Friday, March 14, 2008

Eliots Come and Go d'apres a story in The New Yorker

“I feel sometimes like I’m sinking into quicksand,” Spitzer says of life as governor.
“Sometimes you can see the windmills.”

Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark.

The love song of T. S. Eliot.

by Louis Menand
September 30, 2002

T. S. Eliot's sex life. Do we really want to go there? It is a sad and desolate place. Eliot was twenty-six and, almost certainly, a frustrated virgin when, in 1915, he married Vivienne Haigh-Wood, an Englishwoman he had known for three months. Haigh-Wood was a medically and emotionally vexed person. Her troubles included irregular and frequent menstruation, migraines, neuralgia, panic attacks, and, eventually, addiction to her medication, particularly to ether. She was pretty, ambitious, and (on her better days) vivacious. Eliot was handsome, ambitious, and the opposite of vivacious. "Exquisite and listless," Bertrand Russell described him when he met the Eliots for dinner two weeks after the marriage. "She says she married him in order to stimulate him, but finds she can't do it. Obviously he married in order to be stimulated. I think she will soon be tired of him."

Russell was correct to intuit a tension. The Eliots seem to have discovered that they were sexually incompatible almost immediately. Mrs. Eliot reacted by having an affair with Russell, which her husband either tacitly condoned or was remarkably obtuse about. (Russell was a sexual predator who permitted himself to become temporarily infatuated with the women he seduced. He pretended, by way of self-justification, to believe that his intimacy with Vivienne provided a form of marital therapy to the Eliots.)

Eliot's own medical and emotional condition was not exactly robust, and he was quickly worn down by the demands of caring for Vivienne. He was also a man whose sense of propriety was sometimes indistinguishable from squeamishness. He told his friends the Woolfs that he could not imagine shaving in his wife's presence. He and Vivienne slept in separate rooms. She baited him in front of guests; he often responded by declining to respond; and (although it is impossible to be sure) they seem to have been, for much of their marriage, sexually estranged. It was in Eliot's character to convert misfortune into fate, and he eventually undertook to normalize the abnormality. In 1927, he was confirmed into the Church of England, which made divorce essentially impossible; in 1928, he took a vow of chastity.

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