April 27, 2016, by Words on Words
Lobsters, Regionalism, and Much More: T. S. Eliot and British Surrealism in the 1930s
This blog post was written by School of English PhD student, Xiaofan Xu.
At first glance, T. S. Eliot and surrealism just do not seem to click. Eliot is known to have rejected a manuscript on French surrealism in 1926 for publication in his Criterion, with a dismissive comment that ‘I cannot feel that the theories of the surréalistes are of sufficient importance to justify us in treating them with so much care’ . However, the following decade seems to have witnessed a change in his attitude towards surrealism. He attended the London Surrealist Exhibition in 1936, and even before that, he had published a few distinctly surrealist works in quick succession in the Criterion, all by British authors. These included works by the fledgling surrealist poets Hugh Sykes Davies, Charles Madge, Roger Roughton, the then up-and-coming Dylan Thomas, along with reviews on two books by David Gascoyne.
As I progress with my doctoral thesis, I am increasingly fascinated by the reason behind such a sea-change on Eliot’s part. The sound of surrealism was certainly not music to the ears of Eliot’s respectable contemporaries. It was disreputable, to say the least. The 1936 London Surrealist Exhibition stirred a mild succès de scandale. Clement Greenberg, in his influential reflection upon the Avant Garde in 1939, also denigrates the surrealist plastic arts as being only secondary to the ‘good avant-garde’ in his classification, given its reactionary focus upon the ‘“outside” subject matter’ . This brand of ‘bad taste’, however, might just have worked to Eliot’s benefit. Like Baudelaire who would ‘invent a cliche’ in defiance of the bourgeois propriety of his age, Eliot seeks to reshape literary taste for his own age by way of the ‘profane illuminations’ of surrealism . Viewed in this light, Eliot’s publication of British surrealist works might thus be regarded as his combat with the banality of established taste (a difficult task given that he was himself part of the establishment) and an attempt to tap into the subversive potential of surrealist ‘bad taste’.There is still more to it, however. What draws Eliot’s attention is a specifically British variation of surrealism, championed by his friend Herbert Read and a handful of other British local writers and artists. They seek, among other things, a certain genius loci in their works. Herbert Read, for instance, urges British artists interested in surrealism (which he calls superrealism) to work directly under the local traditions of William Blake, Edward Lear, and Lewis Carroll. In his novel The Green Child (1935), he draws upon a twelfth-century Suffolk myth and transplants it into the limestone topography of Yorkshire, his birthplace. Other British surrealists have variously given a regional edge to their artistic expressions, a tendency that Graham Sutherland succinctly sums up when he suggests that ‘the more a poet sings in his genealogical tree the more he is in tune’ . This regionalist tune of the British surrealists coincides with a rising regionalism on Eliot’s side running throughout the 1930s and 1940s, culminating in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), where he argues, still to many people’s surprise nowadays, that ‘[o]n the whole, it would appear to be for the best that the great majority of human beings should go on living in the place in which they were born’ . This is what I look at in one of my thesis chapters. My analysis contextualises the development of Eliot’s regionalism within the British surrealist movement, the latter receiving Eliot’s institutional seal through publication in his Criterion. Viewed in this way, the two seemingly unrelated currents of 1930s culture addressed here are thus braided together, through a shared regionalism and, as I go on to discuss at more length in my thesis chapter, a quickened sense of the physicality of nature. Xiaofan Xu
 Eliot’s letter to Theodora Bosanquet, 21 June 1926, in The Letters of T. S. Eliot, ed. by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden (London: Faber, 2012), III, p. 189.
 Clement Greenberg, ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, Partisan Review, 6 (Fall 1939), pp. 34-49 (n. 2).
 See the analysis of Charles Baudelaire’s ‘Fusees’ in Svetlana Boym, Common Places (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 17.
 Graham Sutherland, ‘A Trend in English Draughtsmanship’, Signature, 3 (July 1936), pp. 7-13 (p. 11).
 T. S. Eliot, Notes Toward the Definition of Culture (London: Faber, 1948), p. 52.
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