Jan 20, 2015

Spring 1983: T.S. Eliot. Oh, Swallow, Swallow!

When I was studying for my M.A. in English at Indiana University (1982-84), my professors and most of my classmates agreed that Literature consisted of:

1. Ulysses, by James Joyce
2. The Waste Land, by T.S. Elliot
3. The Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass
4. The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner
5. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole

And maybe a little Shakespeare.  Everything else was footnotes or hack work.

I hated all of the pretentious rot, but I loved to hate The Waste Land the most.  The only way my gay Indian English-major friend Viju and I could get through it at all was to imagine a gay theme.

It begins with a quote in Latin in which the Cumaean Sybill speaks Greek.  I knew smalle Latin and lesse Greek (see, I can be pretentious, too), but we assumed that anyone speaking Greek is talking about gay people.

Tom (T.S.'s real name) is watching the sunlight over the Starnbergersee (in Munich), saying "We're not Russian" (in German), and calling someone the Hyacinth Girl.  Hyacinth was the gay lover of the Greek god Apollo, so we assumed the Hyacinth Girl is a boy.

Then, wandering around London, Tom sees a guy he knows and asks if the dead bodies he's buried have risen yet.  Tom calls him "mon semblable,—mon frère!"  My double -- my brother!  Charles Baudelaire, who was probably bisexual, wrote it in the gay-themed Fleurs du Mal.  

After a chess game and an elitist dig at pop culture, Tom meets with Lil.  Her husband Albert keeps wanting sex, but she won't put out because she keeps getting pregnant.  Meanwhile someone keeps saying "Hurry up, it's time" (presumably time to die).  Aha!  A critique of the futility of heterosexual marriage!

Tom wanders around London, saying bad words in Elizabethan English.  Mr. Eugenides, who has a pocket full of currants (or maybe he's just happy to see Tom) invites him to a weekend at the Metropole.  Presumably that's a gay hotel, so he wants a homoerotic liaison.

Illustration to Eliot's "Animula" (1927)
Suddenly Tom turns into a man with breasts -- so he thinks that taking the passive role in sex is feminine?   He watches as a working-class man sexually assaults his girlfriend.  She says "Well, I'm glad that's over" and puts on a record.  A critique of heterosexual sex!

Then he takes a barge down the Thames and says "Highbury bore me."  It bores me, too.

A dead guy, Phlebas the Phoenician, floats by.  Tom thinks "he was once handsome and tall."  We were all for depictions of masculine beauty, even in a poem about how we're all going to die.

Then Tom goes to a dry desert where everybody is dead, and wonders if the person walking next to him is a man or a woman.  Androgynous, huh?  Or maybe a drag queen?

The young Tom Eliot
Tom and a friend reminisce about  "the awful daring of a moment’s surrender, which an age of prudence can never retract."  Sounds like you guys had a hot fling in your youth: "by this, and this only, we have existed."

So sex is the meaning of life?

Or is it surrendering to passion: "your heart would have responded  gaily, when invited, beating obedient to controlling hands."

Then everything goes crazy.  People say things in Italian, Latin, French, and Sanskrit.  Come on, Tom, you were born in St. Louis, and everybody knows it.

Somebody quotes an obscure Elizabethan playwright and a 19th century French Romantic poet.  Tom responds "oh, swallow, swallow."

At this point, Viju and I couldn't stop giggling.

This interpretation might not be orthodox, but it did get us through a late-night study session.

And it was a lot of fun to walk up to random guys and say "Oh, swallow, swallow!"

By the way, some contemporary biographers think that Tom was gay, but deeply closeted.