Saturday, June 9, 2012

C. S. Lewis vs. T. S. Eliot (part 2)

In chapter 2 of his acute little book A Preface to Paradise Lost, a chapter entitled “Is Criticism Possible?”  C. S. Lewis schools T. S. Eliot on the logical failures, indeed impossibility, of literary criticism as understood on Eliot’s terms.
As is so often the case, one cannot improve upon Lewis’s own articulations, so I repeat his argument here in his words:

“Mr. Eliot says bluntly and frankly that the best contemporary practicing poets are the ‘only jury of judgement’ whose verdict on his own view of Paradise Lost he will accept.  And Mr. Eliot is here simply rendering explicit a notion that has become increasingly prevalent for about a hundred years – the notion that poets are the best judges of poetry. . .
Let us consider what would follow if we took Mr. Eliot’s views seriously.  The first result is that I, not being one of the best contemporary poets, cannot judge Mr. Eliot’s criticism at all.  What then shall I do?  Shall I go to the best contemporary poets, who can, and ask them whether Mr. Eliot is right?  But in order to go to them, I must first know who they are.  And this, by hypothesis, I cannot find out; the same lack of poethood which renders my critical opinions on Milton worthless renders my opinions on Mr. Pound or Mr. Auden equally worthless.  Shall I then go to Mr. Eliot and ask him to tell me who the best contemporary poets are?  But this, again, will be useless.  I personally may think Mr. Eliot a poet – in fact, I do – but then, as he has explained to me, my thoughts on such a point are worthless.  I cannot find out whether Mr. Eliot is a poet or not; and until I have found out I cannot know whether his testimony to the poethood of Mr. Pound or Mr. Auden is valid.  Poets become on this view an unrecognizable society (an Invisible Church), and their mutual criticism goes on within a closed circle which no outsider can possibly break into at any point.
But even within the circle it is no better.  Mr. Eliot is ready to accept the verdict of the best contemporary poets on his criticism.  But how does he recognize them as poets?  Clearly because he is a poet himself; for if he is not, his opinion is worthless.  At the basis of his whole critical edifice, then, lies the judgement ‘I am a poet.’  But this is a critical judgement.  It therefore follows that when Mr. Eliot asks himself ‘Am I a poet?’ he has to assume the answer ‘I am’; before he can find the answer ‘I am’; for the answer, being a piece of criticism, is valuable only if he is a poet.  He is thus compelled to beg the question before he can get started.  Similarly Mr. Auden and Mr. Pound must beg the question before they can get started.  But since no man of high intellectual honour can base his thought on an exposed petitio the real result is that no such man can criticize poetry at all, neither his own nor that of his neighbor.  The republic of letters resolves itself into an aggregate of uncomunicating and unwindowed monads; each has unawares crowned himself Pope and King of Pointand . . .
For who can endure a doctrine which would allow only dentists to say whether our teeth were aching, only cobblers to say whether our shoes hurt us, and only governments to say whether we were being well governed?”

Lewis’s case against Eliot here is part of a larger complaint one ought to raise against the way too many persons, often modernists and post-modernists, use language.  They seem to forget that sloppy language makes sloppy thought possible.  They seem to forget that if you pause to find the right word, and do not go on until you have found the right word, then you will know better not only what you do think but what you should think.
Eliot, in my view, is notoriously imprecise with language, and therefore with thought, both in his poetry and his prose.  Such imprecision leaves readers in a hellish and palpable darkness, much like Milton described, from which there seems no way out.  That is why Lewis could say in “De descriptione temporum,” his inaugural address at Cambridge, that even though Mr. Eliot’s little poem, “Cooking Egg” had been before the world for nearly forty years, and even though scholars from around the world might amass to study and discuss it, “there is not the slightest agreement among them as to what, in any sense of the word, it means.”
Perhaps you think that I am insulting Eliot by concluding that the logical and interpretive confusion resident in his own mind (exposed here by Lewis) and in those of his readers (exposed by the nearly global confusion of his interpreters) is the result of hasty and careless thought resulting from ill-chosen language.  Perhaps I do, but not as much as do his camp followers, who otherwise must think that his and their confusion are what happens after he has reasoned and spoken well.
I do not know if Eliot ever read Lewis' criticism or if it had any impact upon him if he did.  But I do know that Eliot changed his mind about Milton and then re-wrote and re-published his famous essay on him.  I also know that the second version was as wrong as the first.

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