45C Lectures [C. Altieri]


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The Theory of Emotions in Eliot’s Poetics


Charles Altieri

Department of English

UC Berkeley

Berkeley, CA 94720-1030


The history of Eliot criticism offers a depressing form of justice: the very vocabulary for appreciating poetry that he did so much to shape has turned out to be in large part responsible for the decline of his power and influence in the academy. Ambivalence now becomes effeteness, complexity idealism, and the desire for intricate unities a defensive projection of mastery by which to ward off threats of castration. Consequently what had been staged as a revolutionary modernism now gets taught primarily as a reactionary evasion of historical realities from which we can be freed by a less pretentious modernism or, even better, by an enlightened postmodernism.

This volume’s concern with the topic of Eliot and desire provides an opportunity to escape this entire quasi-tragic revenge cycle. For we are invited to look carefully at how his formal and thematic elements are woven into specific emotional configurations explored within the work, so that we almost have develop for those elements an imaginative density not easy to reduce to the now standard litany of complaints about his impersonality and abstraction. This does not mean we cannot be critical of Eliot. Indeed focussing on how desires are staged within his work may reveal an even more monstrous fascist or patriarch than our more tepid thematizing has allowed us. But at least this Eliot will have an imaginative life that we can envision winning the degree of influence, admiration, and antagonism that Eliot did from many quite considerable poets and critics, including influential figures on the left like Christopher Caudwell and Raymond Williams.

My Eliot will not be such a monster; at least he is not intended to come off as one.

I will use this occasion to speculate on what seems to me still distinctive and powerful in his rendering of emotions, in part because this focus will make it possible for me to demonstrate how even in our hypercritical age we can develop historical stances towards his work that find more to admire and to use than they do to condemn and moralize upon. This demonstration will elaborate two overlapping tracks. First I want to capture some of the historical force of his formal innovations by fleshing out how fully he responded to what he saw as the crisis created by the persistence of dissociated sensibility he took to be the dominat cultural condition. This entails specifying what he thought problematic in dominant ways of representing and valuing emotions, and then it requires clarifying the specific elements comprising his own projected alternative model for affective life. Then, second, I want to supplement this looking backward by turning to its possible projections into the future. Therefore I will explore the possible differences Eliot’s work might make in our present attitudes towards the nature of emotional life and the values at stake in how we engage that life, especially in relation to the now dominant philosophical and therapeutic paradigms on this topic. If I am right, the analysis might also help indicate that Eliot’s influence or impact on his peers and his heirs was not merely a matter of the ideologies of race, class, and gender that he helped enforce. Rather it was because, conservative as he was, he developed at least this one substantial modelling of affective life where it could seem that the arts had a role to play in shaping the future.

To make good on my ambitions I will have to specify how Eliot’s own poetry both establishes and tests ways of making affective investments and of reflecting on their consequences. Deeply suspicious of received renderings of emotional life and increasingly dissatisfied with a poetry grounded primarily in such suspicion, Eliot experimented with modes of presenting and projecting desire more immediate and also more inherently social than the culturally dominant modes of linking affects to causal narratives. And in doing that he developed an abstract modern imaginative space radically new for English poetry. However describing that space cannot be simply a matter of analyzing the poetry. Instead I will have to begin by engaging recent philosophical discussions of the emotions—not to apply these directly to Eliot’s work but rather to show how Eliot provides quite different and important responses to the fundamental topoi developed within these philosophical discussions.

In particular I will use these topoi to argue that much of Eliot’s poetry from "The Love Song of Saint Sebastian" through Ash Wednesday makes available the following transformations of how his lyric heritage dealt with emotion: it presents a quite different speaking agent, more abstract and elemental than those presented by his predecessors; it puts the abstract staging of spiritual conditions in the place that plot and scene had occupied so that the new poetry directly implicates its readers in the most fundamental questions about the values they commit to; it modifies our ways of thinking about how passive and active aspects of our affective lives interpenetrate; it finesses standard therapeutic and philosophical models for assessing emotions because of its resistance to narrative causality, and its ways of rendering suspicion of emotional theaters release the imagination into more abstract modes of regarding emotional structures that link modernism in poetry to non-representational work in the other arts--one more reason for Eliot’s enormous influence.

Eliot actually provided two quite different but closely interrelated alternatives to what were the standard cultural models for valuing emotions at the beginning of the twentieth century. Much of his early work concentrates on using ironic stances in order to undo the hold of conventional emotional structures and to put in their place a much more mobile emphasis on the intricacy of "feelings" which circulate through these structures without being contained by narrative frameworks. This Eliot he would later describe as having undergone a "temporary conversion" (March Hare, p. 411) to Bergson’s emphasis on "the reality of a fluid psychological world of aspect and nuance, where purposes and intentions are replaced by pure feeling" (409). Yet even though this conversion would prove enormously influential on poets like Stevens and Loy, Eliot soon found himself unsatisfied because the emphasis on "pure feeling" seemed to make it impossible to take on the large psychological and cultural issues that he was addressing in prose. Therefore Eliot began to deploy his Bersonian fluidity in quest of quite different aspects of affective life.

One cannot treat any of Eliot’s concerns on this topic as if he were acting in accord with a specific theory of the affects or even under the influence of a theorizable set of commitments. Nonetheless we can try to identify some of the basic ideas and writerly strategies that produced work so intimate and elemental it could sustain quite abstract conditions of agency. If we are to see why and how Eliot moved away from his Bergsonian poetics I think we have to begin with his rich and telling critique of standard emotional plots; then we can use what remains problematic in current philosophical treatments of the emotions in order to locate precisely what Eliot modifies as he shifts the affective core of his work to the what seems the immediate dynamics of desire. Such contrasts should help us recuperate the affective force basic to the modes of lyrical agency that Eliot develops, the versions of intensity that he pursues, and the ritual space within which the agency and its intensities become plausible modes of imaginative action. And, while I do not have the space to demonstrate this, I want to suggest that working out these contrasts also helps us appreciate the impact on his work of Eliot’s investments in Eastern religions, since for them desire is not a matter of social staging but of what underlies our needs for various social relations in the first place. It is not a great stretch to say that in Eastern thought desire is simply a condition of being that we have to engage on levels deeper than become possible if we devote ourselves to the narratizable conditions that allow individual egos their illusory lives. But it can be great poetry to give resonance to that attitude and to lead Western readers into similar imaginative sites. Tracing this poetics of desire then will enable us to follow the strange trajectory that made what had been a Laforguian ironist into a student of Eastern religions finding there terms that would lead him to Christianity and lead his poetry to a point where it not only anticipates contemporary Lacanian concerns but also creates a ritual site on which those concerns might be engaged without requiring either the pure irony with which Eliot began or the pure bleakness with which Lacan concludes.

All our ladders start in Eliot’s critique of the standard emotional plots in his culture. What bothered him? And how can we characterize his dissatisfaction so as to identify both the blocking forces that he might try to counter in his lyric experiments and the specific set of issues that any such countering would have to engage? One might think that Eliot’s work collected in the notebook now published as Inventions of the March Hare is about little else. "Opera" provides an especially striking encounter with inherited ideals of emotional intensity no longer satisfying to a modern consciousness, so I cite that poem as representing Eliot’s deepest resistance to his culture’s preferred models of feeling, one that he would modify but never quite reject:

Tristan and Isolde

And the fatalistic horns

The passionate violins

and ominous clarinet;

And love torturing itself

To emotion for all there is in it,

Writhing in and out

Contorted in paroxysms.

Flinging itself at the last

Limits of self-expression.

We have the tragic? Oh no!

Life departs with a feeble smile

Into the indifferent.

These emotional experiences

Do not hold good at all,

And I feel like the ghost of youth

At the undertakers’s ball. (17)

The shift in sound and syntax between stanzas is almost enough to explain this ghostliness, as well as to indicate what for Eliot are the kinds of feelings and adjustments that simply have no place in the world of opera. Even the syntax of the first stanza provides grand opera. We find ourselves caught up in a single expanding sentence, charged with Latinate self-indulgence and driven by the pleasures of pains that all call up excessively active verbs and participles. But from within that world it is not possible to hear the transformations in sound and syntax that quietly characterize the kind of pain explored in the second stanza. That pain is concerned much less with self-expression that it is with the possibility of finding something like a "life" beneath all this posturing. The poem wants a way to correlate adequate self-reflection with the postures enabling intense self-expression. However it finds only this bleak syntax in which metaphor can merely name a condition of self-dispossession. When opera establishes the affective terms by which self-recognition seems possible, this speaker can only define his emotions in negative terms as the "ghost of youth at the undertaker’s ball." For him passion seems the presentation of postures not quite attached to concrete bodies. The concrete now is only an affective condition that has to be characterized in terms of what it is not, and, more painfully, in terms of the agent’s own distance from any body that he might feel himself inhabiting.

One could say that the one body that does remain is the textual body, with its shifts in syntax as a model of the kinds of feelings that do not easily take operatic forms. So it is no wonder that Eliot came to adapt the mutually reinforcing positions of Babbit’s anti-romantic critique of emotional self-expression and Laforgue’s ironic reliance on just those textual velleities: "In Laforgue there was a young man who was ... always himself: that is every mental occupation had its own precise emotional state that Laforgue was quick to discover and curious to analyze" (403-4). In this statement we find what would prove to be probably the two most important concerns in Eliot’s early work—how he might construct an emotional precision that could engage Laforgue’s concern for how much "more use poetry could make of contemporary ideas and feelings, of the emotional qualities of contemporary ideas" (403), and the need to make such precision the basis for maintaining this condition of being always oneself, no matter how fluid one’s emotional life becomes. The poet of impersonality would also be one deeply committed to preserving a sense of ongoing identity, but he could maintain that only by resisting what he saw as operatic romantic ideals of self-expression.

The self he could identify with in his poetry had to be more abstract and more mobile than the imaginary one to whom the romantic tradition attributed an emotional core gradually made articulate through the work done by consciousness in representing itself to itself. Instead Eliot pursued a version of Kantian autonomy possible through art: self-possession consisted in the "identity of cause and effect" we experience when we can entirely identify our will with the states in which we find ourselves. The will had to locate its peace in the immediate conditions of its manifestation, without depending on any narrative of origins, since that narrative would always entail an endless regress. And that quest led Eliot to modernist constructivist principles stressing the powers both developed and given meaning within the concrete workings of aesthetic composition. Poetry’s affective life resides not in the "‘greatness,’ the intensity, of the emotions, the components, but" in "the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place" (Selected Essays, 8). Only there could the ghost have a body, so long as it did not project beyond its embodiment some underlying emotional dynamics requiring the kind of elaborate staging that forces subjectivity into subjection.

This constructivism linking precise emotional mobility with a self-possession won by the ironic acceptance of one’s own affective boundaries generated a substantial body of lyric work by Eliot and his peers. But Eliot chafed under the constraints of his own aesthetics and its corrolary psychology. By 1926 he clearly saw that Laforgue’s restraint was as problematic as Wagner’s effusiveness: "In Laforgue there is continuous war between the feelings implied by his ideas and the ideas implied by his feelings. The system of Schopenhauer collapses, but in a different ruin from that of Tristan and Isolde" (120). The ideal of precision seemed to bind consciousness to its objects in ways that left little room for resistance or interpretation, little room that is for what the Romantics had the liberty to call the processes of soul-making. So the precision of feeling turned out to be another undertaker’s party, now not exiling a ghost but confining the psyche to ghostly status within which feelings were inseparable from the play of "nerves" (146). The demand for precision could not but place feelings at war with ideas, since no ideas could possibly be adequate to the subtle sensibility that art could compose? Consequently the only will a person could take a satisfying identity within had to be based the text’s intricate distance from a world of action and belief. The greater the precision, the greater also the distance between the forms of activity that intellect could find satsifaction within and the forms of activity required by the public world, with its much more generalizing and plot-bound notions of emotional investments.

Many of Eliot’s early poems grapple with these constraints and hence provide clear indications of what he would later have to modify. For example, the very first poem in the March Hare notebook, "Convictions (Curtain Raiser)," opens with an "I" whose freedom depends on his ability to reduce his psyche to the status of marionettes:

Among my marionettes I find

The enthusiasm is intense!

They see the outlines of their stage

Conceived upon a scale immense

And even in this later age

Await an audience open-mouthed

At climax and suspense. (11)

The need to have the self-possession of a director requires that his world take the form of an opera, where a fully intense emotional life depends on his characters dwelling within the imaginary confines of their stage. As Christopher Ricks reminds us, we could be in a Maeterlink play as described by Arthur Symons: "he ‘has invented a drama so precise, so curt, so arbitrary in its limits, that it can safely be confided to the masks and feigned voices of the marionettes’" (Hare, 103). But Eliot cannot resist reflecting on his own ironic distance from such irony. The poem’s last speaker is reduced to projected conditionals proposing as the desired satisfaction what turns out to be only an even more demanding puppet master:

"Where shall I ever find the man!

One who appreciates my soul;

I’d throw my heart beneath his feet.

I’d give my life to his control."

But what sustains this control is merely the master’s ability to compose self-possession by reducing his creature’s passions to slight disturbances in his affective atmosphere:

My marionettes (or so they say)

Have these keen moments every day.

Seen in relation to this poem, "Prufrock" seems a considerable advance, albeit an advance into even more intractable contradictions. In "Prufrock the speaker is both master and marionette, never quite sure which role can best occupy his psychic stage and consequently using each to protect the limitations of the other. Moreover "Prufrock shares with another poem of the period, "Mandarins," a strong appeal to Bergson’s life principle, even as it dramatizes the realization that given the defenses necessary for self-possession this life principle will have to seem as unattainable as it is attractive (19-22). And "Preludes" in its turn seems directly connected to "Prufrock," bringing this internal dialogue to its most intense and most telling moment of self-paralysis. All four sections of this poem insist on a flatness of description within which we register only the most elemental aspects of affective intentionality coming to inhabit the landscapes. But the conclusion tries to build on these aspects, as if there one could find the relevance of Bergsonian ideals and could link to that life the nascent powers of an emerging subjectivity which is not part of the marionette theater:

I am moved by fancies that are curled

Around these images and cling:

The notion of some infinitely gentle

Infinitely suffering thing. (CP 14-15)

Yet even letting this possibility of vulnerable subjectivity come to speech brings the poem too close to operatic sentimentality and to the loss of control. So the poet has to rely on savage irony that in fact is no less pathetic in its pretense to occupy a site from which it can maintain its distance and its control:

Wipe your hand across your mouth and laugh;

The worlds revolve like ancient women

Gathering fuel in vacant lots. (Collected Poems )

Precision then brings consciousness to a site where feelings take on a kind of sublimity. But it also asssures that this sublimity will have to remain at a substantial distance from anything that approximates the processes of judgment. When lyric emotion seems tries to take itself seriously as mediating some pressing underlying needs and demands, the poet must immediately protect himself against feeling ashamed before the court of critical intellect. Yet his means of maintaining control over these emotions only banishes that intellect from any possibility of substantial active agency within the public world. The poet’s choices remain the undertaker’s party or the ironist’s carefully delineated grave.

Increasing awareness of the dead end he had composed for himself seems to me the background necessary to appreciate why Eliot explores the almost surreal emotional intensities of "The Love Song of St. Sebastian," and "Sweeney Among the Nightingales." In these poems precision takes on a bizarre excess that no irony can control because the ramifications of the speaker’s figures extend in so many directions there can not even be a possibility of control or self-possession. Where control had been, there he would have to grant the vague presence of some underlying source and force binding the agent to needs and fantasies and perhaps to social contradictions from which the powers of art can maintain a sufficient distance. Coming to terms with such forces, or, better, coming to terms with the ritual sites necessary for allowing such affects to modify consciousness, demands that the poet yield to the sense of spiritual adventure leading to Eliot’s "Waste Land" and beyond that to his conversion.

The demands such conditions place on critics are somewhat different. My story

does not require new readings of the specific poems that result from Eliot’s reactions

against his earlier work. But if we are to appreciate fully the imaginative force of what his self-analysis generated, and if we are to prepare a context for appreciating fully what is at stake in his subsequent poetry, we will have to establish a somewhat more elaborate intellectual context for the affective dimension of this work than criticism has so far produced. I am not sure that this recontextualizing has to be as Baroque as I will be. But I think that if we are to accord Eliot the intellectual respect he deserves we have to be able to place his work in the context of other philosophical engagements with the nature of affects and with the problems that specific ways of constructing affects create. For then we can also trace how he goes about modifying the cultural grammars that dominated his culture and continue to shape ours. However since Eliot is not an explicit theorist of the emotions, there is little point in abstracting arguments from his work. It is far more important to identify the distinctive qualities of affective life that he discloses or emphasizes, then build on these to develop our own cases for how this work might help us engage and modify contemporary theorizing. To make this possible I am going to spend a considerable time elaborating what I take to be the four basic topoi that any philosophical account of the emotions has to address. This will dramatize the pressures on and pressure points within philosophical treatments of the emotions. And having that context will help foreground how Eliot differs from the dominant lines of thinking and will provide a background for making comparisons with how other poets evoke and interpret affective intensities.

1) The first of the topoi is the most fundamental. It consists in various ways that theorists characterize the intentional features that seem necessary to talking about human emotions and that connect these emotions to beliefs and to actions. We cannot deal adequately with emotions if we treat them simply as drives or behavioral modifications because we cannot be sufficiently concrete about how agents experience them or about what might produce changes in specific cases. Interpreting emotions seems to require delineating a person’s relevant particular beliefs, enabling fantasies, and projections connecting the mental state to possible behaviors or future states. Without these concerns we cannot account for variations in affective intensity or for the different ways agents deploy and modify investments in what extensionally seem the same states. For example, contempt and pity can look very much alike unless we inquire into specific beliefs or into how the emotion gets oriented towards specific actions.

When we ask what form these interpretations best take we find ourselves at the core of modernist poetics. For modernist art gathers much of its energy form its critique of the still standard narrative formats that have been considered the obvious mode for contextualizing emotions within intentional contexts. Within this mode interpreters are seen as testing various narratives within which the agent’s behavior might play a part. And, increasingly, analysts have come to think that the best way to change emotional behavior is to modify the narratives by which we frame our own senses of ourselves. When one treats emotions in temporal causal terms it seems reasonable to act as if we could develop persuasive stories about what triggered the affect and hence recognize what might satisfy it. What we cannot treat causally we ignore or relegate to moods. More important, this reliance on narrative shapes the kind of agency to which we attribute the intentionality. We assume that the one who initiates the emotion is a distinct individual capable of playing all the roles that protagonists play in our plot structures, especially the role of coming to take responsibility for the very dynamics which set the plot in motion. This version of agency makes our acknowledging and owning our emotions the fundamental value in reflecting upon them, perhaps even of experiencing them in the first place. And we best adapt this principle of ownership by subsuming the basic constituents of affective life under the overall rubric of ego psychology. Identity is a matter of the ways one represents and takes responsibility for one’s emotional commitments. This in turn means that the only good emotion is a dead one or, less figuratively, that our task as agents is to become persons by demonstrating our abilities to keep the emotions within the bounds of the plots our culture provides us. If we fail at living within this explanatory regime we are treated as if we are not coherent selves and need therapy.

Clearly there is a good deal of sense in this perspective. But it is not without dangers that make this topos an arena charged with conflict. The model of identity that I have just been describing places emotions center-stage in what Lacan has shown is a theater of meconnaissance perhaps inescapble within ego-psychology. From that perspective there seems no alternative to treating emotions as states to be understood and mastered, since our having a stable psychological identity depends on our being able not only to represent ourselves within plots but also to make ourselves the challenged actors whose efforts at mastery make the plots worth attending to. We simultaneously need intensity so that the plot matters, and we need control so that we matter as masters of the plot. Under such contradictory demands, the possibilities of self-delusion within fictions of self-mastery multiply. It proves all to easy to exagerrate particular emotional moments as conditions to be valued, so social life begins to approximate the conditions of opera. Or when we find I tempting to rely on strong investments in the concepts of self that allow us to shape and direct our narratives social life comes to approximate the conditions of philosophy.

These problems would haunt the activity of judgment even if we could project ourselves as capable of cogent self-analysies. But, Lacan adds, we never find ourselves in this minimally mediated position. Our plots for our emotions, or for ourselves as emoters, also invite a second theatrical dimension produced by our inescapeable relation to projected audiences. There are at least two of these--the grammatical one through which cultural frameworks impose the terms by which we formulate these identities, and the imaginary one that we envision as ultimately sanctioning our performances by providing the signifier we desire for the fantasies that we need signified. Even as we pursue specific ends like helping someone we pity, we find ourselves imagining an audience who desires us for that action, and our need for that approval will affect our judgment about what does and does not count as the adequate carrying of our pity into action.

2) The basic reason that identity is so problematic when we reflect on emotions is that these phenomena involve complex relations between what seems passive or contingent about an individual in a situation and what seems active or self-defining in the person’s behavior. We earn identities by being active in relation to forces that otherwise would determine us. But if we attribute too much activity to ourselves we trivialize the emotion by denying its emergence any power over us. Without substantial passivity nothing can move us so that we attempt to modify our priorities. So theorizing about the emotions has to find ways of acknowledging both sets of impulses—towards control and towards allowing our feelings to lead us into potentially new relations with the world and with other people. Without elaborating both poles we cannot tell whether a radical act of self-definition like Bartleby’s is an assertion of freedom or a submission to compulsion.

But how do we develop the conceptual terms or imaginative strategies by which to keep both poles in dynamic interaction? If we approach questions of passivity and activity from traditional philosophical perspectives, we find it almost impossible not to treat passivity as problematic and consequently to emphazize the active, self-interpreting component in affective life—so powerful is the idealist tradition in our conceptual lives. We find ourselves, in short replaying the limitations of post-Kantian ethics. This ethics is based on an equation of autonomy with rationality. For, as I have already cited Eliot writing on Kant, we can only establish a clear idea of freedom if we can imagine how it might be possible to produce "the identity of cause and effect" (Hare 105). One cannot preserve that identity if one bases one’s judgments on emotion or on pleasure because such judgments were clearly too passive, too bound to the empirical self, to allow the spirit to bind itself to its own laws. Only Reason has the power at once to conceive laws that are fundamental to its own nature and to give such law substance in its own activity, transmitting reason’s causality into effects that simply embody those laws.

From this Kantian perspective, which in its turn abstracts from deep features of Christian values, surrender to the emotions can make us literally monstrous—humanity transformed into pure appetite. When we succumb to the emotions, we give up the kind of self-definition that reason provides, and we bind ourselves to satisfactions that stem from our contingent dispositions rather than from what is most internal and most distinctively human. Yet in this Kantian scheme what is most human is also most abstract and impersonal. We are most human when we are least particular. Clearly this cannot do, however much it allows sublime sense of human powers. So recent philosophy tries on many fronts to restore power to this particularity by insisting that much of what matters about our humanity consists in ways that we are passive so that our environment can attune us to its contours. The romanticism that Eliot hated returns as philosophy telling us that we are most active precisely when we allow ourselves to be passive and subordinate consciousness’s eagerness to impose structure to the roles of heeding and focussing on particular flows of energy. We are even promised by arch-romantics like Deleuze that we may even be able to suspend the entire dynamics of identity production if we allow our emotions to provide in themselves the intensity and connectedness that we want our reasoning to produce. From this perspective we are most monstrous when we let our desire for control repress those relational structures which can provide concrete connections worth seeking control for. But in pursuing those relations, how do we not also repeat the worst excesses of romanticism? How do we avoid simply granting authenticity to any claim to the intensity of feeling and the pleasures of attunement to local circumstances? How can there be any sense of direction or focus or even community when we find our emotions epitomized in Robert Creeley’s plaintive cry, "O Love! where are you leading me now?"

3) So far I have concentrated on what we might call the psychological aspects of the tension between passive and active relations to emotional force. A third topoi adapts essentially the same structures to the public question of what place emotions can have in the practical decisions we make. Our reflections on the emotions seem inescapably divided between the need to trust the supplements they provide to reason and the need to suspect their ways of misleading us, if only into operatic self-indulgence. So we have to find ways of determining to what degree emotions are compatible with reason and hence with prudent decisions, and to what degree they are dangerous because they warp our sense of priorities and block our using universal principles?

Speaking of Matthew Arnold, Eliot provides a good (and characteristic) version of the suspicious rationalist: "`The power of Christianity has been in the immense emotion which it has excited,’ he says; not realizing at all that this is a counsel to get all the emotional kick out of Christianity one can, without the bother of believing it " (SE 385). Yet Eliot also came increasingly to realize that there could be no Christianity, no relief from instrumental reason, unless the affects had the power to influence or to determine ends, which reason might then help us secure. Reason’s lack of affect is its great virtue, since it helps us see clearly. But that lack of affect means reason can not in itself move us from seeing to acting. Emotions make such possible because they establish scales of salience among particulars. Then judgment has a direction that guides its decisions. And then judgment can operate in terms of that outworn but perhaps necessary Arnoldian notion of the best self. For it is a sense of our own healthy functioning, our being able to remain identified with the selves that our actions produce, which provides conditions of salience for ideas and hence which enables us to distinguish which of the mind’s constructs seems most appropriate for individual dispositions and for specific socially embedded relationships. Yet every temptation to idealize where the emotions lead us takes place in an imaginary world pervaded by seductions to various operatic postures and, more important, by tendencies to let postures substitute for commitment and intensities for identity.

4) Assessing the relation of reason to emotions is closely related to the question of how we attribute significant values to our emotional states. This is not quite as standard a topos as the other three because most philosophers still do not grant the emotions such power, at least when we are to speak of making judgments about values. Rather they are content to deal with the values that emotions produce in instrumental terms: what matters are not what happens within the emotional state but what consequences they bring out in our practical lives. Yet there are those like Gilles Deleuze who in my view make it necessary to understand how emotions also constitute substantial sources of value in themselves. And then we have to deal with the fact that dealing conceptually with value in relation to our affective lives requires our reconciling two distinct models of judgment. The first is the familiar one oriented toward actions that we need to explain in terms of rational criteria. But the second model of judgment is much more difficult to thematize, however, because the relevant aspects of our decision-making cannot be articulated in terms that readily fit our habits of making and testing arguments.

The one area where philosophy gestures towards this second model is in its accounts of aesthetic experience since in that domain the entire field depends on specifying modes of judgment that do not proceed by argument. Instead aesthetics allows us to concentrate on how we might talk about phenomena where the play of interrelated elements is far more important than any thematizable conclusions we arrive at about or through our explorations. But in the aesthetics the relevant language of values is typically about objects. The theory of emotions needs analogous models of value about subjects. (Aesthetics does also deal with subjects, but usually simply by celebrating freedom and participation, not by characterizing particular states that comprise value-laden modes of being.) That is why modernist art becomes an important analogue for those attempting this more difficult course. Much of it departs from Nietzsche’s powerful distinction between the defensive and impersonal structures sustained by the "will to truth" and the working of a "will to power" creating value out of its own intensities and imperatives. If we are to have a general notion of judgment attentive to how emotions can be ends in themselves, we have to be able to attribute value to how these emotions organize our energies and dispose us to seek to continue the states they afford (or the transitions they provide) rather than shift into more practical (or more theoretical) orientations.

But how do we develop this claim without making reason the arbiter of what matters within these particular states, and hence without projecting onto emotions precisely those needs that it ultimately takes reason to satisfy? The only viable alternative I can imagine consists in relying heavily on a series of metaphors. On the most general level we might oppose ideals stressing the examined life and hence self-knowledge with images of conative states that satisfy in much the same way that music satisfies—that is by the play of internal structures brought to intensity and given resonance as they pass through time. Then to specify what it is about the values we set on affective experience that makes them more amenable to a musical approach than to a philosophical one I have to introduce two additional metaphors. Rather than use any notion of sequential understanding to characterize the internal relations constituting affective states and their modifications, I propose we rely on the figure of gravitational fields. And rather than assess intensities and relational states in terms of rational categories I propose we adapt mathematical figures of variation in speed and scope of relatedness depending on how centripetally or centrifugally oriented the psyche becomes. We need both metaphors because emotions charge experience in two basic ways—in its spatial dimension by expanding or narrowing our focus and in its temporal dimension by literally shaping how intensely we experience present moments and how fully these generate senses of continuity or direction within time (in ways so diverse that narrative cannot adequately track them).

Here I will concentrate only on the figure of gravitational field. For this metaphor enables us to show how emotional intensities produce a sense of active powers within experience which are not reducible to the work of understanding, and it helps indicate how our sense of time varies in accord with the degrees of intensity that emerge within such fields. When we find satisfaction within an emotion, when we want to dwell in the world it helps organize, we see specific details of our lives coming into sharp focus and into new possibilities of significance—both in their organization and in the degree of intensity they bear. Think of being angry or being in love or just becoming fascinated by something we feel we are observing unfold for the first time. We enter a field where states of mind consist primarily in a vividness of sensual details and their concrete interrelations. It matters to us how perceptions and projections fuse or pull apart at various rates and angles of intersection, how patterns begin to be formed that will shape our desires and our memories, and how new boundaries get constituted in relation to what seems to fit or to matter and what seems exiled to some "other" realm no longer capable or eliciting our full attention. Think of how even if god may not reside in the details, anger and shame do. With these emotions details seem fixed in time and hence bordering on obsession, while other affective orientations like being in love or just caring about some practice cultivate a fluid responsiveness to change.

  • It is of course difficult to know what to trust or to treasure in these expanding and intensifying fields of relationship. No theorizing can change this. But theorizing can at least attempt to provide reasons why we need not foreclose on such embodied workings of the imagination simply because of difficulties in bringing the discourse of knowledge to bear. Hence the inescapable core of this fourth topos is the need to so characterize these gravitational fields that we come to understand our uncertainties as in large part a positive response to intensities and mobilities that simply cannot be processed adequately by the understanding. Two consequences follow. We have to find as public as possible an alternative to relying on standard epistemic hierarchies in theorizing about our emotional lives, perhaps by showing how distinctions about both affects and their consequences are established by our education into cultural grammars. And then the better we can present passive openness to such structures as a necessary complement to certain kinds of active investments, the more likely we are to allow ourselves the distinctive temporal sense that our satisfactions depend on letting complex affective fields take various forms while we bracket as much as possible our demands for discursive intelligibility and practical decision making. At times this temporal folding will simply be a matter of letting talk go on, at others talk will seem a violation of the relevant modes of attention.
  • Now I can return to Eliot. If we concentrate on how Eliot resists the kind of emotions that are easily contained within his culture’s narrative frames, we can develop two large positive claims about his work—that he articulates a version of affective life dramatizing structures of desire and their consequences which clearly underly narratives without being recuperable through them, and that his lyric presentations of such desires provide experiences eliciting lines of thinking on all four of our topoi more responsive to the problems we have been considering than are the now the standard accounts of the emotions. In making this case I will also be arguing indirectly the historical claim that much of Eliot’s importance for other modern poets stemmed from how he developed imaginative sites where such desires could be played out. Eliot’s centrality in twentieth century Anglo-American writing derives in large part from his ability to adapt the constructivist concerns exemplified by modernist abstract painting to specific affective possibilities that poetry could realize, so that he gave poets the hope that they could engage affective sites analogous to or rivalling those explored within the other arts.

The best way to begin is to isolate two anti-narrative features of Eliot’s lyric emotions which emerge as he tries to get beyond his Bergsonian and Laforguian modes. First, his poems from "The Love Song of Saint Sebastian" on postulate an originating condition radically estranged from any conceivable social grammar, so any dramatic account of the speaker’s condition in terms of emotions we know how to contextualize will simply prove inadequate. We are dealing not with emotions we interpret within a standard social grammar but with something that seems to underly our various emotional needs and that we can only engage by reading the social world as a domain of appearances and screens. And, second, because this particular disposition of intensities resists narrative organizations one has to read the poems in relation to some alternative background. In my view the best way to characterize this sense of context strong enough to ward off narrative is to bring to bear the concerns for allegory and dream vision that Eliot articulates in his essay on Dante. Yet with those poems before his conversion one has to understand the relevant allegorical as the kind of structure that could emerge in the work of Baudelaire, who to Eliot was at best a "fragmentary Dante" (SE 372).

And indeed it is Eliot’s account of Baudelaire that provides the clearest rationale for Eliot’s own innovations. Baudelaire was distinctive for Eliot because he was not content with developing new poetic forms but sought to articulate a "a form of life,’ (375) which treated poetry as inseparable from absolute condtions of desire. Thus where much romantic poetry exploits "the fact that no human relations are adequate to human desires" and does not believe in any "further object for human desires," Baudelaire refuses to rest in this alienated secular psychology. Instead he tries to penetrate the inner workings that might make possible "the adjustment of the natural to the spiritual, of the bestial to the human, and of the human to the supernatural" (379. Consequently Baudelaire is not satisfied by any specific dramatic situation or set of images. What matters is "the elevation of such imagery to the first intensity—presenting it as it is, and yet making it represent something much more than itself." In accomplishing this Baudelaire has "created a mode of release and expression for other men" seeking a renewal of sincerity not caught up in the "superficies of sincerity" that one finds in his peers (377-8).

"The Love Song of Saint Sebastian" clearly manifests this Baudelairean cult of an intensity not containable within the images used to express it, and hence marks a substantial break from Eliot’s Laforguian style. The poem’s first stanza seems trapped within a cultural typology for dealing with masochistic fantasies linked to penitence. But the last one proves far more strange, insisting on an affective leap that challenges all received emotional grammars, as well as established principles of good taste. Here the opening sentence almost coyly suspends action in order to dwell on the speaker’s lingering over the details of the head Sebastian holds on his lap, as if the poem were gathering energies that the position we see from a distance will not be able to contain. Then the poem in effect makes clear the radical impulses deferred and intensified by that delay:

There would be nothing more to say.

You would love me because I should have strangled you
And because of my infamy;

And I should love you the more because I had mangled you

And because you were no longer beautiful

To anyone but me. (Hare, 78-9)

The subjunctives here derive from the psychic worlds of "Prufrock and "Mandarins." But the emotions asserted have none of the overprecision of "measuring out my life in coffee spoons." Rather they display a directness and absoluteness of feeling that cannot be explained, yet is clearly too intense and focussed to be dismissable. The lines insist on causality, yet there is no available framework by which to interpret that causality. Psychoanalysis might try, but if it insisted on explanation it could do little more than provide explanatory substitutes for concrete obsessions. Were we to handle this poem as a practical expression we would be likely to tell the speaker, "you do not really mean that; you want only to get the other’s attention and express your feelings of dependency and demand." But Eliot’s speaker does seem to mean exactly what he says. So there remains only the option of taking the assertions quite literally by locating some world or level of the world in which the expressions seem to make cogent sense in themselves. These lines invite allegory but repudiate allegorical interpretation and use that as their means of insisting that we stay as much as possible within their quite specific fantasy-driven desires. Sainthood requires such strangeness. Reaching out towards the limits of logic becomes our means of reaching in to the intricacies and excesses of Sebastian’s expressive activity.

I doubt we need much additional comment to trace the linking this "Love Song" to Eliot’s experiments in Poems 1920 and in The Waste Land, as well as to the more positive use of allegory enabled by his conversion. Poems 1920 vacillates between poems that subsume all desires into forms so tight that pure statement prevails and poems that create a scene so stretching dramatic coherence that we have to postulate some psychological space for the speaking which no practical narrative can contain. "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" epitomizes this second option even at the level of its narrative progression. For we move from the particulars of Sweeney’s appearance out to the physical and mythological environment, then back to intense concentration on aspects of the concrete scene. Yet these images cannot even come close to containing the emotions that get elicited. So the poem follows Sweeney’s movements out of the room to more capacious perspectives on the scene. But these keep expanding into a framework that an audience can share only by allowing itself a similar play of perspectives. The poem makes its governing consciousness drift far beyond particular personal concerns to a concluding scene that invokes the abstractness of allegorical space, while insisting that there are not sufficient marks to impose any one allegory:

The host with someone indistinct
Converses at the door apart,

The nightingales are singing near

The Convent of the Sacred Heart,

And sang within the bloody wood

When Agamemnon cried aloud

And let their liquid siftings fall

To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud. (CP 50)

The Waste Land goes on to seek voices for these various perspectives. But there we cannot even provide an image for the speaker because that position has to become more abstract, has to indicate a locus for the desires that call up these perspectives and has to occupy a site where some possibility of adequate response can enter, if only as an aspect of the informing desire. If Teiresias can be suggested as the speaker, that is only because he embodies the allegorical role of an eternally suffering consciousness paralyzed by the very access it has to the underlying conditions of our most basic desires. Yet once that condition of speaking is identified, Eliot finds himself terrifyingly open to the logic of Christianity, which is after all primarily a theory about the consequences of having a Word within the word.

Now I can try to account for some of the force that this poetics of desire exercised and can exercise by showing how it negotiates each of the topoi we have been considering. Ideally our tracing these negotiations can help modify both how we imagine ourselves as affective beings and why we might care about such imaginings. 1) My strongest claims for Eliot all circulate around his handling of affective agency—in part because his criticisms of the standard narrative and operatic modes are so sharp and in part because he provides a powerful "transpersonal" alternative for grounding his lyrical intensities. Let me first rehearse the substantial criticisms that Eliot’s work enables us to mount against the dominant narrative-centered views of intentionality in affective life. We have already noted that his suspicions of traditional ways we invest in our emotional lives has substantial parallels to those developed by Lacan, another ascetic Christian in his overall sense of values. Now I will dwell for a moment on two correlated features of those criticisms that concern projections of agency.

The first parallel is philosophical. Central to Eliot and to Lacan is a profound suspicion of all romantic expressivist notions of identity, notions that emphasize getting in touch with some core self and locating basic values in how we make those deep aspects of the self articulate. Having a self is not some property we possess, or that possesses us, but constructs we offer as particular organizations of experience for specific purposes (KE 19, 49). Therefore persons can project many selves, each coherent so long as we recognize the specific work we are trying to do in proposing say a self interested in writing about emotions or one whom we use to explain why such writing seems otiose. We cannot locate one self for these selves. Attempting that leads us into the labyrinth of substitutions and projections and psuedo-identifications that Lacan shows continually deflect desire into demand and subsume the fluidity of our interfaces with the world into fantasies of substance so that we then have to become defensive and often violent in order to provide a tenuous stability.

The second parallel follows logically. In effect Lacanian psychoanalysis and Eliotic irony both take their departure from a strong sense of how we seem eager to impose on the mysteries of desire self-projections intended to stabilize it but that in fact only displace it into endless chains of unsatisfying substitutes demanding further substitutes without ever leading us back to possible sources in what cannot be represented or possessed in personal form. Consequently rendering intentionality in relation to emotions is not for Eliot simply a matter of clarifying what someone believes and projects. We are invited to understand how such beliefs and projections are so deeply pervaded by complex tonal registers that intentionality itself becomes inseparable from the construction of audiences who might be able to satisfy those barely expressible factors.

Ultimately I want to show how this sense of being pervaded by voices has as its positive counterpart the capacity to imagine transpersonal dynamics for our individual emotional states. But first I have to elaborate the building blocks of this transpersonality. From Eliot’s perspective we know a character only when we recognize how the speaking voice is part of a state of mind attempting to hear its own being heard and reacting to that anticipation—whether the audience be the ladies who come and go or the god who asks us to sit still. The obvious example is Prufrock’s relation to the those ladies, but similar yet much more intricate structures shape the speaker in "Portrait of a Lady," who cannot even speak to himself without hearing how his voices might be overheard. And Sweeney’s sense of self seems both so fragile and so needy that everything he encounters becomes a threat to what he projects onto it as possibility. So understanding his desire seems to require capturing a dimension of fantasy that is not available to simple narrative but that operates as a pervasive modifier of all our descriptions. In all these cases images offered as markers of intimacy seem staged for unseen auditors who are imagined as conferring on the speaker the sense of identity that he or she desires, but whose unspecifiable presence in the speaker’s intentional stances actually dooms them to constant frustrated repetition of the same structure of appeal.

Eliot’s essay on Dante projects the positive possibilities latent in this fluid interplay of layers of identification. Although this essay was written after Eliot’s conversion (published in 1929), its terms help clarify precisely what it was in Eliot’s pre-conversion work that affords an alternative version of agency quite responsive to the mysteries of desire and superbly attuned to treating poetry as an experimental instrument testing various ways of constituting our affective priorities. Discussing Dante’s Vita Nuova, Eliot insists that in order to understand what is deeply personal in the poem we have to accustom "ourselves to find meaning in final causes rather than in origins" (SE 234). Correspondingly, he presents that text as achieving a distinctive kind of personal expression not intelligible to those moderns who, following Rousseau, link individuality to confession. For Dante the autobiographical fuses with the allegorical to offer "a particular kind of experience: that is, of something which had actual experience (the experience of the `confession’ in the modern sense) and intellectual and imaginative experience (the experience of thought and the experience of dream)" and so produced a "third kind" of work with "philosophical and impersonal value" (232-33).

The emphasis on dream here is especially telling because it connects Dante’s autobiographical mode with what Eliot stresses as the fundamental quality of the Comedia, its disciplined dreaming which in effect grounds the allegorical in concreteness without naturalizing it within realistic illusionism. Dante’s work on the whole is testimony to a literalness of imagination that gives the real an intensity requiring our seeking meaning in final causes. The Eliot closer to Baudelaire’s "fractured Dante" could not of course rely on a Dantean version of these final causes. Instead he developed a peculiarly modern one which establishes a secular version of this "third kind" of work reaching towards "philosophical and impersonal value" by its way of reframing needs and impulses that in his culture usually issued in confessional stances. In this secular mode epitomized in The Waste Land, final causes are not specifiable, but must be sought because it is clearly inadequate to let the focus lie on indivdual confessional acts. That fantasy of access to origins within individual psychology leads only to the conditions that comprise Eliot’s scenarios, where the speakers cannot even occupy a position in which they can hear themselves: confession is so busy demanding an audience that it cannot look adequately at either the causes of its pain or the consequences of its own ways of using assertion as means of continuing that pain by other means. In order to insist that the poem extends beyond such scenarios Eliot uses a strong but indecipherable authorial presence never so concrete that we are tempted to confuse the work of desire with the project of self-interpretation.

This foregrounded yet depersonalized work of desire plays two fundamental roles in Eliot’s poetry. First it dramatizes within the poem a presence that suffers from the delusions sustained by the voices in the particular scenarios. And then it stages for this suffering an appeal to allegorical and ritual levels that establishes a bond with its audience unique in English poetry. The combination of a mind that hears the pain of self-betrayal in our voices and a will capable of constructing its own version of dream vision establishes several direct parallels with the work that its audience is performing as it learns to hear what cannot be trusted but must be heeded in the specific voices carried over from the culture. Eliot the poet transforms the confessional basis for emotion into a ritual basis for enacting and reflecting upon more transpersonal aspects of desire where attention can be paid to shared needs and shared despair that these voices contain without fully recognizing. The poem embodies a condition of sheer desire so concrete as to be abstract and to implicate quite general aspects of our intentional lives.

Conversely the poem’s readers arrive at this sense of the transpersonal by a quite different route. They find themselves forced to such abstraction, such distance from the romantic dispositions we adapt as we expect to sympathize with confessions, that the only way they can make sense of the affect informing this abstraction is to explore the degree to which what is concrete in their reactions cannot be limited to their own impulses to confession. Then despite these different routes it seems as if characters and readers emerge into a space, where, as in Dante, we feel that "speech varies but our eyes are all the same" (SE 205). And as we allow ourselves any affect at all in our exploring these allegorical implications,we find ourselves occupying a level of imaginative or dream experience where what we share with the condition of the poem seems more definitive of what counts as final causes for us than is any projection we can make of individual identity or individual destiny. The intentionality fundamental to our affective lives may be much more mysterious and much more deeply social than our philosophers have the tools to discover.

I will be much more concise on how the remaining three theoretical topoi help us characterize Eliot’s distinctiveness. 2) Eliot offers the rare combination of someone entirely attentive to idealist cults of the active, self-possessing spirit and yet sufficiently attuned to the importance of passivity to come to imagine the highest grace as learning to sit still, understanding how our peace is in god’s will. Eliot’s deep interest in Eastern religion called his attention to the ways in which his own culture’s obsession with active spirit easily becomes the self-perpetuation of illusion (see especially Hare, 75). But Eliot was not an ascetic, not quite. For him passivity was not an end in itself ; it was a means for attuning to whatever spiritual forces one could locate within a world of suffering. Two particular locales for such response were especially important for him—the resources possible within a common language, especially voices that this language sustains, and the imaginary space where fantasy opens into dream and dream seems to merge with philosophy, and hence where the literalness of poetry opens into allegorical thinking.

Both these locales depend on there being a force of desire not satisfied by narratives of the self. That sense of force then affords Eliot a clear model of active spirit that nonetheless cannot meaningfully function or understand itself unless it grasps how it is distinct from those versions of active emotion that confession does satisfy. One must sit still in order to let the imagination’s waiting and listening inhabit the gaps its dissatisfactions produce. It is only by such waiting that one can participate in the energies informing mystic and visionary experience. And, equally important for Eliot, it is only when desires cannot be satisfied in the present that we are likely to turn our attention to the historicity implicit in them, as the concrete register of aspects of activity too abstract and perhaps too elemental to be interpreted simply in terms of empiricist models of intelligibility. This historical dimension is clearest for Eliot in the forms of continuity and ritual celebrated in Four Quartets . But even the Eliot of "Tradition and the Individual Talent" saw the need to present desire as always carrying with it the problems and the possibilities inherent in its proclivity to fit into typologies and to be most fully intelligible through the historical transformations it generates. So however much a pure horizontality came to seem distinctive of modern experience, for Eliot there was always a latent vertical dimension partially compensating desire for its frustrations and partially promising that its intensities can also become modes of listening and of waiting. Desire offers for self-reflection a means of passing from history as appearance to history as the manifestation of deeper forces with which active identifications might be made.

3) Virtually every important poet in English saw his or her work as somehow combatting the ancient dichotomy between the irrationality of emotions and the kind of rationality offered by instrumental or empiricist models of the understanding. Does emotion set the criteria by which we decide what kinds of reasons are salient or do we decide on what kinds of emotions matter by relying on some kind of instrumental reason? Eliot helps us develop two distinctive ways of addressing this issue. First he insists on a version of lyrical affectivity that is impersonal and objective. Negatively this means that the object need not be consumed within subjective associations, so the emotion takes on something approximating an objective existence to be examined in its own right. And positively this sense of objectivity helps show that the affects are in many ways parts of public life. It makes sense to postulate modes of judgment that then treat these emotions as direct features of those public lives. We can learn from how desire is embodied the states that we are capable of entering and of suffering, and we can as a public sustain a conversation about which of these emotional dispensations are most beneficial and most harmful to communal life.

Second, Eliot can use this model of judgment to suggest how this conversation may be carried out without quite having to rely on the criteria usually used for thinking about public values. The judgments his work makes about emotions are distinctive in two ways. They are clearly dramatistic rather than instrumental. This does not mean that we can only judge emotions by being able to understand their inner dynamics. Rather we can only judge emotions when we understand their specific external implications. To appreciate or reject certain kinds of passions, secular and religious, we do best when we imagine the concrete states they produce and, most important, the relations among states they elicit and encourage. In this sense poems like The Waste Land claim the status of direct public wisdom. And Four Quartets gives a social cast to religion by constantly exploring just what features of a public language faith allows one to invest in fully and what might follow from such investments.

Eliot’s view of judgment focussed by emotions is also distinctive in the sense of context that comes into play. Not only is there a public grammar by which we come to interpret how emotions function in relation to various reasons, there is also a public dimension to the very form of many desires, since we only understand them fully when we appreciate how the desires are primarily for meanings rather than for specific goods. Eliot’s sense of historical context then is inseparable from his desire to play the role of public moralist. So while the affects do not sustain any one mode of judgment, they bring to bear for judgment not just intensities but intensities contextualized in philosophical, mythical and social frameworks--in their quest for meaning and in the typologies within which we can see them taking part. Therefore at the least we come to know what our desires seem to entail, and we have a powerful measure of what entrenched modes of judgment displace when they pursue purely empirical modes of assessment. To ignore the states of desire created by April’s coming would be to miss not only what binds us to a range of historical practices but also to evade the measures of our lives that can be established by remembering the states that these practices could produce.

4) Eliot is probably most useful on the topos of how we attribute significant values to our emotional states. Most lyric poetry has a role to play here, especially in areas where the search for plot causalities and modes of coherence seems especially clumsy, because the poetry’s focus on complex, mutually qualifying, internal modes of linkage has rich parallels with the ways that psyches produce intensity and even a sense of internal balance. Eliot deepens this contribution along several registers. For example his is a distinctive lyrical eloquence. The eloquence resides less in the poet’s overall structural control of cadence than it does in strange precisions that capture distinctive turns of feeling. "I have measured out my life in coffee spoons," and "I will show you fear in a handful of dust" typify moments of intensity in which the wording is inseparable from the sharp thrust of the feeling. Feeling then becomes less something we suffer than something we clarify and concretize by the work of intelligence. As Eliot put it, the poet "has the privelege of contributing to the development and maintaining the quality, the capacity, of the language to express a wide range, and subtle gradation, of feeling and emotion" (OPP, 37). And the reward for this intelligence is simply the sense of vitality that we then make possible for states as they emerge and shift into other states that they help make possible.

Eliot then takes that sense of affective activity as an end in itself one step further by his reliance on juxtapositional strategies. These are not merely exercises in a Bergsonian cult of the multiplicity and mobility of feelings, although they decidedly are that. For if the major crisis in Western culture is a dissociation of sensibility within which feeling and thinking seem locked in separate, unreconcilable agendas, and hence in which one has to choose between romantic religiousity or self-congratulatory cults of rational lucidity, Eliot could show how poets play major cultural roles because they can experiment with the building blocks of emotion. Within such work we are invited to explore precisely how thinking and feeling interact in composing specific emotional complexes.

If we understand how emotional elements combine, we have at least a chance of producing new combinations that may actually modify our cultural grammars, especially if we recognize the close intimacy between how we feel and how we construct feeling in language. But it is even more important to notice the specific powerful sites of emotion that these juxtapositions compose. For the poems develop something like a volumetric tensional space, something not unlike the rich tensions in Cubist painting, which becomes a direct measure of what is involved within a life that can bring its full consciousness within the affective states it is experiencing. The tensional space matters because such states have their value not in what they produce but in how they afford a distinctive awareness of the person’s own capacities for focussed investment.

For most of Eliot’s career this awareness was primarily of pain and dissociation, with consciousness itself torn between hating what it saw and having only the intensity of its seeing as recompense for the sight. Even there his resistance to narrative insisted that whatever counted as value had to do so in terms of the immanent relation between intensity and will that the poetic states maintained. The Four Quartets turned that mode of self-consciousness into a heuristic instrument: poetry could take on the task of exploring the modes of speaking and of investing that faith made possible. It found its richest satisfactions when there emerged a deep correlation between , being moved, wanting to be where one is moved, and wanting to be the person so moved. If we then bring to bear the general frame of inquiry that we have been pursuing, it should be obvious that there is no reason to confine that sense of mutually enforcing internal states to the religious domain.

In building this case I find myself torn between the satisfactions of honoring a now neglected major writer and the fear of having blinded myself to possible ways that these ideas are inextricable from Eliot’s social vision and from the social projects of those like him who are zealous to restore unified sensibilities by political means. So before I can close my case I have to address three specific charges against him--the possibility of his politics being inseparable from his specific lines of thinking about art and about the emotions, the charge that Eliot’s very concern for unified sensibility makes him an anachronism in a post-modern culture now able to thrive on contradiction and multiplicity, and the old historicist claim by critics like Frank Kermode that Eliot was simply engrandizing his own sensibility by insisting on a particular crisis about the dissociation of sensibility arising in the seventeenth century.

I do not dispute Kermode’s case. Instead I suggest that Eliot’s concerns may be worth attending to precisely because they have no historical specificity: the dissociation of sensibility may be a permanent cultural possibility that the arts are always addressing. Of course that makes it all the more pressing to engage the postmodern line of critique. But that is not difficult. In fact by addressing it we may develop a richer sense of those ways in which Eliot need not fit historicist parameters but instead provides a phenomenology still worth attending to. For there is an enormous gulf between "multiplicity" of states or even contradictions among states and the issue of dissociation. Dissociation is paralyzing; it is multiplicity gone amuk or contradiction become debilitating. And no confident general assertion about accepting fragmentation can assure us that some fragments will not fit together much more problematically than others. There is dissociation whenever dissonance prevents our fully inhabiting our own perceptions, acts, and desires. Eliot did not help me make this case when he idealized a unified sensibility as the opposite pole which he hoped to produce. But "unified sensibility" need not involve a sense of the self in which we can specify the terms of the unity or explain ourselves in accord with some abstract criterion of unity. A unified sensibility, like a unified poem, is one that is not frustrated by those contradictions that occupy its attention and engage its affects. A unified sensibility can be considered simply one that can will its own range of affects without having to thematize them and seek criteria from the outside. And Eliot does have a good deal to offer in clarifying how this might take place.

Thus fortified I think I can take on the political question. If we can treat the dissociation of sensibility as a fundamental feature of modernity not likely to go away, then we can also be content to emphasize those aspects of Eliot which are directly engaged in this phenomenological domain. His specific politics simply do not matter much if we can show that the cultural analysis generating the politics is far more telling than are the proposed social solutions. But how does one make that demonstration? I have tried one tack by arguing for the speculative use of his thinking on the emotions. I hope I have shown that we need not buy any specific political vision in order to find Eliot’s work suggestive and even capable of modifying our sensibilities. Now I will conclude by slightly shifting the parameters of that argument. Rather than dwell on the quality of the ideas I want to call attention to three aspects of the concrete affective life within the poems that I think have substantial cultural consequences even if one refuses the political interpretations Eliot put upon them.

First there is the concrete range of distinctive affective forces that Eliot makes available to us by grounding his work in such fundamental desires. At his best the poems do not allude to emotions or simply express emotive states. Rather they attempt to transform "observations into states of mind" (SE 249) and to integrate complex levels of experience into unforgettable structures like the configuration at the close of "Sweeney Among the Nightingales" or the remarkable blend of levels and ranges of reference in The Waste Land. These configurations establish an intricate system of exchanges: as ideas are transmuted into sensations (SE 249), sensations dramatize the conditions of voicing that these frameworks have in our culture.

Eliot on the metaphysical conceit adds a second aspect to these specific modes of embodiment. For the scope of the conceit is inseparable from the pressure brought to bear by "the operation of the poet’s mind" (SE 243). This means that conceits not only explore new affective connections but they also foreground the tension between the discursive and emotional fields within which the sensations are typically coded. This tension in turn plays an intricate double role: it serves as the glue binding the elements into one aspect of a state of mind, and it serves as a wedge securing the distance between these concrete states and the kind of emotions that fit easily into standard narrative frameworks. Therefore the metaphysical conceit can flaunt the limitations of our usual emotional grammars, and in the process invites us to link the affective sensations to an underlying source beyond narrative. We experience not only new emotional configurations but the new possibilities of lyric agency which I have been stressing, here as resistance to the dominant ways of mapping affects and hence as potentially building new sensibilities and new emphases within cultural life.

Finally I want to stress Eliot’s very cogent ideas about how attention to the structure of affects might be able to accomplish these cultural transformations, if only on a very limited scale that for him could not take the place of religion. Let me begin with one of Eliot’s most profound observations, "It is easier to think in a foreign language than it is to feel in it" (OPP 19). Why is this the case? Minimally, Eliot captures the intimacy between feeling and its linguistic formulations that is importantly different from the ways that languages can accommodate to generalizing thought. That in turn helps clarify why Eliot saw substantial connections between Mallarme’s breaking of language down to its elements and the work of abstract art forcing us to experience the affective weight that can be carried by the elements of a medium (Hare, 404). Eliot’s fascination with sensation as the constant ground of feeling then is not merely an aspect of his decadent heritage. He wants his readers constantly aware of how difficult it is to keep a harmonious relation between thought and feeling because at least one aspect of feeling is more elemental, more mobile, and more intricate than the usual elements with which thinking words. Yet this distance from thought also provides a ground and test of what thought has constantly to accommodate. Feeling resides in the very texture of language, so perhaps if we are to modify how the culture actually experiences the world we have to experiment with how it deploys syntax and semantics--for example by breaking emotions down into their charged components and then showing how our ways of combining those elements open levels of desire that do not conform to our standard expectations about subjectivity.

Stein transformed painterly abstraction into the foregrounding of syntax and sound. Williams reconfigured point, line, and plane into a focus on the disposition of energies organized by line breaks and composed by the visual force the grammar of a sentence can take within taut short lines. But only Eliot among his peers fully took advantage of those modernist breakthroughs to mine the elemental forms of our affective life woven into language. Critically this enabled him to clarify the prices we pay when emotional theatricality displaces the fine contours of that language. And creatively it enabled him to formulate a version of constructivism that took as its cultural role the direct modification of our most intimate dispositions and ways of viewing our own powers and needs as agents. As Eliot put it, emotions "have their own laws of growth which are not always reasonable, but must just be accepted by the reason (OPP 24). For him that view made it possible to envision poetic experiment as charged with the task of modifying what become the parameters within which reason operates. Now there remains for us the critical task of defining just how that vision can be formulated and used.