In his first book, The Tradition of Return (1984), Jeffrey PerI argued that forward-looking “progress” and backward- looking “return” may not be opposite phenomena but, rather, components of a single cultural process. He concluded that the dynamic interaction between dedication to social change and devotion to original sources has conditioned much of modern cultural history. PerI’s new book—a more focused study of the enmity created by the tension between liberal and conservative perspectives on the career of T. S. Eliot—is characterized as a “preliminary case study” for a comprehensive history of such enmities in literary culture, enmities that Perl says have blocked what is really consensus.
Perl argues specifically here that although Eliot was often criticized as a classicist, he was as radical a skeptic as those who criticized him. Perl’s basic support for his conviction that critics have misread Eliot because they saw his similarity to them as differences are Eliot’s unpublished notebooks in philosophy—manuscripts, typescripts, and class notes of the poet/critic’s undergraduate years at Harvard—and the published essays that derive from them.
The first chapter is a general introduction both to this book- length analysis of Eliot from the perspective of skepticism and to the multivolume study of ambivalence in literary culture of which Perl says this is the first offering. The most general thesis of the book is that the established order is a myth; the modern paradigms that seem to compete and exclude each other—such seeming dichotomies as classic versus romantic, modern versus postmodern, liberal versus conservative—do not reflect an inability to agree but, rather, a deeply ambivalent need to avoid consensus. Using as his basic example the ritual of how authors and works get admitted to the literary canon, PerI traces the critical reception of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c. 1600- 1601) as a play that was accepted into the canon despite its violations of the classical rules of drama; as a result, it altered and expanded those rules.
Much of Perl’s argument about the shifting critical reception of Shakespeare’s great tragedy reflects the familiar practice of literary critics’ redefining a literary work in terms of their own critical predispositions and thus claiming every great work and every great literary movement as their own. His thesis cuts deeper than that, however. As Perl points out, modernism is the restitution of tradition for its adherents and the interruption of tradition for those who scorn the term. As a result, there is no canon that ensures continuity and coherence. Instead, the history of modernism is a pattern of anomalies resulting from an ambivalence that is never really faced. Perl’s basic rationale thus springs from his conviction that such pernicious ambivalence can be resolved and overcome only when its victims are made to see it. Eliot, a writer in whom—like Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and James Joyce—everything can be found, reflects this ambivalence, which Perl takes as his task to lay bare.
The difficulty in understanding Eliot, Perl argues in a chapter entitled, paradoxically, “One Multiple Reception,” lies in trying to understand how he was accepted into the canon so quickly despite being disliked by many influential artists and critics. Perl then makes a gesture toward solving the puzzle by showing how Eliot was made canonical by his opponents rather than by his supporters. Perl points out, for example, how William Butler Yeats made space for Eliot’s work in the Oxford anthology so that he could declare him unacceptable in the preface. More recently, he notes, the current so-called Yale critics have rejected Eliot as firmly as their own precursors at Yale, the so-called New Critics, embraced him.
Perl’s theories about these shifting alliances and enmities seem primarily derived from Harold Bloom’s basic notion of the “anxiety of influence,” a theory that accounts for how one generation rebels against the parent generation by purposely “misreading” it. Perl’s position is that Eliot, who once wrote that error or misreading is an essential part of all interpretation, is the forerunner of Bloom’s argument. More central to Peri’s analysis is Eliot’s observation that contrariety signifies agreement rather than opposition—a notion which, Peri argues, illumines Eliot’s paradoxically critical position in the literary canon.
The heart of Peri’s study lies in the three chapters in the section entitled “Difference.” These chapters unearth the origins of Eliot’s philosophic perspective in his Harvard studies of Eastern religious thought, clarify his philosophic perspectivism in his “relative poetics,” and outline the skepticism of his social and political...
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