T.S. Eliot For Dummies

fill ’er up, bitch.

First, let me preface this by saying I am repulsed by the entire ‘for dummies’ concept. Wine for dummies, beer for dummies (huh?), quantum physics for dummies. Everyone’s a dummy. So you can see how the last thing I would ever want to do would be to write ‘advanced literary criticism for dummies.’ But that is exactly what has happened. We could worry about how and why, or we could skip it. I propose that it be skipped.

The first thing you will notice is Eliot’s essays are not posted here. This is because I think it’s better you go and purchase the actual book rather than just sit at your computer and read off the screen. I think going to the store will be a good adventure for you. Walk past a couple of Robert Ludlum titles and be elevated. ‘The Joe Namath Deception,’ ‘The Prevent D Syndrome’ and ‘Option Wing Left’ are my top picks. While you’re there, spot something else of interest and buy it. Make note of the strangely affected young nymph from the local community college whittling away in some corner, full of ideals and hope—that you won’t approach her. But none of this will happen if you stay at home and read online, and it won’t happen between February 11th and March 17th either, because that’s when all nymphs will be on loan to Universal Pictures for the next ‘Harry Potter’ film. So go to the store, pay the negligible sum, and then you’ll have a nice little book you can carry around with you and spill coffee on. But the main reason any non-lit studies major (dummy) should read Eliot is to acquire the tools which might help you later on in life if you ever get reincarnated as a lit studies major.

Eliot’s first essay in ‘To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings’ is called, I still can’t get over the coincidence, ‘To Criticize the Critic.’ It’s about how we see art at different stages in life. Young people like to take sides. In other words, they tend to sit on the arm of the chair. Middle aged people sit in the middle of the chair, and old people just nod off. It’s a nice essay. I give it an A. Eliot’s second essay, ‘From Poe to Valery,’ introduces the notion that we are influenced more by our equals than by artists who are in the top tier as it were. The great geniuses like Shakespeare and Dante do not influence, but only give pleasure. I wasn’t sure about this one, so I tried consulting the three blind hags down the block from me. But they were immersed in the braille version of ‘Harry Potter IV’ and told me to come back next April. I suppose Eliot could be right. I love to watch John Belushi dance, but I could never dance like him, so I don’t even try. But then maybe Eliot’s not right because my chicken cassoulet is informed by Julia Child, my paperclip efforts bring back Calder and my todo lists scream Barthelme grocery list. Here are four ways Eliot could still be right:
  1. These artists (Child, Calder) are not actually first tier.
  2. I am closer to them than previously imagined. So they are, like, my equals.
  3. I am not so much being influenced as I am, how shall I put it, copying.
  4. I don’t understand Eliot’s argument.
Obviously, it is option wing left.

Next, Eliot discusses the issue of trying to read a work in its original language (not yours). He points out that rhythm often is lost in the process of translation. I can see how poetry would stand to lose a lot more than prose. Or maybe not in these strange times, with prose being written so goddamn carefully. On the other hand, he notes how we may gain some interpretive flexibility when reading foreign matter.
“Now, we all of us like to believe that we understand our own poets better than any foreigner can do; but I think we should be prepared to entertain the possibility that these Frenchmen have seen something in Poe that English-speaking readers have missed”

“It is certainly possible, in reading something in a language imperfectly understood, for the reader to find what is not there; and when the reader is himself a man of genius, the foreign poem read may, by happy accident, elicit something important from the depths of his own mind, which he attributes to what he reads.”
I think all of this makes good sense, and you don’t need me to explain it. Now Eliot mentions or may have mentioned the flip side of picking up flexibility is losing or becoming unaware of the author’s intended meaning. But I’m not sure we can’t have our cake and eat it too. Let me explain. Suppose we assign up to five points for rhythm and five points for content. A novelette scoring a 3 for content and 4 for rhythm would merit a total score of 7. This would be enough for consideration in the Oprah Book of the Month Club. Now go and translate that work into Arabic, and it rises to a 5 for content (because it should have been written in Arabic in the first place, obviously) and drops to a 3 for rhythm, which, if it gets past the office of homeland defense, gives it a new score of 8. Allah be praised. Now according to Eliot’s reasoning, the best writing would come from keeping the original language, but removing many of the words (I recommend ‘Oprah’s Liquid White Out’) to yield a product that is somewhat obscured and more open to the imagination. Thom Yorke lyrics for example. ‘You and what army...You forget so easy...’ Well maybe I wouldn’t
Thom, baby, if you’d fucking take the marbles out of your mouth. And in the more unfortunate event where the singer says too many words and takes the fun away, like ‘Cake’ songs, the solution is to dance on top of your CD player, thus preserving the ambiguity.
“Yet it is only in a poem of some length that a variety of moods can be expressed; for a variety of moods requires a number of different themes or subjects, related either in themselves or in the mind of the poet. These parts can form a whole which is more than the sum of the parts; a whole such that the pleasure we derive from the reading of any part is enhanced by our grasp of the whole.”
So clearly, having many references is an important part of any balancing act. The other day, I was leafing through a pile of Eliot’s old manuscripts and found the following footnotes. He must have been in one hell of a mood when he wrote these. I’m selling them on Ebay the first chance I get because I hold nothing dear. But in the meantime, please, enjoy:
hey, pull my finger
Footnotes For ‘The Wasteland’ by T.S. Eliot (that’s me)

1 ‘What are you looking at? Do I look like Homer’s secretary?’

2 ‘My grandmother remembers more Aeschylus than you.’

3 ‘Like you would understand it anyway.’

4 ‘But you never did like Dante, did you?’

5Paradise Lost? On you!’

6 ‘I know kindergarteners who know more McBeth than you.’

7 ‘If you hurry, I think there may be some premed spots still open.’

8 ‘Ask me again.’

9 ‘Sometimes I wonder why I even bother.’

10 ‘I got two words for you: Cliff’s Notes.’

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