Questions for dead writers: What Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot, Beckett and more think about life

What makes you happy? What are your favourite words? Seven great writers (kind of) answer life’s mysteries

TS Eliot. Photograph: Myron Davis/Time Life Pictures/Getty

TS Eliot. Photograph: Myron Davis/Time Life Pictures/Getty

 

TS Eliot

TS Eliot was born in 1888. He studied at Harvard, the Sorbonne, and Oxford, and after working for Lloyds Bank became a director of publishers Faber and Gwyer. His best-known works include The Waste Land (1922), Four Quartets (1944) and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), later made into the musical Cats (1981). He also notably revived verse drama with plays such as Murder in the Cathedral (1935).

1. What is the meaning of life?

Birth, and copulation, and death.
That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks:
Birth, and copulation, and death.

(‘Sweeney Agonistes: Fragment of an Agon’)

2. Do you have a personal maxim?

Success is relative
It is what we can make of the mess we have made of things.

(The Family Reunion)

3. What makes you feel happy?

The moments of happiness - not the sense of well-being,
Fruition, fulfilment, security or affection,
Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination -
We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness.

(‘The Dry Salvages’)

4. What do you fear most?

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

(The Waste Land)

5. What are your favourite words?

water, rock, dry, sand, dark, fire, broken, hollow, dead, light, dream, stone, dull.

(passim)

6. What are your feelings on violence in human affairs?

Any man has to, needs to, wants to
Once in a lifetime, do a girl in.

(‘Sweeney Agonistes: Fragment of an Agon’)

7. If you had an alternative career, what would it be?

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

(‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’)

8. What do you think of religion?

We know too much and are convinced of too little. Our literature is a substitute for religion, and so is our religion.

(‘A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry’)

9. What do you feel will be the lasting influence of your life and work?

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

(‘Burnt Norton’)

Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett was born in 1906 in Dublin. He was secretary to James Joyce and later became a key figure in the Theatre of the Absurd. Among his best-known works are the plays Waiting for Godot (1948), Endgame (1957), Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) and Happy Days (1961), and the novels Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951) and The Unnameable (1953). He died in 1989.

Samuel Beckett. Photograph: Getty
Samuel Beckett. Photograph: Getty

1. What is the meaning of life?

You’re on Earth. There’s no cure for that.

(Endgame)

2. Do you have a personal maxim?

Don’t wait to be hunted to hide, that was always my motto.

(Molloy)

3. What makes you feel happy?

The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh. […]But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout - Haw! - so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh.

(Watt)

4. What do you fear most?

Unfortunately I am afraid, as always, of going on.

(The Unnamable)

5. What are your favourite words?

weep, laugh, end, beginning, nothing, nobody, live, die, silence.

(passim)

6. What are your feelings on violence in human affairs?

He goes off to the wars, he dies at the wars, she weeps, with emotion, at having loved him, at having lost him, yep, marries again, in order to love again... more conveniently again, they love each other, you love as many times as necessary, as necessary in order to be happy, he comes back, the other comes back, from the wars, he didn’t die at the wars after all.

(The Unnamable)

7. If you had an alternative career, what would it be?

This is slow work… Is it not time for my pain-killer?

(Endgame)

8. What do you think of religion?

In six days, do you hear me, six days, God made the world. Yes Sir, no less Sir, the WORLD! And you are not bloody well capable of making me a pair of trousers in three months!

(Endgame)

9. What do you feel will be the lasting influence of your life and work?

As far as my dear little sweet little future is concerned I have no qualms.

(Molloy)

Voltaire

Voltaire was born François-Marie Arouet in 1694. He wrote prolifically in all genres: history, philosophy, poetry, novels, essays, plays and science. He was well known for his many witty sayings, and his most popular novel is Candide (1759), a broadside against the passivity he felt was induced by the optimistic philosophy of Leibniz. He died in 1778.

Voltaire
Voltaire

1. What is the meaning of life?

Life is bristling with thorns, and I know no other remedy than to cultivate one’s garden.

(Letter to Pierre-Joseph Luneau de Boisjermain)

2. Do you have a personal maxim?

The superfluous is a very necessary thing.

(The Man of the World)

3. What makes you feel happy?

Neither abstinence nor excess ever renders man happy; I flee Epictetus and Petronius alike.

(On the Nature of Pleasure)

4. What do you fear most?

Opinions - they have caused more ills than the plague or earthquakes on this little globe of ours.

(Letter to Élie Bertrand)

5. What are your favourite words?

Man, God, religion, truth, love, reason, enlightenment, fool.

(passim)

6. What are your feelings on violence in human affairs?

It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.

(Rights)

7. If you had an alternative career, what would it be?

This is the best of all possible worlds.

(Candide)

8. What do you think of religion?

Ours is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd and the most bloody religion which has ever infected this world.

(Letter to Frederick II of Prussia)

9. Anything to add?

No. One always speaks badly when one has nothing to say.

(Commentary on Corneille)

Rabindranath Tagore

Rabindranath Tagore was born in 1861 in Calcutta, India. He was a poet, musician, artist and religious thinker, and in 1913 became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His best-known works include Gora (‘Fair-Faced’, 1909), Gitanjali (‘Song Offerings’, 1910), and Ghare-Baire (‘The Home and the World’, 1916). He died in 1941.

Rabindranath Tagore. Photograph: Fox/Hulton/Getty
Rabindranath Tagore. Photograph: Fox/Hulton/Getty

1. What is the meaning of life?

Love, which is the ultimate meaning of everything around us. It is not a mere sentiment; it is truth; it is the joy that is at the root of all creation.

(Sadhana: The Realization of Life)

2. Do you have a personal maxim?

Let your life lightly dance on the edges of Time like dew on the tip of a leaf.

(The Gardener)

3. What makes you feel happy?

Reason tells us that creation never can be perfectly happy. So long as it is incomplete it must put up with imperfection and sorrow. It can only be perfect when it ceases to be creation, and is God. Do our prayers dare go so far?

(Glimpses of Bengal)

4. What do you fear most?

The idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anaesthetics that Man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes the whole people can carry out its systematic programme of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion.

(‘Nationalism in the West’)

5. What are your favourite words?

civilization, heart, love, soul, freedom, joy, God, wisdom, unity, light, life, stars, truth, good, immortality.

(passim)

6. What are your feelings on violence in human affairs?

When two-three different religions claim that only their own religions are true and all other religions are false, their religions are the only ways to Heaven, conflicts can not be avoided. Thus, fundamentalism tries to abolish all other religions. This is called Bolshevism in religion.

(Parichaya)

7. If you had an alternative career, what would it be?

I would strive no more after the unattainable, but drain to the full these little, unsought, everyday joys which life offers.

(Glimpses of Bengal)

8. What do you think of religion?

Man is not entirely an animal. He aspires to a spiritual vision, which is the vision of the whole truth.

(Sadhana: The Realization of Life)

9. Anything to add?

The smile that flickers on a baby’s lips when he sleeps - does anybody know where it was born? Yes, there is a rumour that a young pale beam of a crescent moon touched the edge of a vanishing autumn cloud, and there the smile was first born in the dream of a dew-washed morning.

(Gitanjali)

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf was born in 1892. She began working as a professional writer in 1900, and was a leading figure in the Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists. Her novels include Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando: A Biography (1928) and The Waves (1931), and her non-fiction includes A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938). She took her own life, aged 59, in 1941.

Virginia Woolf. Photograph: George C Beresford/Getty
Virginia Woolf. Photograph: George C Beresford/Getty

1. What is the meaning of life?

Life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows.

(Jacob’s Room)

2. Do you have a personal maxim?

Arrange whatever pieces come your way.

(A Writer’s Diary)

3. What makes you feel happy?

[To] sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.

(The Waves)

4. What do you fear most?

I will not be afraid. I will bring the whip down on my flanks. I am not a whimpering little animal making for the shadow.

(The Waves)

5. What are your favourite words?

beauty, repulsive, shadow, woman, death, glittering, heart, pen, scatter, taxi-cab.

(passim)

6. What are your feelings on violence in human affairs?

Scarcely a human being in the course of history has fallen to a woman’s rifle; the vast majority of birds and beasts have been killed by you, not by us; and it is difficult to judge what we do not share.

(Three Guineas)

7. What do you think of religion?

There’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.

(Letter to Vanessa Bell, 1928)

8. How would you describe your work?

It is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words.

(Letter to Vita Sackville-West, 1926)

9. What do you feel will be the lasting influence of your life and work?

I will not be “famous,” “great.” I will go on adventuring, changing, opening my mind and my eyes, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped. The thing is to free one’s self: to let it find its dimensions, not be impeded.

(A Writer’s Diary)

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin was born in 1922. He studied at St John’s College, Oxford, and became librarian of the Brynmor Jones Library at Hull University. His collections of poetry are The North Ship (1945), The Less Deceived (1955), The Whitsun Weddings (1964) and High Windows (1974), and he wrote two novels, Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947). He was also jazz correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. He died in 1985.

English poet Philip Larkin (1922 - 1985) with his muse and mistress Monica Jones at the memorial service for Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman at Westminster Abbey, London on June 29th, 1984. Photograph: Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
Philip Larkin. Photograph: Express/Hulton/Getty

1. What is the meaning of life?

Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.

(‘Dockery and Son’)

2. Do you have a personal maxim?

Loneliness clarifies.

(‘Here’)

3. What makes you feel happy?

The wonderful feel of girls.

(‘Reasons for Attendance’)

4. What do you fear most?

The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

(‘Aubade’)

5. What are your favourite words?

fuck, death, birth, life, age, heart, weak, love, cold, toad, Prestatyn.

(passim)

6. What are your feelings on violence in human affairs?

Me and my cloak and fangs
Had ripping times in the dark.
The women I clubbed with sex!
I broke them up like meringues.

(‘A Study of Reading Habits’)

7. What do you think of religion?

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

(‘Water’)

8. How would you describe your work?

‘Oh, you know the thing,
That crummy textbook stuff from Freshman Psych,
Not out for kicks or something happening…’

(‘Posterity’)

9. What do you intend to do immediately after this interview?

I will climb thirty steps to my room,
Lie on my bed;
Let the music, the violin, cornet and drum
Drowse from my head.

(‘Ugly Sister’)

George Eliot

Mary Ann Evans was born in 1819, and took the pen-name George Eliot for her seven novels, which comprise Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1862-63), Felix Holt (1866), Middlemarch (1871-72) and Daniel Deronda (1876). She also wrote much poetry and criticism. Her work is known for its philosophical complexity and scrutiny of relations between the sexes. She died in 1880.

George Eliot, aka Mary Anne Evans
George Eliot, aka Mary Anne Evans

1. Does life have a meaning, in your opinion?

What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?

(Middlemarch)

2. Do you have a personal maxim?

Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds.

(Adam Bede)

3. What makes you feel happy?

The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone.

(Scenes of Clerical Life)

4. What do you fear most?

Let thy chief terror be of thine own soul.

(Daniel Deronda)

5. What are your favourite words?

amplitude, tyrannous, noiseless, inherent, diffusive, pulsations, unspeakable, unmerited, vicissitudes, palpitating.

(passim)

6. What are your feelings on violence in human affairs?

Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside itself - it only requires opportunity.

(Scenes of Clerical Life)

7. If you had an alternative career, what would it be?

You must not be ashamed of your work, and think it would be more honourable to you to be doing something else.

(Middlemarch)

8. What do you think of religion?

Religious ideas have the fate of melodies, which, once set afloat in the world, are taken up by all sorts of instruments, some of them woefully coarse, feeble, or out of tune, until people are in danger of crying out that the melody itself is detestable.

(Scenes of Clerical Life)

9. What was the lasting influence of your life and work?

We are on a perilous margin when we begin to look passively at our future selves.

(Middlemarch)

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