The shocking defamiliarization of the everyday that took place during World War II created a crisis in modernist aesthetics. This crisis emerges both in Eliot’s anguished meditation on time, space, and infinity in “East Coker,” and in Powell and Pressburger’s playful satire about an aging soldier. The curious parallels between these two works are articulated through the figure of the failing human body; in both poem and film, flesh becomes the avatar of a modernist sensorium that struggles to conjoin the perceiving subject with a fugitive and unreliable object world. Specifically, the medicalized body becomes the metaphorical locus of a profound epistemological unease, and the interventionist apparatuses of medicine and of cinema become folded into a more general problematic of style. Whereas Eliot’s poem repeatedly breaks the frame of classical rhyme, meter, and structure in order to express disquiet with the mechanics of the corporeal, Powell’s camera insists that we look steadily at the bodies of his lead actors—one aging before our eyes, one remaining eternally and impossibly the same—as they are worked on by the trickery of cinema, and to marvel at (rather than being repulsed by) the persistence of their intransigent materiality. A new poetics permits the consolation of aesthetic mediation, between the inaccessible metaphysical ideal and the baffling entanglements of human time.
“Sound, Substantial Flesh and Blood”: T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker” and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Lisa Mullen is a teaching associate in modern and contemporary literature and film in the English faculty at Cambridge University. She has published a monograph, Mid-Century Gothic: Uncanny Objects in British Literature and Culture after the Second World War (2019), and her current book project is titled, “Orwell Unwell: Pathology and the Medical Imaginary in the Fiction and Journalism of George Orwell.” She is also currently compiling a new Oxford World Classics edition of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia for Oxford University Press and writing a chapter for the forthcoming The Cambridge Companion to “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
Lisa Mullen; “Sound, Substantial Flesh and Blood”: T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker” and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Twentieth-Century Literature 1 March 2020; 66 (1): 59–78. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0041462X-8196707
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