Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/17/2010

Eliot and Cats, not Webber’s

Groucho on HIS cabinet

Groucho on HIS cabinet

People who are certain make me nervous.

T. S. Eliot was indisputably the greatest poet writing in English in the twentieth century. He was also the most revolutionary Anglophone literary critic since Samuel Johnson, and the most influential religious thinker in the Anglican tradition since the Wesleyan movement. (1)

Indisputably the greatest? most revolutionary? most influential? Most college writing students know not state opinions as absolutes (here I don’t think I need to say “my students;” most of my colleagues also suggest students include in their writing qualifiers to opinions). The Online Writing Lab of Purdue University advises student writers that

. . . the thesis must be something that people could reasonably have differing opinions on. If your thesis is. . . is generally agreed upon or accepted as fact then there is no reason to try to persuade people. . . .Qualifiers . . . help to limit the scope of your claim by allowing for the almost inevitable exception to the rule.(2)

Enough of the English professor.

One might well wonder if Scruton also thinks it indisputable that

[Eliot] was a thorough traditionalist in his beliefs but an adventurous modernist in his art, holding that. . . modernism in art was. . .an attempt to salvage and fortify a living artistic tradition in the face of the corruption and decay of popular culture. (3)

I’m one of the four people in the world who doesn’t like Cats, the musical. I’m a charlatan; I’ll admit I’ve never seen it. In 1982 I was a drunk in a reclusive relationship with another drunk and didn’t get out much. But all that changed in plenty of time for me to run to New York before 2000. Frankly, I wasn’t interested. By the late ‘80s I was conducting the chorus at a community college in Boston and living alone and sober and could well have seen Cats. All the soloist-type girls in my chorus wanted to sing “Memory.” I finally let one of them do it, and in preparation I bought the cast album of the show. I never listened to it all the way through.

The only Andrew Lloyd Webber show I’ve ever seen on stage is Evita. I think Evita is quite fine. (Oops! I have seen another—an amateur production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat that was perfectly charming and excellently performed.) I can’t imagine sitting through Jesus Christ Superstar or Phantom of the Opera. If I’ve never seen any of these, you might well ask, how do I know I don’t (wouldn’t) like them. I’ve heard the music—that is, I’ve heard Andrew Lloyd Webber’s one song in its 200 incarnations, and as Joanne Worley would have said on Laugh In, “Bor –ing.”

T. S. Eliot’s conversion to Christianity (Anglicanism specifically) remains a topic of writing among theologians and literary critics alike.  Even though he wrote a small amount about his conversion, it is not clear exactly what his experience was. He seems to have come to his faith in a less than “lightning bolt” experience. At least he seems to allow for the possibility that others might come to faith in some less than spectacular moment of revelation, warning that people who are already Christians (Anglicans at any rate),

. . .  because they enjoy the luxury of Christian sentiments and the excitement of Christian ritual, swallow or pretend to swallow incredible dogma. For some the process is exactly opposite. Rational assent may arrive late, intellectual conviction may come slowly, but they come inevitably without violence to honesty and nature. (4)

T. S. Eliot was long dead by the time Andrew Lloyd Webber got around to using Eliot’s poems as the basis of cats. I assume Cats is mildly clever and shows in mime and dance the personalities of the cats Eliot immortalized in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.



Macavity, Macavity, there’s no on like Macavity,
He’s broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime–Macavity’s not there!

Or, Gumbie:

I have a Gumbie Cat in mind, her name is Jennyanydots;
The curtain-cord she likes to wind, and tie it into sailor-knots.
She sits upon the window-sill, or anything that’s smooth and flat:
She sits and sits and sits and sits–and that’s what makes a Gumbie Cat!

Joanie is in charge

Joanie is in charge

Surely this is the stuff of “the most influential religious thinker in the Anglican tradition since the Wesleyan movement.”

I’ve been told it’s difficult to know when I’m being sarcastic when I’m conversing with you face to face, so I can’t expect anyone reading this to know how much of it is sarcastic and how much is not. So far not much of it is. I quite enjoy the fact that someone who is an important religious thinker and indisputably the greatest poet writing in English loves cats enough to write whimsical (and very cat-like) poetry about them. I’ve tried to write poetry about my cats, and it comes out sounding pretty much like I was wasted at the time of writing.

(non sequitur) But, like (I think) Arthur Krystal, I wonder about Eliot’s division of all things into the stuff of the natural world and the stuff (or non-stuff) of the spiritual world.

Eliot is also quick to point out that the statement [the essential reality of experience is ethical] cannot have the same meaning for both the religious person and the person who disavows religion. . . Eliot asserts: “Either everything in man can be traced as a development from below, or something must come from above. There is no avoiding that dilemma: You must be either a naturalist or a supernaturalist.” (5)

Last night I read the Krystal and Scruton articles, and I am still trying to figure out if they are in any way connected, and, if so, how. And then, there’s cats, and Cats.  The New York Times referred to Webber as, “the most commercially successful composer in history.” (6) “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas,” as Alice says when she finishes reading Jabberwocky, “only I don’t exactly know what they are!”

Chachi's into the laundry

Chachi’s into the laundry

Krystal is dubious that intellectuals believe in a God that manages our lives as the Mayor manages a city,

. . . but I accept their faith, as well as their condescension toward people like myself. C. S. Lewis once compared the amiable agnostic’s talk of man’s search for God to that of a mouse’s search for the cat. I like that, but not the idea that the cat is necessarily in the house. (7)

Something about “an attempt to salvage and fortify a living artistic tradition in the face of the corruption and decay of popular culture” should not have inspired the second longest running musical in Broadway history written by the most commercially successful composer in history. I know Eliot had no say in the matter. But it seems odd to me.


I don’t know if the cat is in the house or not. Stay tuned.
(1) Scruton, Roger. “T.S. Eliot as Conservative Mentor.” Intercollegiate Review 39.1/2 (2003): 44-54.
(2) “The thesis statement or main claim must be debatable.” Developing Strong Thesis Statements. Purdue Online Writing Lab, 1995-2011. Web. 16 Dec. 2010.
(3) Scruton, ibid.
(4) Eliot, quoted in: Krystal, Arthur. “Why Smart People Believe in God.” American Scholar 70.4 (2001): 69.
(5) idem.
(6) Quoted in: Citron, Stephen. Sondheim and Lloyd-Webber: the New Musical. Oxford: Oxford University Press US, 2001
(7) Krystal, idem.


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