Grave Prattle

Eliot's "Le Directeur"

William Arrowsmith

Le Directeur” (1916-17), one of Eliot’s four poems in French, has routinely been dismissed as trivial, “an amusing bagatelle,” an “excellent pastiche” (pastiche of what?), a five-finger exercise in a dry season by a poet incapable of resisting the frisson of French sonorities, and even a homage to those French poets—Tristan Corbière, Théophile Gautier, Jules Laforgue—who most influenced his development. If not a great poem, its prosodic verve, playful concentration, and serious wit contrive to make it a rather more interesting poem than critics have suspected. Eliot, always inclined to suppress work he regarded as not up to scratch, thought well enough of it to include it, not among the minor poems, but in every edition of the collected poems.

Interpretation, especially in Eliot’s case, should properly begin with musical structure. The poem looks and sounds like a French patter-song or perhaps gallicized Edward Lear. At first reading the effect is that of a childishly innocent metrical game, a nursery rhyme or comptine. Then, rereading, one notices a counterpattern marked by abrupt transitions and metrical variety. But the reader should get the words off the page by reading the poem aloud:

Malheur à la malheureuse Tamise
Qui coule si près du Spectateur.
Le directeur
Conservateur
Du Spectateur
Empeste la brise.
Les actionnaires
Réactionnaires
Du Spectateur
Conservateur
Bras dessus bras dessous
Font des tours
A pas de loup.
Dans un égout
Une petite fille
En guenilles
Camarde
Regarde
Le directeur
Du Spectateur
Conservateur
Et crève d’amour.

(Woe to the woeful Thames, / That flows so close to the Spectator. / The editor [in chief] / conservative, / of the Spectator / pollutes the breeze. / The stockholders / reactionary / of the Spectator / conservative, / arms under arms over [i.e., arms linked] / go in circles / in wolf-step [i.e., furtively]. / In a sewer / a little girl / in rags / snub-nosed / looks at / the editor / of the Spectator / conservative / and croaks [i.e., bursts or dies] of love.)

Prosodically, “Le Directeur” is modeled on the deliberately unconventional and often rhythmically disconcerting poetry of Laforgue and Corbière. Thus, the poem begins with two long irregular lines, of ten and nine syllables, respectively, clearly designed to set the scene firmly on the Thames embankment. The Biblical curse-formula “Woe to…” leads directly to the source of the Thames’s misery (a curse already accomplished, as the repetition of malheur in malheureuse tells us): the contaminating presence of the Spectator and its editorial director. The editor has his own leitmotif, three lilting four-syllable lines, a cakewalk rhythm enhanced by the jingle of feminine off-rhymes, a cabaret-like refrain that comes to include the editor’s backers the stockholders of the Spectator. We should note the brise (line 6) that closes the second sentence. Since at first reading there is no apparent transition from brise to actionnaires in the following line, it might be thought that brise was there opportunistically, to provide a rhyme for Tamise. But a cunning prosodist like Eliot, and at the close of a verse period? When Virginia Woolf reproached him for concealing his transitions, Eliot replied that his purpose was “to disturb externals.” And the effect of the elided transition here is to nudge the reader to look behind and between the words. The transition is there, but latent. Detected, it is intensified by the very effort to find it, to hear it.

The proper critical questions are: What link? Why the emphatic elided transition? The questions recur even more insistently with the obvious prosodic break at lines 15 and 16, where the little girl suddenly enters the poem and the measures veer from the scherzando rhythm of the editor to the lento of the lines describing the little girl. Then at lines 17 and 18, the poem typographically “pinches in” and the measures modulate into two two-syllable lines: Camarde / Regarde. Obviously paired and rhymed for emphasis, these lines provide the poem with its pivot or volta as it rounds toward the surprising last line.

The individual lost himself or took cover, disappearing into the anonymous robot-life of mass man.

The volta is scored by the resumption da capo (except for the strategic reversal, for the sake of assonance, of Spectateur and Conservateur) of the editor’s leitmotif; this in turn is cagily set against the harshness of the last line with its guttural vulgarism crève (considerably more shocking to polite ears in 1917 than now) and its pointed failure, or near failure, to rhyme. In a poem so intricately rhyme-meshed, that failure tells. True, the final word, amour, rhymes with tours; but tours lies some ten lines back, so the rhyme is only faintly heard and the expected resolution denied. The last line has in fact been composed in such a way that it breaks free of the poem’s patter and the invoked nonsense-verse convention. The question, again, is why. In “A Cooking Egg” Eliot takes the same tack, in the last line refusing his reader the satisfaction of rhymed resolution, presumably in order to make the reader ponder the reason for the refusal.

Related points. First, there is an obvious musical distinction between directeur and petite fille, a difference kept before us by the reprise of the editor’s cakewalk motif. That motif is mimically trivializing; descriptive doggerel. The directeur shares his triviality with his stockholders who, arms linked (bras dessus bras dessous), are musically presented as frivolity in collective lockstep, dancing, it seems, en ronde, in keeping with Henri Bergson’s sense of the comic as superimposition of robotlike automatism on human beings. But they are also sinister, even predatory, a wolf pack, as pas de loup suggests, an inert idiom energized by syntactical placing. Loup rhymes with dessous and égout, but why does the rhythm change so abruptly, and what, apart from rhyme, links that loup with the little girl in her sewer drain?

Other contrasts. The directeur and his stockholders are apparently turned inward, oblivious to everything, even their abstract prey; the little girl’s look is directed outward. They, the party men, the collective conservatives of the Spectator, see nothing. The little girl looks, actively gazing, one of Jacques Rivière’s petites gens de Paris, the simple, ordinary folk who ne se dédoublent, ne se regardent pas. Like the whore in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” or the “passerby with muddy skirts” in “Morning at the Window,” she stands in the muck of that real world depicted elsewhere in Eliot as a waterside setting, a dirty riverscape, a dull canal. They, the Spectator pack, weave their circular dance, Eliot’s persistent metaphor for the meaningless “round” of merely worldly or Limbo existence and the ring-dance of solipsism, as in “Here we go round the prickly pear” or “I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.” And in The Family Reunion, Harry speaks revealingly of having at last freed himself from the Furies, “the ring of ghosts with joined hands.”

In a book entitled Prufrock and Other Observations, the contrast of observer and participant obviously matters. But with “Le Directeur” the theme of individual and collective for the first time surfaces overtly. That theme is of course an aspect of the more fundamental, philosophical theme of the One and the Many, universal and particular, with which Eliot had been wrestling in his doctoral dissertation on F. H. Bradley’s idealism (1916). Not coincidentally, all converge in “Eeldrop and Appleplex” (1917), Eliot’s minidialogue modeled on Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet. The two characters, Eeldrop and Appleplex, have withdrawn from social life in order to concentrate upon certain common concerns:

Both were endeavouring to escape not the commonplace, respectable or even the domestic, but the too-well-pigeonholed, too taken-for-granted, too highly systematized areas, and—in the language of those whom they sought to avoid—they wished “to apprehend the human soul in its concrete individuality.”… For any vital truth is incapable of being applied to another case: the essential is unique. Perhaps that is why it is so neglected: because it is useless…. With the decline of orthodox theology and its admirable theory of the soul, the unique importance of events has vanished. A man is only important as he is classed…. We avoid classification. We do not deny it. But when a man is classified, something is lost. The majority of mankind live on paper currency… they never see actual coinage…. The majority not only have no language to express anything save generalized man; they are for the most part unaware of themselves as anything but generalized men. They are first of all government officials, or pillars of the church, or trade unionists, or poets, or unemployed; this cataloguing is not only satisfactory to other people for practical purposes, it is sufficient to themselves for their “life of the spirit.” Many are not quite real at any moment.

Dread of classification and of classifying observers is of course a pronounced and recurrent theme in Eliot’s work, appearing as early as 1911 in Prufrock’s self-conscious fear of “the eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase.” Thematic too is the persistent ironic observation of the observing poet. The observers, Eeldrop and Appleplex, for instance, are themselves being ironically observed, above all in their privileged and therefore suspect detachment. And so, too, we can reasonably assume from Eliot’s practice elsewhere, is the poet of “Le Directeur,” even while he himself observes the generalized men of the Spectator and the unique individual reality suppressed by their classifications, as incarnated by the little girl.

Ask now what links brise in the sixth line to actionnaires / Réactionnaires, and the musical link immediately declares itself. Tamise of course wins its rhyme in brise; more important, the reader (the reader, that is, who reads with the mind’s ears) first hears and then sees Eliot’s stockholders blowing to and fro, swaying (first action-, then réaction-) in the breeze. They blow with the wind, as the wind blows, like the Parisian mob in Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale: “la foule tassée semblait, de loin, un champ d’epis noir qui oscillaient.” In short, the poem provides a musical version of what in Eliot’s newspaper poem of the previous year was a wholly pictorial image:

The readers of the Boston Evening Transcript
Sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn.

Eliot first “translates” the inert action- of actionnaires. What, after all, is more passive than a stockholder, the possessor of a seldom exercised pouvoir d’agir? Then, with réaction-, he musically reinforces the metronomic automatism of what the French call a société anonyme, a corporation in which the stockholder sinks his personal identity and is no longer individually liable or responsible. Puppetlike, he disappears into an abstract collective. But there is also an allusion reverberating in the play on action- / réaction-, which philosophically weights the thematic contrast of individual and collective, life and automatism. The allusion is to a famous speech in Diderot’s D’Alembert’s Dream, arguably the best summary of his determinist (or perhaps dynamic) materialism. Diderot emphasizes the importance of the passage by having d'Alembert dream aloud. Here is the relevant excerpt:

So what’s all this talk of individuals? There’s no such thing, no such thing…. There’s only one single great individual; it’s everything [le tout]…. What is a being? The sum of a certain number of tendencies…. And life? Life is a succession of actions and reactions [et d’actions et de réactions]… Living, I act and react en masse…. Dead, I act and react in molecules.

Why annex this particular passage of Diderot? Perhaps because it thematically supports the portrayal of le directeur and his stockholders. But also because Eliot was poetically already interested in the fact that the mind of Europe “is a mind which changes” and which therefore requires a poetry that, unlike most Georgian poetry, has the power of transfusing feeling with thought. Despite its air of playful triviality, “Le Directeur” is a poem that thinks about this changing mind of Europe and asks the reader to do likewise. Eliot concluded his 1917 review of Diderot by observing that “whoever wishes to understand how the nineteenth century sprang from the eighteenth, must read Diderot as well as Rousseau.” Like Rousseau, Diderot is a crucial figure in the momentous devolution from Enlightenment to Utilitarianism, and d’Alembert’s outburst expresses the gist of that transition. Once, roughly from Plato until the Enlightenment, some form of religious and/or philosophical Idealism prevailed; the world was either spirit-and-matter or ensouled matter. By subtracting the spiritual from nature, Diderot and the other Encyclopedists changed all that. Their materialism, combined with Newtonian mechanism and the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, was dissolvent. The rational eighteenth-century world-as-matter degenerated into the nineteenth-century world-as-object(s)—objects that had no value except their utility and monetary worth. True, the great romantics—Goethe, Schopenhauer, the English poets, and others—struggled and, to some degree, succeeded in keeping the ideal and the spiritual alive, but historically and culturally the current had set against them. “Things,” as Emerson said, were “in the saddle.” Money held sway. Deprived of his soul (see the passage from Eliot’s “Eeldrop and Appleplex” cited earlier), the individual lost himself or took cover, disappearing into the anonymous robot-life of mass man. Life was action and reaction, nothing more. The allusion to Diderot is conjectural, but the case is perhaps strengthened if we recall that in late 1916, when “Le Directeur” was gestating, Eliot was giving his Oxford extension lectures on French romanticism and presumably preparing the review of Diderot cited above.

Against such a society the aspirant individual had to pit all his strength to avoid being absorbed or destroyed. In the words of that famous romantic text, Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”:

Society everywhere is a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue most in request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion…. Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.

However much Eliot may have disliked Emerson, his besetting, agonizing problem in these years was whether or not to conform. On 31 December 1914, for instance, he wrote to his friend Conrad Aiken:

The great need is to know one’s own mind, and I don’t know that: whether I want to get married, and have a family, and live in America all my life, and compromise, and conceal my opinions and forfeit my independence for the sake of my children’s future; or… retire at fifty to a table on the boulevard, regarding [!] the world placidly through the fumes of an aperitif at 5 p.m. How thin either life sounds!

Then, in a postscript a la Flaubert, wavering between the roles of active participant and passive spectator, he added:

The idea of a submarine world of clear green light—one would be attached to a rock and swayed in two directions—would one be happiest or most stretched at the turn of the tide?

A few months later he made his fatefully impulsive decision against the spectator’s role by marrying Vivien Haigh-Wood.

To summarize, the abrupt prosodic break between A pas de loup and Dans un égout conveys the essential thematic point: the contrast between the collective automatism and facelessness of le directeur and les actionnaires, and the individual actuality (that emphatic une, that plebeian pug nose!) of the little girl whose psychic energy is directed outward toward another human being. She is open to the world and others; in Bradley’s language, she is an undeniable this. She is all sense and feeling; they are detached, reflective “observers.” They classify; she is the uniquely human datum of their classifications.

Why, it might be asked, does Eliot use directeur instead of the more usual rédacteur? The words are prosodically almost interchangeable; both have three syllables, both rhyme with Spectateur. But a rédacteur is a working editor, a directeur is an editor-in-chief, an executive, even an entrepreneur. Like Flaubert’s Arnoux, Eliot’s directeur runs for profit a joint-stock magazine, dealing perhaps in fashionable, and therefore lucrative, intellectual chic: “current events,” interviews with “opinion-makers,” discussions of statistics on divorce, unemployment, and so on, all uprooted from the particulars that give them meaning.

The most common effect of severe syphilis is the eating away of the bridge of the nose.

A journal, in short, dealing with the distractions and abstractions of a society ruled absolutely by money, a world not unlike Blake’s London, where life and intellect are both enslaved (“charter’d”) to the pervasive power of money. In “the youthful harlot’s curse,” in every voice and cry “thro’ each charter’d street / Near where the charter’d Thames does flow” are heard “the mind-forged manacles” of human suffering.

One advantage of writing in French about a London setting is that London and Paris coalesce; the Thames “folds into” the Seine. Thus Eliot’s (Blakean) London evokes the bourgeois “Paris des revues” of Flaubert’s L‘Education sentimentale and Charles Maurras’s L’Avenir de l’intelligence (1905), both of which had radically influenced Eliot’s intellectual development. Like Flaubert’s Paris, Maurras’s is dominated by an invincible coalition of money and opinion. The press had become “the sole legitimate power,” a journalistic plutocracy that began with Rousseau, who had usurped “the attributes of prince, priest, and even of the entire people.” By the middle of the nineteenth century the phenomenon of littérature industrielle, as evidenced by the title of Arnoux’s journal, L‘Art industriel, was firmly established. Talent became a commodity like wheat or coal, and its rewards were the huge profits of a Hugo, Lamartine, Dumas, or Zola. According to Maurras, the writer as opinion-maker was a bought man, a literary prostitute compelled to sell himself and his convictions to the supreme money-power wielded by his masters, the directeurs de l’opinion and their invisible stockholders. Intellectuals became well-paid serfs, the editor an employee whose role was to reflect not his own beliefs, but those of his employers and public. Qu’il se soumette ou se démette. “Once,” Maurras concluded, “people discussed the convictions and honorable qualities of newspaper editors. Now they discuss their standing, their solvency, their credit. In journalism one single energetic reality matters: Money, together with the brutal interests which it expresses.” It was partly to counter such journalistic corruption and partly for political reasons that in 1898 Maurras founded his own vehemently reactionary journal, L’Action française.

Maurras’s indictment of journalistic corruption in France has obviously left its mark on “Le Directeur.” It is in fact a notable element in what might be called the “archaeology”—not to be confused with the “meaning”—of the poem. Maurras’s profitably opining serfs—princes in name only—correspond to Eliot’s automata, the directeur and his backers, all blowing with the prevailing winds of public opinion, just as surely as Eliot’s setting recalls Blake’s “charter’d Thames.” In both indictments the point is slavery. Slavery self-imposed and slavery imposed by others, both indifferent to the lives they destroy, the individual tragedies they refuse to see—the blind, or perhaps principled, indifference of the Spectator to the spectacle it helps to create. French readers would perhaps recall the prominence assigned by Baudelaire (and more recently by Walter Benjamin and others) to the flâneur as ideal spectator; to English readers it is the famous first paragraph of The Spectator Papers (1711) and Addison’s avowal of detachment as principled complacency that come to mind:

Thus I live in the World, rather as a Spectator of Mankind, than as one of the Species, by which means I have made myself a Speculative Statesman, Soldier, Merchant, and Artizan, without ever medling with any Practical Part in Life…. In short I have acted all the parts of my Life as a Looker-on, which is the Character I intend to preserve in this Paper.

Toward Addison, Eliot felt something verging on antipathy for the man’s smugness and priggishness, observing that “he possessed the Christian virtues, and all in the wrong order: humility was the least of his attainments.”

Consistently self-critical, Eliot included himself among the ranks of these “reflective” observer-spectators. But not complacently. In early 1917 he had attempted to enlist in the United States Navy only to be rejected on medical grounds. His contemporaries of course could have known nothing of his personal situation, though readers might have glimpsed the family resemblance linking le directeur to Prufrock, Burbank, the diner in “Dans le Restaurant,” and other Eliot personae. Glimpsed it and perhaps sensed the poet’s personal participation in this series of agonizing “hollow men.”

As for the petite fille, we should be wary of sentimentalizing her or failing to see that she is one of those Thames-side or Seine-side gamines, the adolescent prostitutes or petites filles of the rue Sébastopol in Charles-Louis Philippe’s Bubu de Montparnasse (1901), a book much admired by the young Francophile Eliot. But literary echoes abound. If she derives from Bubu’s petite femme, Berthe, she also recalls the ragged little girl in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (which Eliot had recently read in French translation). Abused by Svidrigaylov, she appears in his hallucinatory dream as a drowned suicide, then dissolves into a five-year-old waif who wakes in his bed and, foreshadowing her own future, winks at him with “the shameless face of a mercenary French whore.” In Winter Notes of Summer Impressions Dostoevsky provides a vivid description, drawn from his own observation of London life, of these petites filles outside the Crystal Palace, that great monument to commerce:

… I noticed mothers who brought their little daughters to make them ply that same trade [prostitution]. Little girls, aged about twelve, seize you by the arm and beg you to come with them… Once amidst the crowd of people in the street I saw a little girl, not older than six, all in rags, dirty, barefoot, and hollow-cheeked…. And one night in the midst of a crowd of loose women and debauchees I was stopped by a woman…. I only remember the steady gaze of her eyes.

In London and Paris Eliot presumably saw with his own eyes what Dostoevsky, Blake, Baudelaire, Philippe, and countless other observers saw in every city of Europe—the horrifying human degradation that seizes the spectator by the throat. So these texts are not allusions but echoes of a general, civilized sensibility, at once outraged by the spectacle of injured innocence and somehow involved in the guilt of it. And their cumulative effect is to strip Eliot’s poem of a privacy that is merely personally painful.

This petite fille is unmistakably real, founded on real observation and/or experience. The poet sees again what he can’t forget. The evidence is not the poet’s life but the poetry. If a family resemblance links le directeur to other Eliot personae, there is also a link between the petite fille here and all those jilted, betrayed, or seduced girls and women in other poems—the Dido-like figure of “La Figlia che Piange,” the little girl of “Dans le Restaurant,” and the abandoned Ariadne of “Sweeney Erect,” to name but a few. The poet sees them because he can’t avert his eyes from their situation, because their reproachful gaze is directed at him. And, no doubt, at us. We are asked to see what he sees, the stained and ragged victim whom le directeur and the unregarding world generally cannot see. Hence the injunction in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”:

                                       Regard that woman 
Who hesitates toward you in the light of the door
Which opens on her like a grin.
You see the border of her dress
Is torn and stained with sand.

Regard… see: the urgently repeated imperatives convey the injunction to remember what one has seen (“Memory! You have the key…!”) and then to feel its meaning, to feel the pain imposed upon others (“the last twist of the knife”) by oblivious indifference and to pay its purgatorial price.

Consider now those two prosodically stressed lines, Camarde / Regarde. Why are they weighted? Obviously camarde particularizes, seizing clawlike on the individuating trait in the manner prescribed by Remy de Gourmont. Contrasted with the faceless nonentities of the Spectator, the little girl has an individual face, snubnosedly ordinary, like that of Chaucer’s Simkin (“and camuse was his nose”). Regarde is, once again, ironic: she sees, while the Spectator pack sees nothing. What else? In words that have been strangely neglected, Eliot insisted that the poet should, wherever possible, use words in such a way that they intimate the history of a language and civilization: “The essential of tradition is… getting as much as possible of the whole weight of the history of a language behind his word.” In order to do so, the poet must know as much as he can of the cultural history and usage of those words.

Camarde is one of these culturally weighted words. In French, camarde has sinister connotations. La Camarde, the substantive, means Death, graphically visualized as a skull or death’s head, a common usage in the poetry of Gautier and Corbière, much admired by Eliot. In his criticism, for instance, Eliot several times cites Gautier’s poem “Bûchers et tombeaux,” particularly the stanza in which Gautier laments the eclipse of the happy days of pagan art when love of life seemed to make the skeleton invisible:

La mort dissumulait sa face
Aux trous profonds, au nez camard

(Death disguised her face / With its deep holes, its snub nose).

Corbière repeatedly uses camarde in this generic or moral sense, as in “La Camarde a pas le pied marin,” or the elegiac lullaby, “Mirliton,” where the poet’s angel of Death becomes “La Muse camarde.” This French usage also influenced Eliot; in a chorus of his pageant play The Rock, he Englishes La Camarde as “the white flat face of Death, God’s silent servant.” But the point need not be labored. Any reader familiar with French poetry generally would immediately recognize the ambiguity of camarde in “Le Directeur,” especially when capped and confirmed by the last line with its explosively guttural crève (“bursts,” “croaks,” “dies,” and from which is derived the colloquialism la crève, or “death”).

The couplet Camarde / Regarde is not, however, an echo but an unmistakable and reasonably accessible allusion. Not to Corbière or Gautier, but to Rostand. In the crisis at the end of act 5 of Cyrano de Bergerac, the dying Cyrano glimpses the figure of Death—La Camarde—advancing on him with drawn sword from the wings. The hero rises, unsheathes his sword, and cries out:

                                    Je crois qu’elle regarde…
Qu’elle ose regarder mon nez, cette camarde!

(I think she’s looking… / Let her dare to look at my nose, that snubnose!)

Identical rhymes, a similar but also a pointedly and revealingly different situation. As Eliot later observed of his own allusive practice,

You cannot effectively “borrow” an image unless you borrow also, or have spontaneously, something like the feeling which prompted the original image…. You are entitled to take it for your own purposes in so far as your fundamental purposes are akin to those of the one who is, for you, the author of the phrase, the inventor of the image; or if you take it for other purposes, then your purpose must be consciously and pointedly diverse from those of the author.

Pointedly diverse in “Le Directeur.” If the poem asks us to hear Rostand’s regarde / camarde resonating beneath Eliot’s Camarde / Regarde, it also asks us to visualize and compare the two observational situations. In Rostand, the great-nosed late Romantic hero, all bravado and derring-do (“Mon panache!”), confronts Death, his snub-nosed adversary, with seeing eyes. Eliot’s directeur, observing nothing, confronts nothing, fails even to see the challenge and menace looming in the little girl’s snubnosedness and steady gaze.

Empeste in line 6 already conveys a hint of menace. Generally, empester means to inflict, contaminate, pollute. But specifically it means to plague, and sexually, to transmit the pox or syphilis, la vérole. The very presence of le directeur “plagues” the air. Even the Thames is polluted by what his meretricious métier confers: an abstract syphilis, the psychic pox of the commercial press. But the peste transmitted by the little girl is the real thing, as physical as it is individual. There is peril in that passionate look which she projects at le directeur in the last line—the menace of real life, the common, tainted condition. As Philippe’s Bubu says to Berthe, the petite fille who gives him, her pimp, the pox: “Today, this evil which you’ve done me ought to unite us. For me you’re the only woman possible, since now my touch gives the pox (mon touche donne la peste).” To which Berthe replies, “Que veux-tu? C’est notre métier!”

The most common effect of severe syphilis is the eating away of the bridge of the nose. Its victim is left snub-nosed, camus(e) or camard(e). Voltaire’s Candide, for instance, has a grotesquely witty recognition scene between Candide and his old tutor Pangloss. Candide meets a beggar who is “covered with sores, his eyes as dull as death, the end of his nose eaten away.” This “phantom” turns out to be Pangloss, who explains that he is dying of syphilis and that the cause is love, “the consoler of the human race, the preserver of the universe.” In another vivid instance, Shakespeare’s Timon rages against the money-grubbers lusting for his gold by bidding them go practice their true profession—and die! Let them turn pimps and whores in fact and empester the world with their pox:

Consumptions [i.e., syphilis] sow
In hollow bones of man; strike their sharp shins,
And mar men’s spurring….
                                                    Down with the nose,
Down with it flat; take the bridge quite away
Of him that, his particular to foresee,
Smells from the general weal…. Plague all
That your activity may defeat and quell
The source of all erection. There’s more gold,
Do you damn others, and let this damn you,
And ditches grave you all!
                                                             (IV, 3, 151 ff.)

This is Timon’s most misanthropic curse, effectively damning to death the “members” of a species fevered with a money-lust so consuming that it infects and kills the natural lust from which its energies derive. Gold-lust, in sum, as a universal pox, an epidemic whose deadliness is expressed in the snubnosedness of its carriers and victims.

Unlike the couplet from Cyrano de Bergerac, the passages from Voltaire and Shakespeare are present to the poem not as allusions to be recognized but as associative echoes detected, if at all, as tonal or thematic reinforcement. Obviously these echoes multiply with their very indefiniteness; snubnosedness in the moral sense, for instance, is central to Mann’s “Death in Venice” and a recurrent motif in Turgenev. Different readers will hear different echoes or overtones, and the poem’s resonances will vary accordingly.

Even in the act of dying he asserts in his superabundant humanity his and the viewer’s moral triumph over Death.

But structural allusions are another matter, above all in Eliot’s poetry from 1915 to 1922, where they appear as skeletal extrusions or peripheral disturbances, prosodically scored (like Camarde / Regarde) at key points, as though to provoke the reader’s response. It is not always easy to separate allusions from echoes, and the task becomes more difficult as the idea of tradition (and Eliot’s version of that tradition) attenuates. In the circumstances it is perhaps natural that many of Eliot’s critics have come to think of him as the poet of disconnected fragments, and his poetry, especially “Gerontion” and The Waste Land, as huge “echo-chambers,” even though this is wholly at odds with Eliot’s explicit and repeated commitment to poetic and historical order, above all in his most programmatic critical statement, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919).

That essay provides, I believe, our best guide to the poetry that immediately precedes it, above all the quatrains and the four French poems. Eliot later observed that his criticism was the “byproduct” of his “private poetry-workshop.” If so, then the essay is not a manifesto announcing poetry still to be written (nor is it, as is too often supposed, an amiably vague “position-paper”), but a retroactive statement of the principles involved in poetry already written and still being written. Eliot is a “traditional” poet in precisely the sense he proposed, and he deserves the benefit of the critical doubt. If the poet is gifted with “the historical sense” and truly writes “with a feeling that the whole of literature of Europe from Homer on… has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order”; if “the mind of Europe” is “a mind which changes… which abandons nothing en route”—that is, if the poet writes with the whole Western tradition flowing into his fingertips—then everything he writes should provide evidence of the galvanizing presence of that tradition.

On this theory, the poet is a kind of sensorium or vessel of that continuing tradition by which the whole Western past, “back to the Magdalenian draughtsmen in their Neolithic caves,” rises into the present memory of the mind of Europe. Europe is a continuing mind, but it is also “a mind which changes,” and it is this changing mind that the poems chart. Reference points are provided by images or topoi drawn from the chief cultural periods or “moments”—classical, medieval, Renaissance and/or Jacobean, romantic, modern, and so on—by which the Western past is usually organized. Examples in Eliot’s poetry are the shaving ape in “Sweeney Erect,” the Bleistein eye in “Burbank with Baedeker, Bleistein with a Cigar,” and the wind-drifted acanthus leaves of “Lune de MieI.” In period after historical period the chosen image remains the same, but its cultural accent, even its content, changes. The relation between the latest inflection of the image and its predecessors is essentially that which obtains between the individual talent and the tradition. Theoretically, the result is unity-in-diversity and diversity-in-unity. And the effect upon the reader is like that produced by watching form and details in a photographic latency gradually emerging from the soup of the developing fluids. Or, alternatively, like that of reading a palimpsest, Eliot’s way of describing the working of Shakespeare’s poetic drama, where “we are lifted to another plane of reality, and a hidden and mysterious pattern of reality appears, as from a palimpsest.” As the various planes surface, as the different historical texts of the palimpsest begin to “converse,” the surface plane—the present with its often flat, superficial events and characters—also begins to change, taking on solidity and three-dimensional reality. The emerging texts may explain or criticize or interrogate the surface situation. The result will be (in the Aristotelian sense) an informing of events and characters. Sweeney, for instance, in “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” is an obvious grotesque, but he is redeemed from total caricature by his avatars—Dionysus, Christ, Hieronimo, and others—as they loom up in his nightmare. However sordid he and his present situation are, his life has been informed and, to that degree, the poem suggests, transformed. His bottom may be broad, as in “Sweeney Erect,” but he has dreamt Bottom’s bottomless dream.

In “Le Directeur,” a less complicated poem, the editor is neither informed nor transformed but interrogated and criticized by his avatars. The first of these critical avatars is, as we saw, Cyrano de Bergerac, a character who, Eliot believed, possessed a “dramatic sense” founded on self-awareness which produced “a gusto… uncommon on the modern stage.” By flourishing his defiance of La Camarde, Cyrano reveals himself as the quintessential romantic hero—everything that le directeur, the self-regarding “spectator,” apparently unaware of the dangerous gaze of the petite fille, is not. Behind her and Cyrano’s La Camarde, informing both, are echoes of Gautier, Corbière, perhaps also Baudelaire, with his ruthless power of perceiving the grimace of the death’s head beneath the flesh and the tattered rags of the soul. It was the French poets’ possession of this double vision of things—of the particular and the transient on one hand and the generic and eternal on the other—that suggested to Eliot their likeness to the Jacobean dramatists and poets: to Webster, who “was much possessed by death / And saw the skull beneath the skin”; to Donne, who “knew the anguish of the marrow / The ague of the skeleton”; to Tourneur, whose play The Revenger’s Tragedy Eliot so often cites in his prose and echoes in his poetry. “Jules Laforgue and Tristan Corbière,” observed Eliot in 1921, “are nearer to the ‘school of Donne’ than any modern English poet.”

Beneath the allusion to Cyrano de Bergerac in our poem, an English Renaissance or Jacobean text may (or may not) be “conversing.” If allusions must be verbal, then there is no allusion. But why must allusions be verbal? Clearly English lacks a substantive equivalent in meaning to La Camarde in French, which is why the most important couplet in Cyrano has proven so refractory to translators. But what English may lack verbally, it makes up for graphically. In Renaissance drama, for instance, snubnosedness, even the Snub-nosed One herself, could be presented in such a way that the lethal connotations would be unmistakable. The image speaks for itself; no words are needed. In Timon of Athens Shakespeare needs no expansive gloss in order to make his point—the terrible vision of snub-nosed Death in the flat-nosed features of the syphilitic. But perhaps the most vivid apparition of Death in all Renaissance or Jacobean drama is the famous scene in Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy in which the lecherous duke is lured by Vindice to kiss the skull of Vindice’s mistress Gloriana, murdered by the duke. At every point Tourneur stresses the oxymoron of his dreadful double vision, a memento mori theatrically imposed upon the viewer by the “dreadful vizard” and “grave look” of “the skull of Gloriana.” The duke looks, then kisses the poison-anointed face of the “bony lady,” the woman he has poisoned, and the poison acts upon him like the pox. His teeth are “eaten out,” his tongue is inflamed, and Vindice promises that he will stick the duke’s soul with ulcers: “I will make / Thy spirit grievous sore, it shall not rest, / But, like some pestilent man, toss upon thy breast.” “A quaint piece of beauty,” Vindice calls his dead mistress’s skull, making of her a virginal bawd to tempt a duke who cries out, “Give me the sin that’s rob’d in holiness!” The skull is masked, but Tourneur unmasks it for the audience: “See, ladies, with false forms / You deceive men but cannot deceive worms.” Sic transit Gloriana

Camarde / Regarde…. But it’s not quite the same. The general situation—the knowing or unknowing confrontation with La Camarde—is similar, but there are essential differences between Tourneur’s tableau, Rostand’s, and that of the directeur and the little girl. The three tableaux “converse,” informing one another. In Tourneur, for instance, the erotic motif and the death motif are fused; the result is an intensification of the horror at the heart of a play whose exploration of human degeneracy is unmatched in any other Jacobean drama. In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature, what might be called the carnal/charnel vision is extremely common, as in Donne’s “The Relic,” Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” or the innumerable conceits enabled by the sexual meaning of “to die.” But by no other dramatist has that emblematic vision been presented with such energy and ferocity of loathing as by Tourneur. The vicious temptation of the vicious duke, the fatal tongue-kissing of a death’s head, the fiendishly gloating account of the syphilitic effect of the poison—all are reported by Vindice-Tourneur with a clinical virtuosity and a relish of disgust that go beyond mere misanthropy. The dramatist’s cynicism and abhorrence seem to spread out beyond the characters and the play and to indict the audience and the whole world, even life itself. This at least is the gist of Eliot’s darkly admiring judgment of The Revenger’s Tragedy:

The play is a document of humanity chiefly because it is a document on one human being, Tourneur; its motive is truly the death-motive, for it is the loathing and horror of life itself. To have realized this motive so well is a triumph; for the hatred of life is an important phase—even, if you like, a mystical experience—in life itself.

Whether one agrees or not, it is difficult to deny the operation in the play of a loathing and self-hatred too radical to be localized, quite as though Tourneur were bent upon unmasking life itself. Not, like other Jacobean dramatists, trying to reveal “the skull beneath the skin” and thereby, as in a memento mori, give meaning and urgency to existence, but rather to expose existence as an obscene fraud.

The effect of this Jacobean text as it pushes up through Rostand’s tableau into the scene with directeur and little girl is remarkable. Each tableau involves an encounter with a snubnosed figure; two of these are outright personifications of Death, and one, by contextual virtue of the word camarde, is latently so. Each encounter, however, is different; each involves a different attitude toward life, one precipitated, as so often happens in real life, by an encounter with Death. In Tourneur’s tableau the duke is presented as a man violently in love with death, a man who wants, in both senses, to die. A thanatophile, perhaps even a necrophile. This at any rate is how Tourneur appears to see him and how, through him, we see Tourneur. The vicious passions of the duke and the other characters may be evil but they are at least active. The point, crucial to understanding Eliot, is expressed in its extremest form in the essay on Baudelaire:

So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing; at least, we exist.

So interpreted, the hatred of life figured in the duke’s evil passions could not, at least for Eliot, be anything but a “mystical experience.”

Cyrano, in contrast, embodies in exaggerated but appealing form the romantic love of life. With boldly seeing eyes he looks directly at La Camarde, as though he might stare her down or outbrave her by the sheer splendor of his nose, then courageously draws his sword and, despite his fatal injury, stumbles forward. Generous and noble to the end, even in the act of dying he asserts in his superabundant humanity his and the viewer’s moral triumph over Death. In Cyrano’s exuberantly dramatic mix of sensual appetite, self-awareness, and rhetorical verve, Rostand’s gusto found its perfect expressive instrument.

And despite profound differences, Cyrano and Tourneur’s duke are men of strong, even violent passions. One does good, the other evil, but both act—and react. The editor of the Spectator, on the other hand, does nothing, neither good nor evil. He doesn’t see, he merely reflects. He neither loves life nor hates it; perhaps he fears it. In any case life is not real to him, either because he himself is not quite real, or because he has never risked what little reality he has in activities which, shared, might enlarge or complete him. Blinded by generalities and caged by profession, he confronts others not as concrete realities but as abstractions. Whether or not the present age can with justice be characterized by this antiheroic directeur is not a matter for present discussion, though the prevalence of such types in modernist writing suggests something more than literary fashion. Eliot’s personal involvement in le directeur, though distanced, is evident, as we noted, in the ubiquity of the type in the earlier poetry, above all in the skewed love/hate relation to women—the mixture of shy, even furtive sexual desire and frustration, and the occasional note of disgust.


MODERN, LATE ROMANTIC,
and Jacobean: these are the temporal laminations of ”Le Directeur,” each in its culturally different way engaging its predecessor or successor. The topos persists; the cultural accent varies according to “the changing mind of Europe.” But beneath these “conversing” works, still farther back, is an allusion to one of Plato’s greatest works, the late Theaetetus. The dialogue was well known to Eliot, who cites it on four separate occasions between 1916 and 1920. These citations leave no doubt as to why the dialogue so impressed Eliot and may moderate misgivings about its allusive presence in “Le Directeur.” In combination with the poem, they also show that Eliot, unique among students of the Theaetetus, had intuited the connection between the dialogue’s setting and the philosophical discussion.

In 1917, reviewing Ezra Pound’s translations of Japanese Noh, Eliot remarked that Tsunemassa, a young man prematurely killed in battle, “is as permanent as the youthful Theatetus.” In 1919, commenting on a collection of the lives of young men killed in World War I, he elaborated:

At the beginning of the “Theatetus” Plato gives the whole effect, the tone, of youthful promise slain in battle. Theatetus is brought home from Corinth dying of “the disease prevalent in the army.” One of the friends through whom the event is reported recalls the fact that Socrates, shortly before his death, met and conversed with the boy Theatetus and prophesied great things of him “if he lived long enough.” The mood of regret over youth untimely nipped has been, like most of the moods of thought, perfectly expressed by Plato…. The truth is that when one tries to work the subject beyond the point at which Plato has left it, one quickly reaches a point where further exposure becomes improper.

The third reference to the Theaetetus, in Eliot’s 1916 dissertation on F. H. Bradley, is technical and need not concern us. Finally, in “The Possibility of a Poetic Drama” (1920), Eliot singled out the Theaetetus (along with works of Aristotle, the Agamemnon, Macbeth, and Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale) as an example of literature that is permanent because it is a purified “presentation of thought or feeling by a statement of events in human action or objects in the external world.”

The old self, by nature incomplete and by nature craving completion, dies of love into a new self unafraid of death.

The author, a master of “the austere art of omission,” knows how to “refrain from reflection, in putting enough into the statement to make reflection unnecessary.” “The case of Plato,” Eliot proceeds, “is even more illuminating. Take the Theaetetus. In a few opening words Plato gives a scene, a personality, a feeling, which colour the subsequent discourse but do not interfere with it: the particular setting, and the abstruse theory of knowledge afterwards developed, co-operate without confusion. Could any contemporary author exhibit such control?”

Apart from the Symposium, the Theaetetus is the only Platonic dialogue that involves a flashback. The dialogue is set in 369 B.C., when the mathematician Theaetetus is reported to be dying of dysentery. The interlocutors recall that thirty years earlier, Socrates, just before his death, had conversed with Theaetetus as a youth; the main philosophical discussion purports to be a written account of that earlier conversation. By means of this extraordinary flashback technique Plato is able to confront two men—one approaching death, the other doomed to die prematurely—in a conversation whose deepest purpose is once again, as in the Phaedo, to present philosophy as a preparation or training for death. With mortal seriousness Socrates converses with a young man who physically and intellectually resembles him, philosophizing calmly and without bravado—ripely, we might say—at the grave’s edge.

Here, in abbreviated form, is the account of Socrates’ meeting with Theaetetus. A mutual friend, Theodorus, introduces them:

Socrates, I’ve met a young man of this city who certainly deserves mention. If he were handsome, I’d be afraid of using strong words, lest I should be suspected of being in love with him. But the fact is that he’s not handsome; in fact—forgive me for saying so—he looks like you with his snub nose [simoteta] and protruding eyes…. Among all of the young men I’ve met, I’ve never yet found one of such wonderfully fine endowments.

Socrates promptly invites Theaetetus to sit down: “Come here and sit beside us… so that I may look at myself and see what sort of face I have, since Theodorus says that it resembles yours.”

This is the image: two men looking at each other—both snub-nosed, with protruding eyes—each mirrored in the other. They look, then proceed to discuss epistemology: What is knowledge? How can knowledge be differentiated from opinion? The dialogue, like other epistemological dialogues, is inconclusive. Definitions are proposed and found wanting. Enumeration of identities, for instance, is dismissed as naïve, since Socrates insists that a definition must be one which expresses the “one in the many” or unity-in-diversity. In a discussion ranging from the crafts through the sciences and mathematics, every proposed definition is in some way faulted. And at the end of the dialogue, the problem is this: How, if snubnosedness is an individuating trait, can Socrates be distinguished from Theaetetus? “Suppose,” says Socrates,

I think not merely of a man with a nose and eyes, but of one with a snub nose and protruding eyes. Will I have a notion of you any more than of myself or anyone else of that description?… In fact, there will be no notion of Theaetetus in my mind, I imagine, until this particular snubnosedness has stamped and registered within me a record distinct from every other case of snubnosedness I have seen…. And, if so, then the correct notion of anything must here include the differentness of that thing.

The dialogue closes with the problem unresolved, and for obvious reasons. For Plato, knowledge of sensibles is impossible; true knowledge can only be of intelligible Forms or Ideas. Aristotle follows Plato, observing that an individual substance cannot be defined because it is precisely the “thisness” of a person or an object that prevents one from providing it with a logos.

Discussion ends with Socrates’ laconic but essential statement that he is on his way to the Stoa of King Archon to answer the charge of impiety brought against him by Meletus. On his way, that is, to his trial and death. The dialogue has come full circle—a circle defined by the motif of snubnosedness at beginning and end of the dialogue and by Plato’s carefully arranged encounter between two liminal men involved in mortality and to that degree dramatically caught in the act of defining themselves. What Plato may be suggesting here, however, is not the incompatibility of sensibles and intelligibles but rather their ultimate congruence somehow in what Hegel later called a “concrete universal”—a universal that, unlike the Aristotelian universal, gains both in intension and extension. This at any rate is the tantalizing implication of the Phaedrus, where Socrates, the individual lover, comes to incarnate the universal god Eros, and the inspirited language he speaks is said to be logos empsychos, “the logos which is written with knowledge in the soul of the learners.”

Thus in the Theaetetus the snub-nosed individual Socrates—concrete, particular man confronting his own death—is revealed as snub-nosed universal Man. He teaches what he knows; and what he knows is what he is. He possesses “self-knowledge” or sophrosyne, which means not that introspective awareness of one’s motives, proclivities, and so on, which moderns call “self-knowledge” but rather the skill of mortality, those skills which like compassion, come from thinking what the Greeks called “mortal thoughts.” The content of this teaching is inculcated by being exemplified by a teacher in whom knowledge and being are inseparable. It is this wisdom that we see in Socrates, a man stamped with mortality (that snub nose) and endowed with preternatural vision (those protruding eyes), imparting his life-and-death knowledge to the young Theaetetus who, though still unripe, has the potential for mastering the lesson. Thirty years later, the snub-nosed Theaetetus, a mortally seasoned man, reveals what he has learned when, as a soldier, he confronts death before the walls of Corinth.

It should by now be clear just how, for Eliot, the dialogue’s setting and its abstruse epistemology “cooperate without confusion.” The connection lies in the cooperative ambiguity of snubnosedness, at once particularizing and generic. This image-word is the energy center of the poem. Into it, according to his own prescription, the poet has attempted to convey the idea of a tradition as continuous but changing, a diverse unity, by “getting as much as possible of the whole weight of the history of a language behind his word.” But, it will be objected, is there the slightest evidence that the Greek word for snubnosedness (simotes) possesses the ambiguity of French camard / camus? There is none from the classical period, but in The Dialogues of the Dead of that notoriously classicizing writer, Lucian of Samasota, the ambiguity is undeniable. In the sixth dialogue the philosopher Menippos descends to Hades to meet and converse with famous philosophers of the past. The king of Hades, Aeacus, asks him whether he would know Socrates if he encountered him. Of course, Menippos replies: he would recognize Socrates instantly by his snubnosedness and bald head. But everyone in Hades is snubnosed, Aeacus responds; everyone is bald.

(Parenthetically, there is no better confirmation of Eliot’s “reading” of the Theaetetus, and indeed no more revealing gloss on “Le Directeur,” than his 1916 review of Victor Boudon’s moving memoir of Charles Péguy, who died leading his company in the first battle of the Marne. Following Boudon, Eliot describes Péguy with a few deftly chosen traits and details. Péguy is a small, “dusty” figure, “a man ripe for death at forty years.” If Socrates has “protruding eyes,” Péguy’s sight is prosthetically enhanced not only by spectacles, but by his lieutenant’s binoculars, which extend his gaze, presumably to the far horizon. But here is the most pertinent passage of the review:

In a Paris given up to radical and reactionary movements which were largely movements for the sake of moving, Péguy stood for something which was real and solid. He stood for a real re-creation, a return to the sources, the peasant soil, which was not obscurantist; a peasant genius educated but unspoilt. Péguy is a witness to the eternal fertility of the French soil; in the best sense, a man of the people, as de Joinville and du Bellay were of the French people; of the people of Paris as well, not a mere provincial. He was not primarily a writer of this or that review, a redactor of this or that journal. He was a man of the people.

Like Socrates but unlike Eliot’s directeur, Péguy was a genuine individualist, an intellectual who loved life and whose life was lived in uncompromising commitment to meditated ideals. A devout Catholic, he was also an ardent socialist; a man of the provinces, he was also a citizen of Paris. Péguy was no mere party man or lackey of monied interests: his profoundly influential journal, Les Cahiers de la quinzaine, edited from a modest bookstore near the Sorbonne, was discriminatingly dedicated to the emergence of “la nouvelle France.” A radical in the old sense—a man rooted, that is, in real feelings, people, and places—he was to that degree a conservative who truly conserved, not a “conservative” in the fashion of le directeur and his stockholders, that is, partisan reactionaries who usurp and disgrace the term. And finally, like Socrates, Péguy was ready, when the time came, to put his life “on the line” and confront La Camarde.)


THE PALIMPSEST, so far as I can tell, is complete. Eliot, I believe, interprets Plato as having hintingly anticipated Hegel’s discovery of the concrete universal, and his reading of Plato is no doubt colored by his Bradleyan—that is, essentially Hegelian, less Hegel’s optimism—Idealism. The meaning that Bradley, following Hegel, found in the concrete universal was that it realized the concrete particular in a universal and the individual in the collective or generic. A sodality or institution like a church, composed of different individuals, was for both Bradley and Hegel a new entity in which the component individuals realized their individuality. This collective entity transcended them but also satisfied their craving to complete themselves. The individual mortal was fulfilled in a consortium of mortals—those human beings who know they are mortal and therefore live (like Socrates and Theaetetus) courageously in the face of death. “To be himself,” Bradley wrote,” the individual must go beyond himself, to live his own life he must live a life which is not merely his own, but which, nonetheless, on the contrary all the more, is intensely and emphatically his own individuality.”

In dying of love the little girl realizes her individuality—her particular, flesh-and-blood “thisness.” She is no longer a “mere individual” but an individual self that has found fulfillment by going beyond itself, by an act of love. That amour may be ironic, but the pouvoir d’agir is real, not abstract. She looks with desire—ubi amor ibi oculus est-that passionate gaze of hers turned toward another, its unworthy object, M. le directeur. Free of herself, she escapes the round-dance and chain of linked arms that lock the editor and his stockholders in collective solipsism. Her emotion, as Eliot said of Baudelaire, “bursts the receptacle,” in the last line slipping through the rhyme-cage of the poem and by implication escaping the prison of the self. With her eyes she enters another world: in the language of Eliot’s dissertation, she changes into another “point of view.” “We vary,” Eliot wrote in his dissertation, “by passing from one point of view to another… we vary by self-transcendence.” The old self, by nature incomplete and by nature craving completion, dies of love (crève d’amour) into a new self unafraid of death because it “knows that what is stronger than death is hate or love, hate for love’s sake; and that love does not fear death, because already it is the death into life of what the philosophers tell us is the only life and reality.”


IT IS HARDLY NECESSARY to add that the man Eliot is as much present in his poem—involved that is in both directeur and little girl—as is Joyce in Stephen and Bloom or as is Diderot in Moi and Lui. And that this apparently impersonal little poem is charged with intensely personal feelings as well as no small erudition. There is no inconsistency; the erudition has been engaged by the feelings, not vice versa. Like so much of Eliot’s poetry, “Le Directeur” is purposive expiation, even exorcism, written, I believe, partly in shame, and partly, paradoxically, in self-effacement. Shame at the cowardly failure of the theoretical intellect and its privileged exemption from experience; self-effacement as the first necessary step on the way to a different “point of view,” to a self acquainted at first hand with the horror, the courage, and the pathos of ordinary life.

We aim at the ideal, but the ideal is inseparable from the real which paradoxically contains it.

Without the crucible of such real emotions as love and the fear of death (the passion and anxiety most prominent in “Le Directeur”), poetry as the act of refining or “objectifying” the feelings, and thereby freeing oneself of them, was impossible. It is only those who have emotions, Eliot later observed, “who know what it means to escape from them, to transmute one’s personal agonies into something ‘rich and strange.’” But “escape” here means, of course, not evasion but rather movement toward a different “point of view,” another dimension of selfhood.

Like other poems of the period, “Le Directeur” reflects Eliot’s insistent human and artistic need to integrate his own sensibility by fusing the greater claims of emotion with those of intellect, the claims of the body with those of the soul. Not, of course, by achieving a pat dualistic balance between sense and feeling, but by empowering the senses, always prior to the mind, to “become themselves,” causing the fingertips to flower into thought. Throughout his working life the act of writing poetry meant struggling against that dissociation of sensibility which, with revealing oversimplification, he believed had overtaken English poetry after the great Jacobean poets and dramatists. If Enlightenment poetry had scanted the emotions in favor of the intellect, romantic poets, above all the Georgians, had exalted feelings at the expense of mind. Eliot’s aim was to write a poetry like that of the Metaphysicals (or the dolcestilnovisti or the ancient classical writers), one in which the senses “think” and thought has the sensuous immediacy of a rose. Since his own extreme self-division posed the problem, the solution could only be self-mastery by means of a poetry that engaged the problem as the first step toward solving it.

The result was the crabbed, intricately layered and intensely concentrated poetics of the French poems and the quatrains, almost all of which are devoted to exploring the phenomenon of the divided sensibility. Thus if le directeur presents the abstract reflectiveness that Eliot, following Bradley, regarded as so pernicious, the little girl no less obviously represents immediate or unedited sensuous experience. Because for Eliot sensation, perception, and experience necessarily precede true intellection, the poem is sharply tilted toward the viewpoint of the little girl (as it is toward Sweeney, Bleistein, and the waiter in “Dans le Restaurant”). It is she who must initiate things; the next move is up to le directeur. If we require from Eliot a living embodiment of integrated sensibility, we have his answer in his review of Péguy, a man “whose death was as important as his life,” an intellectual in whom thought and feelings were, in Eliot’s opinion, a single thing. But none of the French poems or the quatrains supplies any instance of integrated sensibility apart from those avatars revealed by “reading” the palimpsest, which provides informing, but not necessarily invidious, contrast. The little girl, after all, is not diminished by Socrates or Theaetetus, both of whom she resembles in generic potential; her predicament is, we might suppose, the paucity in contemporary culture of teachers like Socrates and men like Péguy.

Clearly Eliot could never have proposed his aesthetic of the dissociated sensibility quite so sweepingly if it had not originated in a dilemma overpoweringly his own. The opposition between directeur and petite fille reports his intuition of a void in himself produced, on the one hand, by intense sensuality and, on the other, by a strongly reactive ascetic impulse. He later declared that nothing but religion could fill this void, presumably because religion, conscientiously practiced (that is, with feeling-suffused thought), offered a reconciliation of the sundered opposites. The case of Donne, despite profound and obvious differences, is not dissimilar; nor is Donne’s solution, above all in those sermons addressed to his own “amorous, lecherous, voluptuous soul,” which suggest that, once the soul of the sensual man is turned to the service of God, it is transformed into the voluptuary passion of the divine lecher or erotic mystic. The point is as old as Plato, Augustine, or Dante and as new as Nietzsche. Admittedly, Eliot’s later poetry gives the sense of something like a reconciliation of body and soul, sense and thought, but in these earlier poems it is the note of dirempted anguish that is mostly heard—an anguish that craves but never quite wins the hinted reconciliation, the barely hinted Aufhebung. To Eliot’s mind, this view was not peculiarly or exclusively his own but one grounded in the difficulty of being human. “Every experience,” he wrote in his dissertation, “is a paradox in that it means to be absolute, and yet it is relative in that it somehow always goes beyond itself and yet never escapes itself.” In other words, we aim at the ideal, but the ideal is inseparable from the real which paradoxically contains it. And this unrecognized ideality persists in embedding itself in any reality toward which the ideality provokes the striving self, inciting it to become a new “point of view.”


HOW GOOD A POEM is “Le Directeur”? As a French poem, no more successful, I would judge, than any of Eliot’s three other attempts in this direction. The recent reputational eclipse of Corbière—by whose style, but not thought, Eliot’s poem has obviously been influenced—may, I suppose, be a factor. Nor, I hasten to add, can the erudition exhibited or intimated by the poem, no matter how adroit or profound, affect our consideration of its poetic success. But if we view “Le Directeur” not as a French poem but as a Western or pan-European poem that simply happens, for whatever reason, to be located in French rather than Latin, German, or English, judgment becomes a different and more difficult matter. Like Lowell’s “imitations,” Kurosawa’s Ran, or other artistic “sports,” it belongs to a different, perhaps unique, genre or judgmental category. And in such a category it seems to me, if not directly admirable, remarkable and even astonishing in the intensity of memory and the energy of imagination it brings to a peculiarly European history and spiritual crisis. Or, if such a claim seems too large, the poem can at least be viewed, behind the French façade and verbal play, as revelatory—an experimental “first run” at those extraordinary innovations in the poems to come: the quatrains, “Gerontion,” and The Waste Land.

William Arrowsmith was an American academic who translated classical and modern texts, including various works from Euripides.
Originally published:
September 1, 1989

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