Jacques Derrida begins his widely read essay on the nature, function and necessity of the archive with two important ideas – those of ‘beginning’ and ‘commandment’. While the first holds together the physical, historical, or ontological principle of the thing itself, the second invests it with authority in the sense of order, or validity, or knowledge of the domain, or what the one might call the nomological principle.
The nomological, in what constitutes the work of TS Eliot, has its own place and canonical validity in a tradition of reading, writing or critiquing English poetry throughout the world. Eliot’s poetry manifested itself as a symptom, a totem of 20th century modernity, and how one should begin to think about modernism and its manifestations in the literature classroom.
“The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” or “The Waste Land” or “The Hollow Men” emphasized the force or agency of the nomological – almost as legal emblems of epistemological validity, of the canon’s continued need for validation interior system. The poetry of TS Eliot and Eliot unpacked, over time, the anxiety and crisis of post-war experience, the unabashed similarity of a morbid existence, the confused hope of a sort of expiation through ritual religious practice, the explicit paradox of being in the world.
In his monograph, Where Dreams Intersect: TS Eliot and French Poetry, Chinmoy Guha agrees with the commandment of the nomological. The author acknowledges the greatness of TS Eliot as a poet of our time. But, surreptitiously, he goes back in time to the moment of the beginning, which is absolutely not the moment of the origin.
Guha equivocates and transforms equivocation into a deliberate ploy, an act of concealment that plagues command in the beginning. He writes in the introduction to the volume: “My hypothesis is that many aspects of Eliot’s craft, his varied themes, self-destructive and astringent irony, the theory of impersonality, ‘thought-feeling’ and “feeling-thought”, the desperate need for order and belief, and the increasingly persuasive and obsessive force of an orchestrated and incantatory language towards the end – have perhaps been calibrated, sifted and reconstructed from the French poets whom he admired”.
Guha discovered the archives just now, going through them with maniacal energy, carefully constructing in each chapter the indelible patterns of the beginning. But the reader will notice how gently he walks, so as not to offend the nomological. “May have been,” he writes – a phrase that contains within itself the possibility of an immediate reversal. The author knows what he is trying to do here. It dismantles command, exposes a poet’s vulnerability to its influences, and yet rarely questions the greatness of its subject in the English canon.
Guha systematically opens an extensive archive and reads Eliot’s lines closely with a deliberate comparative intent that merges organically with the poet’s lived experience. The author discovers in both Eliot and his influences an all-encompassing situation that is essentially European in both style and content.
There is a holistic compass in the unfolding public and personal histories of the poets studied by Guha, and such a technique brings out inevitable commonalities in language, imagery, thought, or sensibility. Guha regrets: “Unfortunately, for various reasons including a relative ignorance of language and literature, impatience with other models of culture and possible literary policies, this great laboratory experience with French by Eliot and some of his contemporaries (TE Hulme, Ezra Pound, FS Flint and Richard Aldington) never received the critical attention he so richly deserved.
However, Guha does not pursue this strand of Anglophone myopia or its various political reasons or possibilities to the very end. No doubt, one would say that this critical current would have enriched the critical intention of the monograph, would have placed it in the current tradition of prolonged debates on the idea of ”zone” that Emily Apter complicates in her The translation area.
Apter borrows the term “zone” from a poet Guha would like, Guillaume Apollinaire, whose 1912 poem “Zone,” writes Apter, “defined a psychogeographical territory identified with the outskirts of Paris.” It is the space in which Guha hovers for most of the book, picking up hitherto overlooked images or lines, poring over his archival material and, like an obsessed detective, bringing out with unrelenting excitement. fail this singular expression, this use of the word, the turn of phrase, the moment of poetry where it is necessary to access the notion of beginning.
In this book, Guha studied Eliot closely with French poets Jules Lafourgue, Charles Baudelaire, Tristan Corbiere, Valery Larbaud and Paul Claudel. Dotted with cross-references to the poets’ works, what Guha has achieved here is more than locating an anxiety of influence in the poetry of TS Eliot. He dealt a great and necessary blow to the root of English modernism by so carefully undermining the originality of its favorite and most famous poet. If the study could be situated within the framework of contemporary theoretical debates and figurative concerns, it would have been impossible to miss this important and original work.
Sumit Chakrabarti is an English professor at Presidency University.
Where Dreams Intersect: TS Eliot and French PoetryChinmoy Guha, Primus Books.