When I heard there was a film called “The Waste Land” on offer next to the Turner Contemporary in Margate, I had to go. T.S. Eliot spent roughly one month in Margate in September, 1921. His wife Vivien was in poor health and Tom was also suffering from nervous depression. Margate was meant to supply bracing sea-air and some inspiration for what was to become his masterpiece, The Waste Land, published in 1922.
So one Saturday in July I hopped on Southeastern Rail and made the trek to Margate, about twenty-five minutes from Canterbury. On the train ride, I read part three of The Waste Land—Eliot called it “The Fire Sermon.”
The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.
And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;
Departed, have left no addresses.
I think of Max Weber’s “disenchantment of the world,” where both the landscape and our hearts have been demythologized. I walked from the train station to the Turner Contemporary and behind it found a tiny (black box) cinema, about the size of a small bedroom. I sat on the floor. The film is by Mark Wallinger, who won The Turner Prize in 2007.
It is a film showing the beach-front and horizon just beyond the smallish hut serving as cinema. The film was shot the day before. Each day the film shown is a medium shot of the sand and the horizon as they appear the day before. The camera does not move. As I watch the film, a woman who serves as the attendant spilt Eliot trivia over me in order to give the film a pedigree. The film is meant to be about the disorientation of time and space in modern life and yet its stasis does nothing to vibrate my spidery web of the spatio-temporal. Eliot staring at the same sea in 1921 wrote some brilliant fragments for “The Fire Sermon.”
On Margate Sands
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken finger nails of dirty hands.
My people humble people, who expect
Mad Europe—and his mad marriage—hurt Eliot into poetry. But Wallinger seems to have little imagination for the dislocations and dissonances that makes Eliot’s work so compelling and disturbing. I joke to myself about writing a message in the sand that would have to be filmed and shown the entire next day:
THE TIME WASTED
I spent about ten minutes watching the film and waiting for a seagull to fly by. Most of the gulls are so bloated with discarded, oily chips they can barely struggle into flight. If I sat there for an hour or so I probably could see the water slightly change colour. Or maybe a tourist would actually walk down the beach. One could argue that the film’s static, minimalist approach frustrates our conventional expectations and forces us to be patient and really look at the undulating sea and the way it is both always the same and constantly changing. That mesmerising paradox is elemental, like gazing into fire (rather than a fire sermon). But how odd it is to be walled in a tiny dark room to watch a film of yesterday’s sea when today’s sea is dutifully slapping the shore (it has no choice) just beyond the cinema. The avant-garde film was so tedious that it made a realist of me. And what would Turner have thought of the film’s taking off the prize bearing his name?
I left the Turner Contemporary and made for Angela’s Cafe near the sea-front. Inside I was surrounded by a family of squalling brats whose behaviour makes one want to throw everything—cups, tables, cod, kids—through the front window. I kicked to life the pedantic professor in me and thought that Eliot would have listened to their sordid conversation—a tumorous sewer of clichés—and created a scene from The Waste Land, the pub scene in “A Game of Chess,” for example. As the waitress approached I rearranged my pale, ovoid Swedish features in what I hoped was the haughty countenance of a visiting Persian Prince. She took my order without once noticing my implausible face. The coffee arrived five minutes later and tasted like oily soy sauce. I covered the table with Eliot materials (these fragments I have shored against Margate’s ruins?) and held a tutorial with myself. I often flirt shamelessly with my own mind to kill time. I examine A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including The Annotations of Ezra Pound and pore over the revisions of the “On Margate sands” part of The Waste Land. Pondering Eliot’s relations with his wife and how much of the poem refers to the strained nerves of their marriage, I recall Jacques Lacan’s bottomlessly-depressing definition of love: “Love is giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it.” That sounds like the caption to 80% of Tracey Emin’s work. The weight of Margate and Lacan squat like fat seagulls on my dying heart so I pay and bill and leave, ready for the next splendid, sea-side disappointment.
I strolled in a spitty rain down the coast and approached the Victorian shelter where Eliot pondered and penned part of The Waste Land. It is a large, wrought-iron structure with long benches inside and with an enormous overhanging roof. The place was overflowing with families from the American South. A native Virginian, I recognized their accents as originating in South Carolina or Tennessee. Words drool from their mouths like dark molasses. A mom to her boy: “Baaaaaahhbeee!—nowww don’ch’y’all go swimmin’ in tha’feelthy ohhshun!” Kids running around yelping as if wasps had flown up their anuses. Helpless parents trying to manage them, like herding cats in a hurricane. I try for about five seconds to imagine a solitary T.S. Eliot sitting there, plucking his mandolin, staring out to the English Channel, connecting myth, religion, philosophy, psychology, literature and harrowing forms of impotence in order to depict both individual and cultural disintegration. The line “I can connect nothing with nothing” is the voice of madness, the opposite of the fecundating poiesis (‘making’ from the ancient Greek ποίησις). Great poets and novelists teach us how to “only connect.” But among the throng of tourists, it was impossible to absorb Eliot or to turn the gloomy seascape to account. Turner would weep. The sun, for shame, would not show itself. Margate: ‘a heap of broken images’, the town that loves to disappoint you. Before leaving I spied a girl about fifteen years old sitting on a bench packed with people. She gazed out to the Channel, her face a relief map of despair and loneliness, her eyes vacant and detached. I know that look. I regarded her for a moment, hoping not to catch her eye. She had beautiful, mahogany-coloured skin. Her arms hung like ropes and fell into the dead lap. She seemed lost in her life, already a weary pilgrim for whom every month was as cruel as April, breeding lilacs out of her dead Margate. I could not re-Joyce her into epiphany. Portrait of the Failed Artist as an Ageing Professor.
In one of those miserably garish seaside arcades called DREAMLAND (a would-be antidote to Margate as a wasteland), I play two games of air hockey against myself, whacking the goddamn puck so hard it either takes flight or rebounds into my own goal. I leave DREAMLAND. Margate is so tired and beleaguered that one begins to see why people come out of the rain to spend a few pounds in order to murder an hour in venal idiocy. Only poets can survive outside.
On the walk to the train station, I notice a row of obligingly-seedy hotels and B&B’s. A particularly ramshackle place is called—because God is an Ironist—The Happy Dolphin. From an upstairs window you would be able to see Eliot’s shelter. It’s a good place to contemplate Margate sands and think about Eliot’s poetic grail quest to connect everything with everything: perhaps the only way out of the wasteland of modern life. The secular redemption of poiesis.
As Nietzsche observes, “We have art so that we may not die of the truth.” The Happy Dolphin is also a good place to hang yourself.
James Soderholm taught for 22 years, mostly at American universities. He has been living in Britain for the last 14 years. Like Emma Bovary, he wants to die but he also wants to live in Paris. You can see more of his work in in Stag Hill Journal print Issue 1, coming in Spring 2018
Featured photo © James Soderholm