In Anxious and Thoughtful Rose-Leaves: Formalistic Thesis Searches for Eliot

Thursday, March 9, 2017
by Sarah Darwiche, Digitial Media Intern

Anna Mukamal (T’17) speaks of T. S. Eliot as a writer who wrote into words the anxiety of his time even while mired in his own anxiety. Eliot was a poet—a seer contributing acts of charity. But in the tense years surrounding World War I in Europe, he was a poet in the lost and lonely spaces of this charity, steeped in and yet prescient of the neuroses of his time, acutely feeling the malaise that gripped much of Europe but also objectifying it in verse—a detachment exemplified as he rose above the silence of the post-WWI psyche as a sole, yet highly allusive voice. Eliot articulated such concerns as those surrounding political polarization, the breakdown of communicability, and the fear of impersonal warfare and destructibility; yet, as he would later most cogently express in the Four Quartets, he felt he could rarely articulate himself.  

So much has been written about Eliot that he is now as much tradition—in the tradition of other suffering writers, such as Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf—as he is person.  In her senior distinction thesis in the Department of English, Mukamal returns to Eliot as person. Mukamal poses questions about how as a young person who defied his Midwestern parents to spend a post-Harvard graduation year in Paris and later join the high London bourgeoisie, Eliot became anxious about his own anxiety and uneasy about his uneasiness. In probing these questions, Mukamal arrives at how Eliot became a figure of his whole war-felt generation.  

“How did he know, at such a young age, how to come up with this persona that was self-lacerating...diffident...even introspective, to the point of solipsistic? This persona which would not only be very meaningful for his geographic and temporal context, but that would have resonance very much through the modernist period, to the contemporary, to now?”

Mukamal studies Eliot’s poetry with sympathy and personal attachment. She asks: “At what cost does great literature come into the world?” and explains that much of her thesis is “driven by this sort of fury of wanting to know, why can’t Eliot as the writer just be happy.”

Yet even as Mukamal’s thesis is a formalistic study of the historical, social, and philosophical forces that informed Eliot’s poetry in the World War I era, it is not only formalistic. There is an intimacy to Mukamal’s work as she looks past the poems and closer at the poet: how the poems refracted Eliot’s pain, how they harmed him, how they formed and ameliorated his nerviosité as they became embodied in text. In one section of her thesis, Mukamal writes that Eliot’s poetic enterprise is in part intended to “write himself out of trouble.”

“He developed this theory of impersonality,” Mukamal says, “This concept that poetry is not supposed to make emotion more acute or more profound, or to release emotion. He said: poetry is not confessional. Poetry is an escape from emotion. By objectifying with words—which are arbitrary—these feelings which cannot be put into words, and these greater kind of structural inequities, he theorized that one is able to conquer them.”

There were moments in his life in which Eliot did conquer, and ones in which he failed. But as Mukamal lingers in each moment and eloquently writes of poverty and failed love and Eliot’s relentless musings on subjectivity, one cannot help but be increasingly drawn to the sympathies between Mukamal and Eliot as a pair, rather than to the moments of Eliot’s life isolated in the past. Which is to say that the strength of Mukamal’s writing on Eliot arrives in the process of reading. There are traces between Mukamal and Eliot, a set of subtle but collegial intimacies. Both show a heightened sonic attunement in their poetry—Eliot in his obsession with musicality that filled his lines with sound-based mechanisms like consonance and alliteration, and Mukamal with more than ten years of violin training and an appreciation for musicality that she says surfaces whenever she reads poetry aloud.

Both share what Mukamal calls a “perturbed” focus. When Eliot wrote, he would do so in bouts of writing that pushed him to the point of exhaustion, contributing to his repeated mental and physical breakdowns. Mukamal’s work style may be less extreme, she says, but it approximates. She works on her thesis in bouts of five or six hours, complete with a sense that she could be doing nothing else in those hours but writing about Eliot. She has pushed her thesis—which could have stayed at two chapters—to five.

Indeed, when Mukamal flips through her volume of Eliot’s most canonical poems (a book she has taken with her on study away trips from Duke, the whites of whose pages she has all but crowded out with the black ink she has crashed upon them, notes written upon other notes), she pauses a discussion of twentieth century philosophy to remark: “I had to cut out talking about contextual aspects like Nietzsche’s ‘God is Dead’; otherwise it would have been a dissertation...or a book.” Not unrelatedly, a companion of Eliot, A. Alvarez, once wrote of Eliot: “he has all the advantages of a highly critical habit of mind [...] Hence the completeness and inviolability of the poems. What he does in them can be taken no further.”

In this way, the intensity with which both writers seem to approach a topic on each and every one of its sides—to glean from it, as a prism, each drip of its meaning—they call one another forth. Mukamal and Eliot seem to be tied in some mental space, obsessed with the way in which only poets may share a certain array of poetic neuroses.

To foreground their similarities and then point them at one another, however, is to introduce a type of sweet intellectual empathy into Mukamal’s thesis. To the idea that there is a current of something intellectually ungovernable running under both her and Eliot’s lives, finding a connection in history through her own text—the way a student and a teacher may only ever find and reconfigure each other, ever so rarely, through the right text—Mukamal is charmingly offhand, focusing on Eliot’s ability to form these senses of connection universally.

“Oh, I think I flatter myself that sometimes I have good ideas, but most of the time it’s pretty mundane. What Eliot has is this amazing ability to be hyper-attuned to sensory kinds of stimuli, and then to fashion them into these things that are universal.” Indeed, Mukamal says that it is Eliot’s ability to couch the universal in the deceptively simple—a bowl of rose-leaves shrouded lightly by dust, a fog yellowed and ripening—that draws her into his poetry.

“How do I hang with him when he’s going from the deeps, the deep despair, all the way to these transcendental images of world peace? I think that it’s because that’s in every individual, and what he’s trying to get at is that in a day, a lot of us can go from euphoria to feeling pretty low. He, more so than any poet I know, is able to put the very gruesome next to the very beautiful. And he’s able to do it in a way that makes you more able to answer the question: why am I here?”

During her time at Duke, Mukamal has developed a poised and uncommonly articulated sense of commitment towards these types of questions (Eliot would call them “ultimate questions”).

“There’s not anything...more. There’s nothing more than why are we here, what are we supposed to be doing, and ultimately, what does it all mean. That’s just kind of the root of it. And that’s anxiety-producing when you don’t know, and so to act like everything’s peachy—that’s kind of missing the point.”

As Mukamal finishes her time at Duke, she has found that the most satisfying way for her to probe these questions and dilemmas that matter to her is through her work in the Department of English. She now considers offers from PhD programs in English to continue this work.  

“It’s ultimately been through this relationship [with Eliot] that I’ve decided that this is what I want my life to be about, because literature is the only way I’ve figured out to consistently, and with purpose, ask myself these questions. I think it gives one a great sense of humility to try to understand the great tragedy that the world went through a hundred years ago, and that it could go through again. And if we’re better able to understand rhetorically how Eliot was able to embody or objectify anxiety in a poem, it can help us understand how to get the better of it as well.”

In Eliot’s work, then—a gift of charity and of poetry to a generation. In Mukamal’s work—a gift of charity and literary scholarship to a poet, of being read, thought of, and studied with such care.