I was nineteen. (I doubt that this sort of thing happens to people much older than that.) I was a sophomore in college, and had just presented a paper on The Waste Land in front of a few dozen students and teachers who had to be there. Their boredom didn’t make me any less nervous or, hours later at the English-department barbecue, after a few drinks, any less proud of myself. My paper was so clever that I hardly understood it. “You must be very smart,” I wanted our school’s acclaimed visiting writer to tell me when we found ourselves standing next to each other. The acclaimed writer caught me off guard by what he actually said: “Do you believe in T. S. Eliot?” I didn’t understand the question, which meant, I realized later, that the answer had been yes.
Eliot, fifty years dead, still elicits these kinds of reactions. He made himself into a god and was smashed as an idol, having established the kind of authority that invites acolytes, apostates and sectarian conflict. I loved Eliot’s poetry for the seriousness it seemed to lend to literature, the sense that the poems I felt so deeply and understood so partially might on any rereading reveal something profound. It wasn’t often more precise than that; such is authority. It wasn’t religious, exactly, but it wasn’t exactly not—my reading, say, “Ash Wednesday” again and again in its almost inarticulable longing as I thought of surrendering myself to the Virgin like the speaker of the poem. I was still open to that sort of thing at nineteen.
I didn’t know much about Eliot’s history: the racism, sexism, classism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia, priggishness and prudery. It’s all there in the letters and biographies and late social criticism and early unpublished poems (unsuccessfully suppressed)—I’d just hardly read them, because I didn’t care about Eliot. I cared about Eliot’s poems, and I didn’t want to have to reconcile his ideas of salvation with his reactionary prejudices or to explain how a person could write both the holy music of Four Quartets and a series of scatological pornographic rape poems about a dark race with oversized genitals. I didn’t want his personal flaws to sully the clear window of his faith, since I believed in his art. I didn’t even think to doubt him.