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  • Modern Monuments:T. S. Eliot, Nietzsche, and the Problem of History
  • John Zilcosky (bio)

During and after his formal study of philosophy, T. S. Eliot shared interests with Friedrich Nietzsche, such as mythology, Greek tragedy, and concerns about the future of art. However, Eliot rarely mentions Nietzsche in his published works, and, perhaps for this reason, critics have yet to fully investigate the significance of Nietzsche for Eliot. Nietzsche's impact upon the zeitgeist was unrivaled—as evidenced in the works of Kafka, Pound, Mann, Proust, Joyce—and Eliot was well aware of this. As he wrote to his mother in 1915, he had already read some Nietzsche and planned to read more: "As for the book on Nietzsche, I have finished it, and now am reading some of Nietzsche's works which I had not read before, and which I ought to read anyhow before my examinations."1 This reading bears itself out in Eliot's later writings. As critics have convincingly argued, Die Geburt der Tragödie (The Birth of Tragedy) looms behind both the ritualistic, "Dionysian" tragedy, Murder in the Cathedral (1935),2 as well as the mytho-poetic The Waste Land (1922). In the latter, Nietzsche haunts Eliot via Tristan und Isolde, as a voice latent within the text and its notes.3

We can gain a clue to the precise nature of Eliot's interest in Nietzsche through Eliot's 1916 review of A. Wolf's The Philosophy of Nietzsche (the "book" that Eliot refers to in the letter to his mother). Eliot's treatment of Nietzsche is even-handed, especially in light of the anti-Nietzsche mood of World War I England.4 Eliot censures Nietzsche for being neither writer nor philosopher, a critique that Eliot could well have leveled against himself, but he later admires Nietzsche's theories of aesthetics. As Eliot writes in his final sentence, he "regrets" that Wolf's Nietzsche omits any account of "Nietzsche's views on art," especially of his "interesting pessimism with respect to the future of art."5 The [End Page 21] connection between Eliot's and Nietzsche's philosophical views on the future of art and of artistic production—yet to be discussed by critics—is the theme of this essay.6 Not a discussion of "influence," these remarks will rather focus on the philosophical "paradox" that is common to all European modernities: the pressure of creating the "new" from the ground of the old.7 Ostensibly opposed in their valuations of "tradition," both Eliot and Nietzsche, I argue, end up at the same impasse regarding literary innovation, as exemplified in Nietzsche's "Vom Nutzen und Nachtheil der Historie für das Leben" ("On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life," 1874) and Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919). This dovetailing toward the same aesthetic contradiction underlines the dialectical nature of cultural criticism then and now, especially when one opposes apparently "radical" (Nietzsche) and "reactionary" (Eliot) poles.

I. The Problem of History

In order to approach the problem of literary innovation within tradition, I begin with two quotations: first, T. S. Eliot's famous description from "Tradition and the Individual Talent" of how new works of art make their way into the canon, which already exists in an "ideal" state: "The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives."8 Second, consider Nietzsche's 1874 attack on the misuse of history, which today reads like a prescient indictment of the tradition-based criticism Eliot promoted almost fifty years later:

(The judges of art) cannot tolerate a rebirth of the monumental, and, to assure that none will take place, they employ precisely that past art which has long been canonized as monumental. This is the method of connoisseurs, because they would like to eliminate art altogether. [. . .] Monumental history is the masquerade in which their hatred for the great and powerful artists of their own age appears as a complacent admiration for the great and powerful artists of the past.9

Nietzsche's assault on the "connoisseurs...


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