Of Dust and Parentheses

…for life's not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis

—E. E. Cummings, who died on this day in 1962; go here for all of “since feeling is first”

Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, on several end-of-century Top 100 lists, was published on this day in 1934. Tony Last, its central character, might disagree with Cummings. When we meet him, Tony is the blindly happy inhabitant of Hetton Abbey, a rambling Victorian mansion which he has renovated in tasteless neo-Gothic style; when we last see him, he is deep in the Amazon jungle, a prisoner of the never-ending Victorian sentence. Tony’s keeper is Mr. Todd, Waugh’s satiric equivalent of Conrad’s Kurtz. Living far up-river and unchallenged as madman-tyrant of a settlement of Pie-wie Indians, Mr. Todd’s passion is hearing his full set of Dickens novels read to him, and read again. on pain of and unto death. This Tony must do, on pain of and apparently unto death.

Waugh took his title from a line in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land — “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” In Brideshead Revisited, Waugh returns to the poem, sending Anthony Blanche out on an Oxford balcony to stutter out a few lines: “…And I Tiresias have foresuffered all / Enacted on this same d-divan or b-b-bed; / I who have sat by Thebes below the wall / And walked among the l-l-l-lowest of the dead.” His contemporaries also borrowed from the poem — Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four borrows the same “handful of dust” — but Waugh’s biographers point out a particular connection to Eliot. Early in life, particularly when attempting to shock his conservative elders, Waugh liked to associate himself with Eliot’s avant-garde style; in his late twenties, Waugh became a Catholic, as Eliot in his late twenties became Anglican; and later in life, both authors wrote often in support of preserving and improving the class system — Tony Last being, for Waugh, one of its worst and worn out representatives.

Another famous Eliot poem is tied to tomorrow — “Dry Salvages,” third of the Four Quartets, published on September 4, 1941: “Fare forward, you who think that you are voyaging;
/ You are not those who saw the harbour
/ Receding, or those who will disembark....”

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