Most people are ontologists. They believe that the greatest bliss, on earth or in heaven, consists in the fulfilment of a particular ideal – wealth, honour, society or love. In A Cooking Egg, TS Eliot suggests that real life is an alignment of silhouettes and daguerrotypes – like the people in Plato’s cave, all we see are shadows of Platonic objects (our ideals, our images of the past and future) on a screen. Life is an artistically conceived play of shadow puppets. Eliot doesn’t see this as an inadequacy either. What he prizes is a moment of tart, sweet reality – of proto-intellectual romantic ecstasy – his ‘penny world behind the screen’. This would be considered a less exalted, less fastidious pleasure than the attainment of the highest honour or the deepest love – if they are culinary delicacies, Eliot’s ‘penny world’ is like a cheap children’s sweet. But it is in reality a far rarer pleasure, intangible, impossible to quantify or reproduce.
The ‘penny world’ is a faintly coruscating wonder. It is a moment frozen in time’s elegant dance, between the stately past and the meretricious future. But modern thought is bleaching life of its romantic, kaleidoscopic quality. People scorn the genteel, exclusive, slightly stuffy world of ‘buttered scones and crumpets’ (and perhaps they are justified here), but in trying crudely to remove it surgically, as it were, they are also destroying with it the faint, indefinite colour that is not quite of it but inseparable from it. Modern rationality sweeps the social edifice away on an avalanche of cold, monochromatic disdain, but destroys its bright-eyed children of the penny world with it.
This poem is interesting because this is something many people accuse TS Eliot of doing. Despite his dire prognostications in The Waste Land, Eliot isn’t really what Isaiah Berlin calls a ‘grim, anarchical old peasant’. When you read Eliot and Scott Fitzgerald, you can’t help but realise that realism and romance aren’t always incompatible. Ethically or intellectually, life often doesn’t fulfil our ideals, but it has a tangy, indefinable quality of its own.
“…With lips that fade, and human laughter
And faces individual,
Well this side of Paradise!…
There’s little comfort in the wise.”
– Rupert Brooke