Archive for February, 2015

STUDENT: I feel like both positive and negative criticism should be freely expressed as felt by the individual. Clap or don’t after a performance, it’s your decision. Just let everything be done in moderation.

TEACHER: These are objections one hears time and again: Who is to say? What makes him the judge? Doesn’t everybody get to decide for himself?

These questions, and the anxiety of which they are unmistakable expressions, are highly symptomatic and emblematic of the condition of being modern. We no longer live in an age of God-ordained authorities. Or, if we do continue to live, as individuals, in a world of God-centered world, we can’t help but find ourselves hopelessly out of touch with the ideas and culture of the current moment. Consequently, nobody knows what to think or even feel anymore, at least not in public. And this profound state of anxiety is reflected – at least among those who actually continue to care about genuine culture – in our disturbing inability to enjoy ourselves thoroughly and unselfconsciously. Applause, for all it presents itself as the most enthusiastic praise, ought properly to be seen for what it actually is, a noisy and vulgar eruption of mass insecurity. It is the surest sign that an audience has no idea what it just experienced. In a culture composed of a constant stream of pseudo-experiences, applause is the flood of noise which surges forth to fill the disconcerting void of genuine experience. Here, Eliot and Glenn Gould seem to agree with Freud.


Eliot’s attempt to establish criteria of judgment, as well as a canon of exemplary works, is intended to provide a remedy for this anxiety. And the key to the effectiveness of that remedy is that it must offer a set of standing paradigms with reference to which one work of art can be judged intrinsically more successful than another, as well as a set of objective operations in terms of which the creation of a work of art can be mapped. In the absence of any such objectivity, Eliot argues, the only standard of judgment we are left with is brute consensus, popularity.

Samuel Johnson is, for T. S. Eliot, the classic proponent of moderation. Though this evaluation is correct, we should simultaneously recall that popularity is Johnson’s standard of judgment. Shakespeare is great, he argues, because more people can relate to his works than any one else’s; hence, Shakespeare must best represent universal human nature. In other words, Johnson’s criterion for the judgment of artistic excellence is a matter of averages. The paradox in this should not be lost on us: excellence = mediocrity. This takes for granted the mass’s response to the object, by assuming that common sense is genuinely sensible. Whereas even a cursory examination of history will teach us that the masses have hardly made judicious decisions. If anything, the masses have been subject to constant shifts of opinion, based on little more than rumor, wild conjecture and immediate sensation. Certainly, free and open elections have hardly guaranteed with consistency the best of all possible leaders. With a few notable exceptions, it would in fact appear that the very first qualification for elected office is to be unexceptional, mediocre.

Further, the opinion of the masses, or the random individual, says virtually noting about the object itself. Most judgments we encounter – as Eliot insists, judgment comes a natural to us as breathing – regrettably lack any articulated criteria of selection or rejection, other than the fact that the person in question “just so totally loves” Shakespeare.

If pressed, persons may say they enjoy Shakespeare’s characters. But these characters are only one aspect of Shakespeare’s total art. Further, this offers no means of explaining why Shakespeare’s most popular characters tend to be scoundrels? What, Eliot would ask, is the difference between liking a persons in real life and liking a character in a play? Are liking person and liking characters even the same kind of liking at all? Is there really a difference between art and life, and if so, what is it? These, and others, are all questions which Eliot believes have been left fundamentally unanswered, by the culture in general and by Samuel Johnson in particular, who as a man of the Enlightenment, understands quality art to distinguish itself primarily by its lack of errors. Shakespeare’s verses, like his plots, are “grammatically correct.” Good art, according to Johnson’s commonsense mode of thinking, should always shun extremes, be ‘reasonable’ and show ‘moderation’.

British Actor John Garrick as McBeth

Notice, though, Eliot’s great interest in and admiration for the Metaphysical Poets. It’s not only that these poets are willing to make errors, or stray as far as possible from everyday patterns of thinking and speaking. But, indeed, the very peculiarities and deviations from standard thought and speech are these poets’ most basic virtues. But nobody speaks or thinks like Metaphysical Poets in daily pedestrian life, one might insist. And this precisely is why Eliot considers them great. Because they are blessedly free of the conventions of daily life and the perceived need for personal consistency (what Emerson called the “hobgoblin of little minds”), they are able to produce works which can be considered genuine art, and ought to be judged superior to the vast majority of human fabrications. Because these literary artifacts exhibit thought and feeling working together at the highest energy level, they reveal not just the normal functioning of a typical human mind but rather the vast array of operations which are possible for the human mind, per se. In this respect, Poetry, as Eliot clearly indicates, approaches Psychology. Though Eliot’s psychology will be one which radically rejects Positivism’s reduction of all human experience to mere aggregates of ‘units of sensation’ to be recorded and modeled in laboratory psychology. For Eliot sees this sort of science as the psychological equivalent of capitalism’s reduction of millions of individual lives to mere ‘human resources’ and individual lives to a loose mass of discrete and mobile units of labor to be bought and sold, like any other commodity, according to the law of supply and demand.


In particular, Eliot understanding of poetry approximates the psychological investigations of Harvard professor William James, one of the most distinguished and influential intellectuals in all of American history. James’s great contention, which flew in the face of the experimental psychology which prevailed in his own day (Helmholz, Fechner, Wundt), was that laboratory testing, statistical analysis and functional mapping of mental activity only serve to show how the statistically average person thinks, and this only under the most narrow and artificial of conditions. Such research might possibly give us some insight into how conformists, prisoners and the institutionalized think and behave, but it says almost nothing about how truly powerful and exemplary minds and bodies function when operating at the very highest level of energy or in a state of (semi-)autonomy. For this reason, James turns away from the statistically average person in his search for what is most essential in human thinking and experience, and instead turns to the great eccentrics.


In particular, James turns, against the current of the day, to the lives and writings of religious persons. James, in a masterful series of lectures delivered at Harvard, shows little interest in the conformist lives of average believers but rather focuses his attention on the great non-conformists in religious history, those ‘visionary’ individuals who founded either new religions or religious movements, or those saintly individuals who bound themselves to an arbitrary law and lived life extravagantly and exclusively on their own eccentric terms, with the least amount of compromise or moderation. It is these individual, James argues, and not experimental psychology which show actual human nature and potential.