Monday, September 29, 2008

Better Literature

Yesterday I accused Peggy Noonan of "groping for a way to describe lives of quiet desperation without drawing upon anyone as cerebrally radical as Henry David Thoreau." This morning I realized that the elephantine passage I extracted from her Wall Street Journal piece had once been distilled down to a mere eighteen lines of poetry:

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.

This is Section I, in its entirety, from "The Hollow Men," by T. S. Eliot. As a matter of record, it was published in 1925, which means that it was probably written when Eliot was working for Lloyds Bank, making it singularly appropriate reading in our current economic situation and a perfect foil with which to parry the "hollow" prose of The Wall Street Journal!

As I suggested yesterday, Noonan was about as far as anyone could get from what Arthur Miller was trying to tell us about Willy Loman. In the text of Death of a Salesman, Willy succumbs to his inability to keep up with the changes in his own world of work (probably because his worldview has distorted his vision). If, as his wife Linda implores of all of us, "attention must be paid," it is to a man who bet all on personality in a world in which business was becoming more and more impersonal. Noonan's vision is not of Willy Loman's but of that new world of impersonal workers. Eliot saw that world in the making and invoked what is now some of his most memorable language to bring our attention to it. Unfortunately, poetry, once a stimulus for our memories, is now easily forgotten and is unlikely to register in those heads "filled with straw," which now do little more than turn the wheels of an economic system no longer understood. Eliot was too optimistic. Those in "death's other Kingdom" will not remember us at all, because there is no longer anything worth remembering.

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