COLUMN: CRITICISM’S HIGH PRIESTS

November 10, 2019

Email

The last quarter of this year marks the centenary of T.S. Eliot’s essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’. As it completes its first 100 years, the essay remains highly relevant. In fact, it seems so provocative that one is a little surprised on learning that it is 100 years old. It remains one of the most influential texts in the annals of English literary criticism. Initially seen only by “a coterie audience”, an article in The New Yorker marking the centenary of its publication goes on to consider it not only “Eliot’s most important essay”, but “arguably the most influential English-language literary essay of the 20th century.”

Penned by a 30-something young man with only a slim collection of poetry and some essays behind him, the essay made its appearance in two instalments of The Egoist, in the September and December issues of 1919. It is remarkable that Eliot speaks with an assured confidence. The essay is credited with laying to rest Romanticism as a literary trend and instead installing modernism with its emphasis on moving away from an overall focus on the poet as a person. “The poet has, not a ‘personality’ to express, but a particular medium,” says Eliot with his majestic sweep, going on to pronounce that poetry “is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” Later on, he describes the mind of the poet as “a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.” That could be a prescription for many modernistic works, from Eliot’s own poetry to collages developed by contemporary painters.

The part of the essay which I am constantly drawn to is when Eliot speaks of the entire collection of European literature as an ever-expanding bookshelf which needs rearrangement when a new work is introduced — “the really new”, as he insists. At this point, this essay prefigures Jorge Louis Borges’s story-like article ‘Kafka and His Precursors’ where Borges argues that “each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.” A footnote refers the curious reader to nobody else but T.S. Eliot.

Going beyond the English circles against whom it was taking some well-aimed jibes, Eliot’s essay went on to exert an influence worldwide, including in Urdu circles. The eminent poet Mukhtar Siddiqui translated it into Urdu, emphasising the tradition-related part of the essay. Mirza Hamid Baig penned an entire book discussing the highly favourable reception of Eliot in the realm of Urdu letters. Eliot became a standard simultaneously for traditionalists as well as modernists in Urdu. The best-known rendition of this essay is by Jameel Jalibi, who first translated and published a volume of Eliot’s essays and then went on to take up a chronological account of European literary criticism, which opens with Aristotle and concludes with Eliot.

Large in its scope like a Bollywood blockbuster and reprinted several times, Arastoo Say Eliot Tak is well-known to Urdu readers. It goes without saying that no other critic has been so widely emulated in Urdu, although I would like to pick a quarrel with partial readings, complacent with the “tradition” and not giving due credence to innovation and “individual talent.”

The centenary of this article falls at a time when the world is mourning the passing away of Harold Bloom, a great admirer of Eliot and one of the leading and most influential critics of the day and age.

Eliot speaks of the entire collection of European literature as an ever-expanding bookshelf which needs rearrangement when a new work is introduced.

A prolific writer, Bloom’s style was highly accessible and lucid. William Shakespeare was his great love and his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human is probably one of the most thought-provoking books on the great Bard. Bloom’s notion of the canon made him a sworn enemy of “deconstructionists, feminists, Marxists, neoconservatives and multiculturalists” — all of whom he lumped together as the “School of Resentment”, clearly jealous of their influence which he felt went against the classics in the canon. He considered the classics superior to anything and everything, but critics point out the predominance of dead, white males in his canon. I would add Western to the list.

Bloom authored far too many books for me to keep track of; of the few that I managed to lay my hands on are The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry and How to Read and Why, a delightful guided tour to the best books in every genre and a wonderful invitation to reading.

Driven by an inexhaustible energy and encyclopaedic knowledge of English literature, the frail author was working on a new book when he died. The book was to be called Immortality, taking this theme in a literary context. Writing in a recent issue of The Paris Review, Lucas Zwirner shares some interesting quotes from the incomplete manuscript. Bloom cites Sigmund Freud, pronouncing much of his work as obsolete, but not the moral suggestion “that we must all of us make friends with the necessity of dying.” In his inimitable way, Bloom defined the book as “offering a narrative of three crucial speculations: immortality, resurrection, redemption.” This could have been heavy going, but I instantly liked Bloom’s interpretation that “immortality is this life and so is redemption.”

As more and more obituaries kept pouring in, I was surprised to read a couple of articles denouncing the formidable critic as a predator who subjected a series of students to harassment. Abhorrent as his behaviour is, beyond a shadow of doubt, I cannot but help recall my admiration for some of his best work. Admiring his critical insight, I am nonetheless troubled by his legacy. His polemics are likely to continue beyond his death and it is unfortunate that many of these will not have much to do with his dearly loved classics.

The columnist is a fiction writer and critic. He teaches literature and humanities at Habib University, Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 10th, 2019