Tsetse* and Viv

He has his place in the DDYDB Hall of Fame for a reason.

I lived the 24th year of my life in communion with T.S. Eliot, communion of the most intimate kind. The countless hours I spent in the Mullen Library at Catholic University, researching papers on “Four Quartets” and “Murder in the Cathedral,” rank among the happiest of my life.

Eliot’s poems still stand in my mind like a mansion, full of familiar rooms decked-out with beauties, with many more as-yet-unopened doors down the hall. One can live a life inside the work of T.S. Eliot, a long and vigorous life.

…Anybody see “Tom & Viv?” The movie came out in 1994. But I am slow on the uptake sometimes.

Anthony Blanche from “Brideshead Revisited” plays Bertrand Russell: one of the most truly absurd spectacles I have ever witnessed. Bertrand Russell has not fared well over time, in my opinion. But the sight of Nickolas Grace in a powdered wig, fondling a pipestem–even I find this sight offensive to the memory of the silly atheist.

Willem Dafoe portrays the Englishman from St. Louis. The New York Times reasonably opined that this was an odd choice. Willem Dafoe has enraptured me on a number of occasions, “Platoon” and “The English Patient” pre-eminent among them. But he was born to play T.S. Eliot about as much as I was born to play the Green Goblin.

Dafoe makes a wild gambit of trying to capture Eliot’s unique Amero-English manner of speaking. But anyone who has passed some time listening to recordings of the poet reading his work immediately perceives that Dafoe’s attempt amounts to an inconsistent, laughable sham.

Here’s the thing. This movie emerged as part of the T.S.-Eliot-Was-Really-a-Dreadful-Villian Movement. His poor wife had unruly high spirits. He styled himself a martyr for a decade of marriage, then put her away in a lunatic asylum. He repressed all his emotions, lived in a retrograde fantasy world, married her for all the wrong reasons, chose fame over love, left us a prissy and impenetrable body of work, etc., etc.

Granted: You could comb Eliot’s entire oeuvre (including Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats) with a hard-bristle lint brush, and not a single warm fuzzy would come off. Eliot longed for an “Ignatian” spiritual life–by which he understood “Ignatian” to mean intensely Counter-Reformation Spanish, dark, and penitential. Even beginning to understand anything Eliot ever wrote requires considerable effort.

But: Are you going to make a movie about him, portraying him as the basest unfaithful hypocrite, and leave the door to his poems closed, from the opening credits to the final copyright line? How can you possibly think that you have given us anything even approaching T.S. Eliot when your dimestore psychoanalysis of him comes up with nothing more substantial than, “Poems do not express emotion. Poetry enables one to escape emotion?”

Please! One line of this man’s poetry has more to it than this movie! You have got to be kidding me.

How about reading the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Hamlet, and Paradise Lost (all of which Eliot had done by the time he was, like, six); how about meditating on every chapter of St. John of the Cross while simultaneously learning the complete lineages of every landed family since William the Conqueror; how about scraping out a single correct Petrarchan sonnet about something; how about doing this, and then making a movie in which you turn T.S. Eliot into an idiot?

Then I will give you the time of day. In the meantime, spend a few hours in a library, please. Amazing what you might learn.

…Every year, I try to read Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” on or around, of course, Ash Wednesday.

This year the music of the poem impressed me the most. I think he’s trying to evoke the desire for time to end in a blissful moment of eternal peace. Eliot makes his words move with the sound of days passing, one after the other, veering between easy rhythm and deadening monotony. The image of leopards crouched over the poet’s bones, which then begin to sing: unforgettable.

________________________
* In his youth, Eliot was called ‘tsetse’ or ‘tsetse fly’ because he signed himself TSE (Thomas Stearns Eliot).

One thought on “Tsetse* and Viv

  1. Father Mark,

    “Oh keep the Dog far hence,
    That’s friend to men,
    Or with his nails,
    He’ll dig it up again!”

    “You, hypocrite lecture, mon semble, mon frer!”

    So much for memory, and that from 46 years ago: whatever else he was, he was memorable; and the tsetse fly might be the perfect emblem for him in terms of the devastation of the bite, but not in the net effect of Encephalitis lethargica.

    One story that I always enjoyed was of Eliot and Robert Frost sharing a rostrum — with one on one side of the podium, and the other on the other side, in an evening when both were being honored for their poetry. Eliot received his award first, and read a poem he’d composed recently. As he read, Frost took an envelope out of his pocket, and — very visibly — began to write on it. When Eliot had finished, Frost was called to the podium, he accepted his prize, then pulled out the envelope, announcing that he too had a poem to read.

    When he’d finished, Frost sat down again, and the man next to him leaned over and whispered, “Did you really compose that while he was talking?” “No,” Frost replied, “I wrote it years ago; I just wanted to devil the Hell out of Eliot.”

    LIH,

    joe

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