To Read Or Not To Read; That Is the Question

I’ve often wondered about literary opinion, and how literary opinion differs between people. Everyone understands the world in a different way to somebody else, and so naturally, they will understand literature differently too. Literature, and one’s attitude and understanding towards it, depends on experiences. Experiences of education, literature, whether you enjoyed your lessons when you were in primary school, whether you have a natural love of reading. These are all key factors in understanding what literature is, and whether you enjoy it, or despise it.

I know people who have yet to finish an entire book, and I suspect there are people who go their whole lives barely reading books and magazines. This is of course, a life choice. Whether you want to read or not is entirely up to you; education demands a certain amount of reading. If you choose a literature, or essay based degree, you’ll find reading to be nonnegotiable. Arts courses tend to be much more vocational, and this choice depends very much on the style of learning one is accustomed to.

Philosophy of the Mind (1)

It’s difficult to know how you’ll feel about different kinds of literature, until you experience it. For example, I don’t like all kinds of literature. I really dislike mythical Greek and Roman texts, as well as finding James Joyce’s Ulysses utterly intolerable. Some regard it as an example of the greatest literary creation of all time. I think it is a grammatical abomination, and something that is so complicated that it begins to lose its point, because it’s completely inaccessible. Conversely however, I thoroughly enjoy T.S Eliot, who is well-known for regarding literature as an elite pursuit and past time.

Philosophy is something else that is considered highbrow, and rarely brought down to an accessible level. It is complicated because it involves thinking about the makings of the universe, and theorizing on that most illusive of characters, knowledge. However it’s less complex than some think; it’s a matter of having a good teacher and a simple reader, to introduce someone to the rudimentary elements of philosophy. There’s no need to over-complicate things, and dive straight into analysis on Plato’s dialogues.

I consider literature to be one of my greatest loves, and I consider almost everything to be literature. I think that the well-written blog can be considered literature of all sorts; some blogs can be understood as literotica, some can be understood as beautiful prose. New writing is the writing that will one day be considered classic, and will belong to the modern cannon, and so I think it’s important to look at new literature, read magazines, of all kinds; fashion, photography, literary; they’re all part of a modern culture that will, like all cultures before it, be revered by future generations.

It’s all about enjoyment, you see. Culture is formulated through the things that people enjoy; a city with a strong opera programme tends to become linked to the opera as a pursuit and therefore becomes a cultural construct. To this end, we create our own culture. I’d like to think we do, at least.

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(1) http://philosophy.uchicago.edu/workshops/_files/Philosophy-of-Mind-Workshop.jpg

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Wandering Through “The Wasteland”: Part I

As promised, today is all about Part I of The Wasteland, “The Burial of the Dead”. Even if you hadn’t read the poem, you’d immediately guess, from the title of the section that it was not to be all flowers, joy and rainbows. In fact, you’d probably feel somewhat apprehensive. The title itself however is not simply a title; Eliot disliked making superficial statements. Instead, it can be considered an allusion to the Church of England’s funeral service, and also the Cumaean Sibyl, whom we have encountered in the epigraph. The very phrase has implications of endings and rebirth outside  Christianity however, in various elements of life, including the idea of laying something to rest, and cleansing oneself of the past. The Wasteland is fraught with all manner of allusions, from religious texts to mythological ones.

Part I is broadly based on the idea of the elimination of the dead, and the deteriorating nature of society; an early example of this social deterioration is the scene in the Hofgarten, line 10. The statement of “drinking coffee” gives us the impression that the things that take place within the Hofgarten are irrelevant, and are superficial. This superfluous society is a theme that plagues the whole poem; a sense of spiritual degradation, and a lack of meaning in anything whatsoever plagues the society which Eliot describes, and is alienated from. This theme is further expanded upon in lines fifty to sixty; the idea of faux fortune was a profound departure from the fortune and path of a person as prescribed by the Church and scriptures of a number of religions. Eliot’s disdain for this falsity is portrayed in lines such as “If you see dear Mrs. Equitone/Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:/One must be so careful these days.”

An artistic interpretation of the first section of "The Wasteland" (1)

One of the predominant features of the poem as a whole, is the idea that people are blinded, or unable to see, and Eliot includes a number of blatant allusions; for example “Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not see, and my eyes failed”, alongside others, including “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyant/has a bad cold”. This would mean she’d be unable to ‘see’ into the future. “Those are pearls that were his eyes” could also be considered a reference to blindness, and the inability to see past riches, past opulence, to the ‘bigger picture’. This extended metaphor for the benefits of sight continues throughout the poem, and to Eliot at least, to be a very real concern.

Perhaps  the most important part of Part I however, is the final stanza, and the allusion to Baudelaire’s Parisian ‘unreal city’. Eliot however manipulates this allusion to symbolise the working masses in London, in what is to me, perhaps one of the most moving lines in the poem; “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many.” The second line in this extract is an allusion to Dante’s Inferno. The ‘dead’ whom Eliot describes are, to the author at least, a product of the Victorian Industrial Revolution, and of privatisation; they had become slaves to their jobs, and to the city; they lacked spirituality because they had become materially motivated, financially encouraged, as opposed to motivated by finding spiritual guidance, or absolution.

The theme of corruption and sexual exploitation is probably the predominant theme in the first three parts of the poem; it is not until Part IV, “Death by Water”, that a kind of rebirth seems to occur; the spirit has, to Eliot at least, be explored, and murdered for being corrupt before it can be reborn and made into something that can salvage the poem’s namesake, “the waste land”. This part of the poem however contains an almost imperceptible reference to salvation; “Here she said/Is your card, the drowned Phoenician sailor.” Here, again, we find another allusion, to the ancient mythological world, and the character who finally represents the very preliminary stages of salvation, in Part IV.

The ‘deadness’ as represented in the title of the poem is a metaphor returned to in the final lines of the poem; “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”; the frozen ground which is described just before represents a natural deadness; a wasted land, through the lack of spirituality.

Elizabeth Harrison's copy of Dante's "Inferno", which has been an important literary text for centuries, influencing almost every significant author. (2)

In conclusion, the first part of the poem introduces a number of preliminary metaphors, concepts and allusions; the first being superficiality, and the exploitation of materialism. Added to this mixture in the succeeding section is the allusion to aesthetic and sexual exploitation. The idea of the inability to rejuvenate, and be reborn, is also introduced, as are a number of allusions to a variety of texts and concepts, including Greek mythology, Tristan and Isolde, Baudelaire, the Grail myths, Buddhism, Christianity, Dante, Petronius… the list goes on. Shakespeare also plays a significant role, later in the poem. The poet himself had two main works that influenced the writing of the plays; Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, and James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. The poem is an almost endless web of allusions, and metaphor and is possibly one of the most complicated texts ever created.

The next post will be focussed on what is in my opinion, one of the most interesting parts, because it focusses on sexual exploitation and the way in which Eliot perceived it. Part II to follow!

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(1) http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/df/Peter_Paul_Rubens_082.jpg

(2) http://archon.nl.edu/archon/index.php?p=digitallibrary/getfile&id=11&preview=long

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On Decadence and Aesthetics

English students are renouned for being fussy, sometimes pretentious students; we are the fussy eaters of the academic world. We tend to know our tastes very early on, purely because my the time we reach undergraduate level, we’ve been forced into reading something from every movement, whether we were aware of it or not. And the impressions that these types of literature make on us as children, tend to remain with us forever.

Personally, I have little patience with Greek and Roman literature, with the exception of Tales From Ovid. Mythology does not tickle my fancy very often, and instead, I’m rather enamoured with modernism, aestheticism, and nineteenth century Russian literature. I occasionally dip into the pond of Victorian certainty, when I fancy something rather more tame; occasionally into a little satire, when I’m feeling sceptical. But when I’m bored, I’ll venture to look at Virginia Woolf, and if I’m feeling particularly adventurous, I’ll look into James Joyce too. When I’m in need of comfort, I’ll read some Wilde, and feel much, much better about almost everything. If I had to choose  a favourite period, I’d be hanging somewhere between aesthetics and modernism. I dare say I’d attempt to look at both of them.

An excellent quotation of Oscar Wilde (1)

The sublime was a concept present in the late Romantic period; an idea that succeeded the concept of the picturesque, but came before aestheticism. The sublime essentially meant something of overwhelming natural beauty, something that was difficult to process intellectually. Wordsworth writes of the sublime in one of his most famous poems, Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798). This revolutionary piece of writing marked a progression in the field of aesthetics, being a truly sublime piece of writing, however is not quite a fully formed aesthetic work, still considering issues of the deity, which can be considered political. Aestheticism fundamentally leans against the inclusion of political and social themes within art.

Arguably however, Samuel Coleridge, a lover of science and geology, but also a lover of literature and poetry, wrote the first widely appreciated work in the field of aesthetics, in his Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Whilst many can argue that the poem condemns a certain number of practices, for example the shooting of the albatross, which can be considered a metaphor for wasting life, he also writes seemingly “on the surface”, and for pleasure. This kind of writing seems connected to Oscar Wilde, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Two of the biggest Romantic poets formed the basis of aestheticism; Keats, Byron, and Shelley went on to build on this very scarce foundation, left by the two famous writers.

Dante's Lady Lilith; an excellent example of the aesthetic period (2)

To my mind at least, the picturesque, the sublime, and the aesthetic seem to be progressions of one another; in picturesque artwork, a frame is used, to either include or exclude a concept or image, and the painter has final control over the scene; the imagination and the reality of a location or concept amalgamate to create something that is picturesque, but fundamentally, it is not purely realistic. Aestheticism takes this concept further by widening where the ‘picture’ can come from, and what frame can be used, and there is absolutely no requirement for the inclusion of sociopolitical themes.

Aestheticism emerged partly as a reaction to the Enlightenment as a later extension of Romanticism; instead of looking at science, and factual things, the idea of art being created because it is beautiful emerged. Oscar Wilde is probably the most prominent of the aesthetic writers, alongside people such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The concept of ‘art for art’s sake’ overrode any social concerns, or political agendas. This was really a period of decadence and beauty.

I’m something of a fan of decadence and beauty in literature; I love things that will fascinate my mind, blow it backwards, and take me to something of a utopia whereby there are no deep social issues. Sometimes, it is nice to be immersed in such a beautiful world, and to escape darker, more imposing literature such as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or Devils. Literature provides a point of escape for so many people; the decadent writers lived in a world that preceded world wars, common invasion, and a plethora of other genocides; a practice that ran rampant throughout the 20th century. In many ways, their world was something far more innocent; the British Empire covered a quarter of the globe, and nothing ever truly threatened the innately British superiority complex. In many ways, it was a world so supremely different from ours that it could be considered a whole other culture, an almost untainted one.

I wonder what everyone else finds fascinating…

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(1) http://files.myopera.com/tatora/blog/4878_PRO_sample_01.gif

(2) http://gypsyscarlett.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/art-dante-gabriel-rossetti-lady-lilith-18681.jpg

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A Stroll Across the Somme with Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen (1)

Following on from the theme of yesterday, I began having a think about the First World War, and the implications it had culturally for England and Europe more widely. The poetry that emerged from this cataclysmic event shaped my own perception of “great” poetry; it was not complex in the same way as the modernists were, such as Eliot, and nor was it especially experimental, in the same way as Woolf. What it was, and remains to be, is simple and beautiful in its own way, something I think largely owed to the proficiency of its structure and the almost divine beauty of the metaphor and imagery used. Nothing so profoundly shocking had before been made so beautiful; consider the early murder ballads, and the unrestrained violence and depravity. It is shocking, but it is not made beautiful by the poetic forms imposed upon it.

Wilfred Owen was responsible for the war poem that perhaps epitomised the war for all: Dulce et Decorum Est. This poem was fundamentally an assassination of the meta-narrative that was behind the war, and the blind pursuit of false glory is striking when the imagery falls into place. And all of a sudden it is strikingly obvious that the life of a soldier ended, all too often, face down in a shell mutilated field somewhere in northern Europe. To a modern-day reader, it seems absurd, horrific even, that no one seems to have realised before it was too late, the total futility of the fight; perhaps however it was not futile. It’s result, when considered on a global events scales, was to create the Treaty of Versailles, which led to the gargantuan German resentment of Europe, and thus began to grow, from this political arsenic, Nazism.

That is not to say however that the individuals who fought nobly and honestly should be discredited; they succeeded in winning the war. It’s consequence is irrelevant when examining this from a short-term point of view. It is often forgotten that each individual person who died there had a family, was loved by somebody. They were not statistics. This I think is forgotten, in the same way that we attach very little individualization to the victims of genocide as a whole; they become statistics and examples, however not real lives that were lived. They are remembered as numbers as opposed to people. This is possibly what makes Owen’s poetry (and others, such as Sassoon’s) so poignant; it attached, and still does attach, a very real experience to those soldiers and avoids the broad and sweeping statements. The dead poet, who died on the fourth of November, 1918, precisely a week before the armistice was signed, allowed others just like him a voice. His voice became in many ways their voice, essentially because he was one of them.

The Great War, and the subsequent Second World War, had a rather profound and unexpected effect on society; they created “the bright young things”; people who felt as though they had been incapacitated by their lack of fathers, brothers, and uncles and instead became part of the high society whirlwind; they sought to be superficial, and extravagant in the wake of wartime severity and rationing. Religion began to fail people; Nietzsche declared that “God is dead”. And thus an almost pivotal change occurred. Consider works such as The Great Gatsby again; an immortal example of this superfluous society that lacked the artistic and moral depth of its predecessor, however made way for a new movement, in modernism and subsequent postmodernism, which really sought to prove the superficiality of the world, and to continue this premise of a lack of truth and absolute reality; without this, one’s actions can be justified regardless of what they are, and as such, lacking philosophical meaning simply means that you seek pleasure at face value, and nothing more. Nothing could stray further from the reality of Wilfred Owen.

If you haven’t had a chance thus far to have a look at Owen’s work, there is an excellent website  with all his work on. Reading them really does alter one’s perception of the experiences of the war, and of a lost generation as a whole; all remaining veterans of the First World War are now sadly deceased. The Somme itself, as well as Ypres, and other memorial sites are very moving; the images don’t do them justice.

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(1) http://www.wirralglobe.co.uk/resources/images/1267632/?type=display

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Visiting the Marchmain House

Brideshead Revisited is perhaps one of my favourite novels written in the post-modern era, written around the opulent, decadent epoch of high society, which, similarly to The Great Gatsby, is one of excess. Excess of religion, alcohol, and finance. Excess for the sake of excess is an idea we can all sympathise with, because we’ve all wished for it in some form or another. There is no way of escaping our very human need to completely saturate ourselves with things we enjoy; we want to fill ourselves with pleasure, and for some people, the cost is irrelevant. This is certainly the case with Sebastian Flyte, the enigmatic best friend of our beloved protagonist, Charles Ryder. This idea can also be related to Plato’s Symposium and our need to occupy and improve ourselves.

Flyte represents an era of escapism, and the need to escape the control of his devoutly Catholic mother, and the restraints of university and the boundaries that society dealt him. It is almost as if he is a being reserved for the more liberal 1960s, and throughout the novel, there is the inescapable feeling that he somehow doesn’t quite belong, even though by birth, he represents the heritage of an ancient family, one well established in society. Again, we can all sympathise with the feeling of alienation; at some point, we all feel alienated from ourselves and our families, even if it is in a minute way, or in a way that creates an abyss between obligation and desire.

As members of humanity, we continually need to reconcile ourselves with reality and dreams and for some people, the only way to do this is to create an alternate reality for themselves; people enter a drug fuelled dream world and never succeed in emerging, usually because they don’t want to re-enter. Sebastian Flyte is one of these people; alcoholism allows him to inhabit a world that he feels as though he can control, even though the control is unreal, and superficial.

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It is possible to consider the novel from a post-modern perspective, because many of the themes are based around superficiality, and the reality of religion. Roman Catholicism is perhaps, alongside Flyte, the most important element of the novel, controlling almost every event. In postmodernism, religion is proposed by Jean-François Lyotard as being a meta-narrative  or a story that we use to justify our existence and add order to the chaos of the world in which we live. The need to impose order on the absolute chaos of the universe is again, a very human wish. The rejection of these meta-narratives under postmodernism leads us to question the true influence of Roman Catholicism within Brideshead Revisited. Sebastian could be considered as a very post-modern figure, because he rejects this meta-narrative, and instead finds a different kind of meta-narrative for himself to understand and belong to. The ending of the novel, whereby the Marchmain house has been damaged by the army, but the Roman Catholic chapel that belonged to Lady Marchmain is intact, represents a disparity between religion and the practicality of the army It suggests that whilst the meta-narrative of Roman Catholicism appeared to have failed to regulate the actions of her family, the chapel itself is still a form of relative truth and comfort for the soldiers. Therefore Lady Marchmain’s efforts to preserve the heritage of her family was not a futile one; it was simply ineffective in relation to her direct family, but was found to be effective on a much bigger scale, and provided comfort; even if there is a relativism of truth to be considered.

The novel is one of the important ones in the modern world, I think. It stretches far beyond the physical content of the text and moves even a modern-day reader, because the themes are so very common. I wonder what everyone else thinks of Waugh’s masterpiece?

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(1) https://sarahalicewaterhouse.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/brideshead_revisited.jpg?w=300

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Learning the A, B, C…

When we first started learning the alphabet, words were little squiggles that we struggled to understand. A, B, C… Words were an uphill climb; they represented education that most of us, at the age of three or four, simply didn’t understand, or wish to understand. We were generally far more concerned with play-dough, and the possibility of sticking pasta onto paper with PVA glue. Many of us, even now, as adults, still would rather play with play-dough than plough through the science of linguistics. However, as writers, poets, authors and speakers of language in general, we become fascinated with words. With grammar. And most specifically, the way in which squiggles can be used to create something with significance in an infinite number of ways.

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As I have mentioned before, structuralism and post-structuralism is very much concerned with the idea of language in relation to the world; the way in which it’s meaning is almost completely subjective. This can also be considered in relation to grammatical format; modernism in particular sought to remove conventional narrative forms to produce something more internally focussed, with less emphasis on the outside world, instead being a part of the protagonist’s psyche; consider Ulysses and To the Lighthouse; these are fundamentally modernist texts, using the trademark stream of consciousness format which one will greet as though it is Marmite; it will either be loved or despised, and rightly so; the liberation of being completely free to explore outside the parameters of conventional narrative can be fantastical. However it can also be a form of imprisonment to a reader, because they become absorbed in attempting to understand the outer parameters, and tend to then read against the grain to find this alienating meaning. This can potentially remove the pleasure from the act of reading itself.

So in our quest to understand the entirety of English Literature, or world literature, we grapple with ideas, and find that even once we think we’ve understood, that this understanding is only one interpretation of one meaning. This could be ridiculously frustrating, however for the knowledge junkies among us, it simply means we will never quite conquer the subject, but surely this makes it infinitely more interesting.

I’d be interested to know how everyone feels about the fluctuating nature of language, and whether its futile or fascinating.

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(1) http://blogs-images.forbes.com/marketshare/files/2011/08/abc_blocks.jpg

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T.S Eliot’s “The Wasteland”: Creating an Elite Literary Club

Since I began studying T.S Eliot for A level coursework last year, I have begun a long-enduring love affair with a man who could be considered modernism’s most reserved man. He belonged to the Bloomsbury group alongside others such as Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and Clive Bell. These academics were renowned for being sexually liberated, and experimental in every approach to life and literature they took. They took the traditional and destroyed it, and reformed it to the style we now know as modernism, and in this sense, Eliot was no different.

File:T.S. Eliot, 1923.JPG

T.S Eliot: A Literary Hero (1)

His poem, “The Wasteland” is written in five books, describing the spiritual journey from corruption to the potential for being reborn and rejuvenated. The essence of Eliot’s genius here however does not lie simply in the poem’s construction, and continual changes in narrative; the true depth and substance of the poem is contained in the intertextuality which serves to create an exclusive club; Eliot uses allusions to Greek mythology, Roman mythology, the Bible, Buddhism, D.H Lawrence, James Joyce, Augustine’s writings, Spencer’s works, to name a few. And in order to understand all these allusions, then surely, you’d have to have read widely and voraciously for all of your literary life. The depth of these allusions show just how educated Eliot was; for all his personal and social misgivings, he was perhaps the most inspirational literary critic and author of his time, purely because he deigned to read everything that had ever been written; nothing that had been written was deemed too insignificant, because as Jacques Derrida says: “there is nothing outside of the text.” Everything is a part of the poetry Eliot created, in the same way that he became a part of everything he read.

A major part of Eliot’s poem is the allusions to religion; Eliot spent much of his life in religious turmoil, and in this way looked into many types of religion including Buddhism, and had a deep fascination with Christianity and it’s origins in Latin and Greek. He felt it was extremely important to read the original texts in order to connect with them on a personal level. He later converted to Anglicanism, which seemed to provide him with some comfort, despite his personal struggles with sexuality and human relationships.

The poem itself formed the beginning of my fascination with modernism; despite my interest in Renaissance literature, the poem seemed, to me at least, to transcend literary periods due to the density of allusion. The poem is hailed as one of the cornerstones of 20th century literature, and rightly so; the spirituality presented is rarely explored in poetry to the level that it is, and because of this, I think it relates to everyone in some way or another. The explorations of love especially fascinate me, because the poem rejects physical love as something some people need, however that spirituality and an understanding of faith is something that people crave more. The idea that those who read it belong to a ‘club’ of elite literature is also very appealing; there is the implication that you belong to something inspirational and special; it is not accessible to all, and for those who wish to, the reward of understanding is very much an intellectual and emotional one.

I’m hoping to look into T.S Eliot in more detail, and hopefully write a thesis one day on his life and works. It is not an exaggeration to say that “The Wasteland”, alongside Wuthering Heights is my favourite work of English literature of all time, and I implore those who haven’t had the pleasure yet to delve in, accompanied by Google and a companion to T.S Eliot, and enjoy the roller-coaster he writes, perhaps unintentionally.

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(1) http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/8/87/T.S._Eliot%2C_1923.JPG

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