T. S. Eliot : A response to Kumar David’s “dislike”
Posted on January 10th, 2021

H. L. D.  Mahindapala

I like reading Prof. Kumar David’s (KD) column in the Sunday Island, even though the contents lean heavily towards Marxist mantras which have passed its used-by-date long before the fall of the Berlin Wall. What grabbed my  attention was last Sunday’s (2/1/21) column which was a foray into English literature. As a bibliophile I agree whole-heartedly with his love of  classics and even with some of his likes and dislikes. For instance, one can’t expect everyone  to enjoy James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, let alone  read it. If I remember correct, Regi Siriwardena took great pride in reading it though Prof. E. F. C. Ludowyk, the Grand Master of English Lit at Peradeniya, did not like the text.

KD’s column indicates that he has very strong  likes and dislikes, vibrating sometimes with visceral hate. He says he loathes” the Bagavad Gita. A modest word like dislike”, disagree”, I can understand. But loathe”? Isn’t that a bit too harsh a word for a priggish moralist like KD? In any case, how can one loathe” the  Gita – one of the  world’s greatest spiritual songs that debates the profound moral issue faced by man in the battlefield : to kill or not to kill. I can understand Prabhakaran loathing it. But KD???  Incredible!

The central issue in the Gita is to define the moral duty of man. Finding that, particularly in times of crises, causes mind-bending agonies. It is the same question posed by Shakespeare in Hamlet : to  be or not to be. Arjuna and Hamlet are both morally disturbed individuals standing confused in the middle of a rotten state, not knowing what form their action should take to meet the challenges facing them. Arjuna agonising over the duty facing him – the duty of  killing – asks Krishna how can he kill his kith and kin. Hamlet too is agonising over a similar issue. He has to clean  up the rotten, the incestuous, the chaotic state which means eliminating  his kith and  kin in power, with killing  if necessary. It is a duty cast upon him by his father’s ghost who seeks revenge. He is tortured and paralysed by his own doubts and questions. Should he allow the rotten status quo to continue, or should he take up the sword and go into action wherever it may lead? What is his moral duty? That is the question.  

KD, however, does not give any reason for loathing the Gita. It sounded somewhat like a personal reaction as if he was  a Jew reacting  to the sight of a Muslim, or vice versa in the Middle East. If he doesn’t like the text, may I request him to read the introduction to  the version edited by the Indian philosopher S. Radhakrishna, who was also the President of India later. He illuminates it  with his brilliant intellect so lucidly that in the end you will remember his introduction better  than the Gita. His thought-provoking insights are memorable. For instance, he surveys the religious field broadly and points  out  that neither Jesus nor Buddha gave answers to questions  about some of the core issues that had baffled philosophers, religious leaders, scientists etc., down the ages. Buddha discouraged those went  in search of the origins and the ends of  the universe  or life. He dismissed them as irrelevant to the existential crises faced by man in  his cycle in samsara. Jesus too, he points  out, was silent when Pontius Pilate asked: What is truth? If KD doesn’t want to read the text I am sure he would enjoy Radhakrishna’s introduction. 

Now I come to his literary criticism of T. S. Eliot. I concede that he is entitled to his tastes and I must respect his choices. But when he came to Eliot he went beyond expressing  his dislike”. He accused Eliot of being pretentious”.  It amounts to a value judgement. He is putting  down Eliot as an ostentatious show-off, exhibitionist, with  his verbal fireworks. It is criticism which is open for criticism. Here KD steps into an area which, I think, is not his domain.

Neither in his personal life nor in writing the poetic masterpieces of the 20th century did Eliot show any signs of pretentiousness.” He became a very fastidious Englishman, with a bowler hat an umbrella, after he abandoned the  loud  and brash  American culture into which he was born, no doubt. He was very Catholic in his literary tastes, though he  did not go that far in his religion. He ended up in the Anglican High Church which was the nearest to the Catholic church.

I value Eliot as the most intellectual of all English poets. No other poet has gone down the path of giving the emotional equivalent of thought, of deep philosophical thought, as Eliot. He could fill hard, recondite thoughts with feelings and lead you to meaning  and understanding  his vision and his meditations.

But I am getting  far ahead of the issue at hand. I have to first deal with KD dismissing entire body of Eliot’s work as  pretentious”. He  does  this  by taking the last words in Eliot’s Naming of  a Cat, a poem that plays with words which eventually became a musical sensation  after Andrew Lloyd Webber took those words and gave it a lyrical lift that entertained millions. But KD dismisses it somewhat superciliously in one line which goes like this : I also dislike Eliot, who  is pretentious: his ineffable, effable, effanineffable, deep and inscrutable singular” game. Period.

Here Eliot is deliberately playing with words. There is no pretentiousness here. Only a master of the language could play with words the way Eliot  did in Cats. Besides, what was the necessity for the acknowledged poet of the century to be pretentious? Whom was he going to impress? He wrote like all great writers to give meaning to the mysteries of life. Eliot was not the kind  of poet who would use words to be  pretentious”.  Eliot played with these words as if he was playing with a kitten: lightly, gently, fondly and delicately. To get a feel of the words let’s view the full poem before going any further. Here it is:

The Naming Of Cats by T. S. Eliot

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey–
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter–
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover–
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

The first thing that strikes in this poem  is its whimsicality. The title is whimsical. The theme is  whimsical. And the words are whimsical to suit the title and the theme. But to KD all of it is pretentious”. Millions  who enjoyed the theme and the words in the musical Cats did not think so. The best of critics of either the musical or  the text did not think so. Those who had viewed the words in its context did not think so. What can poor  Eliot do if KD does not know how to put his words in context? 

Take, for instance, the following lines:
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in rapt contemplation

Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of
his name:
His ineffable effable
Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable  singular Name.”

Cat lovers (I’m one of them) can relate to the cat in profound meditation”  and His mind is engaged in rapt contemplation.” In all seriousness, I tried to understand  his thinking from different angles. Though I tried I failed to see any pretentiousness” in these playful lines.  The staccato beat of the names – Plato, Admetus, Electra – alone suggests that he was playing with words which goes with the whimsicality of the poem. The musicality in the syllabic rhythms was captured in several dramatic and cinematic versions, starting from Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1981. It was not meant to be serious poem like The Waste Land where he took the stentorian tone. In  it he was looking  down  upon humanity and asking:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow  out of this stony rubbish?

What he saw from his Olympian heights was

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And dry stone no sound of water.”

He was the Dante of the 20th century guiding humanity through the modern purgatory. He was dissecting their souls and exposing the diseased, worm-eaten core. To him the 20th century was the arid waste land. Even the grim scene he paints of the modern metropolis is awesome.

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many

A version of these are lines found in Dante’s text. Eliot borrowed  it and made it is his own.

It is clear that in this  poem he is using words playfully, as if he  was playing child-like games in his mind. Those who saw the adaptation in the movie CATS will realise  how the rhythmic words  tripped off the tongues fluidly. The words were made  to play around with sound. Eliot was toying with each word and name of cats. Eliot touched a chord in me when he spoke of the cat’s meditative” thoughts. I have been fascinated by the mysterious, meditative moods of cats. They are such soothing, calming, relaxing pets to have around. When they leap like a feather into bed and sleep, snoring, next to you the whole world seems to be at rest. The soothing sound of peace comes down with each gentle snore. My wife and I still cry for Bubby” (I wonder what Eliot would think of that name?) we lost in Melbourne a few years ago. Parting was so unbearable that I am determined never to adopt a cat.

I think I’ve said enough about Eliot and cats. I shall now await KD’s response to understand why Eliot is pretentious” according to him.

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