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Can You Feel Lit? T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land

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ts-eliot.jpgReading T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land is like sustaining a concussion: it's going to hurt, you won't always understand what's going on, you may hallucinate or lose consciousness, and it's best if you lie down for a bit. The poem is basically an extended exploration of man's angst—except in this case, the man is T.S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets and most erudite men of the 20th century.


Should you come away from The Waste Land with an aching noggin, take heart: a prominent literary critic once said that the poem couldn't be "read," only "reread"—in other words, only on repeated readings does the poem start to make sense. Should that prove too daunting, at your next cocktail party why not distract your friends by passing along these nuggets about the origins and ideas behind The Waste Land.

1. Show off. Eliot had a top-notch education—he attended prestigious boarding schools, got his B.A. at Harvard, studied at Oxford and the Sorbonne, and would have gotten a Ph.D. from Harvard had he bothered to defend his thesis. He learned Latin, Greek, French, German, Sanskrit, and the ancient Indian language Pali; he studied French Symbolist poetry, Buddhist philosophy, Renaissance theater, and epiphenomenalism (whatever that is).

The problem? Eliot couldn't resist flaunting all this knowledge. As a result, The Waste Land is a minefield of footnotes. Before you even get to the first line, you've got an allusion to Malory's Morte d'Arthur, a quote in Greek, and another quote from Dante's Purgatory in Italian. Later you find whole passages in German, French, Italian, and Sanskrit. The take-away message? Never play Trivial Pursuit with T.S. Eliot.

2. Nix the Dickens. Eliot's close friend Ezra Pound is famous in literary circles for his extensive revisions of the manuscript of The Waste Land. One of his changes? To cross out the original title, "He do the Policemen in Different Voices."

Huh?

It's just Eliot slipping in another obscure allusion, this time to Charles Dickens' last novel Our Mutual Friend. The quote comes from the character Mrs. Betty Higden, referring to the talents of an orphan named Sloppy:

'I aint, you must know,' said Betty, 'much of a hand at reading writing-hand, though I can read my Bible and most print. And I do love a newspaper. You mightn't think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.'

In other words, Sloppy changes his voice when he reads the newspaper, "doing different voices" for different characters. Eliot is here pointing to his own practice of writing different "voices" of a wide range of characters in The Waste Land. Clever—but a bit of stretch. Pound knew what he was doing.

3. The vivacious Viv. Most of the "characters" in The Waste Land are figments of Eliot's imagination—except for one: his wife, Vivien. Eliot met Vivien Haigh-Wood in Cambridge in 1914 and married her three months later. Haigh-Wood was a socialite flapper working as a governess; Eliot was a 26-year-old over-educated self-confessed virgin. The couple quickly discovered they were sexually incompatible, so Haigh-Wood (known as Viv) consoled herself by having an affair with Eliot's mentor, philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Eliot learned later that Viv's family had attempted to forestall the marriage because of Viv's history of mental instability. He struggled to endure Viv's screaming outbursts, anorexia, constipation, neuralgia, and "catarrh of the intestines" (whatever that might be). Eliot describes her hysterical speech in The Waste Land:

'What shall I do now? What shall I do?'
'I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
'With my hair down, so. What shall we do tomorrow?
'What shall we ever do?'

Not surprisingly, the relationship didn't last. Eliot headed to the U.S. in 1928 on a lecture tour: while out of the country, he had his attorney send Viv a letter announcing their separation. On his return to England, he went into hiding to escape her. An increasingly unstable Viv started hanging around outside the doors of Faber & Faber where Eliot worked; the famous poet had to escape out the back door. After alienating friends and family and joining the British Union of Fascists, Viv's brother Maurice had her committed to an insane asylum, where she died in 1947.

Feminist biographers have attempted to restore Viv's reputation—certainly, anyone would find marriage with the fastidious Eliot difficult. (He found the very thought of menstruation repulsive and thought shaving in front of his wife was too intimate.) In any case, we can thank Viv for putting a great poet through great anguish—out of which came great poetry.

4. Don't explain. Eliot was adamant in his refusal to help eager readers interpret his poems. Of The Waste Land, he said, "I wasn't even bothering whether I understood what I was saying."

5. The Groucho Connection. Remember that Saturday Night Live skit with Chris Farley where he would interview famous celebrities simply by describing parts they had played and quoting from their movies—to their great unease? Now substitute T.S. Eliot for Farley and Groucho Marx for the succession of celebrities.

Rather surprisingly, the Nobel Laureate adored Marx movies, and in 1964 Eliot achieved one of his life goals by having the great comedian and his wife to dinner. A somewhat intimidated Groucho boned up on Eliot's poetry and reread King Lear just in case, but all Eliot wanted to do was quote Groucho's old lines. Eliot refused to talk about his poetry, or Lear for that matter, and before long the Marxes were making their excuses and heading for the door.

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Elizabeth Lunday writes about art, architecture and literature for sources such as mental_floss and her blog, The Dilettante. Her first book, Secret Lives of the Artists: What Your Teachers Never Told You About Master Painters and Sculptors, will be released in Fall 2008 by Quirk Books. It contains the outrageous and uncensored profiles of the world's greatest artists, complete with hundreds of little-known, politically incorrect, and downright bizarre facts—like who died of syphilis, who beat his wife, and who was convicted of murder. She's also written about a wide range of other topics from archeology to wastewater management, and once you've written about wastewater management, you can write about anything.

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Pop Culture
The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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