Fifty Shades of Frustration

I’ve come to the conclusion that if I am to hear the end of this Fifty Shades of Grey business, I will have to just read it. Bite the bullet; rip off the plaster. That kind of thing. Some of our fellow bloggers have condemned the latest literary craze, for being critically appalling, overusing colloquialisms, and following a theme that borders on the sexually deranged. So today I went to the supermarket and bought it.

And God help us, there’s two more…(1)

It’s sat upstairs in my bedroom like a ticking time-bomb. It’s staring up at me, on my bed. And I can’t quite bring myself to open the first page. I did randomly open the novel, to read only two words. “Holy crap.” This sentence, I must say, has not filled me with much hope. Neither has the description of ‘Mommy porn’. And neither has the theme of domination and submission. Sex scenes are rarely well written, and I have to hope that the critics have been wildly inaccurate about E.L James’s multi-million dollar novel.

That’s another problem, in itself. The fact that the novel was made for a multi-million dollar industry. Novelists in the nineteenth century never really concerned themselves with making millions through literature; they wrote in magazine supplements and were published in installments. There was no such thing as a one-hit wonder. If the first installment was unsuccessful then they wouldn’t be commissioned again. E.L. James wrote to shock, supposedly. But she didn’t write for love. This was almost certainly a case of love over money.

If anything, that’s what kind of offends me about modern novelists. There are two categories, really. The ‘people-pleasers’, and the people who write because they have something real and important to say. People do not tend to read the classics. They read purely for pleasure as opposed to education, and there is nothing wrong than that. It’s just that they’re missing out. And whilst I’m pleased that Mrs. James need never work again, I have a feeling that I’m going to be rather disappointed in her.

But time will tell; I’ll let you know how the project goes.




Wandering Through “The Wasteland”: The Epigraph

For this week, I’ve decided to do a six part post on T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland, possibly the most famous of the modernist poems, and certainly of Eliot’s own collection. Eliot’s position as a critic and essayist almost prevails over his reputation as a modernist poet. T.S Eliot however was distinctly different from his modernist counterparts, such as Woolf and Joyce, in that instead of embracing the rejection of tradition, he found the lack of spirituality and social values abhorrent, and he himself struggled with issues surrounding intimacy and his own faith. In time, he converted to Anglicanism, however his discomfort with faith led him to write extensively about the subject in The Wasteland.

The epigraph as printed in the text (1)

The poem itself is also a product of Eliot’s extended intellectual life; he had studied Sanskrit at university and was well versed in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. An example of this is the title of part three, “The Fire Sermon”, which is a famous text in Buddhism. The final words of the poem, “Shantih, shantih, shantih”, also originate in Sanskrit, and translate to “inner peace.” Eliot was also very familiar with the Greek myths, and the Holy Grail myths. The Wasteland is primarily an inter-textual work, one that not only exists as itself, in its own right, but one that is deeply involved in texts spanning thousands of years.

Eliot believed that everyone should familiarise themselves with the myths and legends, especially spiritual and religious ones; The Wasteland is almost exclusive, because only those (at least at the time) who were well read would have understood the full implications of the poem. However, the poem is such that each time it is read, it is understood in a different way, and a number of literary critical schools have sought to examine the poem, however none particularly successfully; it stands alone, and is, in my opinion at least, unrivalled in terms of nature and style, by any other poem.

The poem’s creation was a lengthy process, because it was repeatedly edited by his long-term friend and renowned critic, Ezra Pound. The extent of Pound’s input can never be truly confirmed, however it is fair to suggest that to a certain extent, Pound’s style affected the way in which the poem was formed, and so could be considered not only a work of Eliot’s genius and intellect, but also in a small way, of Pound’s genius also. The poem and epigraph are dedicated to Ezra Pound.

The very beginning of the poem is the epigraph, an extract from Petronius’s Satyricon, and really summarises the nature of what is to follow. Petronius’s Satyricon is a Latin work of fiction, of both verse and prose. This in itself is a tumultuous combination and symbolises, at least to those who know of the text, that The Wasteland may also be tumultuous in style and structure. The epigraph reads:

“Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Sibylla ti theleis; respondebat illa: apothanein thelo.” 

Roughly translated, the Latin reads:

“I have seen with my own eyes, the Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her “What do you want?”, she replied, “I want to die.” 

The Cumaean Sibyl wished for eternal life, and neglected to ask for eternal youth, and therefore as time passed, she was unable to die, and simply withered away, caught in a jar, almost like a gilded bird. This summarises essentially a spiritual withering, in a metaphorical sense; without youth and beauty, there appears to be no reason to live, and so she is caught in eternal suffering, because of her great vanity. Vanity and the superfluous nature of beauty are themes that run throughout the poem, particularly in the first three parts of the poem. Eliot was repulsed by the obsession of beauty and vanity and so sought to move away from this, wherever possible, especially since it was very much linked to the sexual, something Eliot was uncomfortable with throughout his life.

The conflict of religion, of modernisation, of industrialisation and of reformed society as a whole were all issues that Eliot  was deeply concerned with, however the most prominent of these issues was the issue of spirituality and sanctity of spirit. The issue of spirituality (something rather separate from religion) is explored in great detail throughout the following five passages. The poem is structured in five sections, although these sections can be considered poems of abstraction in their own right; they feed into one another and follow a progressive, reflective pattern.

It is however important, I think, to remember that The Wasteland is not just an intellectual work, and nor is it purely autobiographical. It certainly contains elements of autobiography, however like all texts, there are an infinite number of interpretations that can be applied to it, and it can translate in a number of ways for different people. It is also something fundamentally beautiful, poetic; something that can be enjoyed as well as analysed. It’s probably the poem that confirmed my desire to study English Literature, and the poem that confirmed my love of modernism.

This image shows the first page of Part One, with the original title: "He Do the Police in Different Voices", the original transcript. As you can see if you read closely enough, this version retains little of the finished version, except the section title: "The Burial of the Dead" (2)

Tomorrow I shall be writing about Part I: The Burial of the Dead, which is the beginning of the exploration of spiritual corruption as Eliot sees it.





Good Afternoon, Mrs. Woolf

It is not an overstatement to say that Virginia Woolf and I have had a somewhat turbulent relationship; from adoration, to despair, to overriding hatred, and then finally a return to understanding and adoration. It has however, been rather one-sided. Over the years, from the beginning of my A-levels to the present day, I have been bound to read a variety of Virginia Woolf’s works; To the Lighthouse, Orlando, A Room of One’s Own… and so forth. It was very rare that I picked up Woolf of my own freewill (in fact, I’m not sure it has ever happened… ) because I found her fiction somewhat challenging, and as I found with Jane Austen, I thought that nothing really happened. Nothing of any note, at least. Nothing quite as gripping as a Robert Ludlum thriller; I felt it was all rather dry, focussing on the tiniest possible events in the upper middle class, bourgeois world in which she lived. As tends to happen however, I changed my mind.

To begin with, I was fascinated by To the Lighthouse, because whilst I found the prose itself beautiful, I deemed the novel a nemesis of mine; the unclear narrative, and the stream of consciousness technique has never been a particular favourite, largely because I am of the opinion that stream of consciousness has its platform, for instance in dreams, and in speech; however not written on a page, without any external context. I found it simply too dense, too difficult to relate to; it challenges all the boundaries of everything that was literature before the technique, and it is similar to linguistic doodling; pretty, perhaps; even beautiful, but nevertheless, without any coherent structure, and lacking in refinement.


Orlando however was far more structured, however as tends to be the case with Virginia Woolf, some kind of boundary had to be pushed; in this case, it was the idea of gender. In the novel, the protagonist changes gender from a man to a woman, quite literally overnight; fundamentally however, she remains essentially the same in terms of person. I personally enjoyed Orlando, especially since it also includes a trip through the ages, over the course of Orlando’s life, from the Elizabethan Age to the 20th century. The protagonist is less a description of a person as opposed to a description of a persona; a symbolic representation of the fluidity of the concept of gender. For further information, Judith Butler’s essay on “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution” is fascinating.

And so by the end of 2009, I was firmly against Virginia Woolf, and was seriously considering building a time machine so that I could have gone back, changed her mind about being an author, and subsequently saved myself the agony that was that particular essay. Fortunately this somewhat childish plan changed when I had to read A Room of One’s Own. For the first time, in any of Woolf’s writings, I found her engaging, even charming. The content of the essay was delicate; it suited the theme of feminism extremely well. As a result, I became a full-time lover of Virginia Woolf, abandoning the turbulence of our previous relationship.

An astonishing element of literature, and of one’s relationship with the author, is the fact that one work can open one’s eyes to the others; providing almost a key of understanding, and a different perspective. This of course questions Roland Barthes assertion that the author is dead; when a person forms their own perception of the author, and understands their background, education and ideas, this can open up the text to the reader. It can exist in its own right, however it can also be inaccessible in this way, and so understanding a biography is just one of the ways in which a text can be understood.

Overall then, I’ve fallen for Virginia Woolf. I’m feeling tempted to go back and revisit To the Lighthouse, to see if I appreciate the techniques a little more this time around; I suspect that everything could be understood with a little perseverance and the right sort of teaching. Everything except calculus, that is.