One walks about the street with one's desires, and one's refinement rises up like a wall whenever opportunity approaches.
T.S. Eliot to Conrad Aiken,
31 December 1914
Writing a London Letter for the Dial in September 1922, T.S. Eliot suggested that there were 'at present . . . three main types of English novel'. There was the 'old narrative method', the traditional tale, represented by H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett and Compton Mackenzie. At the other end of this contemporary spectrum there was the 'dangerous' Dostoevskian novel in which the writer has what Eliot calls 'the gift, a sign of genius in itself, for utilising his weaknesses'. Dostoevsky, in Eliot's view, has a relationship to his own pathology that is a form of artistic vocation. 'Epilepsy and hysteria,' Eliot writes, 'cease to be the defects of an individual and become - as a fundamental weakness can, given the ability to face it and study it - the entrance to a genuine and personal universe.' The idea that what one is suffering from, that what one experiences in oneself as weakness or defect or shame might be 'the entrance to a genuine and personal universe' sounds, of course, like the kind of thing Freud and his various inheritors were saying at around this time: that symptoms of illness were signs of meaning; that personal vulnerability was an opening, an 'entrance', to use Eliot's word; that where people were vulnerable was where they had once made room for other people. For Eliot, 'the most interesting novelist in England' is D.H. Lawrence, who has, in his view, been 'affected' by Dostoevsky.
LRB 29 November 2001 | PDF Download