T.S. Eliot and the Anthropology of the Primitive (Public lecture, 9th September)


primitiveCome and join us at the next lecture in our Late Summer Lectures series, at which Dugyu Senocak will peer behind the scenes of T.S. Eliot’s groundbreaking modernist poem, The Waste Land. In particular, Dugyu will show how Eliot was inspired by anthropology and encounters with so-called “primitive” cultures. The lecture starts at 17.30 in Alington House, with free refreshments from 17.00; there is no need to book and all are welcome.

T.S. Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land stimulated an investigation of anthropology as a fertile source of his poetry. Although the assessment of the famous “mythical method” has often been confined to the Frazerian comparative method (The Golden Bough 1890), Eliot was a copious reader of anthropology whose range went beyond James George Frazer, to include names such as Max Müller, Edward Burnett Tylor, Emile Durkheim, and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl.

This talk will, first, offer an account of the modernist interest in the so-called “primitive” culture and Eliot’s anthropological influences and then proceed to demonstrate how Eliot formed his own theories about “primitive mentality” in the light of the findings and deficiencies in ethnographic studies of his time. This lecture argues that Eliot’s intellectual input, particularly his attempt to make a conjunction between primitive mysticism and poetry, bears a greater affinity with the mid-20th century anthropologies of Ernst Cassirer and Claude Lévi-Strauss than it does with Frazerian mythography. While Cassirer’s work links “mythical thought” with the ritualistic roots of poetry, Lévi-Strauss’s concept of “bricolage” offers a procedural model for the “mythical method.”

Late Summer Lectures runs every Wednesday at 17.30 at Alington House, Durham, from 19th August to 7th October. All are warmly welcome to attend; see the full programme here. You can also download podcasts of lectures from previous series.

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