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Book Review: Eliot and Beckett’s Low Modernism: Humility and Humiliation

28 February 2022

Rory Hutchings, University of Kent

Rick De Villiers, Eliot and Beckett’s Low Modernism: Humility and Humiliation (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021)

The adoption of the “low” into critical theory is at once an alluring and complicated prospect. In the introduction to Eliot and Beckett’s Low Modernism: Humility and Humiliation (2021), Rick De Villiers raises two central difficulties with the development of “low modernism”. The first is the danger of overdetermination. De Villiers observes how ‘scholarship’s recent swerve towards the low and the weak follows a methodological injunction to cast off modernism’s vaunted associations with the high and the strong.’[1] This refiguration seeks to define a prevailing character of modernism, which in reality constitutes what De Villiers aptly describes as ‘a provisional marker by which to grab a protean bundle of works, writers and interests.’ (4) The second is the paradox inherent in the critical study of the “low”: ‘we can stomach and even turn extreme degradation […] into an object of analysis, while also maintaining that humiliation, by definition, is something that most people do not desire.’ (4) This tension speaks to the often dubious deployment of the “low” and the danger that humiliation, degradation, and their accompanying forms of violence are becoming little more than critical spectacles. De Villiers avoids these trappings, balancing a clear-eyed view of Eliot and Beckett’s troubling elements with an acknowledgement of the recurrent power of humiliation in the modern imagination (5). This fascination with humility and humiliation attests to De Villiers’ contention that ‘Eliot and Beckett have shaped our modern minds in a particularly unmodern way’ (2), writing against a humanist mode of humility, instead grappling with a theological tradition wherein humiliation might birth humility.

De Villiers’ analysis is divided into six chapters alternating between Eliot and Beckett. Initially one might question the method of this siloed structure. As part of Edinburgh University Press’s “Other Becketts” series, Eliot may seem like an extraneous addition to a work aligned with Beckett studies. Indeed, De Villiers concedes at the outset to the ‘imperfect likeness’ (2) between his subjects. Are we, in essence, receiving half a study of Beckett and half a study of Eliot? For Beckett scholars, there may be a question mark over the appeal of such an even-handed study. However, as one reads there emerges a clear sense of progression as chapters are paired into three thematic groupings: gradations of humiliation, the path from humiliation to humility, and strategies of writing humiliation and humility. Via this structure, De Villiers draws out the continuities between this unlikely pairing, with a fluid commentary proceeding from a superficially rigid structure.

The central texts of De Villiers’ first two chapters, Eeldrop and Appleplex (1925) and More Pricks than Kicks (1934) are both works of which their authors were embarrassed. Eliot described Eeldrop as ‘two bits of juvenilia’[2] whereas Beckett, more colourfully, scolded himself for thinking ‘that this old shit was revivable’[3] (Pricks being the recycled material of his first novel). It is fitting that these works initiate De Villiers’ discussion of the many shades of humiliation: embarrassment, disgrace, disgust. The loss of control inherent in the feeling of embarrassment and disgust is attenuated by a reactionary xenophobia in the case of Eliot’s Eeldrop and misogyny in the case of Beckett’s Belacqua (33, 77). De Villiers effectively traces a cycle of humiliation, rooted in petty (and petit) bourgeois manners, in which the subject falls back into a protective prejudice and reflexive self-mortification. Eliot and Beckett urge ‘unmodern’ (2) curatives which decentre the subject from their humiliation in the form of humility: the relinquishing of public manners for private suffering in the case of Eliot (50) and a higher form of existential embarrassment which ‘depends on a continual embrace of weakness’ (86) without reactive shame in the case of Beckett. These two chapters offer a reading of Eliot and Beckett not as inherently anti-social but as critics of social norms in a manner which is constructive rather than disengaging.

The trajectory of humiliation to humility marks a key point of divergence for Eliot and Beckett. De Villiers’ analysis of Murder in the Cathedral (1935) reveals the ‘nexus of tension’ (94) between Eliot’s austere religiosity and his scepticism. Focusing upon the central sermon of Murder, De Villiers ‘trace[s] a conceptual genealogy’ (95) in Eliot’s thought from the biblical commentary of Lancelot Andrewes to Kantian ethics. On the latter, Eliot’s mode of humility resists the positivist attainability of the categorical imperative, instead constituting a modality (118) wherein humility is reliant upon divine will as its ‘sanctioning element’ (105) and source of renewal. Beckett is similarly concerned with the unattainable moral plateau, albeit in a secular sense. The influence of Arnold Guelincx’s axiom of morals – ‘wherein you have no power, therein neither should you will’[4] – upon Beckett’s work is evident in Molloy (1951) whose titular figure cites Guelincx whilst resisting his doctrine of predestination (134). Whilst degradation induces a form of humility and self-knowledge, there is also a sense that one must refrain from reasoning one’s suffering and instead carry on in spite of it. In exploring Guelincx’s influence upon Beckett, De Villiers identifies a continuity of ideas whilst stopping short of a one-for-one comparison, posing a more complex interaction between Beckett and Geulincx wherein the former writes back against the latter. This is a particularly interesting reframing of what has become the Beckettian cliche of ‘carrying on’, nuancing Beckett’s trajectory of humiliation within and against a theological tradition rather than a straightforward antagonism or despair.

The tensions drawn out by De Villiers continue in the final movement of his analysis, with the question of representing humility coming to the fore. As with Murder, a problem of interpretation persists in East Coker (1940), namely an ambiguity surrounding its earnestness or scepticism (149). Humility is linked to the paradox of asceticism in which a surrender of the will requires a concerted effort on the part of the subject. De Villiers links this paradox to Kierkegaard’s contention that ‘It is essential to humility to come into existence continuously’[5]. This ceaseless renewal resists interpretation, with Eliot representing this paradox through an ‘ascetic, self-undoing irony’ (152), irony becomes ‘a continually destabilising mode that negates finality and keeps ambiguities in tension.’ (152) Beckett’s ‘syntax of penury’ (178) in the late work How It Is (1961) resembles Eliot’s irony (181). For both authors, these late works signalled an anxiety around their status as the elder statesmen of modernism. Beckett’s impoverishment of style constitutes a distancing from the earlier work in an attempt to escape the pervasive influence of himself, an act of kenosis in which Beckett ‘confronts the poetics or preoccupations that have conferred [his] literary authority.’ (181) The picture De Villiers paints of the late Beckett and Eliot is a fascinating alternative to the image of two ageing virtuosos, men who did not consider themselves as at their peak but were in the grips of anxious self-negation.

From the early writings of Eeldrop and Pricks through Murder and Molloy to East Coker and How It Is, De Villiers presents a comprehensive genealogy of Eliot and Beckett’s influences. Indeed, the final movement in particular cements the strength of De Villiers’ analysis as a biographical as well as a critical work, with Eliot and Beckett rescaled from titans of modernism to self-critical men grasping for formal and ethical humility. The major advantage of this work is its appeal to both Eliot and Beckett scholars and its potential to renew the interest of Beckettians in Eliot and vice versa. Whilst some readers may remain unconvinced by the pairing, the continuities drawn between these unlikely bedfellows, the dour Christian and the equally moribund agnostic, provide a novel approach to Beckett’s theological influences and a better understanding of Eliot’s idiosyncratic religiosity. The cultivation of low modernism in the work of both authors offers a challenge to a positivist modernism and a new way to consider two of modernism’s enduring icons.


[1] Rick De Villiers, Eliot and Beckett’s Low Modernism: Humility and Humiliation (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021) p. 4

[2] Eliot quoted in De Villiers, p. 50

[3] Beckett quoted in De Villiers, p. 60

[4] Geulincx quoted in De Villiers, p. 133

[5] Kierkegaard quoted in De Villiers, p. 150


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