T. S. Eliot and the Failure to Connect


T. S. Eliot and the Failure to Connect: Satire on Modern Misunderstandings
By G. Douglas Atkins
Palgrave Pivot – £45.00

Pound was a lunatic genius
and a martyr
His most prized student
wrote lovely poems about cats
wore tasteful ties
chose his words more carefully
than his master
and won a Nobel Prize for it

(Tadeusz Rozewicz)

Possum – aka the veritable genius otherwise known as T. S. Eliot – remains to this day, just as equally renowned for triggering polar and highly considered reactions among his peers, as he does his actual poetry. Hence, the above opening gambit from the poem ‘Too Bad’ (taken from 2002’s Gray Area), by one of the most influential Polish author’s of his generation.

But where

Rozewicz was essentially concerned if not haunted, by the Holocaust and the failure of civilization to save humanity, both then and now; Eliot was more concerned if not occasionally vexed, by the very idea of (not) being able to fundamentally to read correctly. A quasi-renowned vexation, which is immediately brought to bear during the opening chapter (‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’) of this overtly well researched and provocative book, T. S. Eliot and the Failure to Connect – Satire on Modern Misunderstandings – wherein the author G. Douglas Atkins writes: ””Very few people, I suspect, know how to read” – that is, ”in the sense of being able to read for a variety of motives and to read a variety of books each in the appropriate way […]. Philosophy is difficult, unless we discipline our minds for it; the full appreciation of poetry is difficult for those who have not trained their sensibility by years of attentive reading.” By way of tentative conclusion, Eliot then adds: ”But devotional reading is the most difficult of all, because it requires an application, not only of the mind, not only of the sensibility, but of the whole thing.”

As Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Kansas, USA, Atkins, who is the author or editor of a number of books (including Reading T. S. Eliot: ”Four Quartets” and the Journey toward Understanding; T. S. Eliot and the Essay; On The Familiar Essay; Challenging Academic Orthodoxies; Literary Paths to Religious Understanding: Essays on Dryden, Pope, Keats, George Eliot, Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and E. B. White; and Swift’s Satires on Modernism among others) isn’t by any means, afraid to get his academic hands dirty by way of profound and philosophical deliberation.

This quintessential dissertation of the most regal and robust of seven chapters, lays testament to the latter. As the second part of the title of this book suggests, the author endeavours to highlight the failure to connect that Eliot viewed as becoming ever more evident throughout the seventeenth century. With acute attention gvien to The Waste Land – surely one of the most contentious and supposedly difficult of poems ever written – and ‘Gerontion,’ Atkins substantiates the fact that Eliot satirized modern misunderstandings.

In so doing, he urges readers to make the connection(s) that the ”wastelanders” fail(ed) to make. The aforementioned quotation therefore, is most applicably placed, as not only does it confront the very act of reading head-on, it does so by way of Eliot’s very own words. In other trajectorial/tempestuous words, the philosophical parameters are already set by the time the reader has even reached the second chapter: ”Eliot continues with observations that pertain, with some modifications and due allowance for undeniable differences, to reading well, no matter the material or the text.

”We have to abandon some of our usual motives for reading. We must surrender the Love of Power – whether over others, or over ourselves, or over the material world. We must abandon even the Love of Knowledge. We must not be
distracted by interest in the personality of particular authors, or by delight in the
phrases in which they have expressed their insights.

Certainly reading well […] entails abandonment of power over the text as well as at least control of interest in authorial personality, but surely we need not surrender either a love or a quest for knowledge, for the reading of texts may be our best – if not our only – path toward knowing, and such reading necessarily proceeds in, through, and by means of the letter, that is, the form, made of ”phrases” and other units, of the writing itself.”

Riddled with such dense and literary food for thought in its entirety, T. S. Eliot and the Failure to Connect is an exceptional book in that it really does home in on the subject matter of its title. I’ve read a number of books on literary criticism that pertain to do the same, yet do everything BUT.

To be sure, having reached the end of the book, I almost felt compelled to start reading it all over again; and there really aren’t that many books within the genre I can say that about. Indeed, if you like T. S. Eliot, or are in anyway (still) perplexed with regards the complex, albeit sublime The Waste Land, then this book comes highly, highly recommended.

David Marx


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