When I was in college and introduced to T. S. Eliot’s poetry, I fell in love. Something in his words, the arrangement of his lines, the ideas simply snatched me up in an intellectual embrace. I talked about his poetry so much that my boyfriend at the time bought me the collected works of Eliot; it seemed ironic at the time that someone who loved me would woo me with the words of someone else (whom I loved). It was a weird kind of Cyrano de Bergerac.
My love for Eliot’s work remained with me but was dormant for so many years. Yes, when the opportunity presented itself, I would read his poetry aloud to the classes I taught, but I generally stopped reading and re-reading the poetry for my personal pleasure.
Last year, however, I discovered a trove of Eliot books I had stored on a bookshelf for at least twenty years. There were copies of his various publications (sometimes two copies—one for marking up and using, one for safekeeping), critical books on Eliot, essays, poetry, even magazine articles folded and tucked into the books, and of course my notes on yellowing sheets of paper or on index cards wrapped with a rubber band (that was now stiff and crumbling) shoved into notebooks filled with notes about Eliot. The discovery was like a light turned on in a corner of the attic. I started to read Eliot again. And to even write poems about him.
Then, I started surfing the Internet about Eliot; the Internet was nonexistent when I first discovered my love for Eliot, so this was something new. There were hundreds of articles, YouTube videos, copies of his poems, websites of quotations from his work. And all of that did not satisfy so much as it whetted my appetite for more.
I bought biographies of Eliot (at least five) despite the fact that he insisted he wanted no biographies written about him. I discovered his much-discussed platonic relationship with Emily Hale (and the opening of the one-thousand-plus letters he wrote her) as described in blogs on the Internet. I read about his disastrous marriage, his conversion to Anglicanism, his acquisition of an English accent and British citizenship. I bought the first two volumes of his letters (he was an avid letter writer!). I had an epiphany: I once loved Eliot’s work for the sound and the emotional sense; I now loved it even more for the intellectual challenge and discovery. And, finally, I joined two associations dedicated to studies of him and his work, one American and one British.
One of those associations—the American one (International T.S. Eliot Society) decided to debut on Zoom some papers their associates were presenting at this year’s American Literature Association. There was chatter, laughter, an easy camaraderie of scholars who all had an interest in Eliot. Then, the first paper: a discussion of how the various references in The Waste Land could now be discovered easily—and by practically anyone—given the prevalence of the Internet. It was going well (if a little dry and lacking unscholarly enthusiasm), when suddenly, not twenty minutes in, the screen was suddenly populated with a scribbled smiley face and an invisible hand writing “HELLO,” and in the chat, less friendly images: a stick figure imitating sexual intercourse, a face spewing obscenities, and then a more ominous stranger with the title “Internet Terrorist.”
The moderator instructed all to log out and log back in, hoping to rid the academic group of this intrusion, popularly known as “Zoom Bombing.” I did as instructed, but was never able to log back in, because the trolls had apparently taken over the meeting. After a short time, when I tried to log in, I received only this sad message: “the moderator has locked the meeting.” I was locked out. I emailed one of the organizers expressing a hope that the meeting was recorded, and I could access it. She wrote back, “I’ll find out.”
What I had anticipated as a pleasant, sedate, but thoughtful two hours of scholarly papers turned out to be an empty afternoon. I settled for listening to recordings of Eliot reading his poems.
But I think now that the promise of the Internet is also its curse. Accessibility is wonderful—except when used to destroy rather than create, to sunder rather than unite. In fact, all of the new media (new to me, at least, a pre-boomer) is subject to the whims of those who destruct rather than construct, or who want everyone to know every moment of their little, petty lives. And not because they want sympathy; they want only attention.
Why attack, disrupt, and ultimately terminate a gathering of academics who were not fomenting rebellion, revolution, or even complaint, but simply wanting to share ideas about a poet who lived sixty years ago? These people were no different from the January sixth insurrectionists. The world is circling the drain.
And a final thought: how ironic that this would happen in the middle of a presentation called “Eliot and the Digital Waste Land.” Indeed.