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I confess a lifelong hostility to T. S. Eliot, whose literary criticism did real harm, and whose cultural criticism showed, at times, a vicious proto-Fascism. But from 1911 to 1925, Eliot was a great poet, publishing his masterpiece in 1922, The Waste Land, certainly the most influential poem in English in the twentieth century. Born in St. Louis in 1888, Eliot studied philosophy at Harvard and Oxford and married his first wife in 1915. The marriage was a disaster, and its failure led to the poet’s breakdown in 1921. Much of The Waste Land resulted from this personal crisis.
Eliot was an anti-Semite, though his variety of that spiritual illness never achieved the obsessive intensity of his close friend, Ezra Pound. I mention this matter to get it out of the way, although I believe it was central to Eliot’s cultural polemic. The Anglo-Catholicism to which he converted in 1927 somehow had, for Eliot, an authorization for his anti-Semitism. Even the revelations of the Nazi Death Camps had little or no effect upon Eliot’s idea that too many “free-thinking” Jews would jeopardize an idealized Christian society.
Eliot never asserted that his major poem was a vision of a world stricken by the absence of Christian culture, but the Eliotic critics always interpreted the poem as a voice in the wilderness, crying out for the return of Christian, classical, and conservative ideas of order. Northrop Frye, reviewing the Eliotic poet-critic Allen Tate, charmingly called this interpretation the myth of the Great Western Butterslide.
Manifestly, The Waste Land is a poem of “mourning and melancholia,” to appropriate the title of a great essay by Sigmund Freud (whom Eliot loathed). But the lament is personal, founded upon the premature fear that poetic creativity is waning in its author. Lingering in the poem (and unmentioned in Eliot’s “Notes”) are traces of Tennyson’s monodrama, Maud, where the neurasthenic young narrator-protagonist is reduced to complaining: “And my heart is a handful of dust.” “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” Eliot proclaims, and the fear is the loss of potency, both sexual and poetic.
The major paradigm for The Waste Land is Walt Whitman’s majestic elegy, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd,” though most of Eliot’s critics fail to see this. And yet all the major images and thematic clusters of The Waste Land derive from the “Lilacs” lament: the lilacs themselves that begin Eliot’s poem, the “unreal city,” the doubling of the self, the “dear brother,” the “murmur of maternal lamentation,” faces peering at us, and the hermit thrush’s song. Even Eliot’s “third who always walks beside you” is hardly the risen Christ, as The Waste Land’s notes assert, but is closer to Whitman’s companions as he walks down to the hermit thrush’s abode, the “thought of death” and the “knowledge of death.” Eliot’s song of death, or of death-in-life, follows closely the pattern of Whitman's.
Not until 1953, when he acknowledged his deep affinity to Walt Whitman, did Eliot give up his uneasiness in regard to the father of almost all subsequent American poetry. I urge the reader to set “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd” and The Waste Land side by side. The family resemblance is uncanny, though Whitman might have been as unhappy about it as Eliot evidently was.
Theater as Child’s Play
It is the night of December 18th, and A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant has just made its Off-Broadway debut at the John Houseman Theater. Director Alex Timbers '01 and author Kyle Jarrow '01 are receiving congratulations, drinking beer, and eating ice cream sundaes. Meanwhile, several members of the all-child cast, aged 9 through 13, have spotted me taking notes and engulfed me, clamoring for attention. I ask them what they think of the show.
“I think it’s fun and you get to show your energy and not get in trouble for it.”
“It’s really exciting.”
“We get to play funny roles and just show our personality.”
A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant is not a Sunday school production but a surreal and silly avant-garde satire produced by Timbers’s theater company, Les Freres Corbusier. Guided by the solemn narration of a haloed angel, the cast merrily recounts the life of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology, starting with a manger scene of his birth and following his quest for life’s meaning and his Scientological epiphany. Cast members explain church doctrines and practices through infomercial-style lectures, songs, and puppetry. The show culminates in Hubbard’s trial by the IRS, which ends with his triumphant conversion of his persecutor to Scientology.
Have you ever met a Scientologist?
“He was really tall and freaky and weird looking.”
“And he didn’t like our show.”
“He criticized us. It was so mean!”
The Church of Scientology is famously averse to criticism, so Jarrow and Timbers were not entirely surprised when the Reverend John Carmichael, president of the New York church, began to show up, uninvited, at rehearsals to express his concern that the show might ridicule the church. Nor were they caught flat-footed when Carmichael sent a letter to Jarrow and producer Aaron Lemon-Strauss '03, delineating those concerns—they faxed the letter to the New York Times, which ran an article on the controversy.
What do you think of Alex and Kyle?
“Alex is awesome.”
“No, he’s too tall.”
“No, he’s too tense.”
Emma Whitfield, 10, explains. “He needs the show to be perfect, so he gets excited about stuff.” She runs off, then returns, dragging a bemused Timbers by the wrist.
“This is Alex,” says Stephanie Favoreto Quieroz, 10.
Timbers, 25, has enjoyed working with the children. “It’s really excited me about theater again,” he says. “I was getting kind of depressed about how hard it is to succeed and get anyone to care about coming to see your shows, but the kids have this pure love of theater. It’s really infectious.”
Jarrow, Emma tells me, is also nice. “He said he’s happy about the move to the Houseman, and then he gets more fame.”
Fame has been coming in ever-larger doses for Jarrow and Timbers. Their previous collaboration, President Harding is a Rock Star, reimagined the 29th president as a fallen rock-and-roller who snorted coke in the Oval Office and was danced to death by a giant crab—a scene that earned Jarrow a feature in the New Yorker. The Scientology pageant, which started in a smaller venue before moving to the Houseman, was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times arts section shortly after its Off-Broadway opening. (The buzz led to an offer to stage the show this fall in Los Angeles and a distribution deal for a cast album.)
But fame is not so profitable that Jarrow, who is 24, can afford to quit his day job as audience services manager for an Off-Broadway theater. “Seeing your name in the New Yorker, having your name in the New York Times, feels great, “ he says, “but at the same time, showing up at a job where you’re an underling, and having trouble paying the bills—it’s cognitive dissonance.”
In the pageant, L. Ron Hubbard visits New York and asks a harried local what is the meaning of life. The New Yorker looks up from his cell phone and responds, “The only thing that matters is success.” I ask Emma and Joshua Marmer, 13, whether Alex or Kyle reminds them of the New Yorker.
“Alex more than Kyle,” Emma tells me.
“No,” says Josh. “Kyle more than Alex.”
Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind
The Beast in the Garden: A Modern Parable of Man and Nature
What’s it like being attacked by a man-eating predator? “Some victims of wild-animal attacks,” writes David Baron, “describe an acute awareness of sounds: the scraping of teeth against bone, the pop-pop-pop of claws puncturing skin.” In the same clinical spirit, David Quammen describes how “conical, overlapping teeth allow a crocodile to stab its prey and to grip it remorselessly.” Then he quotes an Australian’s memory of being dragged under by a saltwater croc: “Total terror, total helplessness, total certainty, experienced with undivided mind and body, of a terrible death.”
Apart from our sheer horrified fascination, this is a subject worth exploring right now because many “alpha predators,” the ones that eat people, are dwindling in population and in some cases disappearing forever. To understand the rapidly shifting connection between people and predators, these two widely experienced writers take very different approaches. In Monster of God, Quammen travels the globe to focus on cases where predators are in trouble, from the last 345 wild Asian lions hanging on in a remnant of forest amid 45 million humans in Gujarat to the Siberian tigers still ghosting through the taiga of the Russian Far East. In The Beast in the Garden, on the other hand, Baron stays home in Colorado, where mountain lions have made a remarkable comeback, and re-creates a single killing with the pacing and detail of a murder mystery.
Quammen, best known for his celebrated book about islands and extinctions, Song of the Dodo, is a delightful writer, both erudite and down-to-earth. Explaining the claws of cats, for example, he suggests that the muscular engineering is really "protractile, not retractile, but the net effect is what matters: front paws that convert from running pads to grappling hooks instantly, like the snap of a switchblade.” He is also adept at setting a scene. The Russian Far East in February, he says, “can be chillier than martinis in a meat freezer,” and when he snowmobiles up the Bikin River with a researcher and a hunter, they are “howling onward, like three demented polar explorers in a drawing by Ralph Steadman.”
So it’s curious that Monster of God hardly ever steps back to let readers see predators in the flesh. The first sighting doesn’t occur until page 85, and then it’s not a “predation event,” but a mama lion nursing her young at a mechanized watering hole. Maybe Quammen means the scarcity of animal sightings to evoke what it’s really like looking for predators in the wild: you can see nothing for days. Or maybe Quammen simply wants to avoid the sins of natural history television, where animal attacks get served up with the formulaic pacing of sex scenes in a bodice-ripper.
Quammen may thus avoid inadvertently giving the false impression that the animals are doing just fine, thanks. But the reader ends up frustrated. We would respond more powerfully to the imminent extinction of the tiger and other predators if we could see them first through Quammen’s extraordinary eyes. The editorial withholding becomes downright bizarre at the end, when Quammen asks the reader “safe in a distant city, or in a biologically depauperate suburb” to try to understand “the legitimate fear felt by indigenous people” by imagining what it might be like to live with the creature from Alien in our midst. And for once, he gives us an extended description—of a science-fiction predator.
Baron, on the other hand, demonstrates that our suburbs are not necessarily so biologically depauperate, nor fear of predators so distant, as we might think. He starts with the 1991 death of an 18-year-old student in a mountain lion attack outside a Colorado high school, in view of homes and an interstate highway. Then he recounts the social and environmental changes that helped make it happen: Housing has sprawled out into the forested edges of cities. Nature-loving homeowners tolerate the booming deer population in their backyards. Predators come back to eat Bambi for dinner.
Baron, a former National Public Radio reporter, lacks Quammen’s artful phrasing, but he more than makes up for it by his jump-cut pacing and his nimble handling of complex ideas. When wildlife officials assure the public that mountain lions do not regard humans as prey, Baron cites one “ghoulishly fascinating experiment” in which cats learn to eat a food they would normally reject—sliced bananas—and their offspring grow up preferring bananas to meat pellets. His point is that “feline cultures also exist,” and that mountain lions picking off backyard deer can easily become accustomed to cats, dogs, and even people.
“America is engaged in a grand and largely unintentional experiment,” Baron writes. Coyotes, bears, wolves, and mountain lions are filtering back into former habitats and adapting to life amidst us. Florida alligators are “so abundant that if each consumed just sixteen humans, the reptiles would thoroughly depopulate the Sunshine State.” So killings like the one he depicts are likely to become more common, especially if we continue to habituate wildlife to human contact.
Remarkably, people in the area where the fatal attack occurred reacted without the traditional hang-'em-high vengeance against predators. The victim’s classmates spoke about predation as a natural fact of living in a scenic landscape. Instead of trying to kill the mountain lions, wildlife officials introduced aversive conditioning to discourage an appetite for household pets. This may sound a shade to the foolhardy side of eco-friendly, but the blend of acceptance and precaution comes across as a promising sign for the continued coexistence of people and predators. In like spirit, much of the nation took heart last fall when a 13-year-old in Hawaii paddled back out on her surfboard just a month after losing her arm to a tiger shark. It’s the process of facing up to reasonable risk, and resisting the impulse to hunker down on the couch, that makes us better human beings.
All this may unintentionally leave readers thinking that the ancient relationship between people and large predators is all too secure, that they will live among us whether we like it or not. So it helps to have Quammen remind us of two salient points: In much of the world, people get attacked by predators not because they choose to live in scenic places like Boulder, but because they are too poor to live anywhere else. And as population growth pushes them continually to the fringes, the last vestiges of predator habitat are getting obliterated and beaten to dust.
It’s a disappointment that Quammen doesn’t dwell on what we might still do to prevent that. He puts little faith in the protection afforded by underfunded national parks, and utilitarian approaches, like having local communities extract large fees from trophy hunting as a way to make them value the predators in their midst, get dismissed as merely distasteful. Nor does he talk much about how our own appetites—the demand for mahogany and teak from tropical forests, for example—compound the problem. Instead, he merely predicts that the endpoint will come by 2150, when the human population will peak somewhere above 10 billion and the last predators will vanish from the wild. “Call me a pessimist, but when I look into that future,” he writes, “I don’t see any lions, tigers, or bears.”
In contrast, Baron’s book leaves the reader hopeful, though with a fine, lingering back-of-the-neck nervousness. A look round the world with Quammen suggests the grimmer truth: the relationship that has shaped who we are and how we view our places in the natural world will soon be gone forever.
New Song of Songs for Woolsey Organ
“It’s the greatest organ in the world that’s not in a church,” proclaims Margot Fassler, the director of Yale’s Institute of Sacred Music.
“It’s a romantically styled concert organ and can duplicate a lot of things orchestras do,” explains university organist Thomas Murray.
“It’s a very extraordinary organ—it has subtleties that other organs don’t have,” marvels composer Lee Hoiby.
This single impressive instrument, which can simultaneously evoke the history of sacred music, demonstrate the grandeur of romantic classical composition, and provide continuing inspiration to contemporary composers, is the Newberry Memorial Organ at Woolsey Hall. In mid-April, with a specially commissioned piece for organ and chorus by Hoiby, the Newberry will become the centerpiece of a four-day celebration marking the institute’s 30 years at Yale.
During Fassler’s decade of leadership, the ISM has moved to its own quarters in the Sterling Divinity Quadrangle, tripled the number of its students, and developed a new faculty. Working with the School of Music and the Divinity School, the institute operates at the intersection of music and religion, running programs in choral conducting, organ, liturgical studies, and religion and the arts.
It was Fassler who came up with the idea of commissioning a new work rather than resting on the institute’s laurels. “Every couple of years, we commission a piece,” she says. “We like to push. We also wanted to honor the organ”—the object of another anniversary, having turned 100 last June.
The 77-year-old Hoiby, whose operas include Summer and Smoke, The Tempest, and the forthcoming Romeo and Juliet, greatly impressed the institute when he lectured there in 2002. He brings his own old-world fascinations to the project: “I’m always thought to be old-fashioned because I don’t write 12-tone music,” he says. “But now 12-tone music is on the way out, and I’m getting more commissions.” His style has been lauded as “lush” and “unabashedly extravagant,” not to mention “superbly singable.” The New York Times once wrote of his “seemingly blissful refusal to acknowledge the very existence of musical Modernism.”
When Fassler selected him, she asked that he incorporate the organ (and its designated player, Murray) into the work, as well as the Yale Glee Club. She even suggested the text for the piece, Solomon’s “Song of Songs” from the Old Testament. “And he loved it all,” Fassler says.
Hoiby used the King James translation of the Song of Songs, which he deems “more beautiful than any of the rewrites,” settling on a section that he felt behaved like a dialogue for the male and female singers. “I used lines about which a friend of mine said, ‘Without them, we wouldn’t have had Shelley or Keats’”:
Three months before the premiere, the composer was still in the process of writing the piece, in his own exploratory fashion. “I work in the dark,” he says. “I don’t see the entire piece in my head before I begin, the way some composers do. Instinct takes over.”
More Books by Yale Authors
Donald S. Aikenhead 1963, and Peter Seed 1960
Elizabeth Alexander 1984, Associate Professor (Adjunct) of African American Studies
Saleem H. Ali 1996MES
Elizabeth M. Armstrong 1989
John P. Avlon 1996
Willis Barnstone 1960PhD, and Marvin Meyer, Editors
Debbie Blue 1991Div
John R. Bockstoce 1966
Harold Bolitho 1969PhD
David L Chappell 1982
John M. Chernoff 1968
F. J. Chu 1977
John R. Clarke 1973PhD
Jay Clayton 1974
Judah M. Cohen 1995
Elisha Cooper 1993, Writer and Illustrator
Mary L. Dudziak 1984JD, 1992PhD, Editor
Paul E. Edlund 1948
Cynthia Estlund 1983JD
Svetlana Evdokimova 1991PhD, Editor
Angus Fletcher 1950, 1952MA
Adam Freedman 1987
Ken Frieden 1977, 1984PhD, Editor
Otis L. Graham Jr. 1957
Lev Grossman 1996
M. Jeffrey Hardwick 2000PhD
Jean M. Humez 1971PhD
Mark Johnson 1975BS, Editor
Peter Kazaks 1964MS
Marcia Kupfer 1982PhD
Chang-Rae Lee 1987
Richard B. Makover 1960, Lecturer in Psychiatry, School of Medicine
Anthony W. Marx 1981
William McGaughey 1964
Maxwell J. Mehlman 1975JD
Williamson Murray 1963, and Major General Robert H. Scales Jr.
Ramona A. Naddaff 1981
Kent Nelson 1965
Francis Oakley 1960PhD, and Bruce Russett 1961PhD, Dean Acheson Professor of International Relations and Political Science, Editors
Alan Paskow 1971PhD
Dylan C. Pennington 1993
Richard A. Posner 1959, 1996LLDH, and William M. Landes
Stephen Prothero 1982
Rebecca Rischin 1989, 1990MMus
Alexandra Robbins 1998
Jonathan Sarna 1979PhD
Henry Schneiderman 1972
Kyle Smith 1989
Joshua D. Sparrow 1985MD, and T. Berry Brazelton, MD
Joshua D. Sparrow 1985MD, and T. Berry Brazelton, MD
Peter H. Tveskov 1956BE
Laura Wexler, Associate Professor of American Studies and Women’s Studies, and Sandra Matthews
Henry Wiencek 1974
Max Wilk 1941, 1941Dra
Salim Yaqub 1999PhD
Stagestruck in America: Artists, Entertainers, and Audiences, 1906–1956
Paintings, drawings, photographs, and prints from the first half of the twentieth century depict personalities from vaudeville, burlesque, early movies, and jazz clubs. The exhibit marks the gallery’s recent acquisition of two major works: Everett Shinn’s The Orchestra Pit, Old Proctor’s Fifth Avenue Theatre (1906) and Walt Kuhn’s Chorus Captain (1935).
Brentano String Quartet
Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violin; Misha Amory, viola; and Nina Maria Lee, cello, perform in the Morse Recital Hall at Sprague Memorial Hall.
Le Medecin Malgre Lui
Sprague Hall is the venue for this staging of Charles Gounod’s comic opera, sung in French with English supertitles and accompanied by full orchestra.
The King Stag
Faith, ingenuity, and an enchanted parrot come together to restore order to the kingdom of Serendippo. Carlo Gozzi’s comic tale of love and treachery is directed by Evan Yionoulis.
Music of Britten
Rolando-Michael Sanz, tenor, and William Anthony Martin, horn player—winners of the Woolsey Hall competition—perform Britten’s “Serenade for Horn, Tenor, and Orchestra” in Woolsey. A pre-concert talk takes place at 7 p.m. in Morse Recital Hall in Sprague Hall. Admission is free.
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