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.

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