10 March 2007

Old Possum on the tactics of magick

Eliot's poetry is not a question of meaning in the first place. The meaning of a poem for Eliot was a fairly trifling matter. It was, he once remarked, like the piece of meat which the burglar throws to the guard dog to keep him occupied. In true symbolist fashion, Eliot was interested in what a poem did, not in what it said—in the resonance of the signifier, the echoes of its archetypes, the ghostly associations haunting its grains and textures, the stealthy, subliminal workings of its unconscious. Meaning was for the birds, or perhaps for the petit bourgeoisie. Eliot was a primitivist as well as a sophisticate, a writer who made guerrilla raids on the collective unconscious. For all his intellectualism, he was averse to rationality. Meaning in his poetry is like the mysterious figure who walks beside you in The Waste Land, vanishing when you look at it straight. When Raine enquires of a couple of lines in one of Eliot's poems whether we are supposed to be in a brothel, the only answer which would be true to Eliot's own aesthetic is that we are in a poem.

Emphasis added. Terry Eagleton, a Marxist critic, points out correctly that a poem - like a person - is what it does, not the ideas that it contains. It is a material thing, a collection of phonetic, phonemic, semantic and semiotic signals that produces an ideological as well as biochemical effect on the human consciousness.

Is it very wrong for a Marxist to love a reactionary like Eliot? As Eagleton points out in the above review, it could have been worse. He could have been his mate Idaho Ez and actually ended up snorkelling fascist sausage.


  1. "Is it very wrong for a Marxist to love a reactionary like Eliot?"

    Funny...we are studying Eliot in a Literature course right now and I was asking myself the same question.

    I love this blog and the whole concept, too, by the way.

  2. I think the question answers itself, actually. Literary quality - defined as its efficacy at getting a subrational emotion across - has nothing to do with the ideology of the author, or indeed the "surface" ideology of the work. To think otherwise makes you a 1930's Zhdanovite or a 1980's bourgeois feminist.

    Always good to get feedback from those who appreciate. One day I'll get funding to write a book which does for Marxist cultural theory what Lenin did for the theory of the party - i.e. make it usable.