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Amélie Ducroux, La relation et l’absolu : Lecture de la poésie de T. S. Eliot

Edward Lee-Six
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DUCROUX, Amélie, La relation et l’absolu : Lecture de la poésie de T. S. Eliot, Paris, Presses de l'Université Paris-Sorbonne, Collection Mondes Anglophones, 2014, 446 pages, ISBN 978-2-84050-925-7, 22 €

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1The “Works” of T.S. Eliot is not as stable as it sounds and its content has gradually been shifting, especially in recent years. Not only has the amount included in the “Complete” Eliot continued to increase by small steps since the Collected Poems (in fact carefully selected) of the sixties, but the appending criticism has been growing by larger increments. At the beginning of the year, the fiftieth anniversary of Eliot’s death was “celebrated” by the first volume of Robert Crawford’s biography, immediately hailed as THE standard account ; in spring, there was a new installment in the epic of the publication of the Letters, with Volume V: 1930-1931 ; and, as 2015 closes, Volume I of a scholarly edition of the Poems now appears (amazingly, the first annotated edition of Eliot).

2This amplification prompts dual feelings in some Eliot scholars, as this year’s T. S. Eliot Society Annual Lecture illustrated, where, on the one hand, 2015 was savoured as “a good year” (in the words of the Society’s President) for those thirsty for fresh Eliot juice ; while, on the other, this year’s guest lecturer was reeling under the burden of reading: he pointed out that the Letters, the new biography, and the new edition Poems were in multiple volumes (respectively!) ; that it had taken him “hours” to read the critical apparatus to “Prufrock”, which consisted of an “appalling” number of pages, “in really quite small type” at that, and – adding insult to injury – with the “quotes even smaller”.

3So we might wonder how we can possibly find time to “READ HIM” – Ezra Pound’s obituary imperative – especially in this new “fully scrutinized” form, and to read the ever growing epistolary, biographical, and critical off-shoots, and to respond to the clarion calls to papers which set our inboxes dinging, and to write the funding applications which absorb our best energies: just reading (let alone re-reading!) poetry can seem like a scandalous inefficiency in today’s academia. And yet it is on this busy stage that Amélie Ducroux’s book makes its timid entry: La relation et l’absolu: Lecture de la poésie de T. S. Eliot (Paris : Presses de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, 2014) has “discovered” no previously unpublished poem or letter and can make no claim to being THE authoritative... THE standard... THE anything. It’s just a scholarly reading – “Lecture” – of T. S. Eliot’s poetry, foregrounding the most famous works.

4In its quiet and thoughtful mood, La relation et l'absolu makes some strong points, which gain, rather than lose, by their straightforwardness. After battling with possible meanings of “the penny world” (from “A Cooking Egg”: “But where is the penny world I bought / To eat with Pipit behind the screen?”), Ducroux says simply: “La voix [du poème] ne croit plus en la capacité de ce microcosme aux contours aussi définis qu'une pièce de monnaie (“penny world”) à procurer le bonheur désiré” (56). Here, Ducroux grasps how the penny world is a powerfully succinct statement of the incommensurability of a desire for the measurable or measured, on the one hand, and the roving ambitions of that same desire, on the other. Ducroux is often alive to Eliot’s tangles of incommensurably measuring, and able to frame them for us, making her a particularly good reader of “Prufrock”, a poem that whisks these contradictions up into a tortured song, or, as she puts it elswhere, buries them deeply in the poem's structuring mechanisms (“rouages”) (283-284). Borrowing her language from Bergson, who opposes intuition and analysis, and, separately, “durée pure” and “l'instant”, Ducroux writes:

La persona de “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” est constamment dans l’analyse ; elle est engluée dans “la condition relationelle”, dans une fragmentation excessive de l’expérience. [...] Le malaise de la persona de “Prufrock” ne vient pas de son incapacité à saisir “la durée pure”, incapacité commune à tous les êtres, mais du fait même qu’elle tente de la saisir. Être dans la “durée pure”, ce n’est pas être dans l’analyse. (101-3)

5Here, Ducroux concisely conceptualizes how Prufrock is out of sync with himself, and her underlining the infelicitous meeting of experience with the urge to analyse that experience rings true for the character who has measured out his life with coffee spoons. Beyond whatever we might think of Prufrock, these concepts may help us understand Eliot’s depiction of his hero. Noting the character's breathless style – “And the afternoon... tea and cakes and ices... And in short, I was afraid... And this, and so much more” – she writes:

Le recours à la conjonction and, l’emploi de liens logiques non pertinents témoignent de cette impossibilité de relier entre eux des éléments constitutifs de l’expérience qui non seulement sont disjoints, mais dont la fréquence de perception est trop élevée. La parataxe, qui se caractérise par une absence de marquage du rapport entre deux termes ou propositions, apparaît alors comme la structure la plus propre à rendre cette fréquence trop élevée de la perception, qui, empêchant tout recul, toute distance, toute séparation temporelle entre un élément et un autre rend l'analyse impossible. La persona décompose l'expérience sans jamais pouvoir la recomposer. (104)

6This concept of destructive analysis becomes a reading aid for Ducroux, who returns to it frequently, dexterously adjusting it so that it speaks specifically about the writing in question. For example, in her work on “Burnt Norton” (published almost twenty years after “Prufrock”) she picks up on the non-reconciliation of the dynamic “dance” with the geometrically abstract “still point” and “axle-tree”, a decomposition of experience that takes place in a disjointed grammar where prepositions and conjunctions fail us (“La coordination ne peut jouer son rôle, parce qu'elle devrait relier deux compléments qui ne sont pas, en réalité, de même nature”, 131-132). Indeed, for Ducroux (following Derrida), creating poetry requires as its precondition a certain “abandon”, so that making begins with unmaking what we think we know about language (393). The coherence of Ducroux’s approach also implies a reading of Eliot's work as a totality, which helps us makes sense of writing which discusses with itself:

At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair (“Ash Wednesday” (1930), CPP, III, 93)

turns and sees below an earlier shape, it too turning –

Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair –
(They will say: 'How his hair is growing thin!')
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress? (“Prufrock” (1917), CPP, 14-15)

7This is what Ducroux calls “l'incapacité à avancer [...] le long de la ligne mouvante du temps” (106), an attribute she sees not just in Prufrock but also in “Animula” and, in a different way, in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”, where the undoing is bodily rather than temporal, “le rôle du moi phénoménologique posté au-dessus du sujet pour l’observer” (122).

8In a reflexive way, too, Ducroux’s alertness to the destructive action analysis can have on experience, becomes a salutary cautiousness about her own analysis. She asks herself, for instance, what could be the nature of “le lien entre production philosophique et production poétique” (97) ; or, having affirmed that two interpretations are both valid, “valables”, adds “si tant est qu’un tel qualificatif puisse être employé” (53) ; and, above all, states, in her introduction, the elusive nature of Eliot’s “intentions” and his profound ambiguity (16-17). Ducroux frequently shows such awareness of criticsm’s traps and does not consider herself above these fundamentals. Reading and re-reading Eliot are Ducroux's method for approaching basic interrogations and her book is always respectful of the potential décalage between the relatively small number of pages we might have before us and the numberless hours we might need to spend on those pages.

9Equally, however, having posed these questions, Ducroux often leaves them unanswered, or provides an answer which is reductive. For example, on the formal differences between Bradley’s philosophy and Eliot’s verse – despite repeated mises-en-garde about “les différences entre les deux media employés” (98) – we fall back : “Eliot semble révéler une proximité "naturelle" entre réflexion philosophique et création poétique” (98). The catch-phrasey chime of “réflexion” / “creation” and “philosphique” / “poétique” is doing a bit too much work, here, in forcing a reconciliation when contrast might have been welcome.

10Indeed, the dominant mood of Ducroux’s book tends towards the unifying and the essentialising, as illustrated by this justification of the natural proximity between philosophy and poetry: “Le problème de l'essence relationnelle de l'existence est au coeur de la poétique d’Eliot” (99). This is a statement which, in different formulations, justifies a great number of Ducroux's contentions and its assumptions are numerous and troubling: that existence has an essence ; that this essence is “relationnelle” (the book leaves me unsure as to the meaning of this word, beyond the loose banality that things – experiences, beings, words – are separate but also linked ; and that there is such a thing as “poétique éliotienne” (91, inter alia), which would also be reducible to a central essence. This unifying mentality often collapses into a lumping together, so that, for example, if Ducroux is right to perceive Eliot's writing as a totality, this nebulous whole remains unstructured in her account, an account which therefore has no space for the many contradictions and arguments that run like fault-lines all over the Eliot landscape. These internal fractures seem at least as interesting to me as the plaster which covers them. Ducroux's belief in unity stretches beyond Eliot: her opening statement that “L'unité du corps, comme celle de l'esprit, est toujours artificielle” (9) turns out to be empty and remains unexplored per se, so that quotations from Bergson's Durée et simultanéité, which was published in 1922, overlap with the Introduction à la métaphysique, from 1903, when it would have been interesting to read about the distinctions between these texts, while the relay baton is passed between the usual suspects of French literary criticism – Derrida, Deleuze, Jean-Luc Nancy, &cie – by the likes of I. A. Richards, B.C. Southam's A Student Guide to the Selected Poems, or Frazer, somewhat too seamlessly for the potentially lively arguments between these voices and types of discourse to emerge.

11Behind this wishful coherence is a belief in the subject as ultimate agent, and this extends from the sources quoted to Eliot’s characters themselves: J. Alfred Prufrock gets more attention than “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, such that psychologizing about the character's flaws and struggles drowns out analysis of the poems struggles, forgetting that the words “Alfred Prufrock”, in the poem's title, become interesting and meaningful only because of another two words, “Love Song”.

12The assumption here is that we as readers want Ducroux to unify for us and to iron out the creases: we are “lecteurs en mal d'unité” (passim.) Ducroux is well aware that unifying interpretation has its traps, and yet she never interrogates the starting point that we might be 'motivé par une volonté d'unification et de fixation' (57, inter alia), not considering that some of us may read differently, receptive to, say, a poem’s music, as well as its meaning, reading between sound patterns, rather than in the linearity of logic and print. When reading

Le processus de lecture est à la fois un processus d'assemblage de lettres formant des mots, une succession chronologique de mots formant des phrases, et un processus de détection out de compréhension des relations logiques existant à l'intérieur d'un texte et permettant sa compréhension. (22)

13I feel like replying, “Not for me”, or, “Not necessarily”. The repeated generalizations about the act of reading (“La lecture est une incessante mise en relation” (22) ; “La lecture sous-entend l'établissement d'une relation d'ordre intellectuel” (23) ; “Lire signifie articuler des messages verbaux” (29) ; “Lire signifie en partie interpréter” (32, and so on) may not be generally true and place Eliot's poetry in a teleology the ideal terminus of which is the reader's or Ducroux's interpretation: obscure poetry is here taken as an “invitation à l'interprétation” (49 inter alia). It is difficult for criticism to retain its necessary humility and cautiousness with this approach, and to remember that academic writing is merely one response among many to T. S. Eliot's writing. Above all, among these generalizations about what reading is, about what relating is, what being is, language is, it is difficult to grasp what in Ducroux's argument is specific to Eliot: the numerous assertions of subjective individuality are diluted to lip-service by their very generality – “la parole est toujours singulière” (11), for example – leading to confusing claims, in the same breath, that we are individuals and divided (on the first page). Eliot here becomes special in the way that politically correct teachers may have once told us that we were all special, making “you” the same as anyone, as in “If you came this way, | Taking any route, starting from anywhere, | At any time or at any season, | It would always be the same” (Four Quarters, CPP, I, 192). Eliot was acutely aware of the truisms of singularity and generality, depicting and, maybe, denouncing them:

I caught the sudden look of some dead master
Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled
Both one and many ; in the brown features
The eyes of a familiar compound ghost
Both intimate and unidentifiable. (Four Quartets, CPP, II, 193)

14In conclusion, Ducroux attempts a thorough close reading of T.S. Eliot and, through this reading, to answer the most epistemologically daunting questions about his poetry, and, to some extent, about poetry tout court. This approach is laudable, and yields a number of interesting finds. Equally, however, the close reading is too often founded on a loose set of theoretical principles which too often lapse into generalization and do not do justice to the analyses themselves.

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CRAWFORD, Robert, Young Eliot: From St Louis to “The Waste Land”, London, Jonathan Cape, 2015.

ELIOT, T.S., The Complete Poems and Plays, ed. Valerie Eliot, London, Faber and Faber, 1969.

–-, The Letters of T. S. Eliot, V: 1930-1931, ed. Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, London: Faber and Faber, 2015.

–-, The Poems of T. S. Eliot: Volume One, ed. Jim McCue and Christopher Ricks, London: Faber and Faber, 2015.

POUND, Ezra, “For T.S.E.”, Selected Prose: 1909-1965, ed. William Cookson, London, Faber and Faber, 1973.

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Edward Lee-Six, « Amélie Ducroux, La relation et l’absolu : Lecture de la poésie de T. S. Eliot », Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2016, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL :

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Edward Lee-Six

Trinity College, Cambridge

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