The characters referenced in Woody Allen’s movie “Midnight in Paris” (Part 25, T.S.Elliot)

I have really enjoyed going through the characters referenced in Woody Allen’s latest movie “Midnight in Paris.” Today I am going to discusss T.S. Eliot.

T.S. Eliot
Modernist poet
Friday, August 8, 2008

“The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.”

The man who wrote the most despairing poem of the twentieth century is today mostly remembered as the author of doggerel verse made popular in the hit musical Cats. Besides his poetry (the serious, the light, and the profoundly Christian), he produced literary criticism and drama so fine he was awarded the 1948 Nobel Prize for Literature and the British Order of Merit.

1867 The Dominion of Canada is Established
1876 Alexander Grahm Bell invents the telephone
1882 Formation of Standard Oil Company
1888 T.S. Eliot born
1965 T.S. Eliot dies
1966 Chinese Cultural Revolution

Brooding masterpiece
Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis to a family descended from New England stock. There was no smoking or drinking in the Eliot household, and the literary-minded family—Tom, his brother, five sisters, and mother—would gather around his father, a wholesale grocer, as he read Dickens aloud. In fact, frail Tom spent much of his childhood curled up in a big leather armchair reading.

He was sent to New England to private schools and was accepted at Harvard University, where he studied under the likes of philosopher and poet George Santayana and completed his degree in three years. Though naturally shy, he gained a reputation as a dancer and party-goer, and when he decided he was too puny, he took boxing lessons.

Eliot won a traveling fellowship to Germany in 1914; he barely escaped getting caught by the war and made his way to Britain. It turned out to be a long stay. He never returned to take his oral examination, which was all that stood between him and a Harvard Ph.D.

After a year at Oxford University, then a stint at teaching history, Latin, French, German, arithmetic, drawing, and swimming in English schools, he became a banker with Lloyds of London. Later he became an editor with Faber and Faber (where he eventually became known as a prolific writer of blurbs for book jackets).

Meanwhile he brooded over the crumbling of European civilization.

His first masterpiece, the first “modernist” poem in English, was “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a portrait of an aging man reviewing a life frittered away between timid hopes and lost opportunities:

For I have known them all already, known them all
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons …

With the publication of “The Waste Land” in 1922, he came to international attention. The poem begins,

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

It expresses the disillusionment and disgust after World War I, portraying a fearful world pursuing barren lusts, yearning desperately for any sign of redemption. It is considered by many to be the most influential poem of the twentieth century.

Redeemed from fire
Eliot’s despair, however, was short-lived. After reading agnostic Bertrand Russell’s essay “A Free Man’s Worship,” essentially an argument that man must worship man, Eliot decided its reasoning was shallow. He moved in the opposite direction and in 1927 was confirmed in the Church of England. The same year, he also gave up his American citizenship and became a British subject.

His faith became more widely known with the publication of “Ash Wednesday” in 1930, a poem showing the difficult search for truth (“Where shall the word be found, where will the word / Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence”) and the discovery of a faith that will last, expressed in the repeated phrase, “Because I do not hope to turn again.” Though criticized sharply by the literati for his turn to Christianity, he continued to express his faith in his poetry.

Eliot believed his finest achievement was writing the broadly religious poem “Four Quartets” (1943). It deals with the themes of incarnation, time and eternity, spiritual insight and revelation, culminating in an allusion to Pentecost:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

In The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), as well as other works, Eliot argued that the humanist attempt to form a non-Christian, “rational” civilization was doomed. “The experiment will fail,” he wrote, “but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the world from suicide.”

He didn’t believe society should be ruled by the church, only by Christian principles, with Christians being “the conscious mind and the conscience of the nation.”

Eliot turned to writing plays in the 1930s and ’40s because he believed drama attracts people who unconsciously seek a religion. The year 1935 saw the premiere of Murder in the Cathedral, a play based on the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, in which Eliot reiterates that faith can live only if the faithful are ready to die for it. It was followed by The Family Reunion (1939) and The Cocktail Party(1949), his greatest theatrical success. In his plays, he managed to handle complex moral and religious themes while entertaining audiences with farcical plots and keen social satire.

Verse to the postman
More personally, Eliot’s first marriage was a disaster: his wife became increasingly unstable until she had to spend her last days in a mental institution. He then shared a flat with writer-critic John Hayward (who was almost completely paralyzed) until he married again in 1957.

Eliot enjoyed children, was a fan of Sherlock Holmes detective stories, addressed letters in verse (“Postman, propel thy feet / And take this note to greet / The Mrs. Hutchinson / Who lives on Charlotte Street … “), and made up rhymes about cats, which turned into his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939). He was an Anglican of Anglo-Catholic persuasion and served for a time as church warden at his local parish.


The impact of T.S. Eliot’s Christianity on his poetry

By Barry Spurr
ABC Religion and Ethics | 16 Aug 2010

By the time that T.S. Eliot, aged 39, was baptised and confirmed in the Church of England in 1927, his reputation as the leading Modernist poet had been secured by the publication of the revolutionary collection, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) and The Waste Land in (1922).

These presented confronting analyses of the human condition in contemporary Western society which was emerging from the bloodbath of the Great War, in which the opposing sides had claimed the support of God.

Eliot focused on individual lives (in the monologues of such despairing figures as Prufrock, in his ironically-titled “Love Song,” and Gerontion, the little old man in the poem of that name). But he also criticised civilisation at large in the epic range of The Waste Land, where the title introduces the principal metaphor of the hopelessness it describes.

Eliot presented a post-Christian world, despairing of human and divine love or redemption from its despair. The best expression of this diagnosis, in his verse, came in “The Hollow Men” (1925), where Eliot’s speakers are discovered hopelessly – but, paradoxically, with an extraordinary lyrical beauty – on the brink of Hell.

Here was a poet, according to Eliot’s contemporaries, who had evoked the nihilism of modern lives and societies. Phrases from these poems still resonate powerfully, nearly a century later: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper,” “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” and so on.

It might have been expected, after Eliot’s conversion a few years later, that his recognition of the promise of salvation which Christianity proposes would have been reflected in revolutionary changes in his poetic subjects and techniques.

Instead, it is the consistency of Eliot’s poetry, from 1927 onwards, with what he had been writing before that most often strikes us.

Several powerful metaphors remain, such as, for example, that of the journey (which we encounter, for instance, in “Prufrock” and in the quest-motif in The Waste Land).

Indeed, Eliot’s first “Christian” poem is called “Journey of the Magi” (1927). What is notable about this work is the perilousness of the undertaking (“A cold coming we had of it”), underlined by the contingency of the outcome and the lack of final resolution as a single Magus meditates upon the journey at the end.

These wise men, while recalling the biblical figures who were drawn to the Christ-child, are more tellingly interpreted as the worldly-wise men of modern life – people much like Eliot himself – who must struggle to reclaim the experience of faith and cannot even be sure of the character or implications of that experience when they have had it.

His Magi travel backwards through time, past the scene of suffering at the crucifixion (dimly represented as “three trees on the low sky”), to the baby at Bethlehem.

It is an encounter with the source of faith – “it was (you may say) satisfactory,” they note flatly – apprehended after intense and protracted personal and universal suffering and attended by the ever-present temptations of worldliness (“silken girls bringing sherbet”) and in the face of contemporary, irreligious derision – “with the voices ringing in our ears, saying / That this was all folly.”

This was precisely how Eliot’s conversion was regarded by many of his friends and literary associates in these years.

The Magi return from their encounter with the Incarnation to a now-alien people, “clutching their gods.” Incompleteness closes the poem as one of them yearns for a further dying to worldliness – “I should be glad of another death.”

For all its negativity, the poem is rich in Christian symbolism and, for the first time, there is at least the sense that the journey is not absolutely pointless, but, rather, a challenging experience.

Moreover, as it is undeniably focused on the Lord’s birth, it presents, in Eliot’s first recognisably Christian poem, that emphasis on the Word made flesh – the doctrine of the Incarnation – which is central to Anglo-Catholic theological, liturgical and spiritual life.

From this still point of “intersection of the timeless / With time” (as Eliot was later to put it, in Four Quartets) was derived the richly sacramental rule and practice of faith which dominated the rest of Eliot’s life, particularly in the Mass and in recourse to the sacrament of penance.

In “Journey of the Magi,” there is the symbol of a “water-mill beating the darkness.” It speaks of rejuvenation, conquering the darkness of sin and, sacramentally, of baptism. It has the potential to revive the desert landscape of The Waste Land where there “is no water.”

In 1930, in his most liturgical poem, Ash-Wednesday, Eliot presents an extended meditation on that aspect of spirituality which inspired his own quest for transcendence of the world of the wastelanders and the hollow men, and which had its source in his own abiding sense of unworthiness. This is his preoccupation with sin and purification.

In the liturgical calendar, Ash Wednesday is the first day of the penitential season of Lent. So, in this Lenten poem, Eliot’s speaker embarks on yet another journey – but this time, of renunciation and penitence.

Again, in its six sections, there is the dominant sense of the difficulty of the process, in the midst of worldliness, a condition characterised here as a “time of tension between dying and birth.”

One of the reasons that Eliot’s poetry of his “Christian” period speaks as strongly to the contemporary world as his earlier nihilistic works – which seem more aligned to its values – is that he never imagines that religious belief, or the behaviour which that belief entails, makes life or the acceptance of oneself, with all its demons, easier.

On the contrary, it is a more difficult journey. In Ash-Wednesday, scepticism about faith and lack of faith in the penitent’s own ability to rise to the demands of belief dramatically bedevil him as he makes his painful way through those several weeks to Easter and the mystery of the resurrection.

Typically, the poem only looks forward to this theological resolution, finding its centre, rather, in “this brief transit where the dreams cross,” the temporal dispensation of past, present and future which the speaker aspires to transcend now that he has recognised a higher reality beyond that dreamtime.

His glimpses of the beatific vision – Ash-Wednesday is much indebted to Dante for several of its references – encourage the speaker at the end, in quotation from the old prayer, Anima Christi, to plead, “Suffer me not to be separated / And let my cry come unto Thee.”

This “cry” is a prayer coming out of suffering. Such was Eliot’s faith.

Barry Spurr is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Sydney. His most recent book is “Anglo-Catholic in Religion”: T.S. Eliot and Christianity (Lutterworth, 2010).

Below is an excellent article from

A Costly Journey Print

By Diane Singer|Published Date: November 29, 2010

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
-–Matthew 2:1-2

Before he became a Christian in 1927, Nobel laureate T.S. Eliot wrote poems – such as The Waste Land and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”– which characterized the despair, disillusionment, and nihilist spirit of the post-World War I period. But not long after his conversion and his confirmation in the Anglican Church, Eliot published “Journey of the Magi” [1] – a poem which imagines events from the viewpoint of one of wise men who followed the Christmas star in search of the king of the Jews. Eliot used the form of a dramatic monologue to reveal what the magi endured as they made the arduous journey toJudea, and how their encounter with the Christ child impacted their lives.

In the first twenty lines, the speaker is remembering – and not fondly – the difficult trek from their home in the east (tradition says they came from Persia) to Bethlehem. It’s a litany of complaints about the cold, the long distance, the stubbornness of the camels, the unreliability and crudeness of the camel drivers, and the filth and corruption they found in every village and town they passed through. On too many nights and days, they had good reason to regret their decision to undertake the journey, and reason enough to call themselves every kind of fool for leaving “the summer palaces” and “silken girls bringing sherbet” back home.

In the second stanza (lines 21-31), the speaker describes their disappointing arrival in Bethlehem. Despite the warmer climate, their mood is somber and puzzled because none of the locals seemed aware that something momentous has just occurred, the arrival of their long-awaited Messiah (Genesis 3:15; Jeremiah 23:5-6; Micah 5:2; Daniel 9:25).

Significantly, Eliot packs this section with images that foreshadow not the birth of Christ, but the agony of His death, such as “three trees on the low sky” and “[s]ix hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver” – images which remind readers that Jesus was a newborn destined for a very particular kind of death (Psalm 22:17-18). And it is this juxtaposition of birth and death which leaves the speaker, decades after he sees the baby Jesus, longing for his own death.

In the last stanza (lines 32 -43), the setting shifts from the distant past to the aged speaker’s present as he mulls over the journey and tries to puzzle out what it meant. Rather than glowing words expressing joy, as we might expect, his words are uncertain, tentative, even pained. They found this infant’s birth “[h]ard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death” (ll. 38-39). Though they left their gifts and returned to their homeland, they never again felt at home: “We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, / But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, / With an alien people clutching their gods” (ll. 40-42). He then ends his musings on a sigh, a longing: “I should be glad of another death” (l. 43).

“The Journey of the Magi” is an unusual Christmas poem in that it lacks the seasonal cheerfulness and celebratory mood that we generally expect from such fare. Instead, Eliot’s poem reveals the paradoxical nature of our Lord and of our own faith journey. While Jesus is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) who came to reconcile God and man through His death on the Cross (Colossians 1:19-20), He is also the One who brought “a sword” (Matthew 10:34-39) that inevitably divides families, friends, and peers – as Eliot discovered when he converted, much to the disdain of his fellow members of the intelligentsia.

While Jesus offers His disciples abundant life, it comes at the cost of our old life, our old way of thinking, and our old values. And while He guarantees us a heavenly home, He leaves us with a nagging sense of alienation in our earthly ones. Therefore, like the magi, we may one day look back on our journey of faith and see much that disappoints and confuses us. But also like the magi, we can anticipate the day we will die and come face to face with our Lord. Then, we will understand that though it was a costly journey, it was well worth the price.

For more insight to this topic, get the book,
Christians at the Cross, by N. T. Wright, from our online store. Or read the article, “The Humanity of Christmas: The Nativity Story,” by Charles Colson.

[1] The poem may be found at where you can both read the text and hear Eliot reading the poem.

Comments: All comments are approved before posting.

Copyright © 2011 Prison Fellowship. All Rights Reserved

Lea Seydoux as Gabrielle and Owen Wilson as Gil in "Midnight in Paris." 2011 Roger Arpajou / Sony Pictures Classics

Lea Seydoux as Gabrielle and Owen Wilson as Gil in “Midnight in Paris.”

Owen Wilson portrays Gil Pender, a Hollywood screenwriter on holiday in Paris with his fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents.  Gil is on vacation from being a Hollywood Hack and in the process of writing his “Great American Novel;” the theme of which is being enamored of the past.  You can tell from the beginning that he is not happy with either his life or his fiancé and wishes to be part of a better generation and era.

Inez, the direct opposite of Gil, is a materialistic ambitious character who is pretty much unlikable from the beginning.  Her mother is such a bitch that you cannot help but expect the same of her.  Her father is portrayed as a right-wing “tea bagger” who is constantly getting into arguments with the liberal Gil, mostly over politics.  There is never a point in the film when you feel the slightest sympathy for anyone in Inez’s family.  You just simply know that Inez will do something during the course of the film that will allow Gil to get out of the engagement and relationship.

There is not much more I can say without giving the major plot twist away.  However, I will say that the majority of  jokes and dialogue require the viewer to have a strong background in the material.  Anything short of that will leave the viewer perplexed and completely out of touch with the plot.  In fact, when I saw the film, there were many jokes where only about five people in the audience were laughing hysterically.  The remainder of the sold-out crowd just didn’t get it.

This is where the elitism and self-indulgent nature of Woody Allen shines.  If you are not part of the inside joke and well aware of the literary and artistic references throughout, you will be lost.  And, this, unfortunately, will be what kills this film commercially.  It will play very well in intellectual centers and areas where elitism shines.  But the mass general public throughout the world will almost definitely never see it.  In fact, I was mentioning this film to a Thai friend this morning and we were both sure that it will never see the light of day there.

As is always the case in Woody Allen films, the acting is outstanding.  Although, in my opinion, Owen Wilson tries a little too hard to play the nebbish character that Woody Allen himself has portrayed in all of his movies prior to the turn of the Century.

The Paris locales shine under the cinematography of Darius Khondji.  The use of rain and earth tones gives this film the feel needed to transport the viewer to another world.  The Costume and Set Design is also outstanding.

Three stars out of five.


How Should We Then Live – Episode 8 – The Age of Fragmentation

Published on Aug 6, 2015

Francis Shaeffer


The above clip is from the film series by Francis Schaeffer “How should we then live?” Below is an outline of the 8th episode on the Impressionists and the age of Fragmentation and he spends some time on T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.”


I. Art As a Vehicle Of Modern Thought

A. Impressionism (Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Degas) and Post-Impressionism (Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat): appearance and reality.

1. Problem of reality in Impressionism: no universal.

2. Post-Impression seeks the universal behind appearances.

3. Painting expresses an idea in its own terms as a work of art; to discuss the idea in a painting is not to intellectualize art.

4. Parallel search for universal in art and philosophy; Cézanne.

B. Fragmentation.

1. Extremes of ultra-naturalism or abstraction: Wassily Kandinsky.

2. Picasso leads choice for abstraction: relevance of this choice.

3. Failure of Picasso (like Sartre, and for similar reasons) to be fully consistent with his choice.

C. Retreat to absurdity.

1. Dada , and Marcel Duchamp: art as absurd. (Dada gave birth to Surrealism).

2. Art followed philosophy but came sooner to logical end.

3. Chance in his art technique as an art theory impossible to practice: Pollock.

II. Music As a Vehicle of Modern Thought

A. Non-resolution and fragmentation: German and French streams.

1. Influence of Beethoven’s last Quartets.

2. Direction and influence of Debussy.

3. Schoenberg’s non-resolution; contrast with Bach.

4. Stockhausen: electronic music and concern with the element of change.

B. Cage: a case study in confusion.

1. Deliberate chance and confusion in Cage’s music.

2. Cage’s inability to live the philosophy of his music.

C. Contrast of music-by-chance and the world around us.

1. Inconsistency of indulging in expression of chaos when we acknowledge order for practical matters like airplane design.

2. Art as anti-art when it is mere intellectual statement, divorced from reality of who people are and the fullness of what the universe is.

III. General Culture As the Vehicle of Modern Thought

A. Propagation of idea of fragmentation in literature.

1. Effect of Eliot’s Wasteland and Picasso’s Demoiselles d’ Avignon

compared; the drift of general culture.

2. Eliot’s change in his form of writing when he became a Christian.

3. Philosophic popularization by novel: Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir.

B. Cinema as advanced medium of philosophy.

1. Cinema in the 1960s used to express Man’s destruction: e.g. Blow-up.

2. Cinema and the leap into fantasy:

The Hour of the Wolf, Belle de Jour, Juliet of the Spirits, The Last Year at Marienbad.

3. Bergman’s inability to live out his philosophy (see Cage):

Silence and The Hour of the Wolf.

IV. Only on Christian Base Can Reality Be Faced Squarely

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: