While reading how T. S. Eliot laid the foundation of the modern English department, I also read that the only author (or human being) he ever looked up to was James Joyce. Joyce had given him a draft of the famous ‘Oxen of the Sun’ chapter, which technical pyrotechnics inspired Eliot, perhaps, to write onwards toward the ‘Wasteland’. Doubtless, any reader attempting the ‘Wasteland’ (or anything from that period of Eliot’s) needs the full resources of a modern English department. And then perhaps the full resources of a modern Psychology department.
Eliot saw the Modernist period ushered in by Picasso, Stravinsky, and Joyce. They preceded him by their Cubism, their Rites of Spring, their canons. In comparison, Eliot dropped almost fullborn onto the Modernist poetic scene, having little more than his “equals”, such as Ezra Pound, to help deliver.
I have an argument that I cannot win, for lack of academic rigor and expertise. I’ve never eliminated ‘reductio ad hominem’ from my beliefs that this discredited argument does not still have merit. Eliot could not possibly, in my mind, have been playing a dull, despairing banker. I’ve always believed he actually was a dull, despairing banker. This is the American “If it quacks like a duck, . . .” argument. If Eliot, or Carl Popper for that matter, wish to weigh in, they may.
Eliot’s argument that the poem may be a ‘Ding in sich’ separate from the author’s life and experience. However, how often does that hold up? Tellingly, I believe, his one hero, Joyce, may never have written anything that was not easily seen in Joyce’ life, sometimes down to the day. I believe that Joyce was happy for every moment of exhibitionism. Blind old beggar, he laughed himself to death. As Stephen refused to ‘Hellenise Ireland’, why should I not agree with him to ‘Hebradise Greece’ (I believe, a quote from Scylla and Charybdis. I need to find it.) rather than “Hellenise Ireland”.
Eliot was as dull as any person working in an early twentieth century bank could be. If he had a an ironic reason just to pretend to be that, then I suspect that the ‘Wasteland’ might really be about inauthenticity. Are the endnotes really endnotes or part of the poem? Upon whom is the joke if they are treated as part of the poem? Harold Pinter says more about Eliot than Eliot could of Pinter.
How does this all relate to James Joyce? Though Eliot would have wanted to stand next to him, I don’t believe he could be Joyce’s equal. Joyce is a man as vital as this world and his circumstances could permit him, and more.
I can relate this back to my Ulysses annotation project by saying this: Joyce, in Ulysses, teaches what a well-marked passage is–neither too much nor too little. He teaches me how to read literature again. None of us is likely to read anything more difficult and more engaging. Having become engaged, we now know that we can handle what is difficult.
We now believe that annotation truly is the joke that Eliot pulled on us. I wish to return annotation to the noble task that Joyce intended.
Howard Nemerov, or Soeren Kierkegaard, or someone said Life is lived forward and understood backwards. If this is so, this defeats Eliot’s claim that a poem is a diamond all itself, regardless of the bowels of the earth from which it was spewed.