Old Art Terms #2: Bewildering Minutes

John Elderfield
Nov 17, 2012 12:49AM

This term comes from a 1935 letter from the poet T. S. Eliot to the poet Stephen Spender. Writing of the critical response to works of art, he insisted: "Even just the bewildering minute counts; you have to give yourself up, and then recover yourself, and the third moment is having something to say, before you have wholly forgotten both surrender and recovery. of course the self recovered is never the same as the self before it was given."

An amazing sentence, with the implication of an association between critical/aesthetic and sexual surrender. And Eliot put a version of the same thought in his great poem, "The Waste Land," speaking of "...blood shaking my heart/ The awful daring of a moment's surrender..." (Eliot in fact borrowed the phrase from the Elizabethan play, "The Revenger's Tragedy," which speaks caustically of "the poor benefit of a bewildering minute.") More on this next time.

John Elderfield
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