Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Virtues of Difficulty

I had intended this, my first post here, to address the literary economy in some way. As co-director of the Pages & Places Book Festival in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and as we’re deep into the planning for the 2010 festival, our second, I'm now contending with all the expected difficulties regards, for example, convincing government officials and even grant-giving foundations to support a celebration of books. So I have plenty of opportunity, let’s call it, to realize to what degree lovers of books and reading are but a tiny minority.

But as I planned out my thoughts I couldn’t disentangle them from my thoughts on other, concurrent and overlapping concerns:
(a) preparing for classes that begin next week;
(b) trying to make good on a request for an essay on the nature of literary influence (no simple task, I assure you);
(c) reading Sue’s entries on difficult reads.
So I’ve decided that what I want to do here is offer up a defense of reading by way of a defense of difficult reads especially.
What distinguishes the pleasure of reading from, say, the pleasure of film is the degree of intimacy which we share with a single mind—the mind that is the sole creator and sovereign of the world we inhabit as we read. Further, because we think in language, reading becomes a kind of thinking in which we think the thoughts of the writer; even if our thoughts drift from time to time, they drift away from and then, in the next sentence, return to the writer's anchoring, catalytic thoughts. In short, reading doesn’t just give us access to another’s worldview; it asks us to live, if temporarily, according its rules and prejudices.
Worldviews differ one to another, naturally, and some are simpler and some are denser and so more difficult to absorb in their entirety. But my thesis here is that the worldview takes up residence in every facet of a work, providing sensitive readers with a manifold opportunity to experience an alternative—sometimes a wildly alternative—universe.
Since I'm audaciously defending difficulty, I’ll jump right into the deep end and try to illuminate something essential about T.S. Eliot and his work. Before I’m done with this subject I’ll circle back in a later post and try to do the same for William Carlos Williams, who stakes his pride on the virtues of simplicity.
But to Eliot . . .

I’ve chosen as an example one of Eliot’s more notoriously difficult poems, “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service,” which begins with an absurdly Latinate neologism of Eliot’s own, polyphiloprogenitive, only to become even more complicated, obscure, and allusive. And yet the poem, in the end, asserts the importance of the common. Having fought through all the poem’s obstacles of complexity and erudition we arrive, in the final stanza, at the image of Sweeney, the lower class Boston Irishman who taught Eliot to box at Harvard, shifting from butt cheek to butt cheek—“ham to ham”—in the bathtub.

Maybe it’s a little like banging your head against the wall in order to experience the pleasure of stopping, but attending the sudden simplicity of this image is a feeling of relief, and that feeling (the cathartic breakdown of the poem’s tension) is the poem’s meaning. More precisely, Sweeney’s bath is juxtaposed to another bath, Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River as described in the third and forth stanzas, so discovering the second bath at precisely the moment of catharsis transmits to us the feeling that a natural man—one of the “common people—people of normal comprehension”—is more Christ-like than the poem's learned theologians (“The sapient sutlers of the Lord”) whose job is to bring Christianity to people like Sweeney.
I’ll leave the hard work of close reading to you, but let me just summarize the crucial opening stanzas this way: the poem begins by describing the great Christian theologians as productive of many offspring (polyphiloprogenitive) and so responsible for a series of twins, including, most importantly, the “superfetation” of the original one-ness of God (that’s what the Greek term of the second stanza means). With each new theory of God, one falls further and further from God’s original and rightful one-ness. This is the problem that the natural, uneducated—and so uncorrupted by theory—Sweeney simply and laudably ignores.
The question I want to try to answer (if less than comprehensively) is, Why does a poem that privileges the simple have to be so difficult to read?

Much of what makes Eliot Eliot is available in his insistence on the primacy of European traditions extending to, indeed privileging, Aristotle and other ancient Greeks, concluding that the poet “must be aware that the mind of Europe”—a metaphor borrowed from Nietzsche—is “much more important than his own private mind." Accordingly, Eliot argues that “anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year” should by that age have consumed the Western canon, a claim which lays the groundwork for another, bolder claim, that the poet does not rely upon individual talent to create significant new works of art but rather her knowledge of the genre of poetry, by which he means “the whole of the European literature from Homer.” It follows, then, that we “cannot value [a given poet] alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.” More audaciously, the greatness of “a new (a really new) work of art” is measured by its ability to alter “the whole existing order” of the genre, that is—and think of Ulysses’ impact on Homer's The Odyssey—after encountering a great work we can never again see the literature that precedes it as we did before that encounter.
But in the end, these are fairly superficial characteristics of Eliot’s work, manifestations, in fact, of the scrupulous and radical relativism that underlies the whole of his poetics.
In 1917, ten years before his conversation from agnosticism to Anglicanism, Eliot converted from philosophy to poetry, but not before delivering to his Harvard mentors a dissertation that excoriates the very practice of and rationale for analytic philosophy and which provides us with the philosophical foundation of the poetry he was already writing.
To squeeze the dissertation into a nutshell, Eliot dismantles the practice of philosophical explanation. Such explanations, he tells us, are not possible, because any explainer mistakenly believes his explanation will be true for all time—otherwise, why bother with the explanation in the first place—while in fact there is no stable, objective reality to explain. Rather, the world is in constant flux, being continually recreated by philosophers’ language. Each time a philosopher tries to explain a given object, he must step outside that object—an object that is naturally and properly whole (like the original one-ness of God) and therefore without need of explanation—and break that object down into analyzable parts, say, mind and body. Should the explainer succeed in convincing the world of his theory, a new reality is ushered into being, in this case, one in which mind and body are separate entities. That reality might hold for a time (“And what is actual is actual for only one time/and in only one place,” as Eliot would put it thirteen years later, in “Ash Wednesday”), but eventually a new theory—perhaps brought about by recent advances in neuroscience—will render the old reality obsolete and provide us with the next in the ever continuing sequence of truths. And so the dissertation climaxes with the audacious claim, “Reality is a convention,” meaning that whatever truth dominates at a particular historical juncture is, well, the truth until the culture in question adopts its eventual and inevitable replacement.
The point is that all explanations are false, while at exactly the same time, all explanations are necessarily, from some point of view, true. (Even schizophrenia, Eliot says, is not a pathology but a viable philosophical position.) The difference between truth and falsehood, then, is perspective; or to put it more simply, truth is a matter of faith. If one believes an explanation—as Christians believe in Christ or rationalists in the fundamental rationality of the university—the theory stands free of problems; it is simply true. But without that belief, the theory fails to stand at all. In a world in which all reality is neither stable nor objective, in which all theories are both true from some perspective and false from some other perspective, there is only (as F.H.Bradley, Eliot’s favorite philosopher and the subject of his dissertation, would say) “the total situation.”
In such a relative world—and this is essential to Eliot’s poetics—an object can only be known in relation to other objects, hence Eliot’s fondness for similes, metaphors, connotations, allusions, ramifications, etc.
Finally, as Eliot’s career in philosophy is concerned, if explanations promise to fail then a good philosophy strives not to explain but rather to describe, and the thicker and more comprehensive the description the better. Believing that philosophy had already and forever abandoned description, Eliot turned to the ultimate describer, poetry.
Put this all together, and you have a poetics that (a) requires mindful participation in 2,000-some years of European literary tradition, (b) demands abstention from explanations and declarations, and (c) strives for the thickest possible description of the total situation. The affect achieved by this poetics ought to be a productively cloudy head, or as Eliot put it, some ineffable feeling. According to Eliot expert Jeffery M. Perl, Eliot, in a paper he wrote for a Harvard seminar, argued that a philosophical paper should “reach no conclusions”; very much along the same lines, Eliot paid his highest compliment in honor of Henry James, who, he said, “had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.”
What I hope to have introduced, if not proven, is that a writer’s poetics—however difficult or easy they may seem—is rooted in governing ideas about the nature and location of reality. One’s style, in the most comprehensive sense, is a direct consequence of ideology. Eliot’s methods, whatever the subject of a given poem, are necessary to a poet who finds the real to be nothing short of the sum of all perspectives and all history.
We have a chance in “Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service”—or in “Gerontion” or “The Waste Land” and so on—to, among other things, put ourselves in something like Eliot’s shoes: if you start out believing what Eliot believes, what would be required to write a poem that satisfies you? And how could that poem not pose a world of difficulty for nearly anyone who encounters it?


  1. First and foremost, welcome aboard as a contributor to Raining Acorns!

    What a heady first post you’ve offered. I’ve now read “The Virtue of Difficulty,” as well as Eliot’s most peculiar poem, "Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service," several times. I believe I have arrived at the “cloudy head” to which you refer: Now the question will be whether I’ve arrived at anything resembling a “productive” version of that state. Here goes:

    Your comments on the pleasure of reading were beautifully stated, and, for me, exactly right. I suspect I will refer to them each time I embark on another “hard book” (or poem).

    I found, throughout the piece, that I wanted to argue with Eliot’s worldview and had to remind myself that this was not the point. Rather, my task in reading your essay is to try and understand his worldview, as this understanding may offer me a richer way into his work.

    T.S. Eliot, like Wallace Stevens, is a poet whose poetry I've long loved but little understood. I’ll confess, as with Wallace Stevens, I’ve stayed away from all the commentary. With Eliot, in particular, I’ve been suspicious about whether his commentary on his work was intended to elucidate or to obscure. Instead, I’ve contented myself with reading and re-reading certain poems, fascinated by the journey, even if ignorant about the layers of allusion and theory that sat beneath the language.

    Your essay has changed all that. I can’t imagine reading a poem by Eliot now without thinking about his abandonment of philosophy for poetry—and the reasoning that brought him there. Not to mention thinking on the absurdly difficult task he set for himself, and therefore for us, as readers.

    And now, like Sweeney, I may need to draw myself a bath . . .

    Thank you for this marvelous, thought-provoking post. I very much look forward to Part II (William Carlos Williams).

  2. Bill - You are probably familiar with the influence of T.S. Eliot on William Shakespeare. An unfortunate influence that I find baleful. This was revealed by David Lodge in "Small World" as I am sure you are aware. It was a source of considerable difficulty for several of the characters. It goes, in some measure, to explain the difficulty of Shakespeare but I really don't think that is something we should be celebrating. Do you?

  3. My understanding of what you convey is that the reader’s perception of degree of difficulty is arbitrary. Is TS more difficult for the reader because there is no prior reference (you mention neologism)? There is no picture to form if the word has no connotation. If that is the case then meaning occurs through academics, discussion or perhaps a chat with TS himself. From my perspective, that in and of itself extols the virtues of difficulty in literature…connection through discourse.

    Next time I pick up challenging text I will try and recall your words “experiencing something wildly alternative” to replace “This is way over my head…too difficult!”

    Thank you.

  4. Well, JMS, you have certainly risen to Bill's challenge!

    And now, back to the lighter side, Josie has located a parody of Eliot's Four Quartets, called "Chard Whitlow," and subtitled, "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Evening Postscript." And, as if that weren't enough, there is an audio of Dylan Thomas reading the poem mimicking Eliot's reading voice. All can be found here:

    The poet who wrote the parody is Henry Reed, whose poem "Naming of Parts" is not too shabby, either.

  5. "Connection through discourse," Jane: I love that and think it's exactly right. And I think that the invitation of difficulty (not difficulty for its own sake but truly rich complexity) is an invitation to dialogue. In Eliot's case, he's not seeking to be obscure for its own sake, but he is trying to defeat easily arrived at interpretation because one's interpretation of, say, "The Waste Land" is a theory -- and we know what he thinks of theories, those vulgar lumps of matter.

    He's quite explicit in his essays about wanting to create meaning in a reader's feeling. If we come away from "The Waste Land" feeling fear, we're halfway there. If it feels to use ancient fear, we're closer. If we can track the feeling back to its compound source(s), we got it, and we got it through dialoguing with the poem, though we may not be able to articulate what we know we got.

    This has me thinking two things: first, maybe we don't pay enough attention to what writers say about their own work, and second, I'm really angry at my high school English teacher who told us that we couldn't arrive at meaning because we didn't work hard enough!

  6. Josie, I'm not aware of Lodge's Small World and what it might say about TSW and WS, but I'd love to hear more!

  7. I can't resist this, now: For a description of the zany plot of Small World, see Even better, go to the link to the interview with David Lodge at the bottom of this entry.

    My own favorite Lodge book is Therapy. Here's a brief summary: The story concerns a successful sitcom writer, Laurence Passmore, plagued by middle-age neuroses and a failed marriage. His only problem seems to be an "internal derangement of the knee" but a mid-life crisis has struck and he is discovering angst. His familiar doses of cognitive therapy, aromatherapy, and acupuncture all offer no help, and he becomes obsessed with the philosophy of Kierkegaard.


  8. I read Bill Black's essay and found it quite interesting. However, since Octogenarians do not seek difficulty no matter how virtuous, I will pass on his premise. Bucky Fuller's, "Less is more," mantra more closely fits my needs at this stage of life.

  9. To that point, I suppose, thirty or so years after the fact, Eliot was given a copy of his dissertation and, having reread it, said he could no longer understand it.

    But that doesn't mean simplicity is any less ramified. More on that thought in a week or so . . .

  10. Glad to have been steered this way, thanks to RA... Interesting discussion, made me turn to Eliot’s poem (which I hadn’t read before) in light of Bill’s thoughts and the feedback they elicited. On an initial, quick read, I simply thought, “I like this” -- a reaction admittedly based more on the poem’s rhythm and sound than on its meaning. On a second read, however, I found myself thinking that the word I’d use to describe it isn’t so much “difficult” as “pompous”. That said, I suspect that complaints about a piece’s pretentiousness, like those about its seeming obscurity, reflect more about the reader’s efforts (or lack thereof) than the author’s.

    If the pleasure of reading lies in “the degree of intimacy we share with a single mind,” which I agree is a lovely way to express it, I’ll have to think more about my responsibility as a reader -- not just to passively enjoy access to someone else’s worldview, but “to live, if temporarily, according its rules and prejudices.”

  11. It is comforting to know that Eliot himself claimed to no longer understand his own dissertation in his later years. From my point of view, cybersr, octogenarians are not the only ones who avoid difficulty - perhaps the experience of raising children from infancy into their twenties along with the myriad difficulties, complexities and sheer mental exhaustion that can entail has compelled me, over the years, to be lazy and to seek out the simpler things in life and literature. I have been forced, over and over,to experience "wildly alternative universes". I find that parenthood, by its very nature, cannot be explained, only described - it can be "a little like banging your head against the wall in order to experience the pleasure of stopping".

    Or maybe I'm just simple-minded by nature. I look forward to your defense of simplicity in your next post on the delightful poetry of William Carlos Williams - though I suspect I'll learn a lot, despite myself.

    I believe Eliot said "... our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves." Now that I can relate to.

  12. Hi Vera, and let me say that “pompous” is exactly right (though I don't think it relieves the poem of difficulty), and Eliot is certainly charged -- pretty often, right? -- with pomposity or pretentiousness. Personally, I don't see it in many of his truly great poems, "Ash Wednesday," for instance, and while I can understand the charge as it made against "The Waste Land," well -- actually let me return to that thought, as it applies to your latter point.

    Let me say first that in "Mr. Eliot's Sunday Morning Service" the pomposity is owed to the theologians the poem skewers. The poem is largely a mine field of cultural obstacles -- and that's more or less exactly what Eliot thought of theory-makers. So the content demands the form in this case.

    I think, though -- and the truth is that I love Eliot (did I just say that?) for this -- the obscurity of the poems is rarely the reader's problem. Rather, it's part of the design. He wants to defeat interpretation, as interpretation is theory-making. Instead, if you can track through meaning well enough, you reach at the poem's end a feeling, and through that feeling a kind of elevation of consciousness -- or something. The poems are designed to provide experiences rather than "messages" or some such.

    I can't say why exactly why that pleases me so, except that it conforms with my sense of, you know, life. Maybe Eliot himself helped to convince me of that.

  13. Hi Carol-Ann, and thanks for the comment.

    I'm afraid that I have to warn you that my thoughts on Williams won't really amount to a defense of simplicity but an attempt to illuminate the particular difficulty or Williams' claim to simplicity. We'll see how it goes!

    But I love this: "... our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves." It seems to me that Eliot could certainly have said it; so much of what he represents is expressed in it! And Eliot was very mindful of the legacy of Nietzsche and Freud -- either of whom could have said exactly the same thing -- in his own worldview.

    In any event, thanks to you all for a really fun and lively discussion!

  14. Here's the full quotation -- I love it, of course, and note how it privileges feeling:

    "Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.


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