Friday, March 12, 2010

c.s. v. t.s.

The more I read about T. S. Eliot -- his thought, not his poetry -- the more sense he makes, and the more I can see why, for a long time, he made no appeal to me at all, then a vehement dislike, then a fleeting love followed by disappointment, then the view that he was just a preening culture-monger without any real respect for logic. And I think the reasons I didn't like him so much before was because I just didn't have a comprehensive enough view of him. It never occurred to me, for instance, that his literary criticism is also social criticism; i.e., that literature, being a by-product of culture, must be discussed in tandem with the cultural tradition from which any given literature has emerged.

But what is really interesting is the debate going on in my mind between C. S. Lewis and T. S. Eliot. As Lewis said, they are so much in agreement on the really important things that their disagreements on lesser things hardly seem to matter. But there is a definite tension. Where they disagree I naturally tend to agree with Lewis; not just because I am more familiar with him and that I owe him so much, but also because Lewis seems to me far more logical than Eliot (in fact, Eliot does not seem to care much for logical consistency). Many of Lewis's conclusions are Eliot's assumptions; thus Eliot is certainly bold in his adventures, but the price is that he is more often blazing trails than finally settling an issue. Lewis is more of a settler of issues. Where Eliot is a man of social conscience, Lewis is a man of personal conscience; Eliot talks much of "culture" -- Lewis thinks the invocation of "Culture" tends to precede confusion.

In a word, Lewis and Eliot are agnostic about opposite things: things Eliot seems to have an answer for, Lewis not only does not believe there is an answer for, but thinks it's pointless to even seek an answer. Similarly, there are areas common to Lewis's thought that I think Eliot would not dare to tread, probably out of humility. But here is the really interesting point: each in doing what he is doing is superbly orthodox. Eliot and Lewis both hail from the same tradition, but they are sort of working on different elements within that tradition; kind of like, say, St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure.

In any case, I'm coming to learn that Eliot is just a hard nut to crack; which is why he is widely acclaimed by people who, if they knew the "other things he said," would immediately repudiate him. It explains why it's taken me so long to get this close to him, to begin to trust him. I just needed to get some sea-legs first.