This enquiry involves distinguishing between the stock emotions we are expected to feel, and the emotions we actually feel.
That was how Oxford poet Craig Raine described a long-running theme in T.S. Eliot’s work, in a short essay broadcast on BBC Radio 3 yesterday evening. It’s available online for a week: Secret Places in the Four Quartets
Eliot received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948 following the publication of the Four Quartets, which are regarded as a single work despite having been published over the space of many years.
A central idea of this theme in Eliot’s work was that there are aspects of emotion that cannot be expressed directly in words, and that a poet’s task, or at least some part of a poet’s task, is to use words to express these things that cannot be (directly) expressed.
Raine quotes an essay in which Eliot wrote:
There is a poetry which represents an attempt to extend the confines of human consciousness, and to report of things unknown, to express the inexpressible.
And Raine explains this further, saying of Eliot:
He wishes, in his particular poetic programme, to tabulate, describe, and categorize emotions that exist at the far edge of consciousness. These emotions are…invisible, or near invisible, fugitive, and, if not faster than time, then not precisely locatable in conventional chronological time either.
Actions, not words
A good technique for indirect expression of emotion is to describe actions instead, and to let the actions imply the emotion. From another of Eliot’s essays:
You might think that soliloquy was a good way to express an inner state, but it isn’t action. Nor does soliloquy necessarily possess the clarity of action. Speech, as the aphorist once said, sometimes seems to be given to us so that we can conceal our thoughts.
He uses Lady Macbeth as an example. To express the depth of her feeling of guilt about Duncan’s murder, Shakespeare has her sleepwalking, and in her sleep washing her hands. Her guilt is not just something she talks about — it invades her whole being, and we witness it in her actions:
The difficulty…is that the inner state itself is opaque…whereas Lady Macbeth’s guilt about Duncan’s death is lucid.
Without an object
Eliot characterised these feelings that are problematic for poets as being detached from objective reality, or going beyond objective reality:
How, he asks, do you write about the intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible, without an object or exceeding its object — that is something which every person of sensibility has known. But the problem here is neither artistic not technical at all. It’s the problem of feeling an emotion you don’t understand because it is without a known cause. How do you express, objectively, this swirl of subjectivity?
And suddenly with that statement we are submerged up to our ears in the very essence of psychotherapy. The stuff you work with as a psychotherapist is exactly that intense feeling without an object, or exceeding its object. It is some overwhelming feeling with no apparent cause. It is a swirl of subjectivity that you have somehow to grasp using only words, just like a poet.
In psychotherapy it is rare to deduce meanings from actions. Psychotherapy is called “talking therapy” with good reason. Yet the use of action by poets has a parallel in the behavioural experiments of CBT.
In a behavioural experiment, your patient performs some action in order to learn from it, not because the action is necessarily useful in itself. The learning that results from the experiment often comes from the emotion that the action evokes.
A therapist who has a patient carry out an experiment that is more emotionally revealing than talk is like a poet who has a character perform an action that is more expressive than words. Therapists often forget this, and use behavioural experiments only as a last resort, or as confirmation of things that have already been talked through.
In psychotherapy the opacity of the patient’s inner state is a given. A therapist uses a curious mixture of empathy, induction and, to be honest, guesswork to achieve a shared understanding of it. (Empathy being, in essence, when the therapist thinks “I recognize that feeling in myself” and induction being, in essence, when the therapist notices a particular pattern in the patient and uses it to form a more general hypothesis.)
Poetry often creates the same kind of situation. A poet wants to make a statement about some general truth, and does so by telling a particular story, drawing on familiar things that readers can empathize with.
Alas, the broadcast was not helped by the excerpts from the poems. Ralph Fiennes sounded to me as if he was reading last year’s news in a foreign language — phonetically polished but without any sense of meaning. Did anyone tell him that he was participating in a broadcast about emotion?
Personally, I don’t think these poems are great works anyway, Nobel prize or no Nobel prize. But I did find one thing arresting. It’s that Eliot captures the sense of a particular moment when the story line moves from the real world into an inner world.
It’s a feeling that also occurs in therapy. There’s a moment when a possibility arises, an opportunity to move between worlds, like when a subtle knife snags on the fabric of a parallel universe and you know to push just there. And then suddenly there’s a feeling of everything being the same but different.
The broadcast edited this except from Little Gidding (II) rather oddly. I’ll give you more of the scene-setting before the moment when things get strange:
In the uncertain hour before the morning
Near the ending of interminable night
At the recurrent end of the unending
After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
Had passed below the horizon of his homing
While the dead leaves still rattled on like tin
Over the asphalt where no other sound was
Between three districts whence the smoke arose
I met one walking, loitering and hurried
As if blown towards me like the metal leaves
Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.
And as I fixed upon the down-turned face
That pointed scrutiny with which we challenge
The first-met stranger in the waning dusk
I caught the sudden look of some dead master
Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled
Both one and many; in the brown baked features
The eyes of a familiar compound ghost
Both intimate and unidentifiable.
So I assumed a double part, and cried
And heard another’s voice cry: ‘What! are you here?’
Although we were not. I was still the same,
Knowing myself yet being someone other—
It’s all fairly normal (except for the dark dove and the metal leaves, which I think are Eliot being self-indulgent) until “I caught the sudden look…” It’s that look that signals the shift. And then by “So I assumed a double part, and cried — And heard another’s voice cry” it’s happened, and the narrator is in two worlds.
I think that’s a very difficult thing to capture nicely, and I’m impressed by the way Eliot tells it the way it really happens.
There’s another example — a better example, I think — in Burnt Norton (I):
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner.
Here the moment of possibility is the question, “Shall we follow?” And then in the next line, in the very next word we are in the garden (and a very strange garden it is!)
Well, psychotherapy is often just like that. You can be sitting there talking, say, to a woman about a time when she was a little girl, and there is a tiny moment of silence in which the world kind of shifts around, and in the very next word you are talking to a little girl. It’s very, very strange to find that described in poetry.