Fear in a Handful of Dust

T.S. Eliot, 1934. Public Domain.

And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in handful of dust.
— T.S. Eliot in “The Waste Land,” 1922

For me, the phrase, “fear in a handful of dust” signifies that sense of nameless dread that can arise without an immediate cause. Anyone who hasn’t experienced such a sense of impending doom sometime this past year was not paying attention!

The poem from which the line was taken, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste land, is considered one of the most important early 20th century poems, announcing the ascendency of modernism in poetry – there was little appetite for 19th c. romanticism after the First World War. At the same time, as Eliot made clear in extensive notes, he drew heavily on an ancient legend, that of The Holy Grail, a central image in the Arthurian legends, but with roots stretching back to the Bronze Age.

Like Eliot before him, Joseph Campbell wrote extensively of the Waste Land. The legend revolves around Sacred Kingship, where the health of the land and the health of the sovereign are one. Behind the ailing Arthur is the Fischer King, with a wound that will not heal. The land is waste and can only be healed by the recovery of the Holy Grail. (The Masks of God: Creative Mythology).

Quest for the Grail, Creative Commons.

In Christianized tellings the Grail was the cup of the Last Supper, but in Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s Parzival, the version most quoted by Campbell, the Grail is a stone: “Its name is ‘lapis exiles,’ which is one of the terms applied in alchemy to the philosopher’s stone.” The gifts of the Grail are different for each person, corresponding to their deepest desires.

In Wolfram’s telling, to redeem himself and the land, the Grail seeker must ask the right question: “Whom does the Grail serve?” For all my fascination with the Grail legend over the years, I’ve never been able to understand that question. Until maybe last year.

Sheltering in place, cut off from most ordinary activities, there was plenty of time to reflect. The most important reflection was probably, “What is most important?” What matters most to me? What do you say to fear in a handful of dust, or fear in the darkness when you wake up at 3:00 am during a plague year?

At this moment in time, I’m old enough to say I know. For now. Answers change as we change, but answers may not be the main thing. To redeem the Grail what matters most is asking the right question.

Notes from the Wasteland

Photo by David Mark, public domain.

Photo by David Mark, public domain.

Talk of drought in California isn’t uncommon.  Normally it means lower levels in reservoirs and thinner snowpacks in the Sierras.  Bad news for skiers, and boaters, and farmers, perhaps, and an earlier start to the fire season, but’s it’s January, and for those who don’t ski, or boat, or farm, it’s easy to ignore until summer. But this time it’s different. This year it simply will not rain.

Even in “dry” winters, you see warnings that river currents are cold and swift.  This year the river’s so low there is no visible current.  Half of the local lawns are brown, and those that are green invite visits from the “water patrols” the districts threaten to form.  They say the reservoir from which we get our drinking water is at 17%; that image isn’t easy to forget.

A year ago, I posted a report from the National Intelligence Council.  Every four years, the NIC, representing every US intelligence agency, collaborates on a summary of the world situation to give the incoming president.  They post the report online for anyone to read.  After the last presidential election, the NIC gave the administration a report called Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds:

Click for the text of the whole report

I discussed the report in detail in a post in December, 2012, but it’s worth reviewing one of the four “Megatrends” the report identified.  The CIA, the NSA, the FBI, and the 13 other agencies that compiled the report do not waste time debating climate change; they accept it as a given and factor it into predictions, saying that by 2030:

Demand for food, water, and energy will grow by approximately 35, 40, and 50 percent respectively owing to an increase in the global population and the consumption patterns of an expanding middle-class. Climate change will worsen the outlook for the availability of these critical resources. Climate change analysis suggests that the severity of existing weather patterns will intensify, with wet areas getting wetter and dry and arid areas becoming more so.

What gives you pause is their conclusion:

We are not necessarily headed into a world of scarcities, but policymakers and their private sector partners will need to be proactive to avoid such a future.

At this time, if we have to depend on our “policymakers and their private sector partners” to be proactive, we’re screwed, but there are different ways to look at our situation.  As usual, I try to relate literal “truth” to archetypal patterns, and in this case, the obvious mythic story is that of the Wasteland.

The story relates how Camelot fell apart.  How the rift between Arthur and his queen threw the land into ruin.  How the ailing king sent his knights in search of the Holy Grail, the one thing that could restore the barren world.  Those who reached the Grail Castle found another mysterious king inside, wounded through the testicles, in constant pain but unable to die.  His only relief by day was to float in a boat on a lake near the castle.  For this reason, he was known as “The Fisher King.”  He could only be healed by the right knight arriving at the castle to ask the right question.

Antecedents to the story are ancient and predate the Arthurian tales, perhaps by thousands of years.  In writing his poem, The Waste Land (1922), T.S. Eliot relied on an anthropological study, From Ritual to Romance by Jessie Weston, who in turn, drew on The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazier’s study of sacred kingship.

In the mythic cycle Frazier explored, the earthly king was “married” to the Goddess of the Land.  His potency and the earth’s fertility were one.  When he became old and infirm or impotent, the health of the land suffered.  He was ritually killed and a new king selected.  We find echoes of this in Arthur’s estrangement from Guinevere, though of course by then, the era when monarchs submitted to sacrifice was past.

We aren’t ruled by kings anymore, but if we consider “governments” alongside the word, “impotent,” and if we ignore what Viagra can fix, we find these meanings: “weak; ineffective, powerless or helpless; having no self-control.”

Yet the news isn’t all bad, and that is a theme I plan to explore in a series of posts exploring the Wasteland.  For one thing, the Grail hides there and nowhere else.  For another, the old stories never suggest that rulers can save us.  Renewal comes from the outsider, the dummling, the fool, Parsifal the rustic youth, or a carpenter from Nazareth.  

There are literally thousands of people today, already in or ready to enter the metaphorical forest on a quest for better ways to live.  I plan to discuss a few of their stories here.

“Arming the Grail Knights” by Edward Burne-Jones, tapestry, 1890’s, public domain

The Worlds Revolve

As I scanned reviews of The Great Gatsby, I tuned in to one comment about the visionary quality of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book:  he saw the end of the roaring 20’s in 1925, before almost anyone else.

Almost anyone else…

I’d argue that T.S. Eliot, in Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), saw where our 20th century mode of life was leading even before the party began.

Here is how the title poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” begins:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

And here is how Prufrock ends:

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweek red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

One of the best professors I ever had helped me engage Eliot with the visual imagination, which helped me see how radical he was compared to the literary establishment of the day.  A kind of tired, watered down romanticism was the norm before the war, so describing the sky as “a patient etherized upon the table” was shocking.  “Have you ever seen someone unconscious?” the professor asked.  “Or very sick or dead?  Eliot isn’t describing a postcard sunset.”

But perhaps my most unforgettable poetic image came from another piece in Eliot’s first book.  Regarded as a minor work, “Preludes” is even less cheery than Prufrock.  Here’s how the poem ends:

Wipe your hand across your mouth and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

“Picture it,” the professor said, so I did.  I imagined an empty field on the outskirts of London, on a dark winter’s day.  Old women with scarves, patched sweaters and faded coats circle slowly, eyes on the ground, looking for sticks or slats from a discarded crate they can burn at home to stay warm.  Half a dozen figures or more in slow orbit.  They might as well be 100 miles apart, even though they are next to each other, doing the same thing.

Which worlds revolve like ancient women?  I’ve entertained many answers over the years, but one came up this week that helped clarify a sensation I’ve had very strongly since the November election.

The May 20, Time Magazine cover story featured our current crop of young people who are tagged as “Millennials.”

Time cover, May 30

I’ve read such generational articles since the days when they were written about me and my cohorts.  If you don’t take them too literally, they yield some interesting insights.  In this case, when author, Joel Stein, wrote “Millennials aren’t trying to take over the establishment; they’re growing up without one,” I literally jumped to my feet and ran out to brew some coffee.  I do that a lot when a light bulb goes on.

Millennials are growing up without an establishment.  Bulls-eye.  We’re all growing up without an establishment!

The worlds revolve like ancient women,
gathering fuel in vacant lots.

We’ve always had personal areas of concern, particular to our interests, our regions, and the groups that we align with, but have we ever been so lacking in the kind of national ethos and ideology that used to weld us together as one nation under one official God?

When journalists wrote about my generation, the lines were clear.  We had an ugly war which you were either for or against, yes or no, no ambiguity.  Now it’s all too inviting to forget that we’re still in a war no one believes in anymore, and maybe hasn’t for years.  In earlier days, we knew who was good and who was bad.  Now our enemies change on a regular basis.  Who is our biggest threat this month?  The worlds revolve and I can’t remember.

This week, if you live in Boston, you are concerned with the dead bomber’s burial.  In Washington, you follow the Benghazi hearings.  If you’re in congress or one of the 1%, you care about the deficit, though polls show that 92% of the rest of us do not.

If you live in Pennsylvania, you’ve got a new worry.  The legislature decided it’s probably unconstitutional to ban guns from public college campuses.  Think of armed drunken students on Friday night.  A well regulated militia, indeed.

My own new biggest concern springs from a report that our CO2 levels are higher than they have been in three million years.  I drive a hybrid car and use pumps instead of sprays, but clearly that’s not enough.  Some still say it’s a made up problem, and a few believe these are the end-times, so it’s a moot point.  What do I do if I’m not convinced?  Does anyone write to their senators anymore about anything?

No establishment means no one at the helm.  We’re on a ship without a rudder, or rather, many ships, going in circles like women gathering fuel in vacant lots.  The guy next to you at the stoplight is either talking on bluetooth or talking to himself.  You hope that if it’s the latter, he isn’t too angry and doesn’t have a gun.

House behind vacant lot, 2008, by Samuel A. Love, CC by-NC-ND 2.0

House behind vacant lot, 2008, by Samuel A. Love, CC by-NC-ND 2.0

These days some of those ancient women have concealed weapons and none have had background checks.  You spot a piece of wood at the same moment as another who narrows her eyes as if to say, “Are you feeling lucky today?  Well, are you?”

Yesterday’s paper featured an article on the current generation of survivalists, who now call themselves, “preppers,” a terrible name that sounds like a table condiment or the slacks and sweater look for high school students.  They are getting ready for the big collapse, which they say is just a matter of time.  They make a compelling point – ships without rudders run aground.  One local prepper who teaches his skills to others asks, “What would you do if you hadn’t had any water or food for three days?”

Strictly speaking, I think you die after three days without water, but it’s a good question.  I know what I hope I’d do in a crisis, though I don’t think anyone knows in advance for sure.  I recall stories of people helping each other during disasters and others doing just the opposite.  What’s scary is that I think you tend to help people you view as neighbors, and we all have fewer neighbors than ever before.

The survivalists are right about one thing – you have to plan the future you want and practice for it.  Isn’t that the real question, “the overwhelming question,” as Eliot put it? What do we want our lives to be like?  What kind of lives are worth surviving for?

What would happen if those ancient women teamed up to help each other gather fuel?  That’s so un-20th century, but now that we have no establishment, all bets are off.  That kind of future is so foreign to our current way of life that even with the best intentions and effort, many of us won’t see it in our lifetimes.  But that doesn’t really matter.

Outcomes are not as important as the questions.  What do we want our lives to be like?  How do we want to live?  Better to start asking now, lest the day come when human voices wake us and we drown.

Marina, a poem by T.S. Eliot

One of best educational experiences I ever had was a class called “Yeats and Eliot” that I took as a college sophomore. I’ve been reading and rereading his work ever since. The name of this blog, “The first gate(s)” comes from the opening of Eliot’s long poem, “The Four Quartets,” which matches the scope and depth of the work of any poet who ventures into ineffable realms.

T.S. Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrell, 1934. Public Domain

Eliot must have been quite a character.  He scandalized the early 20th century literary establishment with images like this, from the opening of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:”

“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;”

At the same time he offended the avant garde because he worked in a bank and joined the Anglican church.  Aware of such contradictions, he was never afraid to parody himself:

“How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
With his features of clerical cut,
And his brow so grim
And his mouth so prim
And his conversation, so nicely
Restricted to What Precisely
And If and Perhaps and But.”

By all accounts, he was also a joker, who served whoopee cushions and exploding cigars to dinner guests.  He and Groucho Marx were mutual fans.


“Marina” was one of the first Eliot poems I came to love, but I hadn’t read it for quite a while.  Ironically, it was the political conventions that brought these lines from the poem to mind:

Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaning
Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird, meaning

Marina was #29 in Eliot’s series of  “Ariel Poems,” first published in September, 1930.  It was based on the Jacobean play, Pericles, Prince of Tyre.  Shakespeare is credited with the last acts of the play, the story of Pericles’ separation from, and reunion with, his daughter, Marina (most scholars believe the opening was composed by an inferior collaborator).

The play however, was simply a catalyst for poem that lives a life of its own, with haunting imagery that I think can speak to any of us, wherever we are.


By T.S. Eliot

Quis hic locus, quae regio, quae mundi plaga? 

What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter.

Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaning
Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird, meaning
Those who sit in the sty of contentment, meaning
Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaning

Are become insubstantial, reduced by a wind,
A breath of pine, and the woodsong fog
By this grace dissolved in place

What is this face, less clear and clearer
The pulse in the arm, less strong and stronger—
Given or lent? more distant than stars and nearer than the eye
Whispers and small laughter between leaves and hurrying feet
Under sleep, where all the waters meet.

Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat.
I made this, I have forgotten
And remember.
The rigging weak and the canvas rotten
Between one June and another September.
Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own.
The garboard strake leaks, the seams need caulking.
This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me
Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken,
The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.

What seas what shores what granite islands towards my timbers
And woodthrush calling through the fog
My daughter.

The Wasteland

One of the books I treasure is a battered old trade paperback with yellowing pages.  I value the book,  Creative Mythology, because of the author’s inscription: “For Morgan with all my good wishes. Joseph Campbell, 3/13/79.”  


You could say Campbell’s  four day lecture series that spring did much to open the path my imagination has followed ever since.  None of the stories Campbell unpacked in his lectures or books affected me more than Parzifal (or Parsifal) and his quest for the holy grail. The version of the grail story Campbell recounts is by Wolfram Von Eshenbach (1170 – 1220).  Wolfram was a German knight and poet, and his Parzivalis regarded as one of the finest medieval German epics.  Campbell looks to this version because it’s roots reach deeper than later Christianized versions where only the pious and chaste Galahad can attain the grail.  What matters for this post are those echoes we can see in the tale of the ancient legends of sacred kingship, and the ways an unfit or weakened king can blight the land.

Wolfram Von Eshenbach from Codex Manasse

Sometimes in youth we receive a vision or powerful experience that shapes much of the rest of our lives.  So it is with Parzival who finds his way to the mystical Grail Castle and meets its wounded king, Anfortas,  who is also known as The Fisher King.  As a young knight, a spear pierced the Fisher King’s “thighs” – a euphemism for testicles according to Campbell.  In ancient times, the virility of the king and the fertility of the land were one.  In the grail stories, Fisher King could not be healed and couldn’t die.  All the realm was barren.

Robin Williams as the Fisher King in the 1991 movie of that name, a contemporary retelling of the story

While in the castle, during a mysterious ritual, Parzival has a vision of the grail, which is described as a stone, though its shape isn’t fixed, and it brings everyone “what their heart most desires.”  Though he is intensely curious, Parzival does not ask the meaning of what he sees.  In the morning, the castle is empty.  All traces of life are gone.  He rides away, and when he tells his story, listeners turn away in disgust.  If Parzival had asked the right question, he would have healed the king and restored the land.    The young knight wanders the blighted realm for 20 year, enduring hardships and contemplating his failure.  Just like us, he watches time turn his youthful dreams of glory to ashes.

“Parsifal” by Odilon Redon

At last, one cold Christmas Eve, Parzival encounters a hermit, tells his tale, and learns the question he should have asked. After that, he achieves the castle again.  When the ritual ends, Parzival asks, “Whom does the grail serve?”   Everything hinges on asking the right question.  Anfortas is healed, spring returns, and Parzival becomes the new Grail King.


Hearing this old tale, we have to ask how the story plays forward.  “Wasteland” clearly describes the state of the world we read about in the papers, and “impotent” seems an apt description of most of the world’s governments.  This perception is not even new, for T.S. Eliot named it ninety years ago in his poem, The Wasteland:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, You cannot say, or guess, for you know only A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, And the dry stone no sound of water.

Giving mythical weight to our latest headlines, storyteller and mythologist, Michael Meade says: “Like Parsifal, the modern world has awakened from a deep sleep to find that the castle of abundance has disappeared, that the financial markets are in ruins, that blind religious beliefs are once again producing mindless crusades, and that great nature itself threatens to become a barren wilderness. Like Parsifal, we failed to ask the right questions when surrounded by abundance.” From “Parsifal, the Pathless Path, and the Secret of Abundance,” first published in Parabola, Fall 2009.  http://www.mosaicvoices.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=72:essay4parsifal&catid=53:essays&Itemid=68

This has happened before, again and again, Meade reminds us – beginnings and endings, decay and renewal.  The castle of abundance waits for us, individually and collectively, somewhere in the wilderness, but old pathways won’t take us there.  There’s a time to do as Parsifal did – drop the reins and let the horse, an image of our instinctive wisdom, pick its way through the forest. The old stories were told in the winter, when the nights were long and the fires warm.  This winter, I am drawn to look at some of these tales, to see what they are still whispering to our souls, for they are wiser than the daily ephemera that passes for wisdom but is really the source of our confusion.

As Michael Meade puts it: “Despite the current confusions of dogmatic religions and the literalism common to modern attitudes, the earthly world has always been a manifestation of the divine. Call it the Grail Castle, the Kingdom of Heaven, Nirvana, the Otherworld; it has many names and each is a representation of the eternal realm that secretly sustains the visible world. When time seems to be running out it is not simply more time that is needed, rather it is the touch of the eternal that can heal all time’s wounds and renew life from its source.”

Notes on T.S. Eliot

Here is what the man I consider the greatest english language poet of the 20th century had to say about his own work:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years-
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres-
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. (The Four Quartets)


Thomas Stearns Eliot, 1888-1965

Eliot was a modernist who believed that a new poetic language was needed to address the complexities of a new century.  It takes a bit of effort now to understand that he offended the literary establishment of his day the way Picasso offended the art establishment.  The first poem in his first published book, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” (1917) begins:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;

The literary world was still immersed in the 19th century sensibility; to describe the sky with such a simile was as shocking as a cubist landscape.   At the same time, Eliot alienated the bohemian crowd:  he became a devout Anglican, wore three-piece suits, worked in a bank, and spoke in the most precise possible manner.  He went his own way in everything but kept enough humor to describe himself in this way:

How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
With his features of clerical cut,
And his brow so grim
And his mouth so prim
And his conversation, so nicely
Restricted to What Precisely
And If and Perhaps and But.
How unpleasant to meet Mr. Eliot!
(Whether his mouth be open or shut).

I read poems like “Prufrock” and “The Wasteland” in high school.  They were cool enough that as a sophomore in college, I signed up for a class called, “Yeats and Eliot.”  It probably had a more lasting effect than any other college class, since forty years later I still read T.S. Eliot often, usually from “The Four Quartets,” the capstone of his poetic career.  The four sections were written and released separately over six years, and first published together in 1943.  After the Quartets, he wrote, “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” which inspired the musical, “Cats,” and spent the rest of his life writing plays and literary criticism.  Eliot was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1948.

The title of this blog came from an opening line in “The Four Quartets:”  Through the first gate, Into our first world, shall we follow the deception of the thrush?

As I said, I have been reading this poem for forty years, always finding something new in Eliot’s rendering of the human longing for the ineffable (among many other themes).  George Orwell dismissed the poem for it’s “religiosity,” though I find that a shallow reading.  A passage like the following uses religious symbols, not in the service of preachiness, but to invoke an experience that is perhaps as common as it is difficult to name:

I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant –
Among other things-or one way of putting the same thing:
That the future is a faded song, a Royal Rose or a lavender spray
Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret,
Pressed between the yellow leaves of a book that has never been opened.

Here is another such passage which I still see quoted from time to time by spiritual authors:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

No single blog post could be more than an introduction to the life and work of a poet like T.S. Eliot, but if these notes inspire anyone to read “The Four Quartets,”  http://www.ubriaco.com/fq.html I will be more than satisfied.

Let me end with the end of the passage I began with.  After the poet tells us “success” is forever out of reach, he says:

And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate-but there is no competition-
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again:  and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.