"Always be suspicious of confessional authors"

07 Feb 2020 6:15 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

In 1937, Eliot looks back to his lectures of 1933 and tells Hale that he wishes he could suppress them; his aggressiveness, not merited by the subject matter, reveals his abnormal state of mind. As I read ahead (now 5 years in advance of my reports) it is reassuring to learn that the anger and disturbance he expresses in this period also strike him, years later, as out of balance. 

On March 6, 1933, Eliot writes that he has been re-reading The Aspern PapersThe Turn of the Screw, and Heart of Darkness in preparation for a lecture to his Harvard students.  In a teasing parenthesis he mentions that “Burbank with a Baedeker” issues out of The Aspern Papers. His published lecture notes for English 26 also hint at this connection, with the enigmatic remark “Always be suspicious of confessional authors” (see Prose 4.771-73). The Aspern Papers fascinated him long before it took on a new significance for him, he says, presumably meaning since he began writing to Hale in a confessional mode. However, the theme of evil in The Turn of the Screw and Heart of Darkness is what particularly holds his attention now, and leads Eliot to reminisce again about Matt Prichard, a topic definitely not discussed in his lecture notes.

Eliot does not remember that he told Hale about Prichard before, in his letter of March 24, 1931. He writes now in more detail about the former MFA director whom he knew in Paris in 1910 (actually Prichard was assistant to the director, 1901-1907; see my post of Jan. 6). Other men have wanted his body, but only Prichard desired his soul. Eliot says that for a terrifying twenty seconds, back in his boarding house in Paris, he thought he was completely lost, sent back through thousands of years of human evolution, into the abyss, though he was only hanging over the edge. After that, Prichard lost his power over Eliot, and they went on a tour of southern France together at Christmas 1910, along with Prichard’s very respectable brother, an army colonel. But Prichard had his own realization at Limoges, where he "walked all night in the next room” (“Gerontion”). These memories come back to Eliot not only because he has been reading James and Conrad, the masters of “horror by suggestion” (Prose 4.773). He explains that a young man at Harvard, Theodore Spencer, has fallen under his own influence just as he did with the older Prichard. They have had a long talk. Eliot wishes to affect Spencer positively…it is a big responsibility. 

Though not a theme overall in Eliot’s correspondence with Hale, attraction between men is one of several disturbances in his mind as he struggles to come to terms with his own personal life. In his letter of Holy Saturday (April 15) he mentions the poet Stephen Spender as an example of those to whom Eliot has become a symbol of the Anglican church. Spender is gay, communist, and half Jewish, but despite these reasons for disliking the young man, Eliot writes, he finds a certain attraction—he doesn’t say who is attracted to whom. 

Comments

  • 07 Feb 2020 9:36 PM | David E. Chinitz
    Frances, regarding your first paragraph, I recall from somewhere that when Eliot thought he would be called as a witness in the Chatterley trial, he anticipated being grilled on his earlier strong criticism of Lawrence, especially in ASG, where he had described Lawrence as "a very sick man indeed" (5.44). He said he was prepared to testify that when he wrote those words, he was himself a sick man. Sorry I can't document the quote--it's probably from his deposition (see 8.474). But the remark seems consistent with all his late comments about ASG, which describe it as intemperate, excessive, or, as you put it, "out of balance."
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    • 08 Feb 2020 7:01 AM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)
      Thanks, David, for this confirmation. Of course, "out of balance" was not his exact wording; I'm conflating several terms. He says that the aggressiveness in his lectures was out of proportion to the subject matter, and that this disproportion indicated a state of mind that was not normal.
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  • 07 Feb 2020 10:02 PM | CR Mittal
    “These matters that with myself I too much discuss
    Too much explain”
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  • 08 Feb 2020 3:00 PM | CR Mittal
    /He explains that a young man at Harvard, Theodore Spencer, has fallen under his own influence just as he did with the older Prichard. They have had a long talk. Eliot wishes to affect Spencer positively…it is a big responsibility. // Though not a theme overall in Eliot’s correspondence with Hale, attraction between men is one of several disturbances in his mind as he struggles to come to terms with his own personal life. In his letter of Holy Saturday (April 15) he mentions the poet Stephen Spender as an example of those to whom Eliot has become a symbol of the Anglican church./


    “The wounded surgeon plies the steel
    That questions the distempered part;
    Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
    The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
    Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.”
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  • 08 Feb 2020 3:50 PM | CR Mittal
    I am not the girl in the picture.
    I am not the smell of hyacinths.
    I might be the boy.
    I am off the record.

    https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/02/10/i-trust-the-wind-and-dont-know-why
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