Monday, June 2, 2008

T.S. Eliot’s Two Failures, En Breve

In 1944, while editor and director of the distinguished U.K. publishing company Faber & Faber, T.S. Eliot gave a stunning thumbs down to George Orwell’s Animal Farm manuscript. According to literary biographer Jeffrey Meyers, in his Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation (an MSC favorite!), Eliot’s rejection was based on “[h]is perverse misreading of the book.” Millions of copies later and it’s obvious this was not one of Eliot’s finest moments. One could make the case that his famous 1920 essay entitled “Hamlet and His Problems” does not represent some of Eliot’s best judgment, either. Let’s attribute this to youth—he was 32 when he wrote the piece. Well, perhaps not youth. “So far from being Shakespeare’s masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure,” he boldly proclaims regarding what many consider to be the greatest play ever written. He then proceeds to flog Hamlet for lacking “objective correlative,” which he rather insufficiently describes as “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that [a character’s] particular emotion.” Apparently, Eliot believes that Hamlet’s troubled emotions do not jive with the scenes and situations around him or, in other words, do not have an external equivalent—“Hamlet . . . is dominated by an emotion . . . in excess of the facts as they appear”—as opposed to the successful use of objective correlative in a Poe short story, we can presume, where a character’s nervous melancholia finds correlation and balance with a crumbling structure or a lack of sunlight (see “The Fall of the House of Usher,” for example); or in Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth’s somnambulism is justified by her guilt-ridden conscious. Although thought-provoking in its audacity, Eliot’s criticism is frustrating in its unevenness, obfuscation, and occasional pettiness. David L. Stevenson, in his 1954 article “An Objective Correlative for T.S. Eliot’s Hamlet” (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism) does a far better job explaining Eliot’s logic than Eliot himself, while deftly and reverentially taking to task one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed poets and literary critics.

By the way, here at MSC, we love T.S. Eliot.

© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, June 2008

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William said...

Despite my being a science guy I love literature. This is not the first time I have heard this theory. I am actually a big believer in it, too. I will have to get this to read for the summer. Thanks Paesan.

Jason in L.A. said...

The Hamlet essay is definitely not one of Eliot's more eloquent criticisms. I don't think he ever retracted it later in life.

kingofburma said...

good post carlo.

The Rovnarian Scholar said...

What young literary critic wouldn't want to make a bold claim by declaring what is arguably one of the greatest English dramas as a poorly written excuse for a tragedy?

This is topic we have discussed in the past, Carlo: Hamlet, the full and complete text of it, is not as great of a tragedy as many chalk it up to be (there is a reason that it was not originally performed in its entirety – the author clearly had to make cuts). While Eliot may not have articulated his points as best her could, he presents a legitimate argument. Perhaps Hamlet has just become another household name. We all proclaim it as the great work of the “Shakespeare” cannon simply because everyone says so. Being the second-most quoted work in the English world (behind the Bible, of course), Hamlet has engraved itself in our minds. How often do we hear those infamous words – “To be or not to be” – cited merely as a representation of the greater concept of theatre as a whole?

While Eliot clearly could have done a better job constructing his critique (we all know he was capable of it), we should at least give him credit for challenging the literary norm. It takes a lot of guts to make such a claim – to challenge the greatness of what is considered to be such a great work. If nothing else, at least this essay opens the door for more intense examinations of the subject. After all, what better way to learn the classics than by challenging that very status? The more we argue against the classics, the more we examine the works as a whole to learn both the good AND the bad, instead of just simply declaring them exceptional, untouchable examples of literature in its highest form.

Maybe I'm too young, wild, and inexperienced for my own good, but that's just my two cents.