Talking Movies

September 27, 2019

What the Hell is … An Objective Correlative?

I’m interested both in the origin of the term and its usage now, both actual and potential, and the difference between the two…

TS Eliot coined the term ‘objective correlative’ in his infamous critical essay ‘Hamlet and His Problems’ to describe an ideal objectivity that the artist would achieve between the impulse to create and the finished work of art.

More specifically, suppose that a dramatist wishes to write a play about war, having served in a war. Eliot would instantly insist that the dramatist distance themselves from what they’re proposing to create, for the play to have any value it must speak to people who have not been in a war, the playwright must find an objective correlative that converts their personal experience into universally accessible art. Eliot’s essay is infamous because in it he denied Hamlet masterpiece status because he claimed Shakespeare had been too close to the raw emotion of the loss of his son, to properly explore the theme of father-son grief, and so his play did not find an objective correlative of that emotional state, but was intensely subjective.

Eliot’s audacity is amazing but the same sentiment is found self-reflexively in John McGahern’s preface to the second edition of The Leavetaking: “I had been too close to the ‘Idea’, and the work lacked that distance, that inner formality or calm, that all writing, no matter what it is attempting, must possess.” McGahern thus rewrote the entire first half of his novel because he felt he had been too close emotionally to his subject and that it had been subjective more than it had been objective as art.

I think that objective correlative went from being used by people who’d read Eliot’s essay to other critics who’d only read it in the context of critical writings by those people, to eventually leaping from academia into popular criticism where it was used by people who hadn’t read any of the essays that came before them.

Barack Obama, in his discussion of religion and politics in The Audacity of Hope, invokes an equivalent of TS Eliot’s objective correlative, demonstrating its application not just to art but to any intellectual pursuit in which the subjective and the objective collide. Obama’s argument is that no argument on an emotive issue involving religion and politics can get anywhere if people merely quote Scripture or Thomas Jefferson at each other. What must be done to take the emotive heat out of the argument is to convert subjective religious values into their objective correlative – arguments invoking universal values, which can be accommodated in political discourse without everyone losing their minds.

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