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Life Arts    H3'ed 9/24/20

Geoffrey B. Williams' Portrait of the Artist T. S. Eliot (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) September 24, 2020: In my 7,500-word OEN article "Walter J. Ong's Philosophical Thought" (dated September 20, 2020), I mount a spirited defense of Ong's philosophical thought against Timothy Mark Chouinard's succinct critique of it in his interdisciplinary Ph.D. dissertation in English at Saint Louis University titled T. S. Eliot: A Philosophy of Communication for Literature and Speech that I sent you. To put it mildly, I am not impressed with Chouinard's account of Ong's thought.

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In any event, in Chouinard's table of contents (pages iv-vi), the words "Ambiguity" and "Ambiguous" appear seven times in the subheadings for his chapter III.

Now, for a far more extensive discussion of ambiguity in Eliot's writings, I turned to the Canadian Jesuit Geoffrey B. Williams' book The Reason in a Storm: A Study of Ambiguity in the Writings of T. S. Eliot (1991), which started off as his Ph.D. dissertation in English at the University of Toronto. But Chouinard's, at times amusing, chutzpah is not present in Williams' book.

Now, Chouinard lists in his bibliography the two most important books by the Canadian Jesuit philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan (1904-1984). Williams also lists those two books by Lonergan in his bibliography. But Ong occasionally refers to Lonergan. In addition, Ong occasionally discusses Eliot.

However, I will admit that Williams' book may contain more about ambiguity in Eliot's writings than you ever wanted to know. Nevertheless, I will tell you certain strengths of Williams' book. Its greatest strengths are his accounts of the literary and philosophical movements known collectively as Romanticism. As you may know, Ong writes of Romanticism in sweeping terms in his book Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture (1971). In both Ong's sweeping account of Romanticism and Williams' more precisely detailed discussion of literary and philosophical Romanticism (e.g., F. H. Bradley's idealist philosophy), Ong and Lonergan stand in the Romantic tradition of thought - as does Pope Leo XIII's 1879 encyclical that inaugurated the Thomistic revival of the twentieth century, before it was downgraded a wee bit in the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) in the Roman Catholic Church.

In addition, Pope Francis' emphasis on encounter places him in virtually the same position as Ong and Lonergan in the Romantic tradition. Both Lonergan and Ong studied Thomistic thought in the philosophical studies (in Latin) and in their theological studies (in Latin) as part of their Jesuit training before the Second Vatican Council.

For relevant further reading about Pope Francis, see my OEN article "Pope Francis' New Apostolic Exhortation Is Visionary" (dated February 14, 2020):

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For an accessible presentation of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274), see Matthew Fox's creative 550-page book Sheer Joy: [Four Extended] Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality (Mineola, New York: Ixia Press of Dover Publications, 2020). Aquinas is rightly known for his dialectical philosophical and theological argumentation - argumentation, that is, based on carefully articulated and operationally defined contrasting terms known as polarities. But he is also rightly known for his use of analogies and analogical reasoning. However, he is less well known for what he refers to as deification - a term that he did not originate (see the index in Fox's book for this term). Now, for the sake of discussion, we may wonder here about the deeply felt subjective experience of the process known as deification.

In Fox's creatively constructed four extended conversations with Aquinas in Sheer Joy, he aligns Aquinas' thought with his fourfold way of theistic spirituality: (1) the Via Positiva (pages 57-187); (2) the Via Negativa (pages 189-243; roughly equivalent to the earlier atheistic Eliot's dark night of the soul, but also including the later theistic Eliot's experience of the traditional purgative way); (3) the Via Creativa (pages 245-382; e.g., both the earlier atheistic Eliot's poetry and the later theistic Eliot's poetry); and (4) the Via Transformativa (pages 383-515; Eliot may have thought of all of his publications as contributing to the possible transformation of the world - which is how I tend to think of my own publications, including the present review essay).

Now, Williams refers explicitly to Eliot's earlier poetry to 1925 and his later poetry after 1925 (see, for example, page 231). Eliot's earlier poetry includes his most famous poem The Waste Land (1922). Eliot's later poetry includes his seven plays, including Murder in the Cathedral (1935).

According to Williams, the earlier poetry was written when Eliot experienced his life as "disgusting" (Eliot's word; quoted on page 178). Perhaps we can refer to the anguish that Eliot refers to as disgusting as representing his experience of the dark night of the soul (psyche) - which may be a universal human experience. Williams (page 173) sees Eliot's earlier poetry to 1925 as characterized by "the defiant narrative logic of the poetry and the rhetorical strategies of evasion discussed" by Williams in chapter 4 (pages 111-173). But Eliot's conversion to orthodox trinitarian Christianity is the great pivot in his life - and in his poetry (page 180).

Eliot's pivot in his life journey involved moving from his deeply felt sense of his life as disgusting into the theistic spirituality traditionally known as the purgative way, the illuminative way, and the unitive way - the theistic spiritual movements involved in what Aquinas refers to as the process of deification. But Williams does not happen to advert explicitly to this threefold terminology. Rather, he refers to Lonergan's thought about conversion.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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