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

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Nyla Matuk is the author of the poetry collections, "Sumptuary Laws" and "Stranger." Her poetry, fiction, and essays have also appeared in numerous literary journals including Event, Room of One's Own, Descant, The New Yorker and Poetry Review. She has also contributed journalism on architecture and literary topics as a freelancer to the Globe and Mail and various magazines. She is editor of an anthology of poems, "Resisting Canada." For more Nyla Matuk, go here.