Poetry and the Kenotic Word
Celestial Music Unheard: T. S. Eliot, “Marina” and the Via Negativa
Writing to Mario Praz in 1928, T. S. Eliot offered his friend a provocative understanding of mysticism: “I think that my most positive view on mysticism would be, that no tenable defence of mysticism can be made which is not a defence of the human reason as well” (The Letters of T. S. Eliot, vol. 4, 325). At first sight, Eliot appears to be insisting on two mutually exclusive categories within a single defence. Indeed, nineteenth-century doctors diagnosed (mostly female) mystics as test cases of irrational behaviour, often applying the label “hysteric” to them (Noel Evans 9–50). On such a theory, the best defence available would insist upon the visionary or insightful character of the abnormal mind; and it would seem ill-advised to appeal to the significance of reason within the mystic’s constitution. Writers at the turn of the twentieth-century, such as Friedrich von Hügel, however, sought to break the association of medicalised irrationality and mysticism; that is, to see the irrational behaviour that doctors made so much of in the previous century as peripheral phenomena and to distinguish it from the core of mysticism (von Hügel, vol. 2, 3–61).
Thus Eliot’s insistence on the significance of reason not so much makes an ultimate claim concerning mysticism – he recognised that the concept was far too broad for such generalisations1 – as distinguishes the type of mysticism in which he was interested. This focus, for instance, leads him to criticise the reliance on intuitional...
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