Jacques Derrida begins his widely read essay on the nature, function, and necessity of the archive with two important ideas – those of “commencement” and “commandment”. While the former holds together the physical, historical, or ontological principle of the thing itself, the latter invests it with an authority in the sense of order, or validity, or domain knowledge, or what one might refer to as the nomological principle.
The nomological, in what constitutes the oeuvre of TS Eliot, has its own situatedness and canonical validity within a tradition of reading, writing, or critiquing English poetry across the globe. Eliot’s poetry has manifested itself as a symptom, a totem of twentieth-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” have underlined the force or agency of the nomological – almost as juridical emblems of epistemological validity, of the continuous need of the canon for a systemic validation from within. TS Eliot and Eliot’s poetry have unpacked, down the timeline, the anxiety and crisis of the post-war experience, the unapologetic sameness of a morbid existence, the confused hope of a kind of atonement through ritualistic religious practice, the explicit paradox of being in the world.
Sifting the archives
In his monograph, Where the Dreams Cross: TS Eliot and French Poetry, Chinmoy Guha agrees with the commandment of the nomological. The author admits the greatness of TS Eliot as a poet of our times. But, surreptitiously, he walks back in time to the moment of commencement, which is emphatically not the moment of origin.
Guha equivocates, and turns equivocation into a deliberate ploy, an act of dissembling that renders commandment fall prey to commencement. He writes in the introduction to the volume: “My assumption is that many aspects of Eliot’s craft, his variegated themes, the self-destructive, astringent irony, the theory of impersonality, of ‘thought-feeling’ and ‘feeling-thought’, the desperate craving for order and belief, and the increasingly persuasive, obsessive force of an orchestrated, incantatory language towards the end – may have been calibrated, sifted, and reconstructed from the French poets he admired”.
Guha has discovered the archive just now, sifting through it with manic energy, carefully constructing in each chapter the indelible patterns of commencement. But the reader will notice how softly he treads, so as not to ruffle 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. He is dismantling commandment, exposing the vulnerability of a poet to his influences, and yet, rarely ever questioning the greatness of his subject within the English canon.
Guha prises open an important archive systematically, and close-reads Eliot’s lines with a deliberate comparatist intention that coalesces organically with the poet’s lived experience. The author discovers both in Eliot and his influences an encompassing situatedness that is essentially European in both style and content.
There is a holistic compass in the unfolding of both public and personal histories of the poets that Guha studies, and such a technique brings out the inevitable commonalities in language, imagery, thought, or sensibility. Guha regrets: “Unfortunately, for various reasons including relative unfamiliarity with the language and literature, impatience with other patterns of culture, and possible literary politics, this great laboratory experiment with French by Eliot and some of his contemporaries (TE Hulme, Ezra Pound, FS Flint, and Richard Aldington) has never received the critical attention it richly deserved.”
However, Guha does not pursue this strand of Anglophone myopia or its various political reasons or possibilities till the very end. Undoubtedly, one would say that this strand of critique would have enriched the critical intent of the monograph, placed it within the current tradition of protracted debates on the idea of the “zone” that Emily Apter complicates in her The Translation Zone.
Apter borrows the term “zone” from a poet whom Guha would appreciate, Guillaume Apollinaire, whose 1912 poem “Zone”, Apter writes, “defined a psychogeographical territory identified with the Paris periphery”. This is the space within which Guha hovers for most of the book, picks up images or lines that have been hitherto neglected, pores into his archival material, and, like an obsessed sleuth, brings out with unadulterated excitement that singular expression, that use of the word, the turn of phrase, the moment of poetry where one must accede to the notion of commencement.
Throughout the book, Guha translates such words and expressions, lines or paragraphs, and makes his point about Eliot’s borrowings. As Apter would put it, this is both an act of love and an act of disruption, where translation becomes “a means of repositioning the subject in the world and in history”.
In this book Guha has closely studied Eliot with the French poets Jules Lafourgue, Charles Baudelaire, Tristan Corbiere, Valery Larbaud, and Paul Claudel. Peppered with cross-references to the works of the poets, what Guha has achieved here is more than locating an anxiety of influence in the poetry of TS Eliot. He has rendered an important and necessary blow at the root of English modernism by unsettling, ever so carefully, the originality of its favourite and most celebrated poet. If the study could be placed within the framework of contemporary theoretical debates and representational concerns, it would have been impossible to sidestep this important and original work.
Sumit Chakrabarti is Professor of English, Presidency University.
Where the Dreams Cross: TS Eliot and French Poetry, Chinmoy Guha, Primus Books.