Posted in Lessons by The Books Production Team on September 29, 2008


typewriter10         One of the strange scientific truths of the American college experience is that each of you will be forced to read T. S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland at least three times in your four years at the University of Southern California.  Even if you are a Physics major, the poem will somehow work its way into your curriculum while you are fulfilling your Humanities requirements, and Lord, help you if you are an English major.  Why must we all read this ridiculous poem?  Actually, I have no idea – but I’ll throw my four best guesses out there.

          #1) Reading The Wasteland is a rite of passage.  In Japan, on the second Monday in January (National Coming of Age Day), all 20-year-old women wear a pair of zori slippers for the first time and go dancing as a part Seijin Shiki.  In the United States, we make our undergraduates read a poem written in 7 different languages that includes a rape, a sex-changing fortune-teller, and a guy with a pocket full of currants.

         #2) T. S. Eliot is the only person since the late Eighteenth century collapse of the Tory party to be somehow both British and American at the same time.  The two branches of the English Department wrestle over the rights to his work like it’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and this crafty foresight on Eliot’s part doubles his opportunity to be listed on 21st-century syllabi.

         #3) For some reason, scholars agree that this is the most important poem ever written, even though…

          #4) No one has a clue what the fuck it is about.  I’m serious.  I was forced to read this poem at least a combined fifteen times as an undergraduate and graduate student, and (really more out of habit than anything – because it’s just what you are supposed to do), I have now taught the poem half a dozen times.  Despite this advanced study, I’ll reiterate the point that I really don’t have a clue what the fuck it is about.  I think we keep assigning it in hopes that someday one of our students will magically figure it out for us, and then we can stop assigning it.  But it’s never going to happen.

Still, there is one part of The Wasteland that I like – the ten lines that make up Book IV – and these ten lines are going to form the basis of what may ultimately be the most sentimental piece of advice that Dr. Wizard will ever give you.  Here they are:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,

Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell,

And the profit and loss.

                                    A current under sea

Picked his bones in whispers.  As he rose and fell

He passed the stages of his age and youth

Entering the Whirlpool.

                                    Gentile or Jew

O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,

Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

         So, here we are at Lesson #16: you should Consider Phlebas.  And what do I mean by that?  Well, until geneticists figure out a way to stop our telomeres from deteriorating, each one of us, from the time we turn the corner into adulthood (which is what college is all about) until the time we find ourselves being spoon-fed applesauce in the retirement home, are on a fast track towards death.  Our youth, and our strength, is fleeting.  Six days ago, my plan for this upcoming weekend was to fly to Minneapolis to run the Twin Cities Marathon.  Now, I’m waiting for the hole where my appendix used to be to heal so I can have the doctor’s clearance to spend five minutes on the elliptical machine.  Six years ago, two of my good friends from college died in a car accident.  While one of these surprises is relatively minor, and one was catastrophic, the point is that we have no idea how long we will enjoy the gifts of life that we have been given.  Considering Phlebas means…

         …being considerate to others (who were once handsome and tall as you).  It means listening when your grandfather tells you the story about how he and Lurch McGee hitch-hiked to California the summer they turned 18 to work as orange-pickers (because someday you’ll want someone to listen to you).  It means turning down your stereo when your neighbor asks you to do so because he has to work the next morning, even though the new Raconteurs album is fucking awesome, and sounds so much better cranked to eleven (because someday you’ll have to be at work at 6am).  And Considering Phlebas means…

          …capitalizing on the gifts of youth.  It means going outside on the weekends instead of drawing the shades and playing Xbox 360 for 48 consecutive hours.  It means asking that guy who’s in your Latin reading group out on a date (see Lesson #15).  It means rolling your car windows down, taking a road trip, and cranking the new Raconteurs album to eleven on your car stereo (where there is no neighbor who has to be at work the next morning).  CONSIDER PHLEBAS!!! WHO WAS ONCE HANDSOME AND TALL AS YOU!!!

          And now that Phlebas has been considered, let’s close today’s dead-poet-inspired lesson by stealing a line from the great movie Dead Poets Society.  When Robin Williams’ character brings his class to look at a picture of some of the school’s long forgotten alumni, he whispers:

          “They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? – – Carpe – – hear it? – – Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”  Make your lives extraordinary…

          …or, at least, go buy the new Raconteurs album.

3 Responses

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  1. MS said, on September 29, 2008 at 11:04 pm

    Remember Benjamin Button…because Benjamin Button (the fictional character created from the brilliant drunken haze of F. Scott Fitzgerald) is the only case, albeit fictional, of a man being born old, and maturing to youth – and even he has the wherewithal to know he was ‘so young’ “only on the outside.” And before my comment takes shape, it’s important to consider T.S. Eliot, specifically the epigraph to The Waste Land that mentions the sibyl of Petronius, wherein Eliot nods to J.K. Huysmans and French decadence – Petronius is Des Esseintes’s favorite author – signaling decay, and suffering – the sibyl is a symbol of isolation and fear of a meaningless death. And now, to move from the American Fitzgerald to the American/British Eliot, to the Anglo-Irish Jonathan Swift, who gave us the Struddlebruggs, those immortals who live in Book III of Gullivers Travels who forgot to factor in eternal youth when they scientifically managed to stop their telomeres from deteriorating. Anyhow, buy your grandpa a beer and hunker down for a night of storytelling, and make sure it’s a premium brew…

    “Because life is too short to drink cheap beer.” –Warsteiner beer slogan.

    And thus a relatively expensive German brewhaus justifies the price of it’s leading export, Warsteiner, which –in all honesty – tastes a hell of a lot like Budweiser (Can we really trust the ‘e’ before ‘i’ if the two letters are not preempted by a ‘c’? Or more directly, I guess what I’m asking is, are we prepared to trust German rhetoric?). My answer is both yes and no. We should listen to the wise sages at Warsteiner, because…life is too short to drink cheap beer. I just disagree with their implied meaning that Warsteiner isn’t cheap beer. Now, speaking in terms of the amount of cash it’s going to cost you to get drunk, sure, it isn’t cheap; but as stated above, it does still taste cheap.
    Carpe Diem! Or, more appropriately, considering what I’m about to say, Tapaigh an Deis! (which is the Gaelic version). Start drinking Guinness now. It’s like coffee in that it takes awhile to get used to, but once you do it is the most glorious beverage known to mankind. Here’s why, it’s more expensive, so you won’t be able to drink twenty-four of them every night (two or three is a good number to shoot for), so you’re less likely to gain the freshman 15, and what with inflation – since that term has been around for awhile – let’s call it the undergraduate 35 or so. Reason number two (see post # 15, Go on Dates), nobody wants to go home with the person chugging Natty Light to the point where s/he subsequently regurgitates Natty Light –surprising as it may seem, this beer actually tastes better coming up, it’s less watery due to amalgamating with stomach bile, pizza, and the Ramen noodles you had for lunch! But still, no one is sucking face with you unless s/he too is covered in a Natty-Bile-Pizza-Ramen cocktail (or even a Beast-Bile-Pizza—Ramen cocktail, sorry).
    Here’s the thing, while 95% of the party participants are the above described individual, there’s bound to be one, maybe two, attractive, articulate, and adorable member(s) of the opposite sex in attendance. And who, if you were one of the aforementioned ‘hotties,’ would you most likely want to get to know? Right, the semi-self-conscious, but also mildly-sophisticated wallflower sipping on a delightful delectable known as Guinness. Why? Because, different is good (seems like I’m overly-reliant upon product slogan rhetoric today). So, if you’re someone who takes a shower instead of wearing obtrusive amounts of cologne, and puts on real clothes instead of pajama pants, perhaps you’d like to consider being what I like to call an elite connoisseur of alcoholic decadence (some might label you this ironically if you drink Boone’s Farm $1.99 wine-in-a-box, so watch out!), and what the heathens will undoubtedly refer to as a ‘beer snob,’ then pick up a four pack of pint sized Guinness cans before you hit the next house party; change your major to English; make “Consider Phlebas” the opening of any and all conversation; and prepare to recite Death By Water to the amazement of your peers, ‘because life is too short to drink cheap beer.’ Cheers, Grandpa, we should have done this more often.


  2. funktifiedacoustic said, on September 30, 2008 at 12:21 am

    Cheers to MS & Wiz PhD – the better craftsmen

  3. Ghost Dog said, on September 30, 2008 at 1:58 am

    wow…this is a kind of soft post compared to some of the angrier early-teens. did the loss of your appendix make you sentimental? a week ago it was like midnight at the apollo up in this mother, now its the softer side of wiz.

    and i like it…but let’s not get too carried away w/ these touchy-feely posts. i saw that “box wine isn’t real” popped up on the list of lessons today. here’s hoping you bring the fucking firestorm with that one, like sex panther unleashed.

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