, 1957; PhD Brown, 1962) has taught English at the University of Vermont and, since 1966, at Duke University. His publications include numerous essays on 19th and 20th century American writers, as well as books on Robert Penn Warren, William Faulkner, William James, and Cynthia Ozick. During sabbaticals, he has taught American Literature in Sweden, Belgium, Germany, Morocco, Japan, and the Czech Republic. (His course on T. S. Eliot is available on YouTube.)