Voices - Part III

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The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives a précis of John Searle’s famous “Chinese Room Argument”:

The heart of the argument is an imagined human simulation of a computer, similar to Turing's Paper Machine. The human in the Chinese Room follows English instructions for manipulating Chinese symbols, where a computer “follows” a program written in a computing language. The human produces the appearance of understanding Chinese by following the symbol manipulating instructions, but does not thereby come to understand Chinese. Since a computer just does what the human does—manipulate symbols on the basis of their syntax alone—no computer, merely by following a program, comes to genuinely understand Chinese. (10)

Is it just late, or am I beginning to hear voices? And am I really hearing the voices I’m hearing at all?

There are substantive differences between reading a poem and recognizing its allusions, and having them pointed out to you in the endnotes (even if they are supplied by the poet themself, as Eliot does in The Waste Land). The human reading Ricks’s and McCue’s edition of Eliot follows English instructions for unpacking Eliot’s allusions. The human produces the appearance of understanding Eliot’s allusions, but does not thereby come to understand Eliot.

Recognizing an allusion involves a flexion of memory (for Eliot, something so resembling subterranean urges that “mixing |Memory and desire” is a valid operation). Eliot, in his essay Ben Jonson:

We have attempted to make more precise the sense in which it was said that Jonson’s work is ‘of the surface’; carefully avoiding the word ‘superficial’. […] If we look at the work of Jonson’s great contemporaries, Shakespeare, and also Donne and Webster and Tourneur (and sometimes Middleton), have a depth, a third dimension, as Mr. Gregory Smith rightly calls it, which Jonson’s work has not. Their words have often a network of tentacular roots reaching down to the deepest terrors and desires. (italics mine)

In the same essay, he later chastised Massinger for not being “guided by direct communication through the nerves”. One feels that to really have been touched by those “tentacular roots” or have been “guided by direct communication through the nerves”, some deep operation in the memory or psyche must be provoked by Eliot’s words. One must already have known that “Twit twit twit | Jug Jug Jug Jug Jug Jug” has been a reference to Elizabethan notational conventions, and must be already aware of how Eliot is playing against specific allusions. If one has to check Ricks and McCue for helping hints, how is this possible? The reader might understand what Eliot was trying to provoke in them, but they remain nonetheless unprovoked. As if the reader were to say, ‘Ah, yes, I finally see what you mean,’ only for Eliot to retort, “That is not at all, | That is not what I meant, at all.’ Or the reader must work themself up, if at all possible, into a state where the words seem as if they had touched deep terrors and desires, communicated directly through the nerves. But, because of the lag between processing new information and feeling the affect of a poem, the reader here cannot by indirections find directions out. The reader seems to be left high and dry.

And into the fray of voices comes The Act of Reading (1980). (But at my back I always hear | Wolfgang Iser hurrying near). Iser:

He [the implied reader] embodies all those predispositions necessary for a literary work to exercise its effect—predispositions laid down, not by an empirical outside reality, but by the text itself. (11)

Eliot himself:

What is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career.

What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.

Which is insoluble. On the one hand, the reader must be touched at the level of his deepest terrors and desires and be guided by direct communication with the nerves. On the other, the reader must “develop or procure the consciousness of the past” and undergo “a continual extinction of personality”. “Develop” and “procure” are at desperate odds with each other. One springs from within, the other from a deliberate series of encounters with the without. And “procur[ing] the consciousness of the past” (as, say, of Elizabethan dramatists via the endnotes given in a scholarly edition) seems to be artificial, not at all something embodied and visceral the way Eliot imagines poetry to work. Eliot tries to elide the contradiction between “develop” and “procure” by introducing a ritualistic, quasi-religious slant to his poetics: “What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable”. That “something” is a nice wave of the hand. And “surrender” is Eliot wanting to have his cake and eat it too: “develop” and “procure” are both active processes, “surrender” passive. It is almost as if the reader must be Iser’s “implied reader”, who already “embodies all those predispositions necessary for a literary work to exercise its effect”. Eliot’s own prescribed remedy to this deficit seems like a massive short-circuit.

Are we then condemned to remain “on the surface”? We hear voices, but they turn out to come, like in Beckett’s fiction, from a “farther room”. (12)



I mentioned briefly but do not have enough time to talk about the other, troubling, voices one might mistakenly hear, or mistakenly continue to hear. Even if I know it’s Lyly or Gascoigne or Barnfield I’m meant to be hearing, Keats and Shelley still persist in my ear. And other inconsequential echoes. “Still she cried” sounds too much to me like Macbeth: “Me thought I heard a voyce cry, Sleep no more:[…] Still it cry’d” (italics mine). Does this mar the whole project again?

Other voices one might or might not hear are especially weighty in Eliot. One has to consider Eliot’s own readings of his works. One has to consider the fact that to really recognize Eliot’s “singularity”, one may very well need to forget all poetry after Eliot and immerse oneself in a diet of strictly Victorian rhyme-and-metre verse for his experimentations in vers libré to have its full impact.

Voicing is a particularly fraught issue in Eliot. One sometimes feels that one must unlearn all of one’s own voices, and absterge oneself of all the other voices one has come to hear, to understand Eliot: “a continual surrender of [the] self”. Which is difficult, or impossible, voices being what they are. Me thought I heard a voyce cry… “and we drown”. (13)

(10) Cole, David, "The Chinese Room Argument", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/chinese-room/> [Accessed 12 February 2020]

(11) Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading: a Theory of Aesthetic Response (Baltimore ; London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), p. 34

(12) The Poems of T.S. Eliot, p. 6

(13) The Poems of T.S. Eliot, p. 9

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