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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."


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.

Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.


In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.


An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
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Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.


A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.


Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.


Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.


Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."


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