Book Review of Earth Air Fire and Water in Time Magazine, December 4, 1962:
Anyone who dares to delve into the condition of 20th century American life is most probably doing it to earn a doctorate. Not so author Alexander Eliot, 43, an out-of-place, out-of-sorts, self-styled recluse who, on the pine-clad slopes of Mount Pentelikon, near Athens, pondered the question, put down his answer in the dozen meditations of this new book.
Winds of Legend. Anxiety in Americans, says Eliot, stems from their “basically sound awareness that pleasure is not joy.” Money can buy pleasure but joy costs more, and can be gained only through “creative work and love.” In his personal search for these elusive commodities, Eliot quit his job after 15 years as Art editor at TIME, and fled the U.S. for the Mediterranean littoral.
Descended from a long line of scholars headed by his great-grandfather, who was president of Harvard and editor of the five-foot shelf, Eliot ignores headlines and the cold war and makes his study nature. What he finds ”from the eagle-hung abyss below Delphi to the song of the local vegetable man”delights him, and he passes on his delight to the reader in prose that is sometimes eloquent, sometimes merely latter-day inspirational. “The stars rained down their incandescent spears in sharply patterned salvos upon Mount Pentelikon and me. Staggering a little with my face uplifted, rapt in the ringing of a dark-silver gong, I felt the winds of legend sweep between my ribs, and the fires of yearning and the tongues of dread.”
His eye ranges widely and perceptively over ideas and legend. It may light on the aging Admiral Christopher Columbus, appearing on deck in the darkest watch of night “hollow-eyed and crumpled, like a dry, wind-driven, scurrying leaf.” Or on Diogenes: “His castle was an upended wine vat by the gates of Corinth. Alexander the Great called on him there. All radiant, the Conqueror leaned down across the neck of his white charger, doffed his golden helmet and inquired what he might do for Diogenes. ‘Move on,’ Apollo’s man suggested. ‘You’re in my light.’ ”
Secret Heart. In trying to prove his thesis that ancient myths embody intuitive wisdom that is only now being proved out, Eliot indulges himself in many a long reach. Aphrodite, goddess of love, was able to renew her virginity simply by bathing in the sea. Now “astrophysicists relate that our life-giving sun renews its virginity also, by dint of a circular chain reaction. Every nucleus of carbon and nitrogen in the sun returns to its pure state once in five million years.” This is ingenious rather than convincing, provocative rather than wise. And in his secret heart, Eliot knows it for the word game it is. But like the juggler who danced before the altar, Eliot is giving praise to the wonder of creation in his own way.