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 It’s all there in the letters and biographies and late social criticism and early unpublished poems (unsuccessfully suppressed)—I’d just hardly read them, because I didn’t care about Eliot.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.
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I came to believe a couple years later that he’d doubted himself all along, and that his doubt, as a counterweight to his faith, gave the poems what lasting beauty they have. Doubt was a way for Eliot to fuse in his poems his ideas of transcendence to the mess of himself that he longed to transcend. His method was transfusion, not confession. His feelings aren’t there for analysis but are synthesized with his ideals, as I discovered in a mediocre and unpublished poem of his written right after he dropped out of grad school, “The Death of Saint Narcissus.” The poem shows that he knew how to doubt his faith, even if he didn’t always do it, and that he could let his readers feel the warps and woofs of his faith and his doubt—even if some might be lost on nineteen-year-olds.