the motives for revision

draft manuscript of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

I’ve been reading a fascinating new book by a young scholar named Hannah Sullivan on The Work of Revision: it’s an account of how modernist poets and novelists incorporated revision into their writerly work. Sullivan notes that for the Romantics spontaneity was essential to true art: as Keats wrote, “If Poetry comes not as naturally as leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” But today — Sullivan illustrates this point with copious quotation — writers go on and on about how essential revising is, how constantly they are at it, how good writing cannot be achieved without a steadfast commitment to “revise, revise revise.” How did this shift happen?

Sullivan argues that the transformation occurred during the modernist era:

The aims of modernist revision might have been largely aesthetic – a feeling toward new forms and styles – but the practice was significantly enabled by technological improvements in the publishing process, including cheaper typesetting and storing and the invention of the personal typewriter, and by a culture of patronage that allowed for multiple sendings of proof and a relative lack of concern for economic profit…. On the one hand it became much easier to mark out and transmit the desire for revision: writers who owned typewriters could make and circulate neat copies of their work quickly in carbon copy, and publishers using typesetting machines were more willing to issue proofs of entire novels. On the other hand, revision still had a substantial cost. Unlike in digital environments, where a new file can be uploaded to Amazon for free, pulping a first addition to make way for a second or rewriting a novel in proof required a significant commitment of time and money. As a result, writers found themselves inhabiting a situation where revision this both tantalizingly possible and off-puttingly expensive.

So what may have begun as a need to (in Ezra Pound’s famous formulation) “Make it New,” and therefore to explore and innovate in both form and content, inevitably making mistakes along the way, was encouraged by changing technologies of print. And today, when the external costs of revision have been so greatly reduced, of course revision is especially prized.

It’s worth noting that this is not the first time such a development has occurred. Five hundred years ago the great humanist scholar Erasmus actually moved from northern Europe to Venice so he could work closely with his publisher, the great Aldus Manutius. And seventy or so years later, Michel de Montaigne, the inventor of the modern essay, took a copy of the first edition of his Essays and started making corrections and additions that became the foundation of a second edition, and then a third. The process only stopped with his death. Then too technological and generic innovation led to a culture of revision.

Michel de Montaigne’s revisions and additions to his own book

Auden’s two cheers for democracy

The major project I am currently working on concerns Christian humanism in a time to total war — in particular, in World War II. In the midst of a an unprecedentedly vast war, a number of prominent and highly accomplished intellectuals saw the need for a renewal of a rich and subtle humanism — which is surprising in itself, it seems to me — and for many of them that humanism needed to be grounded in a doctrinally robust Christianity. This seemed odd enough to me that I thought it needed to be accounted for. Thus this book.

One of the major figure in the story I’ll tell is W. H. Auden, and I’ll give significant attention to a little-known lecture he gave at Swarthmore College, where he taught during much of the war. Swarthmore has, to my great pleasure, made available online its collection of Auden memorabilia — including the full typescript of the lecture, entitled “Vocation and Society”. (How cool is that?)

In the book I’ll explore this lecture at some length, but right now I’ll just say something about the end of his talk, where he introduces an interesting and important question: Is democracy after all sustainable? Or, to put the question more precisely, Is it self-sustaining? Auden echoes a famous essay by E. M. Forster in offering “Two Cheers for Democracy,” but he withholds the third cheer for rather different reasons than the atheist Forster had. “Two cheers for Democracy,” says Auden: “one because it admits vocation, and two because it permits contrition. Two cheers are quite enough. There is no occasion to give three. Only Agape, the Beloved Republic, deserves that.” What he would later call “our dear old bag of a democracy” is sustained, not by itself, but by belief in something deeper and greater than itself. So Auden concludes his talk not with those cheers, but with the reading of a few lines of a very recent poem.

Just four months earlier T. S. Eliot had published “Little Gidding,” the last of his Four Quartets, and Auden finished his talk by reading the poem’s concluding lines:

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

Auden’s vision, then, is of a vocation-based education sustained by a democratic polity, and a democratic polity sustained by Christian faith. This vision stood against the commanding power of the nation-state, against pragmatism, against modern technocratic canons of efficiency.

Just after the war Auden visited Harvard to read a poem to the Phi Beta Kappa Society. One of the dominant figures of American culture at that time was James Bryant Conant, Harvard’s president, who, captured by the techno-utopian mood of the war years, was striving to modernize the university and transform it into a research powerhouse focused on science and technology. In so doing he emphasized the humanities, especially the classics, far less than Harvard had done through much of its history. Auden told Alan Ansen, “When I was delivering my Phi Beta Kappa poem in Cambridge, I met Conant for about five minutes. ‘This is the real enemy,’ I thought to myself. And I’m sure he had the same impression about me.”

looking up the allusions

I want to agree with part of a recent post by Nick Carr and disagree with another part.

Here’s the part I agree with:

Kirsch says that T. S. Eliot “had to include notes” to “The Waste Land” in order to enable readers to “track down” its many allusions. The truth is different. The first publications of the poem, in the magazines The Criterion and The Dial, lacked the notes. The notes only appeared when the poem was published as a book, and Eliot later expressed regret that he had included them. The notes became, he wrote, a spur for “bogus scholarship,” stimulating “the wrong kind of interest among the seekers of sources … I regret having sent so many enquirers off on a wild goose chase after Tarot cards and the Holy Grail.” By turning his allusions into mere citations, the notes led readers to see his poem as an intricate intellectual puzzle rather than a profound expression of personal emotion — a confusion that continues to haunt, and hamper, readings of the poem to this day. The beauty of “The Waste Land” lies not in its sources but in its music, which is in large measure the music of allusion, of fragments of distant melodies woven into something new.

This is exactly right. Eliot added the notes precisely because Faber wanted to print “The Waste Land” as a book and the poem simply wasn’t long enough without them. (I might add that the “bogus scholarship” that Eliot refers to is not that of his critics, but his own. He thought, perhaps unnecessarily harshly, that the notes themselves were based on limited knowledge.) And if your eyes are continually darting to and from the notes you have no chance of hearing the poem’s music, which is indeed remarkable. As Nick says later in the post, “If you see an allusion merely as something to be tracked down, to be googled, you miss its point and its power. You murder to dissect.”

But Nick goes on to comment on a poem by Yeats that subtly echoes Shelley’s poem “Alastor”:

the allusion deepens and enriches Yeats’s poem whether or not you pick up on it. What matters is not that you know “Alastor” but that Yeats knows it, and that his reading of the earlier work, and his emotional connection with it, resonates through his own lyric. Because, moreover, Yeats provides no clue that he’s alluding to another work, Google would be no help in “tracking down” the source of that allusion. A reader who doesn’t already have an intimate knowledge of “Alastor” would have no reason to Google the lines.

That last point is true, but I think it’s clearly wrong to say that “what matters is not that you know “Alastor” but that Yeats knows it.” It does matter that Yeats knows it — Yeats’s encounter with Shelley strengthens and deepens his verse — but is also matters if the reader does, because if I hear that echo of Shelley I understand better the conversation that Yeats is participating in, and that enriches my experience of his poem and also of Shelley’s. And not incidentally, the enriching power of our knowledge of intellectual tradition is one of Eliot’s key emphases.

So I would argue that the reader of “The Waste Land” who comes to it already knowing something about Shakespeare, Augustine, Buddhist teaching, Dante, the Grail legends, and the Upanishads is going to hear its music better than the reader who doesn’t know any of that stuff — which raises some questions about when and in what circumstances teachers should try to teach that poem.

But it’s also worth remembering that poems can be read more than once. Maybe the first time I read a difficult poem I won’t get much out of it because I’ll be reading the notes, or googling the allusions. But if I study carefully, and have a decent memory, then maybe when I come back to that poem later, more experienced and better informed, I’ll be able to drink very deeply from its well. The teaching of literature is often, or should be, preparing students for future readings.

(P.S. I’ll get back to The Whale and the Reactor soon.)

the desire of the Sybil

It’s generally understood that books are read differently in different generations: cultural changes bring themes and images to the forefront that might have been invisible, or wholly subdued, to a previous generation of readers. It took the rise of Romanticism and its associated revolutions to cast Milton’s Satan in a heroic light; existentialism made King Lear seem to be, not some strange figure from an obscure past, but our contemporary.This can happen to lesser works as well. Recently I was re-reading The Lord of the Rings and began to wonder how it might be read fifty years from now, assuming that our scientists are able to extend the human lifespan significantly. Might it not be that Bilbo and Gollum will become more significant figures in the minds of future readers? And might not the Ring itself take on a different aura of meanings?Think of Bilbo, in appearance “unchanged” in his eleventy-first year, who nevertheless confesses, “I am old, Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. . . Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right.” And think of Gollum, to whom the Ring has given “unnaturally long life”: in the end, “He hated it and he loved it, as he hated and loved himself.” In the lives of these two characters the One Ring does not appear as a Ring of Power so much as a Ring of Immortality, a ring that gives biological life without the means to enjoy it or profit from it. How many people in the future will identify in a particularly strong way with Bilbo and Gollum in this respect? — and maybe especially with Gollum, who unlike Bilbo is unable to relinquish the Ring, unable to escape or even lessen its power over him. Will biological life become all the more precious to people as they enjoy it less, according to the implacable law of diminishing returns?Similarly, what will future generations make of that terrifying epigraph to Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, taken from Petronius’s Satyricon? The epigraph concerns the Cumaean Sybil, who made the mistake of asking the gods for extraordinarily long life without also asking for youth, so that her body wthered and shrank almost to nothingness. One of the main characters of the Satyricon, the ludicrous Trimalchio, says, “For I myself once saw with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a cage, and when the boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she answered ‘I want to die.’”

how not to run a literary estate

In 1957, when he was 69 years old, T. S. Eliot married 32-year-old Valerie Fletcher. When he died in 1965 she took charge of his literary estate and has controlled it ever since, with — from the scholar’s point of view — uneven results. When Peter Ackroyd was writing his biography of Eliot — which eventually appeared in 1984 — Mrs. Eliot first gave him free access to Eliot’s letters and papers, but then denied him permission to quote from them. He had to re-write his biography to remove the quotations. In 1988 she published the first volume of his collected letters, which covered the period through 1922 — after the publication of The Waste Land but before his conversion to Christianity — and promised that the second volume would come out the following year. Two decades later, we’re still waiting. A story published last March claimed that the long-awaited letters would appear this November, and, you know, it just might happen. But I’m not holding my breath.

But in terms of making life difficult for scholars, Valerie Eliot can’t hold a candle to Stephen Joyce, who controls the estate of his grandfather James Joyce. Mrs. Eliot has been content merely to resist, but Mr. Joyce goes as far as active legal persecution. He thinks that people who simply recite passages of his grandfather’s work aloud are violating his copyright, and has claimed that he will not grant anyone permission to quote from Joyce’s works for any reason. He made life absolutely miserable for Carol Loeb Shloss during and after the writing of her biography of Joyce’s talented but troubled daughter Lucia, fighting in every possible legal venue to prevent her from quoting family letters — and for a time succeeding.

But eventually she not only got the book published with its original research included, she got legal assistance from the Fair Use Project of Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society — the brainchild, more or less, of Larry Lessig — and now Stephen Joyce is going to have to pay Shloss’s legal fees.

This is great news for scholars and students and for the general reader as well. The law can’t compel executors of literary estates to be generous, but it can, it seems, restrain them from vindictiveness.