Friday, September 2, 2016

Trapped by Fear

Fear plays a greater role in our experience than we tend to admit. It is often the unstated motivational force in stories and films, as in life.

In researching the life of T. S. Eliot recently for an upcoming talk, and in reading Philip Roth's 2008 novel, Indignation (made into a recent movie that I've not yet seen), I see the ironic confluence of anxiety, especially the kind passed on from father to son.

First, Eliot: When I taught the major poetry of Eliot at the university, I referred to his life, his troubled marriage in particular, but focused mainly on the ideas, as I tried to help students cope with the challenge of his poems. Now that I have read three important biographical studies of Eliot by Lyndall Gordon, I can see how fear governed his life.

As one of his friends said of him: Tom, like his character J. Alfred Prufrock,  is enveloped in "frozen formality." He was not merely shy and reserved, but fearful of people, of women in particular, of sexuality--this the heritage of his Puritan New England grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, whose influence on the family seems to have been significant.  The poet's father registered a disgust with sexuality. And the upper-class world of Tom's upbringing taught him to be suspicious of outsiders and especially of feelings. So he turned inward, to poetry and philosophy.

We now can see that "The Waste Land" and Eliot's other poems and plays are the direct result of his disastrous first marriage to a hysterical woman, later institutionalized. His true love (Emily Hale) was turned into a muse, as Beatrice was for Dante. Tom ran away from emotional conflicts and found some comfort in his faith as well as in his literary career.

The poet's various torments had much to do with the Eliot family; the same is true of the young protagonist in Roth's novel, the 18-year-old son of a kosher butcher--about as remote from the occasionally anti-Semitic world of Eliot as one could imagine--whose father is so worried about his son's safety that he runs away from his Newark home to an Ohio college, where he is unhappy, tense, restless, and worried much of the time.

The consequences of the father's high anxiety are tragic for the young man, yet the tone of the novel, as in much Jewish American fiction, is comic because the feelings are so extreme.

This masterful short novel by Roth has nothing in common with the work of Eliot except one basic thing: the centrality of fear and how, when passed on from one generation to another, it can ruin one's sense of happiness. But it can also create great literature, which always stems from more than ideas: it comes from the emotional experience of the author, shaped and transformed into art.

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