Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Alchemy of Words

A few years ago, in my first book, I made a somewhat provocative comparison between a widely-acknowledged masterpiece of modern poetry and a low-budget horror movie: “NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is an indictment of modern life in America. It conveys the anxieties of life in a time of theological and political uncertainty, suggesting that we as a nation are overwhelmed by faceless, irrational and blindly destructive forces, and are incapable of creating a united front to drive them back. T.S. Eliot conveyed the same mind-consuming anxieties for Europeans at the dawn of the Industrial Age. The Waste Land (published in 1919), was the poet’s desperate attempt to suture centuries worth of religious and philosophical thoughts into a coherent view of a world worth living in.”

Let me be the first to say that I was wrong. The Waste Land was not published in 1919. While sections of the poem were written as early as 1914, it was not published until October 1922. Furthermore, although the poem does explore the dehumanizing and dispiriting effects of industrialized life, 1922 was hardly the “dawn” of the Industrial Age in Europe. Eliot was walking on heavily-trodden ground, following in the footsteps of poets like William Blake (1757 – 1827) and William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850). Suffice it to say that when I wrote my first book, I was more preoccupied with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD than with The Waste Land.

Fast forward a few years, to the publication of my second book – The Making of T.S. Eliot: A Study of the Literary Influences. This time, I’ve done my homework on The Waste Land… and I maintain that the comparison between Eliot and director George A. Romero is valid. It even helps to explain how I went from writing a book about horror movies to writing a book about modern poetry. As a kid, I was drawn to horror movies because they explored and thereby helped me to cope with my deepest fears – fears of being abnormal, fears of adult sexuality, fears of death, and an overarching fear that life was random and ultimately without meaning. In a nutshell, that’s what Eliot’s poetry is about: coming to terms with the world you live in.

Many academics have explored Eliot’s obsessions and, in recent years, a few academics have come out of the woodwork to champion Romero. In his book The Gospel of the Living Dead, theologian Kim Paffenroth proposes that Romero’s Dead movies help to illustrate the Christian concept of original sin, by showing us a world in desperate need of God’s grace. That may not have been Romero’s intention, but it’s an interesting (and, I think, completely valid) reading. Paffenroth says, “Christians would have to admit that, although they must disagree with Romero’s denial of a cure, he has the diagnosis of sin more right than many modern thinkers and artists, and has compellingly presented it in all its power and horror.”

T.S. Eliot offers a similar perspective on one of his formative influences, Charles Baudelaire – a French poet who was inspired, like Eliot himself, by America’s first master of horror, Edgar Allan Poe. Eliot says, “Baudelaire perceived that what really matters is Sin and Redemption. It is proof of his honesty that he went as far as he could honestly go and no further […] the possibility of damnation is so immense a relief in a world of electoral reform, plebiscites, sex reform and dress reform, that damnation itself is an immediate form of salvation – of salvation from the recent ennui of modern life, because it at least gives some significance to the living.” Romero too shows us the ennui of modern life. His listless zombies are comparable to the tormented souls in Dante’s Inferno, a literary allusion that Eliot used in The Waste Land to illustrate his own horror: “I had not thought that death had undone so many.” The emotion is the same: Pity on the verge of despair, desperation in need of a cure.

The major theme running through the careers of both Eliot and Romero is longing for a prelapsarian world. (Prelapsarian is a great word that one of my college professors loved to use, meaning Edenic or “before The Fall.”) The Waste Land and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD are the turning points in their searches. Both texts propose that total annihilation is necessary (perhaps unavoidable) in the progress toward a new beginning. Each man has his own ideas about what that new beginning should be. Eliot, a Romantic-turned-Classicist, became a champion of traditional Christianity. Romero, a somewhat frustrated member of the peace/love generation, continues to believe in the transforming power of social liberalism. Despite their ideological differences, both men are voices in the wilderness crying out for peace, love and the necessity of magic and mystery in everyday life.

I’d argue that the same perspective applies to Stephen King, whose (reputedly morbid but generally optimistic) fiction led me to Eliot when I was in high school. I think he would agree with Eliot that horror is the first stage in a lifelong process: “the beginning of wisdom is fear.” We all start in the darkness. Eliot says that the artist must be honest. If he can’t see beyond the darkness in his life, he can’t get beyond the darkness in his work. But the greatest artists, he says, are those whose perspective deepens and grows over time, offering a more balanced view of life.

The Making of T.S. Eliot explores Eliot’s journey out of the darkness. I set out wanting to understand if and how he actually managed to get from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (a poem that seemed to embody the most haunting thoughts, impulses and anxieties I could imagine as a teenager) to a whole-hearted embrace of Christianity. The book follows the chronology of the young poet’s life, factoring each successive influence (literary and biographical) into the whole that finally emerged in his work, through a process that I like to think of as "the alchemy of words." It was a daunting project, but I’m very proud of the results and I hope it will lead a few new readers to Eliot.

If I haven’t piqued your interest yet, let me point to a few old blog posts that I’ve written on Eliot. I’m also posting the table of contents for the book, to give a sense of the variety of works that Eliot (and I, by extension) was trying to absorb and assimilate…

DJ Shadow and T.S. Eliot
T.S. Eliot and the Modern American College
T.S. Eliot and Religious Literacy in America
A review of a novel about the T.S. Eliot / Emily Hale letters
The City of Dreadful Joy - my homage to The Waste Land

The Making of T.S. Eliot - Table of Contents

Part 1 – A Point of Departure (1905 – 1910)

E.A. Poe & Edward Fitzgerald: Shadowy Sounds from Visionary Wings
Fin de siecle
W.B. Yeats & Arthur Symons: Dance on Deathless Feet
Charles Baudelaire: Something New
Arthur Rimbaud & Paul Verlaine: Something Sacred
Jules Laforgue: An Art of the Nerves

Part 2 – A Passion for Wholeness (1910 – 1911)
The Teachings of Irving Babbitt
The Soul of Homer
The Birth of Tragedy
The Epistemology of Plato
The Metaphysics of Aristotle
The Life of Reason
The Metamorphoses of the Roman Empire
The Birth of Christianity
The Confessions of St. Augustine
The Inferno of Dante
The Legend of Shakespeare
Eliot and Shakespeare, Hamlet and His Problems
Interlude in Paris
Henri Bergson: Creative Evolution
Walt Whitman: Mosaic
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Part 3 – Appearance and Reality (1911 – 1915)

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
The Bhagavad Gita
The Light of Asia
Buddhism, Christianity and the Fire Sermon
Josiah Royce: The Problem of Christianity
The Burnt Dancer
Bertrand Russell: Mysticism and Logic
First Debate between Body and Soul
F.H. Bradley: Notes towards the Absolute
Eliot, Bradley & Symbolism
T.E. Hulme: Castles in the Air
The Death of Saint Narcissus

Part 4 – The Beginning of Wisdom (1915 – 1920)

The Education of Henry Adams
Matthew Arnold: The Function of Criticism
Four Jacobean Dramatists
Thomas Middleton: A Game of Chess
John Webster: The Skull beneath the Skin
Saving Tom
Saving Sweeney
John Donne: Whispers of Immortality
William Wordsworth: Intimations of Immortality
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Secondary Imagination
Supernatural Horror in Shelley & Browning
William Blake: The Religion of Art
Lines for an Old Man
The Alchemy of Words

Part 5 – Beyond Good and Evil (1920 – 1921)
The Decline of the West
Goethe: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future
Friedrich Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil
Zarathustra: Nietzsche as Symbolist Poet
Fyodor Dostoevsky: In Sight of Chaos
Herman Hesse: The Journey to the East
Carl Jung & James George Frazer: Symbols of Transformation
The Mythical Method
Arthurian Legend
From Ritual to Romance
The Waste Land: The Burial of the Dead (Part I)
The Waste Land: The Burial of the Dead (Part II)
The Waste Land: A Game of Chess / In the Cage
The Waste Land: The Fire Sermon
The Waste Land: Death by Water
The Waste Land: What the Thunder Said (Part I)
The Waste Land: What the Thunder Said (Part II)

Part 6 – Between Dying and Birth (1922 – 1930)
Dante II: The New Love
The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry
Lancelot Andrewes
Death’s Other Kingdom
Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness
Paul Valéry: Between the Motion and the Act
Poetry and Belief
Belief and Politics
The Wine of the Puritans
Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Web of God
The Hawthorne Aspect of Henry James
Ash Wednesday & the Ariel Poems: A Long Journey
Ash Wednesday & the Ariel Poems: The Turning Point
Ash Wednesday & the Ariel Poems: After the Turning
Ash Wednesday & the Ariel Poems: Life in Flux


  1. hey - glad you liked the book!

  2. Anonymous5/08/2009

    Hey Joe,
    Thanks for adding the table of contents. Makes me want to purchase a copy for my summer reading.

    -rick c