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  • An Objective Chemistry:What T. S. Eliot Borrowed from Schopenhauer
  • Aakanksha Virkar-Yates

In his 1926 lectures on metaphysical poetry, T. S. Eliot describes the work of Jules Laforgue as the “nearest verse equivalent to the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Hartmann,” a literary rendition of their philosophies of the unconscious and of annihilation.1 Yet, Eliot suggests, in Laforgue the system of Schopenhauer ultimately collapses; the poet does not find in the philosopher that metaphysical balance between thought and feeling he so desperately craves. Schopenhauer’s philosophy, Eliot asserts, is “muddled by feeling—for what is more emotional than the philosophy of Schopenhauer or Hartmann?”2 Here, as elsewhere, Eliot paints Schopenhauer as a despairing, overwrought romantic. Such a presentation naturally makes Schopenhauer an unlikely figure to have any bearing on the great central theme of Eliot’s poetics—his theory of impersonality. In actual fact, Eliot’s formulation of impersonal emotion in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) borrows much from Schopenhauer’s aesthetics of poetry in The World as Will and Representation (1818).

Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of the will are well known. In his philosophical opus of 1818, Schopenhauer portrays the will as a blind, striving urge to life, determining human experience and perpetuating an [End Page 527] endless cycle of desire, pain, and suffering. It is this romantic pessimism and metaphysics of despair that had so great an impact on writers and artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Ironically perhaps, liberation from the will and suffering is suggested by Schopenhauer to be found in three ways: through compassion, ascetic renunciation, and aesthetic experience. In his celebration of renunciation and the denial of the will to live, Schopenhauer famously embraces Buddhism and the religion of the Upanishads. Eliot himself describes Schopenhauer’s view of Buddhism as “romantic misunderstanding,” but it nevertheless conditions his own engagement with Indic tradition.3 A similar tension is visible also in what J. M. Kertzer suggests to be Eliot’s modification of F. H. Bradley’s arguments against Schopenhauer’s conception of the will.4 Kertzer reads Ash-Wednesday as reflecting Schopenhauer’s problematical conception of the will and asceticism; self-denial is the paradox that makes the will both the damnation and salvation of the individual. Kertzer goes so far as to suggest that this problematical notion is in part the grounds for Eliot’s move from philosophy to theology. Questions of Eliot’s aesthetics in light of Schopenhauer have, however, been almost entirely neglected.

For Schopenhauer, the realm of the aesthetic offers a form of knowledge truly exceptional. In general human experience, the world and its objects are conceived spatiotemporally and in utilitarian relation to the needy will. In striking contrast, aesthetic experience predicates the freedom of the intellect from the tyranny of the will: the “subject of knowing” detaches itself from the “subject of willing.” The result is a pure, will-less form of knowing in which the transformation of the subject is matched by that of the object; through the individual thing in space and time is perceived the objective Platonic Idea—the original and eternal form. The Ideas, Schopenhauer writes, are “truly existing, since they always are but never become and never pass away.”5 Critically, unlike Plato, who reserves the Ideas for intellection, Schopenhauer stresses that the Platonic Ideas can only be perceived in the aesthetic experience of nature or art. Only in such experience do we “no longer consider the where, the when, the why, and the whither in things, but simply and solely the what.” (WWR I, p. 178).

This nonconceptual knowledge or knowledge of perception, which Schopenhauer also refers to as “intuitive cognition” or “feeling,” is what makes for the exceptional domain of the aesthetic. Unlike concepts that are abstracted, the Ideas can only be perceived. Knowledge of these Ideas and of the true and essential nature of the world is the knowledge [End Page 528] afforded, par excellence, by aesthetic experience. The artist, moreover, not only perceives the Ideas of the world (like individuals of genius) but is further able to fashion these Ideas in art in a manner that makes them accessible to the art receiver. This fashioning is often...