Saturday, April 6, 2013

This is the way the world ends....

Being sick, and having my not-that-old main computer give me the grey screen of death, has made me a bit reflective.

Oddly enough, so has thinking about Syracuse play tonight. As at my mother's funeral, I wore a bright orange dress, and in her eulogy, I made a joke about the fact that I was not wearing orange on behalf of my brother and his beloved 'Cuse, but on behalf of my mother's love of bright colors.

I'll post the entire text of the eulogy at a different time, as today I felt like reflecting on T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men." Most likely because a friend earlier today sent me a few lines from the song "God Save Irelend" this morning:
But they met him face to face, with the courage of their race,
And they went with souls undaunted to their doom.
I don't know why exactly, but the phrase "souls undaunted" immediately brought to mind "The Hollow Men." It is one of my favorite poems -- and was one of my mother's as well.

In fact, she loved all of Eliot's oeuvre, and did a series of prints based upon his "Ash Wednesday" poem. You may see all of her prints here, and the specific "Ash Wednesday" series is collected on her Facebook fan page here.

I'm no English teacher, so I won't presume to analyze Eliot's poem in any profound, professional way. All I can comment on is why it resonates so much with me.

And frankly, it resonates because I discovered this poem in high school. As for many people, high school was difficult for me. I struggled with who I was, how I fit in, what life meant, whether life even had meaning. It didn't help that I also struggled with undiagnosed depression, and couldn't figure out what was happening. But even without depression, high school is simply a difficult time.

As my earlier post about the movie "The Breakfast Club" pointed out, high school is when labels get applied -- and not just by adults, but your peers as well, and for that matter, yourself -- and they can seem difficult to escape. If you're the loser or rebel or brain or princess or basketcase, well, that's just who you are. That's that. Wash your hands of the matter, and don't bother arguing back. It is what it is. Period. Full stop. Done.


Certainly that is how I felt -- and I will be the first to admit that I am still struggling against some of those labels to this day. But not all, thankfully. There are certainly some small mercies in life.

But it was during this turbulent and sometimes unhappy time that I stumbled across "The Hollow Men." How perfectly, to me, it encapsulated how I felt: hollow men, headpiece filled with nothing more than straw, dried voices whispering together, quiet and meaningless as wind through dry grass or rats' feet (rats for chrissake!) over broken glass. What powerful imagery to a teenage mind; what powerful imagery at any age in my opinion.

Truly I was nothing more than a hollow man filled with straw, with a dried, quiet and meaningless voice that was nothing more than wind or broken glass. But perhaps most odd of all? That imagery gave me hope. Somehow the thought of being that meaningless, that hopeless -- and yet inspiring poetry -- inspired me.

After all, as Eliot points out, between the idea and the reality, falls the shadow. Between the conception and the creation, falls the shadow. Now that I can relate to. Both the shadow in general, and the concept of the gap, of the dread between idea and reality, motion and act, conception and creation, emotion and response. Not just in high school, but to this day. It is something that I think any person can relate to.

That gap is, yes it's true, dread, but it is also hope: it is the empty space, the emptiness, that can either remain nothing more than empty -- or be filled with so much. It can be filled with joy, expectation, anything. It is, therefore, so much more than emptiness, so much more than dread, so much more than a shadow -- it is, truly, hope. And I can relate to how the flip side of emptiness is fullness, of dread is hope, of shadow is light.

And relate to it I did. And be inspired by it I was. My writing from those years certainly reflect Eliot's prose here, and certainly reflect the pain, sorrow and confusion I was feeling during that period. And, like Eliot's Hollow Men, they are certainly depressing, but strangely hopeful and inspiring too. Odd that.

I guess it's because under any circumstances, the world ending not with a bang but a whimper is not such a bad thing.... Is it?


The Hollow Men
by T. S. Eliot

Mistah Kurtz—he dead. 

      A penny for the Old Guy 


We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw.
Alas! Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.


Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.
Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer—

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom


This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.


The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.


Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long
Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom
For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

--- From The Hollow Men | 1925

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