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Old Monday, June 06, 2005
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Post The Wasteland: Analysis

Not only is The Waste Land Eliot's greatest work, but it may be the greatest work of all modernist literature. Most of the poem was written in 1921, and it first appeared in print in 1922. A long work divided into five sections, The Waste Land takes on the degraded mess that Eliot considered modern culture to constitute, particularly after the first World War had ravaged Europe. A sign of the pessimism with which Eliot approaches his subject is the poem's epigraph. Eliot lives in a culture that has decayed and withered but will not expire, and he is forced to live with reminders of its former glory. Thus, the underlying plot of The Waste Land, inasmuch as it can be said to have one, revolves around Eliot's reading of two extraordinarily influential contemporary cultural/anthropological texts, Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance and Sir James Frazier's The Golden Bough. Both of these works focus on the persistence of ancient fertility rituals in modern thought and religion; of particular interest to both authors is the story of the Fisher King, who has been wounded in the genitals and whose lack of potency is the cause of his country becoming a desiccated "waste land." Heal the Fisher King, the legend says, and the land will regain its fertility. According to Weston and Frazier, healing the Fisher King has been the subject of mythic tales from ancient Egypt to Arthurian England. Eliot picks up on the figure of the Fisher King legend's wasteland as an appropriate description of the state of modern society. The important difference, of course, is that in Eliot's world there is no way to heal the Fisher King; perhaps there is no Fisher King at all. The legend's imperfect integration into a modern meditation highlights the lack of a unifying narrative (like religion or mythology) in the modern world.

Eliot's poem draws on a vast range of sources. Eliot provided copious footnotes with the publication of The Waste Land in book form; these are an excellent source for tracking down the origins of a reference. Many of the references are from the Bible: at the time of the poem's writing Eliot was just beginning to develop an interest in Christianity that would reach its apex in the Four Quartets. The overall range of allusions in The Waste Land, though, suggests no overarching paradigm but rather a grab bag of broken fragments that must somehow be pieced together to form a coherent whole. While Eliot employs a deliberately difficult style and seems often to find the most obscure reference possible, he means to do more than just frustrate his reader and display his own intelligence: He intends to provide a mimetic account of life in the confusing world of the twentieth century.

The Waste Land opens with a reference to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. In this case, though, April is not the happy month of pilgrimages and storytelling. It is instead the time when the land should be regenerating after a long winter. Regeneration, though, is painful, for it brings back reminders of a more fertile and happier past. In the modern world, winter, the time of forgetfulness and numbness, is indeed preferable. Marie's childhood recollections are also painful: the simple world of cousins, sledding, and coffee in the park has been replaced by a complex set of emotional and political consequences resulting from the war. The topic of memory, particularly when it involves remembering the dead, is of critical importance in The Waste Land. Memory creates a confrontation of the past with the present, a juxtaposition that points out just how badly things have decayed. Marie reads for most of the night: ostracized by politics, she is unable to do much else. To read is also to remember a better past, which could produce a coherent literary culture.

The second episode contains a troubled religious proposition. The speaker describes a true wasteland of "stony rubbish"; in it, he says, man can recognize only "[a] heap of broken images." Yet the scene seems to offer salvation: shade and a vision of something new and different. The vision consists only of nothingness--a handful of dust--which is so profound as to be frightening; yet truth also resides here: No longer a religious phenomenon achieved through Christ, truth is represented by a mere void. The speaker remembers a female figure from his past, with whom he has apparently had some sort of romantic involvement. In contrast to the present setting in the desert, his memories are lush, full of water and blooming flowers. The vibrancy of the earlier scene, though, leads the speaker to a revelation of the nothingness he now offers to show the reader. Again memory serves to contrast the past with the present, but here it also serves to explode the idea of coherence in either place. In the episode from the past, the "nothingness" is more clearly a sexual failure, a moment of impotence. Despite the overall fecundity and joy of the moment, no reconciliation, and, therefore, no action, is possible. This in turn leads directly to the desert waste of the present. In the final line of the episode attention turns from the desert to the sea. Here, the sea is not a locus for the fear of nothingness, and neither is it the locus for a philosophical interpretation of nothingness; rather, it is the site of true, essential nothingness itself. The line comes from a section of Tristan und Isolde where Tristan waits for Isolde to come heal him. She is supposedly coming by ship but fails to arrive. The ocean is truly empty, devoid of the possibility of healing or revelation.

The third episode explores Eliot's fascination with transformation. The tarot reader Madame Sosostris conducts the most outrageous form of "reading" possible, transforming a series of vague symbols into predictions, many of which will come true in succeeding sections of the poem. Eliot transforms the traditional tarot pack to serve his purposes. The drowned sailor makes reference to the ultimate work of magic and transformation in English literature, Shakespeare's The Tempest ("Those are pearls that were his eyes" is a quote from one of Ariel's songs). Transformation in The Tempest, though, is the result of the highest art of humankind. Here, transformation is associated with fraud, vulgarity, and cheap mysticism. That Madame Sosostris will prove to be right in her predictions of death and transformation is a direct commentary on the failed religious mysticism and prophecy of the preceding desert section.

The final episode of the first section allows Eliot finally to establish the true wasteland of the poem, the modern city. Eliot's London references Baudelaire's Paris ("Unreal City"), Dickens's London ("the brown fog of a winter dawn") and Dante's hell ("the flowing crowd of the dead"). The city is desolate and depopulated, inhabited only by ghosts from the past. Stetson, the apparition the speaker recognizes, is a fallen war comrade. The speaker pesters him with a series of ghoulish questions about a corpse buried in his garden: again, with the garden, we return to the theme of regeneration and fertility. This encounter can be read as a quest for a meaning behind the tremendous slaughter of the first World War; however, it can also be read as an exercise in ultimate futility: as we see in Stetson's failure to respond to the speaker's inquiries, the dead offer few answers. The great respective weights of history, tradition, and the poet's dead predecessors combine to create an oppressive burden.

The two women of this section of the poem represent the two sides of modern sexuality: while one side of this sexuality is a dry, barren interchange inseparable from neurosis and self-destruction, the other side of this sexuality is a rampant fecundity associated with a lack of culture and rapid aging. The first woman is associated by allusion with Cleopatra, Dido, and even Keats's Lamia, by virtue of the lushness of language surrounding her (although Eliot would never have acknowledged Keats as an influence). She is a frustrated, overly emotional but not terribly intellectual figure, oddly sinister, surrounded by "strange synthetic perfumes" and smoking candles. She can be seen as a counterpart to the title character of Eliot's earlier "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," with whom she shares both a physical setting and a profound sense of isolation. Her association with Dido and Cleopatra, two women who committed suicide out of frustrated love, suggests her fundamental irrationality. Unlike the two queens of myth, however, this woman will never become a cultural touchstone. Her despair is pathetic, rather than moving, as she demands that her lover stay with her and tell her his thoughts. The lover, who seems to be associated with the narrator of this part of the poem, can think only of drowning (again, in a reference to The Tempest) and rats among dead men's bones. The woman is explicitly compared to Philomela, a character out of Ovid's Metamorphoses who is raped by her brother-in-law the king, who then cuts her tongue out to keep her quiet. She manages to tell her sister, who helps her avenge herself by murdering the king's son and feeding him to the king. The sisters are then changed into birds, Philomela into a nightingale. This comparison suggests something essentially disappointing about the woman, that she is unable to communicate her interior self to the world. The woman and her surroundings, although aesthetically pleasing, are ultimately sterile and meaningless, as suggested by the nonsense song that she sings (which manages to debase even Shakespeare).

The second scene in this section further diminishes the possibility that sex can bring regeneration--either cultural or personal. This section is remarkably free of the cultural allusions that dominate the rest of the poem; instead, it relies on vernacular speech to make its point. Notice that Eliot is using a British vernacular: By this point he had moved to England permanently and had become a confirmed Anglophile. Although Eliot is able to produce startlingly beautiful poetry from the rough speech of the women in the bar, he nevertheless presents their conversation as further reason for pessimism. Their friend Lil has done everything the right way--married, supported her soldier husband, borne children--yet she is being punished by her body. Interestingly, this section ends with a line echoing Ophelia's suicide speech in Hamlet; this links Lil to the woman in the first section of the poem, who has also been compared to famous female suicides. The comparison between the two is not meant to suggest equality between them or to propose that the first woman's exaggerated sense of high culture is in any way equivalent to the second woman's lack of it; rather, Eliot means to suggest that neither woman's form of sexuality is regenerative.

The opening two stanzas of this section describe the ultimate "Waste Land" as Eliot sees it. The wasteland is cold, dry, and barren, covered in garbage. Unlike the desert, which at least burns with heat, this place is static, save for a few scurrying rats. Even the river, normally a symbol of renewal, has been reduced to a "dull canal." The ugliness stands in implicit contrast to the "Sweet Thames" of Spenser's time. The most significant image in these lines, though, is the rat. Like the crabs in Prufrock, rats are scavengers, taking what they can from the refuse of higher-order creatures. The rat could be said to provide a model for Eliot's poetic process: Like the rat, Eliot takes what he can from earlier, grander generations and uses the bits and pieces to sustain (poetic) life. Somehow this is preferable to the more coherent but vulgar existence of the contemporary world, here represented by the sound of horns and motors in the distance, intimating a sexual liaison.

The actual sexual encounters that take place in this section of the poem are infinitely unfruitful. Eugenides proposes a homosexual tryst, which by its very nature thwarts fertility. The impossibility of regeneration by such means is symbolized by the currants in his pocket--the desiccated, deadened version of what were once plump, fertile fruits. The typist and her lover are equally barren in their way, even though reproduction is at least theoretically possible for the two. Living in so impoverished a manner that she does not even own a bed, the typist is certainly not interested in a family. Elizabeth and Leicester are perhaps the most interesting of the three couples, however. For political reasons, Elizabeth was required to represent herself as constantly available for marriage (to royalty from countries with whom England may have wanted an alliance); out of this need came the myth of the "Virgin Queen." This can be read as the opposite of the Fisher King legend: To protect the vitality of the land, Elizabeth had to compromise her own sexuality; whereas in the Fisher King story, the renewal of the land comes with the renewal of the Fisher King's sexual potency. Her tryst with Leicester, therefore, is a consummation that is simultaneously denied, an event that never happened. The twisted logic underlying Elizabeth's public sexuality, or lack thereof, mirrors and distorts the Fisher King plot and further questions the possibility for renewal, especially through sexuality, in the modern world.

Tiresias, thus, becomes an important model for modern existence. Neither man nor woman, and blind yet able to see with ultimate clarity, he is an individual who does not hope or act. He has, like Prufrock, "seen it all," but, unlike Prufrock, he sees no possibility for action. Whereas Prufrock is paralyzed by his neuroses, Tiresias is held motionless by ennui and pragmatism. He is not quite able to escape earthly things, though, for he is forced to sit and watch the sordid deeds of mortals; like the Sibyl in the poem's epigraph, he would like to die but cannot. The brief interlude following the typist's tryst may offer an alternative to escape, by describing a warm, everyday scene of work and companionship; however, the interlude is brief, and Eliot once again tosses us into a world of sex and strife. Tiresias disappears, to be replaced by St. Augustine at the end of the section. Eliot claims in his footnote to have deliberately conflated Augustine and the Buddha, as the representatives of Eastern and Western asceticism. Both seem, in the lines Eliot quotes, to be unable to transcend the world on their own: Augustine must call on God to "pluck [him] out," while Buddha can only repeat the word "burning," unable to break free of its monotonous fascination. The poem's next section, which will relate the story of a death without resurrection, exposes the absurdity of these two figures' faith in external higher powers. That this section ends with only the single word "burning," isolated on the page, reveals the futility of all of man's struggles.

The major point of this short section is to rebut ideas of renewal and regeneration. Phlebas just dies; that's it. Like Stetson's corpse in the first section, Phlebas's body yields nothing more than products of decay. However, the section's meaning is far from flat; indeed, its ironic layering is twofold. First, this section fulfills one of the prophecies of Madame Sosostris in the poem's first section: "Fear death by water," she says, after pulling the card of the Drowned Sailor. Second, this section, in its language and form, mimics other literary forms (parables, biblical stories, etc.) that are normally rich in meaning. These two features suggest that something of great significance lies here. In reality, though, the only lesson that Phlebas offers is that the physical reality of death and decay triumphs over all. Phlebas is not resurrected or transfigured. Eliot further emphasizes Phlebas's dried-up antiquity and irrelevance by placing this section in the distant past (by making Phlebas a Phoenician).

The initial imagery associated with the apocalypse at this section's opening is taken from the crucifixion of Christ. Significantly, though, Christ is not resurrected here: we are told, "He who was living is now dead." The rest of the first part, while making reference to contemporary events in Eastern Europe and other more traditional apocalypse narratives, continues to draw on Biblical imagery and symbolism associated with the quest for the Holy Grail. The repetitive language and harsh imagery of this section suggest that the end is perhaps near, that not only will there be no renewal but that there will be no survival either. Cities are destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed, mirroring the cyclical downfall of cultures: Jerusalem, Greece, Egypt, and Austria--among the major empires of the past two millennia--all see their capitals fall. There is something nevertheless insubstantial about this looming disaster: it seems "unreal," as the ghost-filled London did earlier in the poem. It is as if such a profound end would be inappropriate for such a pathetic civilization. Rather, we expect the end to be accompanied by a sense of boredom and surrender.

Release comes not from any heroic act but from the random call of a farmyard bird. The symbolism surrounding the Grail myth is still extant but it is empty, devoid of people. No one comes to the ruined chapel, yet it exists regardless of who visits it. This is a horribly sad situation: The symbols that have previously held profound meaning still exist, yet they are unused and unusable. A flash of light--a quick glimpse of truth and vitality, perhaps--releases the rain and lets the poem end.

The meditations upon the Upanishads give Eliot a chance to test the potential of the modern world. Asking, "what have we given?" he finds that the only time people give is in the sexual act and that this gift is ultimately evanescent and destructive: He associates it with spider webs and solicitors reading wills. Just as the poem's speaker fails to find signs of giving, so too does he search in vain for acts of sympathy--the second characteristic of "what the thunder says": He recalls individuals so caught up in his or her own fate--each thinking only of the key to his or her own prison--as to be oblivious to anything but "ethereal rumors" of others. The third idea expressed in the thunder's speech--that of control--holds the most potential, although it implies a series of domineering relationships and surrenders of the self that, ultimately, are never realized.

Finally Eliot turns to the Fisher King himself, still on the shore fishing. The possibility of regeneration for the "arid plain" of society has been long ago discarded. Instead, the king will do his best to put in order what remains of his kingdom, and he will then surrender, although he still fails to understand the true significance of the coming void (as implied by the phrase "peace which passeth understanding"). The burst of allusions at the end can be read as either a final attempt at coherence or as a final dissolution into a world of fragments and rubbish. The king offers some consolation: "These fragments I have shored against my ruins," he says, suggesting that it will be possible to continue on despite the failed redemption. It will still be possible for him, and for Eliot, to "fit you," to create art in the face of madness. It is important that the last words of the poem are in a non-Western language: Although the meaning of the words themselves communicates resignation ("peace which passeth understanding"), they invoke an alternative set of paradigms to those of the Western world; they offer a glimpse into a culture and a value system new to us--and, thus, offer some hope for an alternative to our own dead world.
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