a deep reading of t.s. eliot’s letter from the beyond

dear people, yesterday, mister thomas stearns eliot spoke to us from the beyond and revealed himself to be the petty jackass we always thought he was.

this may seem a digression but then that just means you never knew me in my alternate life as someone who twice attended and twice taught at the t.s. eliot international summer school. which was A Time, let me tell you.

to the degree that when tom hiddleston wore that i ❤ t.s. shirt, much of my enthusiasm about it lay in the fact that the eliot school started the following week and we could use it as the opening slide of a powerpoint presentation.

that said, in all honesty, i do not think i’ve thought about this man AT ALL in the last two years. things were going on, time passed, i taught rhetoric and tried to reshape my students’ perceptions of who can be a writer by engineering syllabi almost entirely devoid of white dudes. which means i’ve no longer spent summers thinking about the emily hale letters.

but, whew boy! here they are.

we, of course, know nothing about them yet because, i guess, researchers are queued up and reading as quick as they can but they’ve yet to report back.

what we do know is that eliot has released a statement.

let’s go.

but, wait. you know who we need for this journey, who the fates have willed be our guide??

VOILÁ!

LINDSAY LOHAN AS ELIZABETH TAYLOR IN LIFETIME’S LIZ AND DICK.

you know, that movie where they wear black turtlenecks and sit in director’s chairs in the afterlife and comment on their love.

RIGHT??! do i not have my finger on the pulse of what we need?

so yeah. um… this happened:

(and yes, i write that with a recognition that far more alarming and horrifying things have happened in the last 24 hours.)

firstly, let us enjoy that this has been designated as “GENERAL NEWS.” because, what? the eliot foundation doesn’t have a dedicated page for eliot’s posthumous love life retribution?

scorched earth would have been more apt.

secondly, i will condense the three paragraphs of this opening salvo, as such: i wrote some letters to a woman once. i am annoyed that she deigned to think she was important enough to have an archive. so i’m writing this letter to blunt the effect of her letters because i am writer, hear me roar.

cute.

i have never thought i would get along with t.s. eliot, because i’m pretty sure he was a jackass. true story: this letter, in in its entirety, has provided concrete evidence supporting those assumptions.

but let’s start at the beginning, with his charming disavowal of all autobiography and confessional writing.

this is one of the problems of having made a critical argument throughout your career that biography and the poet’s life are irrelevant.

because they aren’t. and they intrude.

so he’s saying here that only obnoxious, weak people write about themselves. and he’s not weak so he’s going to brief here. in writing about himself.

and we are supposed to swoon? we are supposed to be so pleased that he is going to pull back the curtain for us and slag the women in his life briefly?

i think we maybe, on some level, always knew that eliot would be the kind of guy who would mansplain to us why we’re all wrong for writing about ourselves in advance of writing about himself.

this disclosure really sets the tone.

i’m confused.

he thought she was going to have the archive opened straight away? so he wrote this? but she didn’t. so he wrote this in 1960 why?

“a few letters”? i feel like it was more than this. given that there are 1,131 letters in the archive, i feel like maybe “a few letters” is cutting some corners on reality here.

so he told her he loved her. he didn’t feel that love was returned.

i wonder how t.s. eliot professed his love to a woman in 1914. based on how he is talking about love here in 1960, i’m guessing it was a show to behold.

are you ready for vivienne? are you ready for the loooooooooooooongest paragraph of all time?

i actually read things now thinking about how i would mark them.

(1) this essay would be stronger if the audience weren’t called weak losers in the first paragraphs.

(2) the author’s ethos in this essay is undermined by the fact that they are participating in the introspection they just condemned. maybe just don’t condemn it in the first place.

(3) this could be five paragraphs.

but, yeah, vivienne.

the woman we all know as the woman virginia woolf once graciously referred to (in her diary, to be fair) as “this bag of ferrets that tom wears round his neck.”

a woman who suffered from endometriosis and mental health issues and lived, for 17 years, with this dude. a dude who used her life for material and her intellect for editing, then pontificated on the horrors of his marriage and slagged her and her writing until he died. AND FROM THE GRAVE.

by Lady Ottoline Morrell, vintage snapshot print, 1920

SHE THOUGHT HE HAD BEEN KIDNAPPED WHEN, IN REALITY, HE HAD ABANDONED HER.

as someone who was repeatedly pressed to define what it meant for jackie to “be in love” and to “love,” i do appreciate the candor here.

as someone who’s had a few of these “must’ve been love but it’s over now” moments myself, i also appreciate that love is complicated and sometimes hard, sometimes awful and ruinous. do i anticipate leaving letters denouncing those loves upon my death? no.

the temporality here is confusing though.

he was in love with emily hale, he believed, when he married vivienne, he later came to realize?

YA’LL.

file this under: things men got away with because they were young and stupid.

for the record: he maybe kind of loved her because he didn’t know whether he wanted to be a philosophy professor.

oh, to be used by some man to burn his boats!!! isn’t that the dream we women have all been sold? why hasn’t disney made a fairy tale of that?

let’s all watch ezra pound go under the bus… i did it for ezra! ezra made her do it! huzzah!

note the repetition of “i believe”/”i came to believe”/”i now believe” throughout this thing. the internal interrogation of the story as he’s telling it, but also the sense that he was deluded by everyone, hapless, moving through this weird world, burning his boats, and guided almost entirely by others.

his expression of his own lack of agency here– even as he writes this letter that literally sets fire to the fleet– is striking.

he was so stupid, but HE HAS SEEN THE LIGHT.

in case you’re feeling sorry for him: don’t. this letter does not embody christian forgiveness.

vivienne and pound both helped him with the waste land. he casts it as a hurculean task he could not have done without everyone around him being so awful.

PLUS. because that wasn’t enough gasoline. his horrible marriage kept him from marrying this woman who’s publishing these letters now.

think about how much rage that statement directs towards emily hale.

think about how much rage goes into this equation of emily hale with an academic career in philosophy.

years pass, he continues seeing and writing emily hale occasionally while married to vivienne. he is A DIVIDED MAN.

god help me, if a t.s. eliot biography comes out on this whole thing with the title A DIVIDED MAN, i will scream.

spoiler alert: HE WAS NOT IN LOVE WITH EMILY HALE.

if literally any other woman had come along, he would have realized he was not in love with emily hale.

alas, it took vivienne’s death to realize they had so little in common.

“SHE MAY HAVE LOVED ME ACCORDING TO HER CAPACITY FOR LOVE.”

BUT.

SHE WAS FOND OF HER UNCLE???!

AND SHE DARED TAKE CHRISTIAN COMMUNION?!?!

BUT WAIT.

this is the problem with posthumous letters.

from the grave, one does not know the discourse into which one will be entering.

were i guiding people to write posthumous letters, for this reason, i would encourage them not to.

because i think eliot thought he was being clever.

he thought through that paragraph break.

he thought (and i know, there’s a whole school of thought that we can never know authorial intent but let’s use our heads for a moment) this would be the kicker.

and, you know what? time has not been kind to this phrase.

don’t worry. the ground has been well and truly razed. we’re nearly done.

he was a divided man! a deceived man! a ghost! a hallucinated man! a pretending man! a man who was not the man he’d been in 1914!

it occurs to me that this letter is essentially covering ground that adam gopnik did much better.

but, hey, he now recognizes the only mistake that would have been greater than his first marriage would have been marriage to emily hale.

this is small, but it annoys me to no end:

props for your powers of imagination, jackass. you couldn’t imagine these women as human beings– only the other men they might have married.

we’re nearly there, i swear.

but, first, an ode to valerie, from the great poet…

incidentally, the one woman who gave her whole one life over to this man.

are you ready? BRACE.

COUP. DE. GRÂCE.

WHAT ABOUT THIS DOCUMENT BROUGHT US ANY MEASURE OF PEACE, SIR??!?!?!?!

having spent the last hour with this letter, i want to finance a monument to emily hale for having had the audacity to defy this man archivally, re-read carole seymour-jones’s painted shadow, and break shit.

badly done, tom. badly done.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.