An Incarnational Poetic at Play in T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party.

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Date: Spring 2021
From: South Atlantic Review(Vol. 86, Issue 1)
Publisher: South Atlantic Modern Language Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,666 words

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Introduction

Dennis Taylor, in his seminal essay, "The Need for a Religious Criticism," argues that "[t]here is a need in our time for religious interpretations that are substantial enough to enter into a productive and competitive relation with the reigning critical discourses" (3). Later, he flatly states: "We have no way of talking about God in literary criticism" (22). Jewel Spears Brooker's recent work T.S. Eliot's Dialectical Imagination offers a response to Taylor's call, albeit, perhaps, not deliberately. In it, following a broadly historicist approach, she argues that Eliot's conversion to the Anglo-Catholic tradition was the culmination of his dialectical imagination seeking a higher synthesis. That synthesis, she maintains, was the doctrine of the Incarnation: "[a] theological response to the psychophysical dualism that had troubled [him] from the beginning of his life as a poet ..." (Kindle location 2489). By grounding Eliot's thought in theology, she seeks to take Eliot's Christianity as seriously as he apparently did while steering clear of reductionistic and largely deconstructionist discourses. Here she is in harmony with another one of Taylor's observations: "... [I]f we are not able to somehow to keep the God-question open, we are poor readers, because the question is open for the writers we study" (25). As Brooker indicates, Eliot's imagination remained "dialectical" even after his conversion, "serv[ing] as a kinetic principle, undergirding his impulse to move forward by looping back" (Kindle location 173). Using this principle, then, we can see Eliot's "return" (1) to drama as a continuation of this dialectic, although at this point in his life, the Incarnation (2) now informs what previously was dominated by what Brooker calls his "entrapment in binaries" and, later, a domination of "'both/and' thinking of relativism" (Kindle location 191). Using i/Incarnation as a cipher for Eliot's later work helpfully illuminates his so-called dramatic turn, his development as a playwright, and it uncovers occluded layers of meaning in his plays. (3) However, it is not sufficient to simply uncover the "Christian" elements of Eliot's drama; much has already been done in that direction. On the contrary, my aims are much broader. My primary goal here is to develop and deploy a critical approach that uncovers the intersection of spirituality and ethics rooted in embodiment expressed in art. This critical approach I will be calling an incarnational poetic.

Incarnational Poetics Elsewhere

"Poetics," rather problematically, is everywhere. Conferences and journals are full of a poetics of this or that. For this essay, I will be using "poetics" in an expanded theoretical sense. It is necessary to briefly discuss two contemporary critics who deploy the term and then see how their ideas are prefigured in Eliot. Two such critics are Cristina Cervone and Brian Hampton.

Cervone builds her theory from the ground up through close readings of medieval authors, poets, and even art. This inductive approach makes her work all the more robust and, to my mind, applicable and consonant with Eliot, who, to some degree, shared a similar worldview as the medieval poets/artists Cervone interrogates...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A655503287