Nyla Matuk

On The Aesthetics Of Dread

In 1989, while studying at McGill University, I took a course on the poetry of T.S. Eliot. It was taught by a Mr. Booth, a man whose McGill B.A., earned between the wars, landed him a permanent job as a non-tenure track lecturer in the English Department.

Mr. Booth took Eliot very seriously and so should we, the message was. To this day, it is difficult for me to read a line like, ‘They called me the hyacinth girl,’ from “The Waste Land,” without seeing, in my mind’s eye, Mr. Booth’s dry and wrinkled cigar-inflected complexion. He delivered that line with precisely the kind of furious anxiety that I came to believe Eliot looked for, wearing his horror through “Preludes,” “The Waste Land,” “The Hollow Men” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

tim24frames, “T.S. Eliot Reads The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1949)

Even still, listening to Eliot’s voice, to its gravitas, I experience the same sense of fear, anxiety, and creeping madness I felt in Mr. Booth’s class—the sense that we are losing what is meaningful. That Mr. Booth insisted upon these themes—that he showed Eliot to insist upon them too as the hallmarks of modernist aesthetics–filled me with a kind of dread.

The following 5-minute film rendering of “The Hollow Men” rehearses the typical readings. Instead of the voices of Eliot and Mr. Booth, there is an equally grave, foreboding presence not to be trifled with: music from Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” album.

Watch for the filmmaker’s clumsy, but telling, juxtapositions: Images of beauty and emptiness—the highway, the hitchhiker, sunlight filtering down into woods at the line, “sunlight on a broken column,” and you start to get at the enigmatic trope that informs many critical receptions of Eliot’s works.

My Empty House, “T.S. Eliot: The Hollow Men (2007)

The contemporary Irish poet Seamus Heaney had described his own A-level English instructor’s label for T.S. Eliot as a “Loss of Faith in [the] Modern World and Consequences for Modern Man.”

Dire situation indeed.

And so as an undergraduate literature student, I was imbued with an awareness of this high Modernist lament—the anxiety and deep disenchantment—and the vague perception of the loss of meaning. I told myself: “Stop trying to find meaning out there and find it in the art itself!” I composed my own response, in the form of a 23-minute home mockumentary movie, called “The Friends/Les amis.” I used a Canon Elf camera and an early version of Apple’s iMovie. Here is a short clip of that film, the “T.S. Eliot Tea Party” scene, which channels the Modernist preoccupation as I had interpreted it.

aorta15, “The T.S. Eliot Tea Party” (2008)

Misguided as it was, my idea was to disrupt the seriousness of the poetry with the plastic-eyed, furry faces of the stuffed animals; to give up the high ceremony that I had taken to be the Modernist sensibility, by way of a large yellow chick muttering, from “The Waste Land.” “My nerves are bad tonight, yes, bad.” I was onto something, or so I thought…

Who can say why the small gray elephant claims that he reads much of the night, and goes south in the winter, or why the raven with the bright yellow bill says he will show you fear in a handful of dust?

Why indeed? Does this worry us? It should, or it could. How many ways are there to feel dread?

- Nyla Matuk

  • http://ryeberg.com/author/nyla-matuk/ Nyla Matuk

    In a review of Nabokov’s “The Original of Laura” in the New York Review of Books, John Lanchester categorizes writers as those who have fans and those who have readers. He claims Eliot only had readers, not fans, but these videos show otherwise.

  • http://ryeberg.com/author/nyla-matuk/ Nyla Matuk
  • http://ryeberg.com/author/nyla-matuk/ Nyla Matuk

    Seamus Heaney had a very similar experience to my own experience with Mr. Booth when he read Eliot in school: “The rare music of “The Hollow Men” was never mentioned in school. Disillusion was what we heard about. Loss of faith. The lukewarm spirit. The modern world. Nor do I remember much attention being given to the cadence, or much attempt being made to make us hear rather than abstract a meaning. What we heard, in fact, was what gave us then a kind of her laughter: the eccentric, emphatic enunciations of our teacher, who came down heavily on certain syllables and gave an undue weight to the HOLlow men, the STUFFED men.”

    From the essay “Learning from Eliot” in Finders Keepers, Selected Prose 1971-2001 (Faber and Faber, 2002).

  • http://ryeberg.com/author/nyla-matuk/ Nyla Matuk

    Here is a LOLcats cheezeburger idiom version of The Waste Land which I think is very nutty:


  • http://ryeberg.com/author/nyla-matuk/ Nyla Matuk

    Faber and Faber Poetry has just launched an iPad application of The Waste Land. 6-minute video about it here: http://gu.com/p/2pt77/tf

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Nyla Matuk is the author of "Sumptuary Laws." Her poetry has also appeared in several literary journals in Canada, online at the Incongruous Quarterly and in the Archive of Poets at Greenboathouse Books. Nyla has published short fiction and essays in various literary journals including Event, Room of One's Own, Descant and Alphabet City's "Food and Trash" issues. She has also contributed journalism on architecture and literary topics as a freelancer to the Globe and Mail and numerous magazines. For more Nyla Matuk, go here.