THR Blog   /   October 1, 2015

T. S. Eliot on Psychology and the Modern Novel

Jay Tolson

T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, June 1924. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It's not one of T. S. Eliot's major works of criticism, and though it appeared in a French publication in 1927, the English version of “The Contemporary Novel” that he promised to Edmund Wilson at the New Republic was apparently lost. Recovered among his mother's papers and soon to be published in the third volume of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot, this seemingly slight essay on the novels of four contemporaries (D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, David Garnett, and Aldous Huxley) contains some strikingly canny observations about both modern fiction and certain tendencies in Western intellectual culture that persist to this day.

Eliot begins by quoting Henry James's critical assessment of Nathaniel Hawthorne's short stories:

They are moral, and their interest is moral; they deal with something more than the mere accidents and conventionalities, the surface occurrences of life. The fine thing in Hawthorne is that he cared for the deeper psychology, and that, in his way, he tried to become familiar with it

Like James, Eliot appreciated Hawthorne for both his moral seriousness and his care for the "deeper psychology," and he esteemed James for that very same conjunction of concerns. Indeed, Eliot suggests that what is most interesting about both writers is their shared assumption of a deep connection between psychological depth and moral seriousness, a connection that Eliot believed was becoming progressively de-linked in his own time, nowhere more obviously than in literary and intellectual understandings of psychology itself. Writes Eliot:

James’s book on Hawthorne was published in 1879. “Psychology” had not then reached the meaning of to-day, or if it had the meaning had not reached Henry James. One could not use the phrase now without surrounding it with a whole commentary of exposition and defence. But one feels that it is right; and that our contemporary novelists, under the influence of the shallower psychology by which we are all now affected, have missed that deeper psychology which was the subject of Henry James’s study.

To Eliot, the primary source of this new and shallower psychology was clear: the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud. "It would," he wrote, "be a work for a more highly trained and specialized mind than my own, to trace the effect of psycho-analysis upon literature and upon life, within the last thirty years or so. This effect is probably both greater and more transient than we suppose."

Transient, perhaps, but Eliot had no doubt about its decisive influence on the work of contemporary novelists, including the four that he addressed specifically in the essay:

All that I wish to affirm is that nearly every contemporary novel known to me is either directly affected by a study of psycho-analysis, or affected by the atmosphere created by psycho-analysis, or inspired by a desire to escape from psycho-analysis; and that, in each case, the result is a loss of seriousness and profundity, of that profundity which Henry James, if he did not always get it, was at least always after.

Was Eliot here revealing his own prudish fastidiousness? Was this the prim judgement of the Anglo-Catholic poet, horrified by Freud's probing of the recessive, sexually driven workings of the human unconscious? It might seem so. But in words so elliptical as almost to obscure their intent, Eliot complicates his assessment of Freud (and our understanding of Eliot himself) by mentioning the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, implying that the Russian novelist's understanding of human psychology was no less appreciative of the power of the unconscious than Freud's, but still decisively different:

 It [the influence of psychoanalysis] would have to be distinguished from the influence of Dostoevski; or rather, one would have to reconstruct hypothetically what the influence of Dostoevski would or could have been had not one aspect of his work been tremendously reinforced by the coincidence of his vogue in western Europe with the rise of Freud.

The key phrase here is "one aspect." More by implication than by explicit argument, Eliot credits Dostoevsky with peering into the abyss at least as intently as Freud and his acolytes did, but nevertheless coming away from the experience with a richer, fuller, and, yes, deeper understanding of human psychology. Dostoevsky did so precisely because he did not take such depths to be all-shaping or ultimately determinative. He did not reduce the complex dynamics of human motivation to one set of primal drives. He understood—and his greatest novels demonstrated—that human motivations were just as powerfully influenced and shaped by moral aspirations and spiritual longings. In short, in Eliot's view, Dostoevsky resisted the seductions of reductivism that drew so many of the best modern minds toward a tragic misconstrual of the human person.

What Eliot was also getting at was a larger cultural-intellectual affliction: the seductions of ideas and ideologies. And it was precisely in his resistance to such seductions that Eliot saw James as such an exemplary artist and mind: of a kind that seemed, in Eliot's view, to have largely disappeared after the death of James himself, in 1918. In that same year, Eliot wrote these words about James in The Little Review, words that merit reconsideration in light of the recently recovered essay:

James’s critical genius comes out most tellingly in his mastery over, his baffling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and an escape which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence. He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it…. In England, ideas run wild and pasture on the emotions; instead of thinking with our feelings (a very different thing) we corrupt our feelings with ideas; we produce the public, the political, the emotional idea, evading sensation and thought…. James in his novels is like the best French critics in maintaining a point of view, a view-point untouched by the parasite idea. He is the most intelligent man of his generation.

Jay Tolson is editor of the Hedgehog Review.