It didn’t take me long to figure out that Eliot did not write the “The Waste Land” for me, a working class kid from the Bronx raised on the Beatles, Johnny Carson and “I Love Lucy” reruns. Clearly my cultural experience didn’t fit Eliot’s image of the poem’s ideal reader, a classical scholar well versed in the European literary canon. My own education was an odd mix of public schools (25 percent lousy, 75 percent excellent), three years of Jesuit education at Fordham Prep in the Bronx, and a very secular undergraduate education at New York University in Greenwich Village.
Thanks to the Prep, however, lacking the requisite cultural background didn’t intimidate me. In lessons both implicit and explicit, the Jesies taught us boys to think of ourselves as the elite. It was an existential thing, not a matter of being well read. By elite they meant captains of industry and holders of high office, not literature nerds. You could catch up on your reading later, after you landed your first corporate board seat.
A big part of my teenage rebellion involved rejecting these ambitions. What better way to do that in a high powered prep school than to take up the arts? For me that meant literature. Not reading it. Making it.
In sophomore year, l picked up a thin journal published out of Boston called The Writer. In its pulp pages, I learned that a guy could make a living just writing stuff and submitting it to magazines. It required no degrees, no titles and best of all, no employer. I had found my calling! I would beat the conformists in my class. At orientation assembly that same year, Fr. Leonard informed us that “sophomore” combined two Greek words: sophos (σοφός), which means wise, and moro (μόρο), which means “fool.” He pointedly added that we get “moron” from the latter. Together they make “wise fool.” At 15, I fit the bill.
I caroused with the artsy guys. No hard sciences or higher math for me. I took every English and arts elective I could, from Modern Novel to Dramatic Acting. (No creative writing classes were offered in those days.) If they had had a painting class, I would’ve taken it. The boys with more practical ambitions (law, medicine, business and politics) frowned upon us, sure that we would regret not focusing on the prime directive of maximum starting salary.
Looking back now, I suspect that my rebellion might have actually fulfilled an unspoken part of Jesuits’ game plan. Publicly, they claimed to develop pillars of the community, but they held a special (and unspoken) place for artistic souls and discursive minds. The Jesuits educate as many if not more novelists, poets and philosophers than they do CEOs and politicians. I like to think that they take their greatest pride in the former. Remember, the Pope abolished the Jesuit order in 1773 for wandering a little too far outside the box.
When I mentioned to an NYU professor of mine that I graduated from Fordham, he asked if I believed in God. When I asked why, he said that Jesuit schools graduate more atheists than any other institution. They ask too many questions, he said. I can attest to that. If you want a straight answer, don’t ask a Jesie. They’ll just ask you a better question. If you don’t like questions, stay away.
With the Jesuits, you had to do your own thinking, which was fine with me and which is probably why I fit in more than I knew or intended. I see now that my Jesuit teachers coddled me for the very rebellion I thought would incur their disdain. I passed classes that I should not have passed and got better grades than I deserved for the work I did. But I haunted the library like an old ghost and read widely and wildly, and rarely what I was assigned, a habit I continued into graduate school.
At the same time, I absorbed the same overweening ambition as the company men at Fordham. Mine was, of course, literary rather than financial or political. Reading “The Waste Land” was more an act of conquest than of love. I don’t even think I liked the poem. It didn’t move me the way Whitman’s “Song of Myself” or Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea did.
By conquest I mean in the manner of Henry Hudson. Exploring the poem’s allusions was like sailing the rivers and tributaries of a new continent in an old wooden sailing ship. And like Henry, I was searching for some imagined northwest passage for which the only evidence was my imagination and ego.
Google Undoes “The Waste Land”
But the prize I saw in the poem 40 years ago now strikes me as fool’s gold: the large undigested chunks of culture Eliot incorporated into it. In our terrified 21st century, Google undoes the mysteries of “The Waste Land.” Each allusion can be easily unlocked by the most untutored, unread, ill educated booboisie (to use the epithet H.L. Mencken coined around the same year “The Waste Land” was first published). Or even a kid from the Bronx. You know how. They just google it.
Take the epilogue, a literary quote Eliot gives in Latin and Greek. Unless you know Latin and Greek, just look at it. Don’t bother to read it:
Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σιβυλλα τι θελεις; respondent illa: αποθανειν θελω.
Forty years ago, I blew right by the epilogue and cut right to the English. I had three years of Latin from Fordham, but I had worked very hard not to retain any of it. “Why should I have to learn a dead language?” my appalled teenage self demanded. Well, I didn’t learn it, or at least never attained a reading knowledge of it. In 2020, however, popping the first four Latin words of Eliot’s epilogue into Google turns up a long list of links with the translation. No more grinding through lexicons. I can get Latin and Greek @ speed of thought, to paraphrase (parody?) Bill Gates. Here, I choose the one from Wikiquote:
For with my own eyes I saw the Sibyl hanging in a bottle, and when the young boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’, she replied, ‘I want to die’
The quote comes from The Satyricon, an odd prose work by the ancient Roman writer Petronius, who served as a kind of fashion guru to Nero.
I find Petronius’ image of Sibyl hanging in a bottle disturbing. It brings to my mind those bottled specimens that used to line the high shelves in the Prep’s bio lab. “Bottle” here comes from the Latin word ampulla, which other translations have rendered as “jar” and, in a translation that the site claims to be Eliot’s, “cage.” According to merriam-webster.com, an ampulla is “a glass or earthenware flask with a globular body and two handles used especially by the ancient Romans to hold ointment, perfume, or wine.” Which brings me back to those bottled specimens.
But who was Sibyl, how did she end up in an ampulla, and why was she so miserable? The Wikiquote site says this Sibyl was the Cumaean Sibyl (hence Sibyllam quidem Cumis, or Sibyl of Cumae, an ancient Greek colony founded around the 8th century BCE in pre-Roman Italy). A priestess and mortal, she offered her virginity to Apollo in return “for years of life totaling as many grains of sand as she could hold in her hand.” How many grains of sand is that? I google the question. Among my results, I get numericana.com. They cite Carl Sagan (1934-1996), astronomer and television celebrity, who wrote in his bestselling book Cosmos that a handful of sand totals about 10,000 grains.
Assuming Apollo delivered, Sibyl would still be around. Unfortunately she forgot to ask for eternal youth to go with her long years. So she just shriveled up a little more each year until, of course, she could fit into an ampulla. Now her situation in The Satyricon passage makes sense.
The Better Question
Of course, today Sibyl could google “eternal youth” and find links for longevity technology entrepreneurs like Bill Maris, managing partner at Google Ventures, who invests in technologies aimed at extending human lifespan to 500 and beyond. If she hangs on a century or two longer, fountain-of-youth technology to wash away her decrepitude will probably become available thanks to good ol’ Bill. (She can thank him personally, since he’ll probably be around, too).
So who needs the gods when you got Google? Who needs a high priced university education when you got Google for free? Makes me wonder what the parents in the college admission bribery scandal thought they were paying for when they dropped all those millions to get their kids into “top” schools. I guess they never knew to ask the better question.
Well, enough of that rabbit hole. You can look up The Satyricon and the rest yourself.
Next: The Jessie L. Weston Joke.
- Half Moon (adapted), Appletons’ Cyclopædia of American Biography, v. 3, 1892, p. 297. Public Domain.
- “Jester” by Mark Round / CC By-NC-ND 2.0.
- Ampulla, Louvre Museum / CC BY-SA.
- Fountain at Lincoln Center. Photo by E.A.Melino.