Patricia Sloane, who knew I was going to write this review article and who was looking forward to reading it, had - alas! - passed away before I had a chance to complete it. It is, therefore, with sadness that I dedicate this piece to her memory. She was, as will be apparent from my review, an excellent reader and critic. We shall all miss her.
A Review of Patricia Sloane's T.S. Eliot's Bleistein Poems: Uses of Literary Allusion in "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar" and "Dirge" (Inernational Scholars Publications - Lanham - New York - London: University Press of America, 2000)
Steven C. Scheer
This is the concluding paragraph of Vladimir Nabokov's "Vane Sisters" The story begins with the narrator (a middle-aged professor of French) losing his way (Dante anyone?). He gets distracted by icicles that have formed on the eaves of the buildings in his neighborhood. He follows them until he no longer knows where he is. A former colleague drives by, the cause of Sybil Vane's suicide some years prior to the story's present time. The narrator learns from this man that Sybil's older sister, Cynthia, has by now also passed away.
This leads to the narrator's reminiscences about his friendship with Cynthia during the time following her younger sister's suicide. It seems that Cynthia had a fascination for all things occult and was enamored of all theories strange. One of them was the idea that when someone passes away, they are likely to play tricks on those left behind. The narrator is a rationalist. He doesn't believe, for example, that acrostics might reveal arcane messages sent by the deceased. He is nevertheless ready to check certain Shakespeare sonnets, for example, during the night in question (just in case), but he finds nothing. By dawn he feels that he has managed to "refute and defeat the possible persistence of discarnate life." He falls asleep. And, upon awakening, ends the story with the paragraph quoted above.
It so happens that the final paragraph does spell out a message, acrostics-wise. It is as follows:
Icicles by Cynthia
The reader who doesn't notice this will think that the narrator has succeeded in defeating Cynthia's superstitions. The reader who does notice it will think otherwise. The narrator doesn't know that the final paragraph of his "story" contains the above message. Though he is aware of some such possibility, for earlier in the story he says "I wish I could recollect that novel or short story (by some contemporary writer, I believe) in which, unknown to its author, the first letters of the words of its last paragraph formed, as deciphered by Cynthia, a message from his dead mother."
In this case, of course, the author (Nabokov) does know. It's the narrator who doesn't, though it's the narrator who remembers Cynthia's example. And now, after her death, it is Cynthia who plays the same trick on him, unbeknownst to him. The last quoted passage is, of course, the clue Nabokov has planted in the story for the enterprising reader, the reader on whom (like on the writer, from Henry James's well-known advice) nothing is lost.
Patricia Sloane is such a reader (and writer, too).
(Note: While I do not pretend that these "period pieces" are necessarily just to their models, I hope that the principle of imitation, in the poems that follow, in some small way resembles the discipline of Earl Wasserman's attention to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts he wrote about and taught. I have never seen anyone who kept the text in front of him so constantly, who returned to it so loyally. His thought was not original, but practically unique in another way: he was not trying to devise interpretations for the poetry, but rather to school himself to think like his subjects. There was thus always something uncanny behind the energy of Professor Wasserman's scholarship, something like ventriloquism in his arguments, as if he were attempting to do for Shelley and Wordsworth, Keats and Pope, what Pierre Menard wanted to do for Cervantes - reincarnate a lost sensibility word for word.)
While reading Patricia Sloane's book on T.S. Eliot, this wonderful dedication of Mary Kinzie's inevitably popped into my head. For, indeed, reading Particia Sloane's book on T.S. Eliot gives one the impression that she has absolutely schooled herself to think like her subject. Her book as a whole is the reincarnation of a lost sensibility word for word. And then some.
"There is no method except to be very intelligent." That's one of a handful of quotes that has been part of my mental make-up for more years that I care to remember. It happens to be from T.S. Eliot's "Perfect Critic" (The Sacred Wood, 1928). I have taken it out of its original context (it's a remark about Aristotle) almost as soon as I read it. It impressed me a great deal. It sums up in one small phrase what I have always thought to be true. You can't go by the book. You have to judge each case on its own merits (or demerits, as the case may be). The remark espouses the spirit as opposed to the letter of the law. And this isn't the only thing by T.S. Eliot that has made an indelible mark on my thinking. There are also the famous lines from Choruses from "The Rock" that I have also often quoted with tender loving care ever since I first read them. They go like this:
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
I like the hierarchy these lines establish. And they bear a special kind of relevance on the question of Patricia Sloane's book on T.S. Eliot (the first volume of a projected trilogy), for Patricia Sloane (without explicitly intending it) manages to bypass the hierarchy without undermining or contradicting its truth. In her book knowledge is not lost in information and wisdom is not lost in knowledge. When I think of her book, I keep coming up with another chance remark that has made an impression on me many years ago: "meaning is context-bound, but context is boundless" (Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction, 1982). Once again Patricia Sloane both espouses and immediately divorces herself from this idea in that what her book traces is the very boundaries of a boundless realm. "Oh what a tangled web we weave" - except in this case deception is not what follows. Let me try to sketch in the context within which Patricia Sloane's T.S. Eliot weaves the tangled web that Patricia Sloane painstakingly untangles for us in her remarkably textured and textualized book:
First we have poems written by T.S. Eliot. But these poems do not come from (and do not get deposited into) a vacuum. As is well known, T.S. Eliot has made an art of using bits and pieces of texts from all sorts of sources. His texts are quite literally highly interwoven intertexts. His words don't just mean what they mean in the immediate context of his texts, his words - being echoes and/or downright quotations - also insinuate a meaning they may have had "originally," but in the new context of T.S. Eliot's words they undergo changes and perform multiple functions (both retaining the meaning that was there already and adding to it without distorting it). For Patricia Sloane reading T.S. Eliot means reading him in this vastly expanded intertextuality, which is yet not at all out of control. In fact, Patricia Sloane manages to control it quite nicely. And her readers are in for quite an adventure. What is at stake here is the fate of reading itself. Just what happens when we read, when we take in words, especially words about words, taking in words used before but used now again in a way that changes the "before" so that the "after" is no longer what it was "before" yet it is no longer what it would have been "after" had it not been for the "before."
All this over apparently two indubitably "minor" poems? "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar" and "Dirge"? In a book that spans 400 pages? Ah, but these "minor" poems encompass a great deal (much more than I would ever have thought possible prior to reading Patricia Sloane)! Nothing less than Eliot's version of Inferno is at stake here. Dante is implicated. As well as (going back) Homer. As well as (going forward) James Joyce. Now it so happens that the poems in question have been the basis of charges of anti-Semitism (or antisemitism, to use the more recent spelling that Patricia Sloane favors as well) leveled at T.S. Eliot. Patricia Sloane quickly and painstakingly (and in a sustained manner) shows us in innumerable and always highly convincing ways that readers who insist on finding antisemitism in Eliot's poems have simply missed the point. The so-called evidence for Eliot's antisemitism may actually hide (or reveal, in Patricia Sloane's remarkably corrective reading) critiques of antisemitism, occasionally in most telling and also most playful ways.
One of the things this sanest of critical and scholarly works does is explore and expose the very nature of prejudicial readings where readers who find fault in the text actually read the fault into the text that they then "discover" there. The first thing Patricia Sloane notes is that readers of Dante's Commedia have overlooked a major feature of the poem that Eliot himself notices and makes use of: the role of the Hebrews or Jews in Dante. The way most people have been reading the Commedia is by way of seeing it as being about pagans and Christians. But it's also about the Hebrews or Jews. And Dante, it seems, went out of his way to avoid "Jew-bashing" (and Eliot - who notices this - follows suit). Let me just bring up one example from Patricia Sloane's detailed and level-headed analysis: Bleistein's eye (one eye) is a case in point. The Christians in Dante have two eyes, they can see God. The pagans are blind, for they do not see God. The Jews - very much present in the Commedia, though overlooked - have one eye, being intermediaries between pagans and Christians. The main precedent for Bleistein in the Commedia is David, who becomes the "pupil of God's eye" (presumably a singular eye).
"Burbank" is set in Venice. So Bleistein's name invokes (as Patricia Slaone so admirably shows) Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice as well. Bleistein is German for "leadstone," presumably much less valuable (dross, in fact?) than Goldstein ("goldstone") or Silverstein ("silverstone"). Yes, but as we all may guess by now, the key to Portia's hand in marriage in Shakespeare's play is not the gold or the silver but the lead casket! The least valuable (nay, the despised) "stone" turns out to be the most valuable. What we see here, then, is one little detail, part and parcel of Patricia Sloane's inimitable (though it should be highly imitated and emulated!) way of expanding the context until the carelessly inaccurate (and highly prejudicial) readings of these Bleistein poems pitifully undermine themselves.
These are but a few details in a book full of the most painstakingly unearthed details all of which strike one as relevant to the enterprise that Patricia Sloane has undertaken in this book. She amasses an incredibly impressive collection of facts, biblical, historical, theological, even philosophical and sociological (not to speak of psychological) as she wends her way through the tangled web she unweaves in front of our more and more amazed eyes. I have never read a critic more level-headed and steadfast and more free of unseemly prejudices than Patricia Sloane. She goes about her business of explicating, explaining, and unearthing relevant facts calmly and collectedly. Her readings are never one-dimensional. She sees (and presents without passionate vehemence) alternatives so that insults (as against the Jews, for example) turn out to be anything but. "The devil's in the details," a saying that is itself not about evil. In any case, this is also true of Patricia Sloane's remarkable (I know I am saying this a lot) book. Once you start reading it, you can't put it down. And as you keep going, you keep thinking of Alexander Pope's famous remark about what oft was thought but never so well expressed. I will conclude by quoting the book's concluding paragraph. It not only sums up the book's destination (which is also its beginning), but it also shows the kind of charmingly taking level-headed reading that Patricia Sloane practices. There is something more than admirable about the way she reads. It is so free of impassioned prejudices that I can only wish it became fashionable everywhere (and not just in academia):
Although the word is anathema in literary studies, Eliot's poems can indeed seem like puzzles as we thread our way through extraordinarily convoluted strings of intimations, parallelisms, plays on words. He could not have written the poems as puzzles, however. More likely, he was simply improvising on the Commedia, with one additional twist. The Commedia that he saw (and "imitated") may look significantly different from what Dante's annotators saw. If so, the question goes well beyond who likes, or does not like, Jews. We might ask how a misreading of the Commedia could become so ingrained that it persisted for nearly seven hundred years. For whatever reason, too many of Dante's readers, for too long a period of time, may have paid too little attention to his Hebrews. For all of Eliot's flaws, he may have escaped one flaw: he read carefully, which many of us do not. He may have been Dante's finest reader, though even here his reputation is controversial. As Dominic Manganiello notes, Eliot "has ruffled Dante scholars, who point to the limitations of his criticism, while others testify that his contribution to Dante studies surpasses that of Coleridge, Longfellow, and Norton (Eliot & Dante).
I can only think of one thing to object to in this passage, where Patricia Sloane uses the first person plural while speaking of those of us who may not read carefully, for I have never seen a critic who has read more carefully (and "correctively") than Patricia Sloane. Notice, too, that she lets someone else have the last word. And also (and once more) how free her criticism is of anything even remotely resembling the culture wars and/or the extremes of political correctness that have bedeviled (in the worst sense) the details of academic life here and there of late. Patricia Sloane's book is a cornucopia of sanity and good will. And straight thinking. And clear vision. We owe her a debt of gratitude.
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