Recently I came across my diary notes for October 2nd last year, a birthday shared by two of my favourite heroes, Mahatma Gandhi and my beloved stepfather. I read a Wall Street Journal review of a new biography of Ghandi that claimed, among other things, he was a bisexual misogynist. The review said this biography “obligingly gives readers more than enough information to discern that [Gandhi] was a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist — one who was often downright cruel to those around him.”
I have lived long enough to see so many of my childhood heroes bite the dust. Churchill just loved fighting wars ; Martin Luther King committed adultery; Abraham Lincoln was a racist. I’m no longer surprised by such revelations. But the question I always ask myself is, whether these flaws actually undermine the greatness of their achievements?
Which leads me to TS Eliot, who has been my favourite poet since high school. At sometime in my twenties I actually went off him for many years because I read somewhere he had his first wife, Vivienne, committed to a mental asylum. She died in this institution nine years later, and during this time he never once went to visit her. I was so appalled by this apparent callousness, I couldn’t even bring myself to open a book of his poems.
The trouble was his Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock had always been my very favourite poem. I had read it so often I knew much of it by heart. Over the years these lines kept coming back to me unbidden. I might have rejected the poet, but, try as I might, I could never quite turn my back on the work itself.
In truth history reveals Eliot and Vivienne were already separated when her brother, not her husband, placed her in the asylum. Yet this is not the point either. Even when I thought Eliot had been a cruel husband scorning the mentally ill woman who loved him, why did his poetry continue to hold me in its clutches?
Theirs was an incredibly complex relationship. They were two extremely vulnerable people who became more damaged as the years went on. Eliot’s incredible tour de force The Wasteland, one of, the 20th-centurys greatest poems, arose, in part, from the wreckage of this marriage. You see his work is so powerful because of his human frailty, not in spite of it. His true gift to us was his ability to offer up his own fear and struggles in a resounding reflection of universal human suffering.
“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
They called me the hyacinth girl.’
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Od’ und leer das Meer.”