The term mystic is a slippery one. For most people it probably means little more than someone or something that is vaguely religiose. This fogging of usage has been going on for a long time. When Tennyson wrote in the Morte d'Arthur, "an arm clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful", it is difficult to see what he meant by the word precisely except, well, vaguely religiose, which is not precise at all. The church has traditionally been more than a little dubious about mysticism too. John Henry Newman summed up the general feelings of discomfited clerics through the ages when he said, with some acidity: "It starts in mist and ends in schism."
Whatever accusations may be levelled at T. S. Eliot, and more than a few have been levelled of late, mistiness is not one of them. An extreme precision of language is his mode, sometimes, one suspects, honed to such steely precision to counteract the dark turmoil of thought and emotion the man underwent for much of his life. When he used the word mysticism he meant by it what one of his major sources, Evelyn Underhill, also meant: the direct intuition or experience of God, and therefore a perception of the foundation of all reality. The mystic is one who undergoes, even if only once, an epiphany of the ultimate truth of things, and is irrevocably affected by the experience. There are a number of recorded instances, one of the most famous being Pascal's night of blazing revelation, during which he understood that God is not the God of the philosophers, but the God of Abraham and Isaac, a force to struggle with and submit to, rather than the solution to an equation, though ultimately the source of all equations, as well as all their component parts. Pascal, a great solver of important equations, believed God to be the language out of which equations are all constructed in the first place.
This book, despite its dreadful title, pursues the matter of the relationship between Eliot's poetry and his mysticism with considerable intelligence and tenacity. It does, however, at times tend to forget something Eliot himself was most explicit about: "To be a mystic is a whole-time job - so is poetry." This is not quoted by Donald Childs, though it is by Paul Murray in his T. S. Eliot and Mysticism, a more lucid and coherent book than the one under review. What Eliot meant by the statement was that, if one were fully occupied with being a mystic, there would not be any time left over for writing poetry. There is only one notable exception to this rule in the western Christian tradition, and that is St John of the Cross, but even he comes under Eliot's hammer, for he is too much a voluptuary of religion, too much an observer of his own religious sensation, too much the psychologist of his own mystic tremor and frisson. What Eliot truly aspired to was the condition of Dante, and Dante was not a full-time mystic - he was a full-time poet, one who portrayed, among other things, the mystical experience. What is more, Dante had behind him the precision and immaculate logic of Thomas Aquinas, so his mystic communion could be expressed with unimpeachable intellectual tact and rigour. There is no doubt Eliot envied him his medieval context for thought, and his own entry into the Anglican church of the 20th century did not facilitate the same production of crystalline verse.
Eliot tried, all the same. He made every attempt to move from the knotted, cinematically sliced concisions of The Waste Land to the limpid discursive exactitudes of Four Quartets, and the jury is still out as to which is the finer achievement. There is no doubt though that Eliot sacrificed something. One feels he had to explain so much more than Dante, for Dante never explained anything at all; he simply focused his preternatural imagination and verbal skill on the matter at hand, and the matter at hand was generally agreed on. Even those who sent him into exile would not have been inclined to dispute his theology. They might have wanted to change the personnel of his Inferno, but not the fact of it.
Childs is often driven to readings bordering on the perverse when he pursues the poems with his mystical theme in his hand. For example the phrase "when I/stiffen in a rented house" is horrific enough as a prediction of Gerontion's dreary death, with freehold neither on his land nor on his own sensations, so one need not insist that it also means the stiffening of the male member in a prostitute's body. There might be an echo of such a thought in that astonishing, sex-haunted poem, but once having raised this possibility, Childs will not let go of it. He also appears determined to sound up to date by tacking on bits of irrelevant deconstructionist theory. We are treated to a tiny excursus on the subject of Jacques Derrida's supplement, which could have been edited out without a single soul missing it. And by the time one has read the phrase "always already" for the fifth time, one is scrambling about for a red pen, if only to point out that Derrida was not the first human being to discover that in our radical state of incompletion, we constantly posit states of completion in our minds, as solace at least, if not delusion. Eliot sought to describe the moment of the intersection of the timeless with time. He was also aware that the description had to be largely negative. It was in the nature of his mystical understanding that one could only describe what that moment was not, never what it was. This fits, too, with his statement, in his essay on Pascal, that all intelligent belief is wrapped in a filament of scepticism, since scepticism is the chastity of the intelligence. For Eliot, the mystical impulse was a desperate bid for certainty, the search for an objective reality that could not be undermined by the shifting sands of egotism and resentment. Whatever we choose to make of such an impulse, it is hard to dispute that out of the great torment of his life he fashioned both his own specific mystical theology and a fair amount of great poetry. If he had not, it is hard to see why friend and foe alike should still spend so much time discussing him.
Alan Wall is a writer whose new novel, Silent Conversations, will be published by Secker and Warburg on April 2.
T. S. Eliot: Mystic, Son and Lover
Author - Donald J. Childs
ISBN - 0 485 11493 3
Publisher - Athlone
Price - £45.00
Pages - 255