The Language of Non-Thought

Lionel Trilling, The Meaning of a Literary Idea:

We think Aristotle to be a better critic of the drama than Plato because we perceive that Aristotle understood and Plato did not understand that the form of the drama was of itself an idea which controlled and brought to a particular issue the subordinate ideas it contained. The form of the drama is its idea, and its idea is its form. And form in those arts which we call abstract is no less an idea than is form in the representational arts. Governments nowadays are very simple and accurate in their perception of this — much more simple and accurate than are academic critics and aestheticians — and they are as quick to deal with the arts of “pure” form as they are to deal with ideas stated in discourse: it is as if totalitarian governments kept in mind what the rest of us tend to forget, that “idea” in one of its early significations exactly means form and was so used by many philosophers.

It is helpful to have this meaning before us when we come to consider that particular connection between literature and ideas which presents us with the greatest difficulty, the connection that involves highly elaborated ideas, or ideas as we have them in highly elaborated systems such as philosophy, or theology, or science. The modem feeling about this relation- ship is defined by two texts, both provided by T. S. Eliot. In his essay on Shakespeare Mr. Eliot says, “I can see no reason for believing that either Dante or Shakespeare did any thinking on his own. The people who think that Shakespeare thought are always people who are not engaged in writing poetry, but who are engaged in thinking, and we all like to think that great men were like ourselves.” And in his essay on Henry James Mr. Eliot makes the well-known remark that James had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.

In both statements, as I believe, Mr. Eliot permits his impulse to spirited phrase to run away with him, yielding too much to what he conceives to be the didactic necessities of the moment, for he has it in mind to offer resistance to the nineteenth-century way of looking at poetry as a heuristic medium, as a communication of knowledge. This is a view which is well exemplified in a sentence of Carlyle’s: “If called to define Shakespeare’s faculty, I should say superiority of Intellect, and think I had included all in that.’’ As between the two statements about Shakespeare’s mental processes, I give my suffrage to Carlyle’s as representing a more intelligible and a more available notion of intellect than Mr. Eliot’s, but I think I understand what Mr. Eliot is trying to do with his — he is trying to rescue poetry from the kind of misinterpretation of Carlyle’s view which was once more common than it is now; he is trying to save for poetry what is peculiar to it, and for systematic thought what is peculiar to it.

As for Mr. Eliot’s statement about James and ideas, it is useful to us because it gives us a clue to what might be called the sociology of our question. “Henry James had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.’’ In the context “violate” is a strong word, yet we can grant that the mind of the poet is a sort of Clarissa Harlowe and that an idea is a sort of Colonel Lovelace, for it is a truism of contemporary thought that the whole nature of man stands in danger of being brutalized by the intellect, or at least by some one of its apparently accredited surrogates. A specter haunts our culture — it is that people will eventually be unable to say, “They fell in love and married,” let alone understand the language of Romeo and Juliet, but will as a matter of course say, “Their libidinal impulses being reciprocal, they activated their individual erotic drives and integrated them within the same frame of reference.”

Now this is not the language of abstract thought or of any kind of thought. It is the language of non-thought. But it is the language which is developing from the peculiar status which we in our culture have given to abstract thought. There can be no doubt whatever that it constitutes a threat to the emotions and thus to life itself.


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