The Self-Help of T.S. Eliot

What does the poet need to know? What do any of us need to know?

Last night, for the first time in a while, we went to the theatre. Not a theatre. But the theatre. It’s something that hasn’t existed for some time—the stage and lights and actors and audience and the collective wonderment of watching a story unfold in real time as enacted by real people. The currency of the theatre is presence. That is all it requires of us: that we be there.

But, of course, we haven’t been. The pandemic. You know the story.

And this is, as if it needs to be said, to our loss. A recent study by my friend, colleague, and influencer on all things dramaturgical, Steve Rathje, looked at the benefits of attending the theatre. This is an entry in the research literature on the psychological effects of narrative engagement. That immersion into a story concerning a life other than your own—what lasting impact does it have on our thinking? Rathje’s study asserts itself to centerstage, like an actress certain of her place in the limelight. To quote the title: “Attending live theatre improves empathy, changes attitudes, and leads to pro-social behavior.” Rathje’s theatre-goers, for instance, were willing to donate larger sums after attending a performance than they were before.

Yet for my partner and I, we didn’t even need to set foot in the venue to feel the good vibes wash over us. Twice, on our walk to the theatre, we ran into friends. There would be the normal exchange of cordial greeting. Then a moment of pause. The kind of scrutinizing glance one would give a tricky puzzle.

“Something’s looks different about you,” they’d say. “What’s up?”

Something was different. We had somewhere to go. This was a circumstance without precedent in the entire year-or-so of our acquaintance. Moving with purpose toward a destination. Holding oneself with a sense of possibility, of anticipation. Dressing as if anyone actually gave a shit. These are states of being that it’s been while since Haily and I have been engaged in publicly.

This had been an event several months in the making. I’d purchased tickets for the show the day they were released. Partially, it was out of excitement for just having something to look forward to, a symbol of our society’s return to, well, society. But also I was intrigued by the performance. It was the first-ever theatre adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

Which was published in 1941. So it’s not like people haven’t had a chance to stage it. It’s also not like there’s such an overwhelming amount of T.S. Eliot material that it would take the creative world eons to prepare it for public dissemination (Eliot’s collected poems and plays fit into a single volume). The reason that no one had ever staged this particular work by this famous author before, I think it’s safe it say, is that the poem doesn’t really itself to adaption as screenplay. There is no plot. There are no characters. There are no scenes. There aren’t even any quartets. There is just the words, the imagery, the ideas, the poem.

The performance was, evidently, the pandemic-project of the venerable figure of British drama, Ralph Fiennes. (It is perhaps unsurprising that the actor who portrayed, most famously, Voldemort found himself in deep sympathy with the author of, most famously, The Wasteland.) If you’ve seen Bo Burnham’s recent Netflix special, Inside, this is essentially the same idea. One man. Trapped inside of doors. Given naturally to a tremendous amount of creativity, but not probably not stillness. What’s he going to do? For Burnham, the answer was the defining dramedy opera of the YouTube era. For Fiennes, it was to memorize a whole hell of a lot of T.S. Eliot.

Eliot, it should be said, is a kind of spirit-animal for our household. He was an American expatriate in Oxford. His affiliation was with Haily’s college, Merton, which named its own theatre after Eliot. Which is kind of funny. Because Eliot hated Oxford. “Oxford is very pretty,” he once wrote in a letter to a friend, “but I don't like to be dead.” Eliot also found the English, as Americans often do, a rather difficult group of people to develop ties with. It’s also probably the case that Eliot’s first wife conducted a sexual liaison with Bertrand Russell. Which if there’s anyone you wouldn’t mind getting cuckolded by…

Anyway. Even though Eliot’s place in literature was established through his modern poetry—mainly The Wasteland and The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock—he was also influential because of an idea. It was, in his original argument, an idea about poems. I find myself thinking about it a lot. I think it goes far beyond poetry. It tells us something deep and fundamental about the structure of creativity itself.


I’m not a scholar of the work of T.S. Eliot. But I am a great admirer of someone who is. One of my favorite writers is an author and professor of literature named Louis Menand, whose recent book, The Free World, is, in one version of events, my favorite book of all time. In this version, it is followed by my second favorite book, his 2001 work, The Metaphysical Club. He is someone whose work I’ve studied deeply. I’ve read everything he’s written twice. The first time to enjoy it. The second time to try to figure out how he did it. He’s incredible. The guy knows words.

At any rate, Menand’s first book (Discovering Modernism) was on T.S. Eliot, and Eliot has featured in cameos throughout many of his later works. Most of what I know about Eliot comes second-hand from Menand. Here are the basics:

Eliot was, at a first approximation, the person who gave shape to the department of English literature as it exists in modern universities. Which is a bit weird, given that he was never employed by one. Eliot spent of his most creative years (1917 to 1925) working a day job as a banker. He found he didn’t especially like life when liberated from that occupation. There are two reasons Eliot is famous today. One, as I mentioned, is his poetry. He almost singlehandedly established modernist poetry. Eliot, as Menand wrote, “changed the way poetry in English is written.” The other has to do with literary criticism.

Before Eliot, the concept of “literature” didn’t exist, in the academic sense, like it does today. Obviously, books were written. But there wasn’t an established paradigm for how to approach books as an academic endeavor. If you think back to someone like Friedrich Nietzsche, he was a philologist—that’s how people thought to approach formal writing before Eliot, as a study of how documents changed over time. Eliot was the first to suggest a way of approaching the study of literature as means of accumulating knowledge, the kind of contiguity of ideas necessary to form an academic discipline. Eliot was, in Menand’s unqualified opinion, “the most important figure in twentieth-century English-language literary culture.”

The central idea in Eliot’s approach has to do with what a poem is about. The argument is laid out in his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Intuitively, we might think that poetry is about life. What inspires a poem? The author’s experience—real or imagined. That experience elicits an emotional or intellectual reaction. The poem is the manifestation of that reaction. Poetry is, as Rebecca Lindenberg wrote, what thought feels like.

No, says Eliot. A poem doesn’t have anything to do with actual life. The way to read a poem is not to look at the poet’s experiences or to intuit her mental state while composing it. What, instead, is a poem about? That’s easy. Poetry. What the poet needs to know in order to write good poetry is not life, but other poems. As Eliot put it, “we must consider it [a poem] primarily as poetry and not another thing.”

This is where the word “Tradition,” from the title, comes into play. Poems are responses to other poems, and a poem can only be properly understood when placed in the contexts of the poems that have come before it. “No poet, no artist of any art, has [her] complete meaning alone,” wrote Eliot. “[Her] significance, her appreciation is the appreciation of [her] relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value [her] alone; you must set [her], for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”

This framing of poetry is what allowed it to be turned into an academic pursuit. The knowledge became cumulative, one poet built on and responded to the one that came before. The project of criticism, as Eliot saw it, was to say how exactly that progression worked. I think it’s summed up nicely by this line:

Someone once said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.


So that’s poetry.

But I think the structure of this observation holds for any endeavor that depends on creativity, any kind of cumulative knowledge—one artist, one scientist responding to the one that came before.

In particular, I think of this in my own field of psychology. Whereas poets write poems, psychologists run experiments. The historical output of these experiments forms a Tradition in Eliot’s sense—a capital-L scientific Literature. So what does a psychologist need to know? Specifically, what does a psychologist need to know to construct an experiment? Or put another way, what do we, looking from the outside, need to know in order to understand the experiment and what it shows?

The ideal answer is—it really seems like it has to be—“life.” What’s the point of doing psychological research if it doesn’t tell us something about how humans actually behave out there in the real world?

This is the lens through which I’ve always found myself trying to interpret, to criticize psychological research. And, in a way that might be surprising to anyone who isn’t an academic psychologist, it’s kind of a subversive thing to do. In the lab that I joined when I first came to Oxford, our weekly lab meeting consists of someone presenting a scientific paper and submitting it to collective scrutiny from the group. Most of the questions were about scientific rigor: How do we know they controlled for possible confounds? Were their statistical practices up to snuff? Yet I could never quite get as excited about this questions as everyone else. There was another concern on my mind. Let’s say these results are true, that the experiment is a good one. What would this actually tell us about humans? Would it change anything in the way we normally think about behavior? The question, after a while, becomes annoying. The answer usually is “not really.”

And as I construct my own experiments throughout my PhD, I find less and less that it’s possible to make any progress on research while holding in mind this question of whether an experiment tells us anything about life. What’s defensible as a research project is not what fits with everyday experience, but what fits with the existing research.

What does the psychologist need to know? Just one thing. Psychology.

She does not, in any meaningful way, need to know about life. Any connection between psychology and life is at best tenuous and more likely illusory. Psychology, like poetry, is about the tradition, the literature, the precedent. What the psychologist needs to know is what’s been done by previous psychologists. That’s it.

This explains a lot. For one thing, it explains why so much research is iterative. This is the plaint of many a graduate student. They come in bright-eyed, wanting to change the field in some profound and substantial way. By the end of their PhD, they’ve extended their advisor’s work—only a little, and, if they’re lucky, in a direction that may not have been completely entailed by the original study. That’s certainly the story for me, anyway.

In 99% of cases, what a psychological study has to make contact with in order to be interpretable—to make sense, to prevent other scientists from picking it apart in a lab meeting—is not some idea or experience plucked from life as it’s actually lived, but the precedent of the existing research literature. We know much more than those who came before us. They are that which we know.

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This is the exasperating thing about Eliot’s idea, that what the poet needs to know is only poetry. It provides a kind of coherence, defining the center of gravity for a discipline. Yet—and this is an opinion held by Menand as well—it’s almost certainly wrong.

Poems do tell us something about the poet. They are driven by life experience. They can’t not tell us something about the poet! Menand’s Modernism book is subtitled T.S. Eliot and His Context—that even though Eliot didn’t think so, the only way to get the full story is by looking outside the poems, beyond the content. There is no content without context, no poem without a poet. As much as he admires Eliot, Menand’s entire body of work is premised on the idea that in order to get the big picture of a work—whether of poetry, philosophy, art, policy, literature, music—you have to understand the artist and her social environment. The poem is not the only thing that matters. Everything is on the table.

And so it is with psychology. There is a strange dance in the tension between the way we’ve come and the way we are going. Take Steve’s study for instance. Attending theatre increases empathy. This study is a good example to consider because it’s a better study than most. Steve actually went out there into the world to acquire his data. This is not true of most psychology studies these days (they take place either online or in classrooms). Not only does theatre require that we be present. So do studies of the theatre. And his work is all the better for it.

It’s clear to see how this paper binds to the Eliotonian vision of Tradition. As I mentioned when introducing the paper, it fits very snugly into a constellation of research about the psychological effects of narrative. This is not to suggest the study wasn’t worth doing, but just to point out that it isn’t without precedent. And the measures of the effects claimed in the title? These are measures pulled straight from the Tradition: for example, asking people how much they’d donate to charity as a measure of pro-sociality. The language of the psychology study, the means of conveying its content, must be the language of the Tradition.

And yet, this observation—that attending theatre has the ability to connect us more deeply with the feelings and perspectives of others, that it has the power to change our minds and imbue us with a new way of seeing things, that people come out of the theatre with a smile, feeling that the world might be a brighter and more worthwhile place than when they came in—did Steve need a psychology experiment to tell him that? I don’t know. You’d have to ask him. But I don’t think he did. I think he’s a life-long lover of the theatre. I think that’s the empirical evidence that drove the observation. And it would still be there even if the study were never done. The point of the study was not the insight, but the formulate it in the Tradition of psychological research.

I pick on Steve, as I said, because I think the study is a kind of best-case-scenario. (Actually, I pick on him simply because I mentioned his work at the beginning, apropos of the theatre, and ended up circling back to it later on. Sorry Steve!) It would be a lot easier to pick apart almost any other psychological study as being entirely motivated as a continuation of the Tradition and not a derivation of everyday existence.

But almost any psychologist, if you put the question to her directly, would recoil at the idea that their research is simply a function of previous research and makes no direct contact with life as its actually lived. That’s not the way we view our work. Yet there’s something empirical convincing about Eliot’s idea—that maybe it really is the way we do our work. Any creative work. Anything in which knowledge, patterns, culture, ways of doing things, precedents are accumulated over time. It doesn’t feel like it ought to be. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t.

How to disentangle that? If you figure out, let me know.


Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

Fucking badass, I know. It’s the opening passage of “Burnt Norton,” the first movement in Eliot’s Four Quartets. One of the themes of the poem, and perhaps the most immediately accessible to someone, like myself, untrained in the mystic rhythms of modernist poetry, is spatial metaphor for time.

The present is a point. But what’s contained within that point? The past. What exists now has arisen out of the Tradition. And if each moment, each singular point of the present, contains within it the past, then the future is just a series of these points, one folded into the next.

This point, it is the very center of the earth.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

(No, I wasn’t kidding when I suggested the poem didn’t immediately lend itself to a stage production.)

This is the predicament. What we have is only the moment. But the moment is inextricable from the past. We are forced to respond to what we ourselves done as well as what others have done. The Tradition. That is the only thing that exists to respond to. We look forward to the future, toward what we hope to do, toward what we hope to creative. It is a response to the present. There is only the dance.

And here is where I feel there is irony. I have no fucking idea whether this passage relates to a passage from a previous poet. If there’s a John Donne poem that this makes subtle reference to, I’ve yet to come across it. And Eliot, by his own theory, believed what was meaningful about his work—about poetry in general—was its relation to other poems. But it’s not. It is its relation to life. Does that poem (whether read aloud in one’s bedroom or on stage performed theatrically) increase empathy? Does it change attitudes? Does it move the needle on your goodwill towards humankind?

That’s what counts.

You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

That’s not poetry. That’s self-help.


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