these fragments i have shored against my ruins
shantih shantih shantih
Repeated as here, a formal ending to an Upanishad. “The Peace which passeth understanding” is a feeble translation of the content of this word.
-T. S. Eliot, author’s footnote to “The Waste Land”
Sandhyas! Sandhyas! Sandhyas!
Calling all downs. Calling all downs to dayne. Array! Surrection!
-James Joyce, Finnegans Wake
A young man starts in life with a natural gift for exaggeration which, if nurtured in congenial and sympathetic surroundings, or by the imitation of the best models, might grow into something really great and wonderful. But, as a rule, he comes to nothing…. He either falls into careless habits of accuracy, or takes to frequenting the society of the aged and the well-informed. Both things are equally fatal to his imagination, as indeed they would be fatal to the imagination of anybody, and in a short time he develops a morbid and unhealthy faculty of truth-telling, begins to verify all statements made in his presence, has no hesitation in contradicting people who are much younger than himself, and often ends by writing novels which are so life-like that no one can possibly believe in their probability.
-Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying”
In 1897, during his imprisonment in Reading Gaol for “gross indecency,” Oscar Wilde wrote a long, open letter to his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. It was published as De Profundis in 1905; by then Wilde had already been dead five years, after a physical collapse resulting from the inhuman conditions in the prison. Near the end of the letter, Wilde writes:
Remember also that I have yet to know you. Perhaps we have yet to know each other. For yourself, I have but this last thing to say. Do not be afraid of the past. If people tell you it is irrevocable, do not believe them.
Here are the five endings to five chapters of my dissertation; the long journey is over. I will, at last, receive my PhD. and move on to the next thing. I don’t know what that will be.
It’s the end of an era; one that has, in truth, been the saddest, most disillusioning period of my life. But I am immensely thankful that with the support of my family and professors, this project has emerged as something worth pulling from the wreckage.
INTRODUCTION: HIGH MODERNISM IS AN AESTHETICISM
The Aestheticist movement began in response to a historical turning-point: an age of proliferating texts, ushered in by a combination of new print technologies and higher literacy rates. It sharply criticized the industrial revolution; it was also a product of the industrial revolution, which increased surplus capital and leisure time in England, and helped make possible a new public education system. As a literary movement, its influence diminished after the 1940s, but it has re-asserted itself with each new revolution in popular media, as these expand the reach of self-fashioning and its intersections with political statements of allegiance or dissent. Shelton Waldrep, in his book The Aesthetics of Self-Invention, traces queer self-fashioning from Oscar Wilde through the rise of “glam rocker” David Bowie in the 1970s, as does Todd Haynes’s 1998 film Velvet Goldmine. When sociologist Sherry Turkle writes, in 2011, that online communication allows people to “feel in control” but “also offers an opportunity to ignore people’s feelings,” to prefer “avatars” to persons, she is talking about crimes first committed by Gilbert Osmond and Dorian Gray. Aestheticism’s undertakings, and compromises, add up to a politics of identity and community that has remained astonishingly young. It is a portrait of our own present day.
OSCAR WILDE: THE ART OF THE FUTURE
Wilde tried to be equal to his historical moment by wearing diverse masks; no single work he ever wrote was triumphant or redemptive, with the possible exception of “The Soul of Man,” the last part of which is set in a distant future and reads like science fiction. Yet, in “About Oscar Wilde,” Jorge Luis Borges writes that “the fundamental spirit of his work is joy.” This is supported by Wilde’s own earlier assertion that “Pain is not the ultimate mode of perfection.” The fact that Wilde never rests content with his critiques, always turning to a new form or speaking in a new voice, is itself a witness to his joy in the uses of language, and his hopes for the practical value of literature. At the end of his essay “The Truth of Masks,” Wilde comments, “Not that I agree with everything I have said in this essay. There is much with which I entirely disagree…. It is only in art-criticism, and through it, that we can realize Hegel’s system of contraries.” Wilde’s contraries, likewise, are his own way of responding critically to his own work, of explaining how to read it and acknowledging its weaknesses. The resulting journey between works in dialogue is Wilde’s longest and most difficult text. It is his masterpiece.
HENRY JAMES: THINGS THAT MELTED TOGETHER
…the older he grew the more acutely & passionately did he feel the huge absurdity & grotesqueness of things, the monstrous perversity of evil…he felt tempted to call himself a rabid Socialist, so often does a great wind carry him off his feet & set him down somewhere far beyond & ahead of the present world.
–from James’s biography, The Mature Master
In reading all of James’s appreciative and lyrical descriptions of space, it is impossible not to be struck by the shifts from three dimensions back to two, from the “vast of truth and poetry” to the primness of a circumscribed picture. James’s sense of the importance of space looks forward to the modern and postmodern experiments using space — which people can inhabit and which is therefore interactive — as an alternative medium to canvas. This move is part of everything from Duchamp invading a gallery with a urinal, to the neo-Marxism of Henri Lefebvre and the Situationists, and even to community gardens and counterculture “be-ins.” Crucially, these spaces encourage collaboration, the opposite of the oppressive use of space to quarantine some people from others, or the present from the past. The real flaw in Caspar Goodwood’s proposal is the way that he spuriously uses space to promise Isabel sanctuary, and to offer her the proverbial “fresh start”: “We can do absolutely as we please; to whom under the sun do we owe anything? …. The world’s all before us, and the world’s very big.” Isabel replies, simply enough, “the world’s very small.” James is on her side, in that the worlds of his characters are no larger or better than the sum of their relationships. This includes economic relationships, even though one of the ironies of modern capitalism is that it produces a subjective feeling of isolation at the same time as it enmeshes the subject in the global economy to an unprecedented degree. It is, after all, the antiques dealer, a minor character, who tells Maggie what the golden bowl says about Charlotte and the Prince. He will not suffer to be forgotten; the Prince insults him, and he takes his revenge. The provocative, interactive spaces of avant-garde artistic and political movements might have delighted James, because they invite audiences to become collaborators in the creative process, part of a new “supreme fiction” liberated from the despotism of the lone “beautiful Author.” But James would, I think, have been cautious with his praise. If a great wind is to carry our society off its feet, setting us down somewhere far beyond and ahead of the present world, it must take everyone, or none.
JAMES JOYCE: DAYLIGHTED WITH OUR OUTING
No matter how earnestly Joyce endorsed figurative deaths that could substitute for literal ones, by producing the Wake he is preparing for his own wake, his own absence from the world. The reader ends up torn, caught between the drama of the individual moments of the Wake and the arresting comfort of its cyclical progress. In the course of that cycle, the Wake returns ceaselessly to the image of the father, and to the mystery of the act of creation of the First Parents, expressed simultaneously with the long lament of dying that sounds on almost every page. Perhaps the reason that Finnegans Wake does not conclude with the unequivocal force of Molly Bloom’s “yes” or Stephen’s “uncreated conscience” is that it grapples like none of Joyce’s previous work with his own mortality and his own investment in the past. He has to create a text that will outlive him, and that communicates something of his worldview without being limited by him. Only H.C.E. in the act of the Fall can accomplish such a feat, when he creates his wife, and with her, their children. In Finnegans Wake, H.C.E. attempts a task whose attainment means the birth and ascendance of a new world, and the disappearance of everything, even himself, that had thrived in the old.
T. S. ELIOT: THE AIM, NEVER HERE TO BE REALIZED
The “fire and the rose” are, of course, not one, and cannot ever be. Eliot deliberately pushes his metaphor to the very edge of what any ordinary reader would consider catachresis: bad, over-strained figuration. Eliot makes some attempt to prove to us that it is otherwise, since he has used fire and rose imagery all over Four Quartets, and since the “crowned knot of fire” might look like a flickering rose. Nonetheless, by placing his metaphor in the time of the future (“When…”), Eliot admits that neither he, nor we, have gotten there yet. The symbol does not yet work, and he will die before the moment when it does. It is this awareness of failure that, paradoxically, frees Eliot to return to the Aestheticist faith that he had as a young man. The fire and the rose are the sublation of passion and restraint; as a single image, they stand for a victory over the “Cold Pastoral” of art, as well as a complementary victory over formless expressionism. The rose of fire, a palimpsest of motion over stillness, is also Eliot’s way of returning to Pater’s “hard, gem-like flame,” that seminal catachresis from the conclusion to The Renaissance. In “East Coker,” in what he probably intended as a critique of Pater, Eliot writes,
Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
The idea of a “lifetime burning in every moment” does not strike me as incompatible with Pater’s broad, cryptic advice for how to live, but Eliot does go a step beyond Pater by imagining this intensity as something shared by everyone, belonging to everyone. In “Little Gidding,” the old stones speak, and a single magnificent figure, the rose of fire, gathers everyone into the light.
Here Eliot can, and does, extrapolate the promise of Aestheticism into a breathtaking, utopian vision. He prophesies a common genius, a pluralistic culture, and the living enfolded in the wisdom of the dead, but he cannot make the image that would transfigure the world come true. By shifting the focus away from moral precepts, and by cutting short his dialogue between the laity and the saints, Eliot sets aside the religious mission of the first three quartets, returning to his earlier style and even improving upon it. Yet if “Little Gidding” is a religious poet’s admission of failure, the three quartets are equally ruinous for this final one. They remind us that Eliot began narrowing down his audience and insisting upon Christianity because, to someone with his cast of mind, there was little choice. The World seemed to Eliot to be on the verge of committing suicide, as he put it in “Thoughts From Lambeth.” There was no time left for the slow work of building new canons and new communities of readers – if such a project had ever been feasible in the first place.
Thus the remnants of Dante’s Christianized Europe seemed, in 1927, to be the only possible audience one could reach, and the only hope for the salvation of the earth. By 1944, Eliot was back to the impasses that bedeviled Wilde and James. Their principles were so removed from the realities of modern life, in their visionary ideality, that the art could only become either something trivial, or else a demonic temptation and an ally of death. That was the terrible secret of Pater’s irreconcilable image, as Wilde and James understood. Wilde speculated that he might like to be Dorian Gray “in another age, perhaps.” James quit writing when the First World War began, and wished for a great wind to carry him, too, into the future. Eliot does likewise, placing his hopes in generations to come, but neither he nor his readers can ignore the implications of his religious verse or his resigned return to the dilemmas of The Renaissance. Both moves suggest that the Aestheticist project has been in vain, even if it is too late for Eliot to re-invent himself again. The acclaim he received for Four Quartets was itself bittersweet. Instead of recognizing the poems’ frustrated ambitions, critics praised the work for its artistry. As John Xiros Cooper has argued, “most of Eliot’s mandarin readers did not follow him out beyond the reach of art towards God,” a standoff that “points finally to the crucial historical paradox of Four Quartets, its peculiar failure in the midst of its immediate success” (T. S. Eliot and the Ideology of Four Quartets 134). Eliot resigned himself to the only kind of triumph possible: Four Quartets ascends to the heights of visionary artistry by turning away from reality. “Little Gidding” is a confessed fiction; taking refuge in the future, it grasps at hope like a horoscope.