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Richard Shusterman T. S. ELIOT ON READING: PLEASURE, GAMES, AND WISDOM Eliot frequently speaks of poetry as essentially a game or amusement whose first and foremost function is to give pleasure. "The poet," says Eliot, "would like to be something of a popular entertainer . . . would like to convey die pleasures ofpoetry. . . . As things are, and as fundamentally they must always be, poetry is not a career but a mug's game" (TUPTUC, p. 154). ' Surely much ofthe point and appeal ofthese remarks is their deflationary contrast to the overlofty claims made for poetry since romanticism, claims which continue to be heard in Arnold's ideas of poetry as criticism of life and surrogate of religion and which extend to modernism with Richards's claim that "poetry is capable of saving us." In mordant debunking of the poet's putative status as world legislator, prophet, and savior, Eliot says he would be pleased to secure for the poet "a part to play in society as worthy as that of the music hall comedian." But Eliot's idea of poetry as an amusement or game is much more than an ironic rhetorical ploy against romantic attitudes. It contains a positive and complex view of what poetry is and how it satisfies. Eliot wants to remind us of "that simple truth that literature is primarily literature, a means of refined and intellectual pleasure."2 However, he also realizes that this truth is really not all that simple to understand or elucidate properly; for it does not mean (though it might seem to suggest ) that literature is a mere means to obtain some external end of pleasure. Nor does it mean that in aiming essentially at pleasure, literature is confined to satisfying our sensual or emotional faculties, and is 2 Philosophy and Literature therefore not significandy connected with improving thought or communicating wisdom, for the pleasure is described as intellectual pleasure. Because of the likely misunderstandings that it is apt to provoke, Eliot's claim that literature is a refined game, that "poetry is a superior amusement ," is not confidendy offered as an adequately "true definition, but because if you call it something else, you are likely to call it something still more false" (SW, p. ix). But what substance or value is there in Eliot's preferred view? The idea of poetry as a superior game or amusement is developed in many ways throughout the Eliot critical corpus. We cannot consider them all, but the first we should consider concerns the character of pleasure or enjoyment derived from poetry. If poetry is a refined game, and since games are activities, the pleasure (enjoyment) of poetry would be that ofan activity rather than that ofa pleasant sensation. Eliot's idea of poetic pleasure is thus fundamentally Aristotelian.3 Such pleasure is not a separate sensation or pleasant feeling external to and identifiable apart from the game played, but rather represents the attendant zest or satisfaction with which the game is played or the activity pursued. For Aristotle, "pleasure completes the activity" by the dual and reciprocal action of making it more rewarding and thus promoting it. Our pleasure intensifies our interest in the activity which makes us better pursue it, while displeasure conversely impedes it, as does submitting to the alien pleasures from other activities. If the pleasures of different activities can conflict and impede their respective activities, then these pleasures must be distinguishable and are so in terms of the activities to which they attend. Our enjoyment of an activity thus logically depends on the constitutive structure of that activity and is inseparable from it. We therefore distinguish the pleasures of different games by the different game-activities to which they are bound. One may enjoy tennis, cricket, and football and perhaps feel similar pleasurable sensations from each. But the enjoyment of each game is clearly distinguishable and understood not in terms of these sensations but in terms of the different activities which constitute the formal object or ground of that pleasure. Different games or, more generally, different activities are differendy enjoyable, and each has what Aristotle calls its own "proper pleasure." One could not get the pleasure of playing tennis from playing...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 1-20
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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