T.S. Eliot: “when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.”

I remember being fascinated with and challenged by The Waste Land in high school, though it wasn’t until I read some of Eliot’s essays in college that it all sunk in. The same man who could write such clear, sensible prose when he wanted to explain could also construct densely packed, layered, gnostic verse. What he wrote in 1921 about the difficulty of communicating outside our silos of expertise is even more relevant today.

When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when every one knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not. And when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts. –T.S. Eliot, “The Perfect Critic” (1921)

33 thoughts on “T.S. Eliot: “when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.”

  1. Anne, I remember being impressed by your voices — I hear “Hurry up please, it’s time” exactly in your voice, every time I read this poem. I’m pretty sure Mary Pat Ambrogi Fisk had one of the sections, and I hear parts of What The Thunder Said in her voice. Part IV is so short… MP, did you and I share section V?

    I have an even stronger memory of the play we did for Great Expectations. Melissa George Jose Simbulan Who else was in our group?

    And of course coming in over the weekend to decorate the classroom, turning Mrs. O’Cs desk into the village well.

    • Of all the things I got up to at DJO, I’m proudest of our “Great Expectations” musical. I loved making that work. I’m sure Mary Pat was involved in that too, but I’m drawing a blank. Carmel? Were you up there with us?

    • My goodness, you are very kind to remember that. I was impressed with myself too, at the time. Then I met and worked and lived with actual Northern Irish people, as opposed to the composite characters I read about in partisan journalism on whom that young lady was based, and I was more than a little embarrassed by the whole thing. I’m glad that I was curious enough at that age to care about what was happening to people outside of my own sphere. However, hindsight (which is always cliched and 20/20) wishes I had chosen my cause a bit more carefully.

    • Anne, not only do I have no recollection of being part of this, I also don’t recall being in the room for this. The only thing I remember about DJO English was our version of the Wasteland with me proudly adding what would now be called “drops” using my boom box. But that was in the Senior class, not Ms OC’s. I do remember Christine and I leading the Pride and Prejudice discussion group. I have dissociated virtually all of my DJO experience, sadly. Or happily.

    • Carmel, my DJO memory is also highly selective. But I do remember that Mrs OC gave you “Mrs Dalloway” for your term paper, and you absolutely loathed it…which cracked me up no end when I became a huge Woolf fan years later. And I have not forgotten our Cantos of Delight. It was your masterstroke to put Pol Pot in the last circle, so that we could use “Holiday in Cambodia” as the soundtrack. Good times!!

    • Anne, I remember nothing about the novel accept how much I hated it. Perhaps I should give Woolf another try. But Mrs D put me right off her for 30 years–that’s powerful hatred.

    • At least she gave you something that made narrative sense. I got Herzog by Bellow. Didn’t understand a bit of it, but gamely cobbled together a bunch of lit crit that I also didn’t understand.

    • Carmel, if you want to take another crack at Woolf, you might try A Room of One’s Own (short non-fiction essay) or Orlando (transgender historical novel romp). Her playfulness and humour shines through in those works, and Orlando has a much clearer narrative drive than good ol Mrs. D.

    • For my part, I am feeling rather guilty, as Mrs. OC gave me “The Death of the Heart”, which marked the start of my still going strong love affair with Elizabeth Bowen. I still read the first chapter of that book when I’m sick or in need of comfort.

    • Mary Pat, it was Sister Anna Jean for senior year AP English. I had mixed feelings about her until she not only got permission for us to watch “Apocalypse Now,” but went to sleep in the back of the classroom for the entire movie. That was class in my book!

    • I don’t remember that either! All I remember about that class was that you ALWAYS got two points (at least) higher than I did on every single assignment. And the day Challenger blew up. Trauma after trauma for me.

  2. So here is what was bothering me at 5.30 in the am! Can any of you remember who read the other sections of the Wasteland when Mrs. O’Clisham (bless her) had us read it out loud in AP English? I had II. Game of Chess, which terrified me because I had to do the “pub talk” bit, so I tried to do different accents for the different voices, and I was crap at it. Dennis, I think you had V. What the Thunder Said, but I might be wrong…whichever section it was, you read it beautifully; I can remember the ebb and flow of your voice, if not the exact words.

  3. Tell me about the word “silo” as a metaphor for isolation. I’ve been reading and hearing it used this way in the last year or two but it seems fairly recent. Is it a “Wool” reference? Or was it commonly used this way before Howey’s books? You are the first person I’ve been able to ask about his frame of reference!

    • A book popularized the term “siloing” in the business world in the 80s, meaning not just isolation (as the term usually means now) but a vertical hierarchy. http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-33273707

      I guess in grad school I was too busy siloing myself to notice, but I heard the term in the late 90s when I started my first faculty job. Academics already had the “ivory tower” metaphor to describe isolation from the outside world, but the silo metaphor emphasized how, for instance, a math professor might think an English professor has it easy because English class is where students invent what they think “the curtains were blue” means, while an English professor might think a math professor has it easy because they can give multiple-choice tests and they don’t to mark papers.

  4. He was a complicated person, even for a poet, which for a long time kept me from understanding how very human he was. Sometime in the late 20s, he wrote to Woolf, and offered to come over for tea so he could teach her a new dance called “the Chicken Strut.” The thought of those two frightfully Modernist writers, Gatsby-ing it up on the terrace of her house, always makes me smile.

    This is more than my usually incoherence — I must stop typing literary comments to you at 7am with no coffee! xx / am

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