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After Strange Interpretations

Some time ago J. Bottum, now editor of First Things, published a sort of hit piece on T. S. Eliot, What T.S. Eliot Almost Believed, that I just ran into going through some old correspondence.

It’s not clear just what claim Bottum is making in the piece, for example when he says “I think Eliot never did truly believe and that his poetry is not about faith’s wait for God but about the hollow man’s wait for faith. Of course, he probably did believe … ” Whatever the intended point may have been, the piece does touch on some basic issues and basic issues are always worth comment.

Bottum points out, correctly I think, that the error of modernity is its “attempt to found philosophical certainty on the self’s consciousness of itself.” The question is then how to get beyond self-consciousness, which otherwise puts us in a sort of hall of mirrors without an exit, and restore normal contact with reality.

Bottum’s answer seems to be one he ascribes to Augustine, that we get beyond skepticism by giving will primacy over intellect. The source of faith, it seems, is irrationality: “Augustine becomes an unthinking, irrational, and motiveless desire for the Will of God.” [sic] Eliot, Bottum believes, emphasized rational understanding too much.

None of which makes sense to me. If you start from a position of skepticism then sanity involves intelligence becoming aware of its limitations, and of the inevitability of faith of some sort. Everyone always has faith already, because everyone thinks he knows something about reality and that knowledge must rest on faith. Since understanding seeks reality it should accept that situation and deal with it as best it can. The intellectual question is then what faith is most adequate to experience, and the question for living how to bring one’s life into unity with that faith.

Those questions involve many difficulties that can’t be overcome directly, or made simple except perhaps in retrospect. I don’t see though how the difficulties can be obviated by preferring will to understanding, since there are problems with our wills too, or why you wouldn’t stick with understanding, to the extent it can tell you anything, all the way through.

In the course of the piece Bottum makes some odd comments on Eliot’s poems.

  • He says that “In the juvenescence of the year / came Christ the tiger / … Us he devours” (in Gerontion) serves the same function as Eliot’s classical allusions. It shows how bad things are now but doesn’t suggest anything that would help. I find that view strange. Classical allusions don’t break into a poem and eat you alive.
  • The line “it was (you may say) satisfactory” (in The Journey of the Magi) is certainly not, as Bottum claims, evidence of “a spirituality so crippled by its self-consciousness that it testifies only to a mistake in the poet’s understanding of faith.” Instead, it’s an ironical understatement of something that’s too big to be said, at least by the speaker. The silence that follows it emphasizes that character. The fact a speaker knows his limits and the limits of his language doesn’t show he or his inventor is spiritually crippled.
  • The lines from East Coker

    I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
    For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
    For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
    But the faith and love and hope are all in the waiting.
    Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
    So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

    can’t possibly be interpreted, as Bottum interprets them, as an example of “understanding’s impossible search for faith” when their whole point is that understanding must understand its limits. It seems that Bottum doesn’t have much use for the via negativa. I can’t help but connect Bottum’s attitude on the point, and his apparent fondness for will, to the can-do sis-boom-bah attitude of official American right-wingers.

  • To speak of the social function of Christianity, as in The Idea of A Christian Society and Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, is not to reduce it to its social function, any more than to speak of the social function of mathematics is to do so.

I think it’s true, as Bottum suggests, that Eliot’s poetry doesn’t give first-person present-tense expression to anything beyond negative theology. So what? Negative theology is true theology, even though incomplete, and its whole point is rejection of the longing for faith that Bottum attributes to Eliot in favor of concern with God. Not everyone can adequately express all things in all settings, and in poetry one sticks to what one can do superlatively well.



I adore Eliot. The notion of criticizing his belief strikes me as, well, absurd. Judge not that ye be not judged. Nothing as beautiful as his poetry can possibly be founded on something false, even if I may not understand it, as, indeed, I do not always understand my own faith. That is not an argument, I admit, but an intuitive judgment. Still, I would bet my life on it. I don’t know where the author of this criticism gets off.