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Filtering by Tag: T-S- Eliot

Cue the Fairy Tale Characters, Please

Jill Reid

jill-reid_fairy-tales-nov-16-post My sister once bought a Dollar Store Snow White wig for my daughter. Three-year-old Ellie used to drag it behind her the way Linus clung to his blue blanket. She donned it at breakfast and slept in it at naptime. Day after day, wigged and rapt, she caressed the cheap dark locks with sticky toddler paws as Disney’s Snow White’s soprano pierced the thin walls of our apartment.

Symbols are powerful. Even sticky old wigs have their magic, and in retrospect, the season of the Snow White wig was thick with both fairy tale and curse. Disney’s Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty and Snow White played on loops on the living room TV, their Technicolor endings a crescendo of orchestra music, ball gowns, and satisfying conclusion. Meanwhile, I re-read passages for literature classes in which the dragon killed Beowulf, and Othello murdered Desdemona. Mr. Hyde overcame Dr. Jekyll, and poor tentative Alfred J. Prufrock measured out his “life in coffee spoons.”  

Those stories, in contrast to the fairy tale, were as fragmented as the world my child and I lived within. During the season of the Snow White wig, my own life experience with single parenthood, toddler potty training, and exhaustion dug in its heels against the “simplicity” of fairy tales. Really, how do you embrace the enchantment in Snow White’s story, when what you have read and lived and survived suggests that in your own story, should you ever bite into one of life’s poison apple, you will have to drive your own poisoned self to the ER?

That was also the season when, in the middle of a week sopping with the weariness of cynicism, my notebook became a revelation. I sat at my desk writing the word “Loss” over and over without even realizing the path my pen was taking. And next to that, I jotted down a statement by C.S. Lewis that, prior to that moment, had existed only as a lovely sentiment I intended to quote to students.

“Loss. Loss. Loss,” my notebook read. "Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again,” C.S. Lewis told me. And just like that, after months of rolling my eyes at Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, I saw the wisdom in Ellie’s beautiful, tangled Snow White wig. “What,” I could almost hear Snow White whisper, “has ever been easy about overcoming a curse?”

Perhaps when C.S. Lewis talks about growing old enough to read fairytales again, he alludes to the slowly re-gained wisdom in believing in the possibility of the cursed truly overcoming their curses  - even on this side of heaven. Rather than a curse that divvies itself out over a lifetime in wrinkles and mortgage payments, the fairy tale offers one pure cup of concentrated curse, potent as Snow White’s apple, for us to swallow and overcome all at once. There is a special kind of relief in knowing exactly what curse you’re up against , how to defeat it, and that it can be defeated at all.

Of fairy tales, Neil Gaiman, in a paragraph of G.K. Chesterton’s longer explanation, wrote, “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Each day, the dragons gather.  They show up in the latest news cycle.  They loom when I sit down to pay the bills or comfort a sick child.  In class, I spend hours discussing all the gray spaces where the heroes fall to dragons or where, sometimes, there are no heroes at all. But, as I grow older, I believe more and more that in a world full of dragons, there is a special wisdom in embracing the fairy tale, matted and familiar as a Snow White wig, as a place of empowerment, where we can, at least for the breadth of a story, watch the dragons fall.

Why Leisure Matters - Part 1 of 2

Joy and Matthew Steem

Peasants harvesting crops, by Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel, 17th century

Work is divine. God is revealed as the great worker and it is through work that men become like God. It is through work that man finds his life and his life is measured by his work ... to run away from work is to run away from life. To repudiate work is to commit suicide.    —Gus Dyer, columnist in the 1930s

Many times the happy benefit of belonging to a certain nationality is that one can riotously criticize it, where otherwise it would be sacrosanct—and worse, politically incorrect! Anyway, coming from a rural German Protestant family I know a thing or two about a work ethic. Cleanliness might be next to Godliness, but work is even holier than soap. “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, right”? Ever since being young enough to remember, a pristinely praiseworthy comment was, “oh my, but that person is a good worker.” And when that worker was me it was enough to motivate the righteous action of “putting one’s back into it” even more.

Oh yes, you could know a person by their fruits. In fact, chances were that if those fruits reeked of sweat and toil—Jesus was totally happy too. After all, you will remember scripture commanding, “do it as unto the Lord” (i.e. the Lord wants your all) and do it with all your strength (with that I would ask myself, “would Jesus be ok with just an 8 hour workday?”). If doing for God and with all your strength wasn't enough, the proviso was added, “do it without grumbling and complaining too” (you wanna argue with Jesus?!! Now get back to work, slob! ... after all Jesus went to the cross for you).

God bless my grandmother, but even when it comes to potential relationships, work ethic is one of the first questions asked. “Is this person a good worker”?

Thanks grandma.

And so I was stilled for a moment when I read “have leisure and know that I am God” in Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture (which has an excellent introduction by T.S. Eliot, by the way).

The search engine in my mind came up with nothing like that in the scripture I had read. I had never heard that verse before. (This will show my lack of Catholic bible tradition.) Trusting Pieper’s credentials, I went on to one of the most contrary ideas I had come across in my German upbringing, and it was written by a German none-the-less! Stupendous.

So what of grandma’s high valuation of a good work ethic? Well of course a good worker is something to be valued. If you have read Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism you will have read that capitalism itself has been greatly shaped by it. (It should be noted here that good ol’ Weber was prone to cherry picking quotes—a horrid thing—and his thesis actually shouldn’t be taken quite as serious as it is, considering proper historiographical methodology.)

Pieper is not against work itself—in fact, he says that you can't have leisure without it! —however, he asserts, since God’s creation is good, our enjoyment is of the utmost to God. And of course enjoyment is not merely efficiency or production. It can include that, but those things in themselves aren’t ends. Ultimately, it is ends with which Pieper is interested.

Enter leisure.

To be continued tomorrow.

The Soul’s Tempo in Four Quartets - Part II

Rebecca Spears

St John's Church, Little Gidding, Cambridgeshire, UK, key in the inspiration for the poem Little Gidding by T. S. Eliot. Taken by uploader, February 4, 2006. Read Part I 

“The Dry Salvages,” the third poem in Eliot’s Four Quartets, thinks about time from the wilderness of rivers and oceans, drawing parallels to the cycles of life and to eternity. Rhythmically, this poem feels like water lapping at the shore: “Where is an end of it, the soundless wailing”; “where is there an end to the drifting wreckage”; “where is the end of them, the fishermen sailing”; “there is no end, but addition.”

“The Dry Salvages”  (1941) evokes Heraclitus’ most famous observation: “One cannot step twice into the same river.” Similarly, in time’s currents, humans are no longer the same travelers they were the moment before; nor will they be the same the next moment.  We are ever changing, but this signals our aging as well. Implicit in wilderness is the idea of an older time,  before clocks: “The tolling bell / Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried / Ground swell, a time / Older than the time of chronometers.” This is nature’s movement, something quite larger than ourselves, something we cannot control.

In nature, time is both destroyer and preserver, signified by “the river with its cargo of Dead Negroes, cows and chicken coops.” Here, Eliot wants us to know that agony is timeless; when we are in it, it seems eternal: “People change, and smile: but the agony abides.” Also, “time is no healer”; instead, time always kills the patient. The speaker seeks refuge from agony in prayer, and finally turns away from ancient remedies of magic and sorcery. He concludes that the only way to live timelessly is through prayer and through the saints. “Little Gidding" (1942), the most overtly religious quartet, moves the speaker from the human experience of time to the threshold of timelessness. Little Gidding is a chapel Eliot made pilgrimage to in 1936, when England was nearing war’s threshold. So too, readers enter the poem at a transitory time, “midwinter spring,” “suspended in time,” where “the brief sun flames the ice.” As in Heraclitus, this flash of light compares to insight. Yet this light is also a “pentecostal fire / In the dark time of the year.” We should approach this moment of light prayerfully, Eliot tells us, ready to see our folly and be restored by “that refining fire.” In prayer, a person prepares to cross the threshold and be “transfigured in another pattern,” experiencing visionary detachment that goes beyond desire to love. While history is “a pattern / of timeless moments,” to be transformed people must “arrive where we started from / And know the place for the first time,” “through the unknown remembered gate” (l. 246), to a place and experience humans have only glimpsed on the cave walls.  

My afternoon at the Menil that long-ago September, experiencing Mineko Grimmer’s Remembering Plato, the ice melting, the pebbles dropping and producing a watery music, the projected patterns on the walls constantly changing, I think I felt myself approaching a gate that wasn’t yet open to me. I still carry a vivid memory of that day when the experience touched me so deeply. In Four Quartets, Eliot works his way through ideas of memory and its patterns, and suspended time, toward glimpses of eternal forms, and finally, to the gate of timelessness, or eternity. Following the soul’s tempo, the speaker will gain “complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything) / And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well.”

The Sea Wall

Jayne English


                    so intimately, out there at the pen’s point or brush’s tip, do world and spirit wed. Howard Nemerov

When I was young, our family friends had access to a deserted strip of beach. Over the summer, my mom would pile us five kids and two of our friends’ kids into our station wagon and let the waves and sun exhaust our energies. There was a sea wall with a makeshift ladder that we climbed to get from the car to the sand below. I remember going up and down that ladder as a six year old. It was positioned straight up against a wall of creosoted beams. That meant, for a small child, getting up the ladder was a combination of pulling up on one rung while pushing off on another, the simple physics of overcoming gravity by force. The physics was simple, but the effort was not.

Decades later, I realize that as artists – creators – the sea wall is a metaphor for two aspects of our vocation. First, it’s where we put in the effort to call things into being. In “Choruses from The Rock,” T.S. Eliot writes, “After much striving, after many obstacles;/For the work of creation is never without travail.” At the sea wall we prevail over obstacles that come between our attempts to take our vision of waves, sky, and sandwiches on the beach into the every day world of roads, framed views, and meals at the table. Part of the effort comes in working against the paradox of noisy backgrounds – where we live – those places that both hinder our art and are its wellspring. The sea wall is also the meeting point between the finite nature of our abilities and where we are (hopefully) set ablaze by Caedmon’s sudden angel.

Nemerov’s lines show us another aspect of the sea wall in the artist’s life. We begin to shape the language of our vision on the sea side of the wall. It’s where we take in the world by reading fiction and poetry, nonfiction, the lines on people’s faces. Where we listen to the wind, and music, and sounds of longing in the babel. And we watch movies, sun and shadow, postures in conversation. It’s when we attempt to translate the vision with “pen’s point or brush’s tip” that something inexplicable happens, “world and spirit wed.” Because humankind struggles to see by believing, we long to bring something of the invisible world to the visible. Maybe it’s partly through artists’ creations that God answers the prayer, “I believe, help my unbelief.” This is the artists’ call, to carry the stone jars up the ladder, and watch the water turn to wine.

The Soul’s Tempo in Four Quartets - Part 1

Rebecca Spears

Plato On a Friday one long-ago September, after I’d toured several galleries at the Menil Collection with some fellow writers, I was anxious to get outside and enjoy a rare, cool afternoon. However, the guide had one more exhibit to show us, a room-sized sculpture, Mineko Grimmer’Remembering Plato.

As soon as I entered this simple, beautiful space, I forgot my urge to rush outdoors, astounded by the sculpture: At either end of the room, a shallow, rectangular pool rested on the hardwood floor. Stretched across the middle of each basin were two wires. Over each pool, an ice pendulum encrusted with pebbles hung. Spotlights projected the water’s light and shadows onto the walls. The ice was melting; pebbles were dropping onto the wires and into the basins, producing single, musical notes and watery sounds. Simultaneously, the projections on the walls changed, as pebbles falling faster over time disturbed the water. The effect, as Menil director Ned Rifkin aptly explained, is to animate “the internal mechanism of a clock we do not ordinarily see or use, one that corresponds to the soul’s tempo. ”

The patterns on the walls figure largely too in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, where Eliot examines the distance between the ideal form and a person’s changing perceptions of it over time. The quartets, “Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding,” also show us that human limitations can become a means of transcendence. If we accept the limits, exercising a measure of humility, then we may be transformed and freed of time. The quartets can be read, too, for their political context and imagery of war, but it is its narrative reflecting the poet’s conversion to Christianity that I find particularly interesting.

While the elements of Four Quartets are wide ranging, and each reader will take something different from the poems, the speaker enacts what it is like to grapple with the sublime. What I love about the quartets is Eliot’s musing on how we may glimpse eternity, where the soul experiences timelessness, and how we may seek God. I think my astonishment upon seeing Mineko Grimmer’s Remembering Plato was an exalted moment for me: I was taken out of time for a few moments and had a glimpse of something greater than myself.

In the first quartet, “Burnt Norton” (1936), the speaker’s perplexity concerning time is at once apparent: “If all time is eternally present, / All time is unredeemable.” The speaker moves toward the memory of a manor and gardens and considers the disjunction between ideal forms and reality in a positive way, namely, that the saving grace of memory is its distance from actual events. For in memory, the speaker can reconsider life and make new patterns of it.

Yet Eliot’s speaker is also bewildered, knowing that humans cannot remove themselves from time. Even when he calls on memory, he must do so in real time. There are glorious moments that humans sometimes perceive, and in those moments, movement is suspended: “The pool was filled with water out of sunlight, / And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly, / The surface glittered out of heart of light. ” Like my experience of Mineko Grimmer’s sculpture, such moments are the still point, just as the earth’s axis is its still point. Throughout “Burnt Norton,” the speaker tries to apprehend the still point where the soul can rest, while “desire itself is movement.” One reading of this quartet is the speaker’s striving for love beyond desire, a divine love, a salvation.

Eliot’s second quartet, “East Coker” (1940), moves through the seasons, which in turn give way to years, and years to ancestry and history. There is also motion toward acceptance of human limitations as well as geographic movement away from civilization toward wilderness. The movement of our time in this life is cyclical, and the speaker ponders how he might be released from it. “In my beginning is my end,” he says, recognizing that time is comprised of endless, cyclical occurrences. These are purposeless unless he—and we—begin to view them in timeless contexts.

Eliot also wants to remind us that movement through the seasons points to human frailty: though Plato’s cave-dwellers dance around the bonfire, the dance ends with the dancers. We humans fear the loss implicit in giving ourselves over to someone or something we may lose; fear of “belonging to another, or to others, or to God.” In order to acquire “the wisdom of humility,” we need to face our fears. And to gain abiding faith, hope, and love, apart from cyclical time, we must wade into the darkness. In doing this, the speaker indicates, it is possible to gain the insight of a refining fire.

Read Part II

Selfish Solitude

Joy and Matthew Steem

Harrowing of Hades, an icon by Dionisius, from the Ferapontov Monastery. The label “heretic” has such an interesting draw to it doesn't it. It holds a special charm for a variety of reasons I think: it’s generally anti-conformist, anti-populist, and anti-status-quo. That makes it unique, and unique can be quite attractive. Since everybody wants to be unique – especially in a culture of conformity – what’s not to like about heresy. Plus, it’s not all bad either. T. S Eliot spoke of it more than once and in some cases of it as a good. Anyway, all that to say that a label of something being potentially heretical makes it ... could I use the word “hot”?

So when I heard that one of the popular Inklings other than Lewis and Tolkien had it suggested of him that it would be understandable to have him burned at the stake, I was quite taken. “Cool,” I thought to myself. But then, because I was young I had a difficult time in reading Charles Williams. However, some years ago I came back to him and was most heartily surprised. And sure enough, the heresy claim isn't too far off. So of course I read him all the more. Now it’s not all that un-orthodox, but there are some interesting thoughts he brings up.

Just recently I was re-reading his second last novel, Descent into Hell, and found something interesting concerning his thoughts on Sodom and Gomorrah. Nope, it’s probably not what many others might be thinking (we here at Relief are a clever bunch). These two cities are connected for Williams with un-neighbourliness (which for Williams was a form of sterility in that it doesn't contribute to generating life) and solitude, and their direct association with hell.

Now, since I have tendencies towards introversion, I was not just a little annoyed at the strong connection with solitude and damnation. Plus, have you ever read what early psychological theory – Jung was a little kinder – said about those who were essentially introverted? It was basically pathological narcissism. However, as I continued to read Williams I was quite taken with his ideas and began to have self-to-self conversation/conversion. (Ever have a conversation with yourself and afterwards noticed that your view changed – it’s cool right? It might be difficult, but I think we actually can change our own bias.) I was persuaded that Williams had made a great point about solitude being the pathway to damnation when it is mixed with selfishness. Thomas Merton, who spoke a great deal of the importance of solitude, went to great lengths to clarify that while solitude is exceedingly important, it cannot be practiced for the sake of the self. If self is the primary concern, then this solitude is actually wicked. And the reader is lead to seeing selfish solitude as the ultimate undoing for anybody when practiced fully as William’s work depicts. I won't spoil the ending of Decent into Hell, but I think the suspense factor would have Stephen King green with envy.

Back to solitude as selfishness though. I once remember hearing a respected minister say something to a largish crowd that s/he just didn't have much time to spend chatting with friends and others when invited out because the time would be better spent with God. You know how Jesus was known to be meek? Yah, I wasn't at that moment. I didn't know how to voice it, but it felt, well, selfish. I mean I get separating yourself from the hordes from time to time – Jesus did that too, after all – but Jesus also spent lots of time with people. I think there should be a balance. Holiness that excludes itself from public life – from being human – might not be as holy as it thinks.  We were made to live in communion with each other: which means both, sharing and imparting life with each other. So, of course we need alone time – I demand it regularly – but I was gently warned by Williams cautionary tale that solitude can't be mixed with selfishness. Because that is real heresy – and it’s not cool.

Beginning Exploration

Aaron Guest

12 Books on Wall The downstairs bathroom was the most unique room in our home. Its walls were decoupaged with pages of poetry and fiction by the previous owner. I showed it off whenever friends came to visit—it’s even where my bio pic was taken. Then, the day before leaving for my first MFA residency, it flooded. We had gone to the water park and returned to discover my son had left the upstairs bathroom sink running with the drain plugged. The walls were ruined.

This past week we moved out of that house after eight years. I’ve been listening to The Mountain Goats song “Genesis 3:23” during this transition. This song details the experience of returning to a former home—I tend to get sentimental well in advance. In it, the narrator revisits his old house to “see how the people here live now.” New pictures abound on the walls, but the rooms are still “familiar and warm.” There is also the reminder of the “hours we spent starving within these walls/ Sounds of a distant storm” and the need to “dodge the ghosts in the hallways/ Duck and weave.”

Of all the crafted lines in this song though, I am intrigued most by the opening lyric “Picked the lock on the front door/ And felt it give.” In order to explore the former home, the narrator has to force his way in. I think that’s the nature of revisiting some memories. I have to force myself into those locked-away places. And doing so puts me at risk.

I’ve been re-reading T.S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets lately, too—the first book read for that first MFA residency. Sometimes I am loath to pick up a book I’ve already read, especially one that’s changed me in some way. Not even a year later, I cringed noticing the author—my favorite at the time—we’d used to paste over the wet spots on the bathroom walls. Revisiting a book or a work of art threatens me because of how often my perspective shifts, so will the book still give? But, there was the clarion assurance of “Little Gidding”:

 And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.

Exploration of my past may change my understanding. Like the Mountain Goats’ narrator, we may encounter risk in returning and have to “break the lock on my own garden gate”. A nod, perhaps, to the next lines in Little Gidding:

Through the unknown, unremembered gate When the last of earth left to discover Is that which was the beginning;

We brought our three kids home to that house. We endured several career changes. I’m not yet fully aware how our present life was woven from the hard choices and the days when laughter overflowed inside those walls. But I realize, when the house sells, I will have to hand over my keys.

Isolation in a Virtual Waste Land

Mary McCampbell


When I teach T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, I often start out playing this video that dismantles a track from Girl Talk, highlighting all of the secondary texts that the artist combines to create something “new.” My point is that Eliot’s 1922 masterpiece, just as postmodern as it is modern, is a mashup itself. Both Eliot and Gregg Michael Gillis (Girl Talk) are, as Roland Barthes would tell us, forming something supposedly “original” from “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” In The Waste Land, an anti-epic poem if there ever was one, the heaps of fragments indicate that in a world where “God is dead”, a world devastated by the nonsensical cruelty of war, there is no meaning or even ability to communicate. Eliot continually emphasizes human isolation, that the inhabitants of The Waste Land are “each in his own prison.”

A large part of the disorientation one experiences when reading The Waste Land comes from Eliot’s intentional failure to translate foreign languages or cite his sources. The definitive sacred and secular texts of powerful Western and Eastern civilizations are decontextualized and remixed, pointing to the meaninglessness of life without any defining narrative, a life in which the Author God is dead.

But anyone who takes the tedious trouble to really spend thoughtful time in The Waste Land will track down Eliot’s sources, read them in context, and finally see that Eliot’s poem has complex meaning via the connectedness of the themes in these carefully selected fragments; in a sense, the poem betrays itself. In tracking down sources, we begin to get a sense of the whole, we long more and more for connectivity.

But in the age of google, my students and I have all of these secondary sources at our fingertips; there is not much hard work required as we can even find hyperlink versions of the poem that instantly translate the texts for us and briefly summarize the entire plot of the multiple narratives alluded to in the poem. The internet allows us to move from the poem’s decontextualized fragments to disembodied, virtual explanations of fragments. Rather than going to the library (a communal experience), we can sit in our pajamas and google it all. What would Eliot think of this isolating, perhaps “unreal” (in his eyes) research? He has removed “original” ideas from their contexts, yet we depend on an invisible network of replicated images to give us knowledge, almost always out of context.

At the beginning of the poem, Eliot envisions one of Dante’s circles of hell as a picture of living but dead (“unreal”) Londoners walking home from work over London bridge: “Each man fixed his eyes before his feet…”. I often ask my students what they think Eliot would say today if he went to London bridge, rode on the tube, or sat in a restaurant and saw our eyes not “on our own feet” but on our iPhones. Would he say we have we created a rich new access to knowledge and community, or would he conclude we have simply mastered the art of distraction and isolation? Or would he say we have somehow accomplished both?

Listening to Kerouac

Brad Fruhauff

As part of the Beat Generation, Kerouac’s writing voice is obviously memorable and distinctly important in the history of American literature. I sense a kinship between my generation and Kerouac’s. For just as the Beats decided to hitchhike across America in search of both personal and national identity, we seek identity through our journeys on the World Wide Web. Inevitably, the same loneliness is there, along with the same need for answers to life’s ultimate questions.

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