The Writer’s Oeuvre and the Scholar’s Oeuvre

Paul Eggert, Loyola University Chicago and University of New South Wales

In T.S. Eliot’s essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ of 1919, the truism that the composition of literature has been continuous in Europe since Homer received a daring tweak: the European literary tradition, Eliot claimed, is recognisable, only becomes present, as ‘a simultaneous order’ and as an ‘ideal order’ in reception (Schuchard 2014–2019, vol. II, 106). Eliot did not use that last phrase (‘in reception’), but that is the implication. A highly generalised ‘perception’ of the inherited tradition (ibid.) — something like a transcendence — may occur when the whole is glimpsed or experienced as a single entity as the new work of art is mentally incorporated into it — when, as Eliot puts it, ‘the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted’ (ibid.). For the creative writer producing that new work, the moment of composition simultaneously involves its own kind of transcendent reception since composition must be, or will constitute, a revision of that order. In Eliot’s imaginary laboratory of literary creation the specific gravity of the literary shifts away from the activity and personality of the author-in-composition to that of the sustaining literary culture-in-reception, external to the writer and coming from the past. The ‘perception’, he argues, is not ‘only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence’ (ibid.).

From a twenty-first century perspective, Eliot’s idea of the writer writing ‘with his own generation in his bones’ (ibid.) and also with this wider historical awareness is a forerunner, very idiomatically expressed, to the later post-structuralist model of culture as an interlocking tissue of discourses, which texts instantiate. The obligatory next step — seeing authorship as merely a discursive regime of limited use — is not one that Eliot would have been interested in taking. Neither, equally, was he especially interested in taking the opposite tack of pursuing the implications of the material transmission of texts. Although he occasionally had positive things to say about editorial and other historical scholarship, the two areas were not at the centre of his thinking. Eliot was no theorist either; but he was a most ambitious thinker with a prose style and an idiomatic palette aimed to appeal more to a literary-magazine readership than an academic one. Along with the literary journalists and essayists of his generation, the attraction, when defining difficult ideas, of so-called common-sense formulations was enough for him. He had a rare gift for simplifying complex ideas, writing essays rather than professional articles. Even the lectures he wrote were essay-like, and he made the approach work very hard indeed. In 1932, in ‘The Literary Mind’, the redoubtable F.R. Leavis (whose ground-breaking New Bearings in English Poetry appeared in the same year) commended ‘the quality of intelligence exhibited in [Eliot’s] literary criticism … [which also] appears as plainly when he applies it to general questions … he really does something with words’ (1933b, 62). Most importantly for Leavis, Eliot’s successful attempt to install a serious-minded evaluative regime for literary criticism decisively countered prevailing belleslettristic, impressionistic approaches.

It is no exaggeration to say that this writer, whom we know primarily for his haunting poetry, was probably the most influential literary critic in English of the twentieth century, at least until the 1960s and even later.Eliot’s implicit claim that the moment of composition is also a moment of reception of the Tradition is a satisfyingly symmetrical one: rhetorically, it is brilliant. The cost of the brilliance, however, is that it soars above the action: those actual scenes of writing where material documents (on the page, on screen) are successively produced, discarded, copied and revised. Via these material supports and these acts of writing, fragments of text come into being and, if all goes well, texts of versions of works are slowly developed until either finalised or abandoned. The work-concept is the regulative idea that we use to contain the whole process and its outcomes. Accordingly, the work is not, or need not be, treated as an idealism, as something existing over and apart from the printed and other documents that instantiate it. Only if understood as standing alone, as an ideal thing, can it be imagined as coming face to face with Tradition in some cultural-existential embrace.

This shortcut in Eliot’s thinking does away with the ongoing intellectual-artistic project that supports the writing and that the writing expresses. This project I shall call the oeuvre, but its nature depends, as we shall see, on one’s perspective on it.Like the work-concept, the oeuvre was a more or less unproblematic idea, current in Eliot’s lifetime, that could simply be invoked. The Oxford English Dictionary witnesses the anglicised use of the French borrowing œuvre (for work) from the late nineteenth century and gives two main contrasting usages: (1) a single work (as in chef d’œuvre) and (2), the principal meaning, secured by 1917: ‘The works produced by an artist, composer, or writer, regarded collectively’. It is the latter usage that is at issue here, and its application rather depends on who is doing the regarding. The two parties I will concentrate on are the writer and the scholar-critic, since their two perspectives on the oeuvre are likely to vary. A survey of several poets’ attitudes to their own body of writings, followed by the cases of some novelists, will clear the ground for two sharply contrasting understandings of the oeuvre-concept to emerge. They bring into focus the oddity of Eliot’s (alternative) appeal to Tradition, which thereby transfers attention to why he appealed to it when he did. My general argument is that the oeuvre-concept, along with the work-concept, both suitably refreshed, need to be more deliberately and self-consciously re-introduced into editorial and literary-critical study. First steps towards a necessary theorising of the oeuvre are taken in the final section, thereby superseding (I argue) Eliot’s evasive Tradition-concept.


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