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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A Blogging Hiatus

Dear Reader,

I return to my little blog today, feeling somewhat repentant, for being so completely neglectful of you lately. Unfortunately, I’ve suffered two main impediments to recent blogging. The first one being searching for a house, in which to reside next year.Working out the demands of both rent and bills are fundamental, and unfortunately, I’m not mathematically or financially blessed as yet. My job search has been as productive as using Dairy Milk as a fireplace, and the demands of adulthood seem to have overridden my aspirations within my life as a student. But no matter; we have resolved the crisis now, and hopefully, someone will one day employ me. At this juncture however, jokes about the employability of English Literature graduates can be made, but that’s another post…

My second impediment however was more serious, at least in my eyes, because, I lost my inspiration to a chronic case of writer’s block that seems to have lasted at least two weeks. It’s rare for me to be completely unable to write for this long; usually a day, maybe three; not usually weeks. I couldn’t even seem to manage a small poem, not even something crude, adolescent and unsophisticated.

I stood in the mirror one morning and said “I have nothing in my head to say. About anything at all.” This was strange, because we studied The Tempest last week, and I adore Shakespeare. We also studied James Joyce, a man I have a love-hate relationship with. Usually, I could have written a lengthy explanation for this feeling of repulsion and adoration that follows Joyce, but this week, I couldn’t do it. It seemed too hard to put fingertips to keypad, and make something coherent, even amusing. But today, it seems much easier, and I think I shall be tackling Joyce, Robert Louis Stevenson, and finishing my T.S Eliot series at least sometime in the near future.

So, dear Reader, I apologise for my lengthy absence; but I promise, I shall be back tomorrow, writing about literary type things, instead of rambling on about why I couldn’t write about them at all.

(:

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Wandering Through “The Wasteland”: Part IV

To my mind at least, Part IV of the poem, “Death by Water”, is the most beautiful. It is composed of only ten lines, divided into three stanzas. As is so common in Eliot’s poetry, there is a huge amount of allusion, primarily to Phlebas, the Phoenician Sailor. As a mythological character, he seems to have influenced authors across the ages, including Shakespeare in his writing of The Tempest; Phlebas as a character is comparable to Alonso.

The most meaningful element of Phlebas’s character however is the way in which he died; he dies as a result of drowning. T.S Eliot uses water as a subliminal metaphor throughout the poem, representing fertility and the ability to resurrect; the dry nature of the waste land as described represents the importance of water. Phlebas’s death therefore is representative of a deeply spiritual death; something that is lacking throughout the poem. There are numerous references to meaningful, spiritual deaths throughout literature; again here, we can consider Shakespeare. Hamlet’s Ophelia drowns herself, her final words having already been mentioned at the end of Part II.

Phlebas- the drowned sailor (1)

Eliot makes reference in this passage to the idea of wealth, and material happiness, the very idea of which he attacked in Part III. “Forgot the profit and loss” is very striking, and contains a kind of ethereal quality; this feeling of floating continues in the second stanza of this section; “he rose and fell”, for example. The idea of a spiritual death adds a feeling of gracefulness to the passage, instead of the previously decadent and yet acerbic tone that precedes this section. This passage really compounds the feeling of change that has been, slowly, creeping into the poem; the change of descriptions occurs very slowly,  creating something comparable to a phoenix rising from the ashes.

The final line of this part is perhaps the most important however, almost serving as a warning for how people are living; how they are neglecting their spiritual lives, and how they are no longer as human as they once were. They are being degraded and being eroded.

“Consider Phlebas, who was once as handsome and tall as you.”

Eliot’s warning reverberates in the air here, it is perfectly clear, and unlike Eliot’s usual style, it is not a riddle; it seems clear that Phlebas is the example; an example of a lack of spirituality, and what becomes of those who waste themselves. Eliot tended to feel as though society was, as a whole, neglecting it’s duty to a God.

And so it seems that we are coming to the end of our little exploration through The Wasteland; the final part, Part V, “What the Thunder Said” compromises the last piece of the puzzle.

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(1) http://www.tendreams.org/gleeson/Phlebas%20the%20Phoenician,%201951%201ac.jpg

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Wandering Through “The Wasteland”: Part III

So, today I continue my wander through T.S Eliot’s poem, after a short hiatus, and a busy period of reading. Charles Dickens’ Hard Times was simply screaming for my attention. Part III of the poem then, is perhaps the pivotal point; the point at which the meaning within the poem shifts, and begins to take on a more complex one, moving beyond simple descriptions of degradation and corruption, to a kind of death; a death of the spirit. The title itself, “The Fire Sermon”, is inspired by the Buddhist scriptures, something that Eliot himself was very familiar with, because of his excellent understanding of Sanskrit.

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium (1)

The beginning of this section very much focuses on sexual degradation, a theme that began to emerge in “A Game of Chess”. There are some hidden references to the lifestyles of “the bright young things”, for example, “the loitering heirs of City directors,”; they lived lives of such huge excess, based around material happiness. This crisis of human nature emerged in the aftermath of the First World War; these young men saw their fathers and brothers die terribly, and in huge numbers, causing a crisis of character, to a certain extent, and therefore their indulgences can be seen as a social reaction in their memory; making up for lost time, even.

The following stanza contains more obvious references to the trenches and battlefields across Europe; an example of this is “White bodies naked on the low damp ground”. Alongside the references to rats, there is a feeling of damp, dank, desperate places. The graveyards of the First World War are somewhere that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime. However, juxtaposed against this rather dark image, is the reference to prostitution; this returns the theme of the poem to sexual degradation, positioned against the images of the Great War.

At this point however, a drastic change of pace occurs, because alongside the reference to the secretary (at the time, a secretary was a lower class worker, subservient essentially to all authorities), there is the influence of mythology, and Tiresias, a mythological character caught between two genders. This detracts from the distinct realism of the passage, and gives it an almost divine quality; a shift from the obvious ramifications of promiscuity towards the spiritual ramifications, something Eliot was supremely concerned by.

The passage is classically full of allusions; we have allusions from Greek mythology, The Tempest, Baudelaire, and the allusion to Tudor England. The allusion to Tudor England is significant in that Queen Elizabeth I was a virgin queen; she allegedly never engaged in any kind of sexual activity, because decisions were entirely political, even the business of love and marriage. Therefore Eliot returns to this period as a kind of juxtaposition; the Elizabethan’s also lacked the spirituality he coveted, but in an entirely different way to the twentieth century. They were simply mercenary, not necessarily corrupt.

The final stanza instigates the beginning of the theme of death, in order to resurrected; the word “burning” is constantly repeated, and the speaker in the poem asks “pluckest me out” of God. This is significant due to the strong theme of realisation; it is as though he has realised the importance of the social change happening around him. The finality of “burning” is also a reference to the Buddhist practice after a death; cremation is said to release the soul, into another life. By destroying this shattered world, there is space for it to be rebuilt. At this point, this part ends, leaving us on something of a cliff hanger, waiting to see what the outcome of this burning really is.

I hope you’re enjoying the series so far; Part IV to follow!

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(1) http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/archive/

4/44/20111225171905!View_from_top_of_Tyne_Cot.JPG

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On Survival

So today, I’m taking a brief diversion from my T.S Eliot series, because I read a rather inspiring article in The Guardian which made me think carefully about the nature of survival, and the very different perceptions of it from culture to culture. The developed world, the world which has Starbucks coffee on every other street corner, deems survival as an almost decadent indulgence; “Oh, I simply couldn’t live without my four by four”, or “I’m just starving…”. The article however presented a rather more interesting perception of survival; it was all about the boys of war-torn Afghanistan, who quite literally, walked to Europe, crossing vast amounts of land, traversing mountains, and clinging to the chassis of assorted lorries.

These boys are certainly not undertaking the journey for any charitable purpose; they are running away, paying gargantuan sums of money to smugglers, to escape the Taliban, or endless poverty, or the constant bombing of their villages. Like every other human, they have the fight or flight response, and unfortunately, it’s hard to fight a cause that is illogical. In the same way as arguing with a three-year-old is pointless, it is pointless to attempt intellectual argument against fundamentalism. Neither of these things are rational.

The startling thing of course is the fact that whilst I’m vigorously exercising, researching, thinking about things to take to Kilimanjaro, etc, these boys, who barely have a pair of shoes, are literally just doing it, climbing the mountains, and travelling in any way that they can, because that truly is the only way that they will survive the journey from their own damaged country. No one voluntarily traverses the Italian portion of the Alps, without shoes, medicine, food or shelter. However, this statement in essence, cannot be true, because people do it, if not regularly, then often; it is not an unheard of occurrence. This is startling because in our world, that is to say, the “civilised” western world, the thought of doing something so fundamentally dangerous is tantamount to declaring one’s own insanity.

One of the young boys who travel (1)

We continually, as adolescents in particular, moan about how bad our lives are; our student loans aren’t large enough, our boyfriends don’t love us enough, and our parents are always completely unreasonable. And to a certain extent, we are entitled as teenagers, to moan a little bit; to realise slowly that we aren’t the centre of the universe. It’s a rite of passage to know that, however these teenagers never had the chance to be ungrateful, because they were thrown into an unimaginably intense world of pain, where their parents don’t survive long enough to be able to ground them. That privilege was removed from them by extremism and foreign intervention.

Their education is also of paramount importance to them; something that as financial markets narrow, becomes even more important. We don’t tend to notice how privileged we are, and more often than not, will moan about getting up early, our homework, and something that a girl said about us, to someone who we thought was our friend. The boys who walk across Europe seek education as ferociously as they seek food; it is inspirational to read their stories, and to hear such unshakeable commitment, is fascinating.

These kids are inspirational, please have a read through!

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jan/29/out-afghanistan-boys-stories-europe?fb=native&CMP=FBCNETTXT9038

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(1) http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/u/

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Wandering Through “The Wasteland”: Part II

A Game of Chess (1)

So, today, our rapid little romp through T.S Eliot’s most complex and challenging poem continues, with Part II: “A Game of Chess”. To my mind at least, this part is far more focussed on one issue, when compared with the first part; in this part, chess can be considered as a metaphor for the strategic nature of the relationships between men and women which become strategic, mindless, and devoid of soul due to the demands of society, or one’s financial situation.

This part essentially divides into two; firstly, the relationship between the unnamed, but obviously affluent woman and her husband and surroundings. This relationship is described in lines 77-138. Many critics have suggested that this part, which essentially focusses on falsity, and surface values, was based on Eliot’s own relationship with Vivienne Haigh-Wood, his first wife. The woman in the poem is described as being coated in “synthetic perfumes”, and concerned with the “glitter of her jewels”. This materialist attitude is something that Eliot was profoundly alarmed by, especially when he was married to the aforementioned; his issues with intimacy extended into his marriage, and slowly, Vivienne deteriorated mentally. It is however important to note that she had never been entirely mentally stable, often recognised as being a woman of fragile health. Despite her increasing instability, Eliot refused to divorce her; he put her into several care facilities, and only remarried after Vivienne’s death in 1947. Many have suggested that this was less out of love, than out of duty.

As this first section of Part II continues however, the density of allusion continues to increase; there are references to Philomel, a key character in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, and also one of the Greek myths. The content of this myth includes rape and mutilation, specifically the removal of Lavinia’s tongue; this creates a sense of claustrophobia, and the idea that justice can never quite be accomplished, because nothing she says can be quite understood. As mentioned in earlier posts, the theme of miscommunication is central to Eliot’s masterpiece. An oblique reference to Vivienne’s interpretations of the world follow, during the somewhat disjointed dialogue that one can assume occurs between the writer, and the object of his writing; this could indeed have been a conversation between Eliot and his wife. Line 138 references “lidless eyes” which is a bizarre reversal of the previous interpretations of vision, and the ability to see; ‘lidless’ suggests something is not correct and despite the eyes being open, nothing is really being seen.

Lines 139-172 are in my opinion much more interesting, purely because they represent a more ‘realistic’ kind of social anxiety that would have been present among the working classes. The working classes of the time would have been affected by the changes that the industrial revolution, and changing attitudes towards behaviour had brought. This is represented by Eliot’s perception of the two women, discussing a husband; overall, the tone is highly derogatory towards the woman who has deteriorated in appearance, due to several pregnancies. The ‘friend’ (and incidentally, main speaker),  makes continual reference to Lil’s husband, and his attitude towards her physical appearance, whilst also alluding to the fact that “if you don’t give it him, there’s others will”. Whilst he has been away (as most men were, during the First World War), Lil appears to have been dreading his return somewhat. Line 164 however is the most telling, particularly of Eliot’s potential attitude towards the situation Lil finds herself in: “What you get married for, if you don’t want children?”. The idea that Lil is merely useful for fulfilling her husband’s sexual needs, and bearing him children, can be considered an enormous feminist statement, especially in conjunction with the degrading attitudes that surround it.

Oil Painting of T.S Eliot (2)

The final few lines present a bizarre ending to this second part; the friend, is asked to dinner with Albert and Lil, and the use of “get the beauty of it hot” suggests an underlying message contained within that social call. Philandering husbands have never been an uncommon phenomena, and post World War One was no different, because of the influence of “the bright young things” and the mantra of “carpe diem” that emerged as a reaction against the total destruction of so many young men. The final two lines of the section are also the final lines of Ophelia, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet; fundamentally, she drowns herself. Water, to Eliot is a key theme, representing spirituality and the ability to be reborn. The absence of water in Part I represent’s it’s corruption, and the final lines of Part II do begin to allude to the beginning of the end of this kind of corruption; the poem has not yet reached its true turning point, however the tension between the corruption and the resolution certainly begins to build, from Part III onwards.

I hope my T.S Eliot exploration is holding some degree of interest, although it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s a useful revision for myself too! Hope you’re enjoying the blog series. The next post will, of course, be on Part III, “The Fire Sermon”.

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(1) http://nettonet.org/Nettonet/101%20Painting/Studies/gris.jpg

(2) http://www.independent.co.uk/migration_catalog/article5081860.ece/ALTERNATES/w380/ts+eliot.jpeg

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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.

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(1) https://sarahalicewaterhouse.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/thewastelandepigraph.jpg?w=250

(2) http://media-cdn.pinterest.com/upload/22377329368218787_D5HthlbB_c.jpg

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