Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ether, ethics, anesthetics

Lots of things recently have been conspiring to make me want to reread T.S. Eliot, in whose writings I was absolutely steeped as a teenager but who I have only briefly revisited since; aside from more casual prompts, I am contemplating a future class on the battle of the ancients and moderns, to be built around Swift's Tale of a Tub but taking in everything from Hamlet and Montaigne and Descartes up to David Markson's Reader's Block. (In my office the other day after an unusual and interesting oral exam I was rereading Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, which I think laziness would induce me to teach instead of the Cantos.) "The Waste Land" is crucial here, of course...

Anyway, a very appealing piece at the TLS by Eric Griffiths on the latest volume of Eliot's letters. Here is a good bit:
These letters are awash with complaints, mostly nervous – “neuralgia”, “neuritis”, “nerve-storms” – but also, among others, hemicranial migraine, anaemia, toothache, trouble with “glands”, malnutrition and “suppressed influenza”. Husband and wife shadowed each other through an intent, valetudinarian tango, one shuffling in retreat when the other strode forward (“I had influenza just after Christmas and I was scarcely out of bed before Vivien suddenly rushed into bed and refused to get up any more”, to Charles Haigh-Wood, July 1925). While they were associates in dismay, they might listen to the roster of each other’s ailments with sympathy, participation even, but at any time they could go out of tune with one another and start hearing the tales of woe as wheedling, extortion or connivance. They became third parties to their own experience, reciprocally suspicious, as Eliot’s brother suspected Vivien (“she unconsciously encourages her breakdowns”), as Eliot in 1926 suspected John Donne: “this deliberate over-stimulation, exploitation of the nerves – for such it is – has in it, to me, something unscrupulous”. What struck her as the unstable straining of their lives for effect – “life is so feverish and yet so dreary at the same time” (1918) – came across to him bearing the force of an artistic convention like revenge tragedy, with its routines, its precarious “mixture of tedious discourse and sudden reality” (1927), ambivalently powerful either to flatten out or throw into high relief the interactions which it frames.

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