214. (T.S. Eliot)

When someone says that something possesses the quality of the literary, or refers to the literary or even artistic imagination, they refer, I’ve suggested, to a special sort of imaginative tact: one that apprehends bodily experience. On the one hand, it might be said that not all literature is or should be about the body; on the other hand, it might be said that any effort to imagine human experience must involve some understanding of the human body. Both statements are right, but neither does damage to the insight that literary (or more generally, artistic) tact and imagination are distinguished by a steady attentiveness towards the body as the center of all experience, however idealized, impersonal, or communal.

There is no need, in fact no reason, to be more specific, since the tact that is a true and sensitive awareness of the body will differ from work to work, author to author. But I am comfortable having said this much, and leaning on it so hard as to suggest that it is, without being the sine qua non for artistic success, nonetheless a defining character of the artistic, in any medium (even music); that to say so suggests how cuisine and fashion might assume their places in works of art; and that to say so suggests also why works of philosophy, which might insist on the primacy of material life, or even adduce somatic foundations, are not necessarily tactfully attentive to bodily experience so much as they make use of, insist on, or adumbrate it, none of which are the same thing. From a different perspective, the historian, writing always about a world conditioned by and for the body, is not herself (nor should she be) usually sensitive to imagining bodily experience in that world.

The boldest extension of the line of thought I’m putting forward is liable to the weaknesses of all such generalizations: works of art, whatever else they do, return and reconcile us with corporeal existence, with a refined, renovated, and expanded sense of what such an existence does and does not entail, permits and prevents. Not even, but especially music, works on the body, as abstract as its patterns and as inarticulate as its logic might be. The aesthetic resumes its coherence, taking in both abstraction, ideation, as well as the sensory; the architecture of human structures working on our sense of our physical beings in a manner not unlike the forms of mountains; the perception of harmony in nature not (as per Kant) affirming so much our being suited, cognitively, to apprehend the world, as much as affirming our being suited, physically, to existing in the world.

The implications for criticism, and for practical criticism, are nebulous and maybe nil. Many very good critics have responded to literature with a tact that appreciates and assumes the tact for bodily experience. T.S. Eliot is as distinguished, and difficult, on these as on any other occasions. Think of his selecting, as the characteristic mark of Shakespeare’s greatness, Cleopatra’s slight “ah,” or of his description of the empathetic experience of humiliation and suffering in reading Stendhal: “some of his phrases have the sharpness of a razor’s edge, like cutting one’s own throat.” But Eliot’s sense for the somatic awareness of literary intelligence is especially keen, and potentially misleading, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” where he describes the task of poetry: “the business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all.”

With Eliot likely in the back of his mind, Donald Davie has written persuasively of the crucial distinction between “feelings” and “emotions,” drawing, with Pound in the front of his mind, on the sculptural implications of the former, explaining that a poet, like a sculptor, needs a tactile “feel” for his materials, and pointing to the grammar of “feeling,” which returns us to bodily apprehension and control. Elsewhere, in his book on Keats, John Jones makes much the same point; that book remains essential, despite stretches that baffle comprehension, because of Jones’ attempts at distinguishing where Keats’ feeling for feeling is most living.

In his essay, Eliot seems to vacillate between emotion and feeling. But rather than vacillation, he is instead registering the dependency of each on the other, their being difficult to separate out, since our experiences of our bodies, our feelings for what we encounter, are saturated by emotions even before they are saturated by language, without being reducible to one or the other:

“The experience, you will notice, the elements which enter the presence of the transforming catalyst, are of two kinds: emotions and feelings. The effect of a work of art upon the person who enjoys it is an experience different in kind from experience not of art. It may be formed out of one emotion, or may be a combination of several; and various feelings, inhering for the writer in particular words or phrases or images, may be added to the final result. Or great poetry may be made without the direct use of any emotion whatsoever: composed out of feelings solely.”

I do not think that I am offering a reformulation of Eliot’s ideas; but Eliot’s criticism is making a distinction that depends upon tact, and the tact involves a recognition of feeling as something other than emotion; I’m suggesting that “feelings” even in the plural form possesses a corporeal, somatic dimension that emotion does not and that, as a consequence, it is both dependent on an individual existing physically as an individual, and also generalizable across all of those whose experiences of bodies allow them to imagine the bodily experiences of others. No more than all really good writers need to write about the body do all really good critics need to do so; but they probably do tend keep in mind that an author, when successful, had the fact of bodily life always in mind, at the least a ground on the canvas without which other forms would not have emerged.

The risk for a critic with Eliot’s training in philosophy was that he would be ensnared in abstractions that propel the thought; the risk for a critic with Eliot’s talent for poetry would be that he would be misled by the metaphors through which thought happens; countering both is the imaginative tact that holds itself accountable to all that happens to bodies in literature and in reading literature, without being held hostage by a belief that the body is all there is worth imagining.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s