Impossible Modernism: T. S. Eliot, Walter Benjamin, and the Critique of Historical Reason

Impossible Modernism: T. S. Eliot, Walter Benjamin, and the Critique of Historical Reason

by Robert S. Lehman


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Impossible Modernism reads the writings of German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) and Anglo-American poet and critic T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) to examine the relationship between literary and historical form during the modernist period. It focuses particularly on how they both resisted the forms of narration established by nineteenth-century academic historians and turned instead to traditional literary devices—lyric, satire, anecdote, and allegory—to reimagine the forms that historical representation might take. Tracing the fraught relationship between poetry and history back to Aristotle's Poetics and forward to Nietzsche's Untimely Meditations, Robert S. Lehman establishes the coordinates of the intellectual-historical problem that Eliot and Benjamin inherited and offers an analysis of how they grappled with this legacy in their major works.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804799041
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 08/24/2016
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Robert S. Lehman is Assistant Professor of English at Boston College.

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Impossible Modernism

T. S. Eliot, Walter Benjamin, and the Critique of Historical Reason

By Robert S. Lehman


Copyright © 2016 Stanford University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5036-0014-0



ON 30 SEPTEMBER 1914, Ezra Pound wrote to Harriet Monroe, the founding editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, the following lines about his new discovery:

I was jolly well right about Eliot. He has sent in the best poem I have yet had or seen from an American. PRAY GOD IT BE NOT A SINGLE AND UNIQUE SUCCESS. ... He has taken it back to get it ready for the press and you shall have it in a few days. He is the only American I know of who has made what I can call adequate preparation for writing. He has actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own. The rest of the promising young have done one or the other but never both (most of the swine have done neither). It is such a comfort to meet a man and not have to tell him to wash his face, wipe his feet, and remember the date (1914) on the calendar. (Letters 80)

T. S. Eliot had completed "the best poem yet seen from an American" — "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" — in 1911, roughly a year before Pound declared the birth of imagism. "Prufrock" would finally appear in Poetry's June 1915 issue, then a few months later in Pound's Catholic Anthology 1914–1915 (1915), and then again as the first poem in Eliot's Prufrock and Other Observations (1917). Pound's letter to Monroe is noteworthy not only because it attests to Pound's ear for talent, nor because it initiates the productive relationship between Pound and Eliot that would culminate in The Waste Land, but because it augurs, in the figure of Eliot that Pound sketches, a shift in the character of literary modernism. As Pound presents him to Monroe, Eliot appears as the poet of "both/and." He has both "trained himself" in the tradition — mastered the poetry of the past — and "modernized himself." He has both learned his manners, which bind him to what was, and recognized the "date on the calendar," the present moment, which makes its own demands on the poet. For Pound, who in 1914 still felt himself pulled between his roles as translator of past forms and as avant-gardist in the style of his friends Wyndham Lewis and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Eliot, in his articulation of history and poetry, represented a position that Pound himself might occupy — and that modernism might occupy as well. Already in 1914, then, Pound could glimpse in Eliot's individual talent a map of modernism's trajectory from rupture to historical reconciliation.

Much has been written on this trajectory, and on the importance of Eliot's poetics within it. Three-quarters of a century after Pound announced Eliot's arrival, Michael Levenson would conclude his Genealogy of Modernism with a discussion of the conciliatory role that Eliot had played during the period. Unlike much of the London avant-garde, Levenson notes, "Eliot himself had not joined the attack on tradition. He had not chanted with the Vorticists that 'Life is the Past and the Future. The Present is Art.' He thus entered the debate at an opportune moment to assert the need for the regenerating example of past forms" (158). Eliot arrived slightly late to the London scene, missing by a couple years the "futurist moment" that had marked the poetry and the person of Pound; but Eliot arrived with the benefit of a historical perspective, and this allowed him to correct the overweening ambitions of his contemporaries. With Eliot, then, literary modernism became sadder but wiser. It became historical.

Historians of modernism, whether they celebrate Eliot for his renewal of a movement that appeared destined for exhaustion or decry the deadening effects of his conservatism, at least agree on his success in uniting modern poetry and history. In these readings, the stress tends to fall less on the specific themes or formal characteristics of Eliot's writings than on the way his writings — and most typically, his critical writings — were taken up by the next generation of literary scholars, by the American New Critics and, most essentially, by F. R. Leavis. In what follows, my approach to Eliot's writings shall be somewhat different. I do not intend to challenge the claim that Eliot turned poetry toward history and so returned modernism to the great tradition of Western literature from which the former had seemingly sought to escape. For better or worse, this is Eliot's legacy. I do, however, want to resist the tendency to conflate this legacy with Eliot's actual project, at least as this project unfolded in the writings up to and including The Waste Land. I want to resist, then, the tendency to read Eliot's turn to the past as an essentially restorative gesture, as a traditionalist's attempt to smooth over the cracks in cultural history that had been spreading since the second half of the nineteenth century. My feeling is that this rendering of Eliot's project errs insofar as it treats as a solution what was, for Eliot, a — and perhaps the — problem: history. If Eliot turned to the past, to history, where so many of his contemporaries remained focused on the present, he did so not because history could be counted on to recontain the troubling fact of rupture; rather, he did so to ask what model of history could make his own poetic practice possible. And this entailed a thoroughgoing critique of a historicism that was, no less than romanticism, an essential part of the nineteenth century's legacy. This critique reached its zenith in 1922, with the publication of The Waste Land. Eliot's so-called "traditionalism" is only its popular face.

My hope is that by separating Eliot's alleged traditionalism from Eliot's critique of historical form, I will be able to lay the groundwork for two complementary projects. The first concerns Eliot's poetic production during his early London years. Against those readers who treat Eliot's turn to history during this period as the first stirrings of the classicism, royalism, and Anglo-Catholicism that would become synonymous with his work following his 1927 conversion, I want to shift the focus to what Eliot did to history. To anticipate the argument to follow: Eliot did not go to history for the "regenerating example of past forms," at least not at first; rather, he turned to history out of an awareness of the limits that it sets to poetic accomplishment and to attempt a poetic reimagining of history, one that might allow him to exceed these limits. Eliot's lyrical, satirical, and mythical articulations of literary history are where we find this reimagining carried out. The second project is of a piece with the broader concerns of this book. I want to make the case for including Eliot in a larger tradition of poetic thinking about history, a tradition that I sketched in the preceding chapter and that includes the works of — among others — Marx, Nietzsche, and (the subject of this book's second half) Walter Benjamin.

This chapter will address Eliot's struggle with history as it unfolded between, roughly, 1910 and 1920, between the composition of "Prufrock" and the publication of "Gerontion." The decade is a significant one in Eliot's career not only because it saw considerable development in Eliot's poetic technique — from the early emulation of Laforgue's symbolism to a more austere style that was, as Wyndham Lewis remarked, formally "school of Ezra" (Blasting and Bombardiering 286) — but also because it found Eliot articulating the theory of tradition that would inform his critical and creative mobilizations of literary history. With the publication in 1920 of The Sacred Wood, a collection of essays that includes the now canonical "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919), as well as more specific studies of Dante, Jonson, Blake, Swinburne, and others, Eliot secured his position as a poet-critic, making good on his own claim in "The Perfect Critic" that "the critic and the creative artist should frequently be the same person" (SW 9). This ideal unity of critic and artist is only the first of many synthetic horizons associated with Eliot's project. It anticipates and supports the synthesis of literary history ostensibly attempted in The Waste Land as well as (more mediately) the synthesis of European culture endorsed in Eliot's last writings.

Insofar as he tries to produce something like what Pound would come to call "a poem including history," Eliot does participate in a synthetic project. Nonetheless, I am less interested in those moments in Eliot's writings of personal or historical synthesis than in the moments of division that serve as their enabling condition. Throughout the 1910s, Eliot tends to characterize the poetic ordering of literary history not only as a synthesis of diverse works but also as a practice whose success depends on its being preceded by a division, a division that is inscribed in the consciousness or the life of the "mature poet" and that is reduplicated in the poet's own literary creations. At this early stage in his career, Eliot associates this division of the poetic consciousness with the form of the lyric in particular. In the next chapter, I shall examine the limitations of this form as a means of managing literary history and the way that an awareness of these limitations forced Eliot to shift from a lyrical to a satirical mode. For now, I want to provide something like a genealogy of the theory of lyrical division elaborated in Eliot's early critical writings and exemplified in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "Gerontion."

Now, understanding the importance of lyrical division to the problem of historical representation will necessitate my asking the question of how history became a problem for Eliot in the first place. Answering this question will require my looking into Eliot's own personal history. My reason for doing so is not that I believe that Eliot's biography's provides the ultimate key to his writings. Rather, I hope to show that Eliot treated his own person as an occasion for literary experimentation and thus that his much-remarked anxieties, for example, might themselves be taken as what the Russian Formalists used to call a "motivation of the device."

I. Prufrock and His Problems

Pound's exhortation to Monroe regarding "Prufrock" — "PRAY GOD IT BE NOT A SINGLE AND UNIQUE SUCCESS" — is pure hyperbole, designed to signal to a potential sponsor the importance of Eliot's accomplishment. Nonetheless, before his poem was even published, Eliot was himself doing a bit of praying, struggling to match the achievement that Pound would herald. In a letter to his friend Conrad Aiken from September of 1914, he laments the fact that "I have done nothing good since J. A[lfred] P[rufrock] and writhe in impotence" (L 1:63). Two years later, and only a few months after "Prufrock" had finally appeared in print, Eliot confesses to his older brother Henry that "I often feel that 'J.A.P.' is a swan song, but I never mention the fact because Vivienne is so exceedingly anxious that I shall equal it, and would be bitterly disappointed if I do not" (1:165–166). And in a letter to Mary Hutchinson, this one dated July 1917, Eliot expresses his dismay that, with another republication on the way, "Prufrock" is likely to appear to his friends as "réchauffé" — "they are tired of waiting for something better from me" (1:209). Eliot was not yet twenty-eight years old when he sent this last letter to Hutchinson, hardly aged for a poet. Nonetheless six years had passed since he had completed his first mature lyric, and though it would not be entirely accurate to call this period a "dry spell," Eliot's correspondences leave little doubt that he experienced it as such. References to his literary struggles intermingle with descriptions of ailments both physical — "My teeth are falling to pieces, I have to wear spectacles to read, and from time to time I am contorted with rheumatism" (1:211) — and psychological — "I have been going through one of those nervous sexual attacks which I suffer from when alone in a city" (1:82). Though some of these complaints betray Eliot's youthful attempts to depict himself as a doomed pessimist in the mold of Rimbaud or Laforgue, evidence from Eliot's later life confirms that the psychological ailments, at least, were real — as was the fear that, almost before his career had begun, he had completed his "swan song."

Over the years, Eliot's social and sexual anxieties have received considerable attention from critics (and, admittedly, it is hard to ignore Eliot's description of his writer's block as the experience of "writhing in impotence" or his fear that his inability to perform poetically will disappoint his wife). There is something to be said, however, for refusing to reduce literary struggle too quickly to psychosexual conflict and for taking Eliot at his word when he maintains that his real fear is that he will be unable to equal "Prufrock." Doing so helps us to see how, for Eliot at this early stage in his career, two senses of the past — the literary and the personal — become entangled. How does this occur? Some years back, Walter Jackson Bate wrote of "the remorseless deepening of self-consciousness, before the rich and intimidating legacy of the past" as one of the defining marks of modern literature (4). Here, Bate had in mind the anxiety that results when the poet stands before the masterworks of the literary tradition. In his letters to his family and his friends, Eliot describes a similarly "remorseless deepening of self-consciousness." In this case, however, the source of his anxiety — the "rich and intimidating legacy" with which he must contend — is found closer to home. It is not the demand that he become the equal of Dante or of Shakespeare that causes Eliot to writhe; rather, it is the demand that he become the equal of the man he was only a few years ago, the man who completed the best poem Ezra Pound had yet seen from an American. In sum, Eliot has watched his own accomplishment, "Prufrock," mutate into an expectation or a demand — "Do it again! Do it better!" And so, before he can hope to struggle with the greater literary past, he must find a way to manage his own past as poet.

An acute awareness of this problem informs what must appear in hindsight as one of Eliot's earliest reflections on poetic impersonality. In the same letter to Aiken in which he regrets his "impotence," Eliot waxes philosophical on the nature of his troubles and suggests a possible solution:

Does anything kill as petty worries do? And in America we worry all the time. That, in fact, is I think the great use of suffering, if it's tragic suffering — it takes you away from yourself — and petty suffering does exactly the reverse, and kills your inspiration. I think now that all my good stuff was done before I had begun to worry — three years ago. I sometimes think that it would be better just to be a clerk in a post office with nothing to worry about — but the consciousness of having made a failure of one's life. Or a millionaire, ditto. The thing is to be able to look at one's life as though it were somebody's else — (I much prefer to say somebody else's). That is difficult in England, almost impossible in America. ... Anyway, it's interesting to cut yourself to pieces once in a while, and wait to see if the fragments will sprout. (L 1:63)

Again, Eliot dates the beginning of his "petty worries" to 1911, three years before he composed these lines and so almost from the moment that he completed "Prufrock. "As a remedy for these worries, which "kill inspiration," he prescribes raising his "petty suffering" up to the level of tragedy or smothering it with the distractions of everyday life. Each approach "takes you away from yourself" and so suppresses what Eliot would later call "the man who suffers" for the good of "the mind which creates" (SW31). Eliot figures this process as a self-division, relying on a metaphor — "it's interesting to cut yourself to pieces once in a while, and wait to see if the fragments will sprout" — that would return nearly a decade later in the first section of The Waste Land: "That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout?" (71–72). In its earlier form, however, this image of fecundity through fragmentation seems designed to explain why Eliot had to cut himself off from the land of his birth, America, where the ability "to look at one's life as though it were ... somebody else's" proves "almost impossible." He had to cut himself free, then, from "T. Stearns Eliot," the American poet who wrote "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

Eliot describes in his letter to Aiken an operation to be performed not on his poetry but on his person — a "[cutting] into pieces" as a way of cutting himself free from his past and, fundamentally, from "Prufrock," which had come to weigh like a nightmare on his brain. He would try a number of techniques — in addition to leaving the United States, he would also experiment with writing in French (L 1:194). The operation would prove complicated, however, and not only because "Prufrock" was such a significant accomplishment, one that Eliot could hardly entirely desire to forget, but also because both the paralyzing anxieties that Eliot details and the solution of a therapeutic self-division that Eliot prescribes are prefigured, however obscurely, in the poem. Indeed, "Prufrock" can be read as a kind of dramatization avant la lettre of Eliot's struggle with his own personal history, "Prufrock" included. Thus Eliot's cutting himself free from "Prufrock" entails as well his cleaving to it, or at least to a certain conception of cutting free figured in the poem. To see how this is the case, we need to turn to the poem itself.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Preface xiii

List of Abbreviations xxv

Introduction: The Poetry and the Prose of the Future 1

Part 1 Gathering Dust, T. S. Eliot

1 Lyric 27

2 Satire 59

3 Myth 87

Part 2 Killing Time, Walter Benjamin

4 Order 121

5 Anecdote 145

6 Allegory 171

Conclusion: The Lightning Flash and the Storm of Progress 191

Notes 195

Works Cited 215

Index 229

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