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T. S. Eliot

Harold Bloom first wrote about his now famous theory of the anxiety of influence in the early 1970’s while I was in college. Bloom focused on poetry and traced the complex challenge facing a poet in search of his or her own unique voice while being inspired—and intimidated—by a powerful precursor.

The concept of “anxiety of influence” quickly moved from poetry to every creative endeavor. It opened up all sorts of possibilities, like viewing the history of art through a Bloomian lens where every major breakthrough represents a step away from a powerful precursor’s domain. It also helped me see how certain eras speak to one generation and not to others.

A good example is the recent film by Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris. Light and entertaining, it embodied a fantasy that speaks directly to those of us who grew up in awe of a very particular era of time and its larger-than-life cast of characters—Henri Matisse, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Luis Buñuel, et al. But for my daughter, 30 years my junior, the movie was a dud. It made no connection, offered no fantasy fulfillment. Unlike Woody Allen and me, she was not raised on the magic of Paris in the 20’s.

Another giant presence from my coming of age years was T. S. Eliot. (Where he sits in the consciousness of a younger generation isn’t clear to me. Please feel free to share your thoughts on that in the comments section below.) But discovering his poems, particularly The Waste Land, was a watershed during my teenage years. William Logan‘s review of a newly released volume of Eliot’s letters, T. S. Eliot’s Rattle of Miseries, brought back that feeling of awe and fascination. It was also a sharp reminder of the tragic circumstances of the poet’s life. Of course when delivered up by Logan, gifted and insightful and also a poet, the telling is its own pleasure.

Here are a few passages for those of you who are also (and still) Eliotians:

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Eliot’s criticism is now undervalued, dismissed by critics without half his sensibility or intelligence. The poems have so long been the foundation of modern anthologies that their reputation has almost as long worked against them (the one indispensable poem of the 20th century is still “The Waste Land”). Eliot’s best poems have almost disappeared beneath dust heaps of commentary, and the dust heaps that lie on those dust heaps. Much of his early work — “Prufrock,” the “Sweeney” poems, “Gerontion,” even “The Waste Land” — could be called urban eclogues, part of the turn in English poetry from the country to the city. It may take a long time to appreciate those poems afresh, after the poets who struggled against Eliot, whether as allies or enemies, are long dead; by that time his world will seem as out of date as Pope’s.

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It’s possible to read “The Waste Land” not as a po-faced rattle of miseries by a man who has suffered a nervous breakdown but as a collection of mocking growls, often at his own expense — “rhythmical grumbling,” he later called it. The poem’s pitch-black despairs are leavened by the knockabout portrait of a workingman’s pub (reading the scene aloud, Eliot was mordantly hilarious), the cynical rendering of the typist’s sleazy liaison with the house-agent’s clerk, and the mortal comeuppances dealt to Phlebas and others. Emotionally, it is a shockingly cold poem. The famous notes, scribbled out to pad the American edition, are more like Pope’s cod learning in the “Dunciad” than the scholar’s self-justification for which they are sometimes mistaken (Eliot called himself ill-read). Eliot’s poems, especially the pre-Christian poems, have been so weighed down by the concrete overcoat of reputation, their terrifying humor has sometimes been forgotten or misread. With Swift, Byron and Carroll, Eliot was one of the great comic poets in English.

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Knowing a man by the week-by-week crawl through his life is a bit like understanding a locust by examining the dried casing. Still, these letters do reveal the anxieties boiled down into “The Waste Land”…Together these volumes are like a long Russian novel that ends in midcareer, terrifying, humiliating and finally ­exhausting.

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Paris, 1970
Photo by Elliott Erwitt

Maybe it happens to you like this: unexpected events and encounters often come in multiples. It’s as if random events are actually traveling through our lives in a wad. How many times has someone come to mind who I haven’t seen in years and then they suddenly appear at a party or on the street? Many.

That rhythm of random repetition showed up for me again this last week. I just finished reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids, a memoir about New York City in the 1970s as seen from the high velocity, celebrity-studded perspective of both Smith and her lover/friend, Robert Mapplethorpe. I lived in New York City at the same time and remember Smith’s extraordinary performances at CBGB that catapulted her into fame. The world she describes, centered around the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City, was very far from my ragtag circle of friends living in unwieldy lofts on the Lower East Side. I wasn’t running into the likes of Allen Ginsberg or Gregory Corso on my rides on the F train or walks through Chinatown. But reading her words brought those days back to mind, back to a Manhattan and a me that are long gone. Woody Allen’s somewhat superficial but irresistably enjoyable film, Midnight in Paris, was a paean to our private variations of the moveable feast.

Manhattan in the 1970s was one of my moveable feasts, but so was the year I spent in France when I was 18 years old. And those halcyon days came flooding back when I recently visited my art teacher from that year I lived abroad. He is the reason I changed my life path and decided to spend it making art, and now he lives in the hills above Salt Lake City. His secluded Italianate villa is filled with artifacts ranging from Renaissance paintings to dinosaur bones. Stepping into his cloistered Miss Havisham world is already an invitation to leave life as we know it, but even more so when I discovered he had unearthed the photos from that long ago time in France—black and whites that capture a me and a France that, like Manhattan in the 70s, no longer exists.

Who I was back then is as elusive as a dream image, and it is just as hard to share it meaningfully with anyone else. But reconnecting with these two periods in my life, in close succession, has brought all sorts of forgotten energies to the surface. Asking those old selves to unveil their forgotten secrets is not as easy as a car that comes round for you at midnight on a Paris street, but I’ll take these trips back however they come.

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