In T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), a society decays while humanity turns upon itself in the name of industry. Even that most rudimentary characteristic of human nature and existence, sexual love, is reduced to a type of capitalist transaction of ‘automated’ experience. It is a lasting impression of humanity at its lowest and most fallible point. However, despite Eliot’s reactionary portrayal of the spiritual and cultural death of western society, The Waste Land is not without hope or redemption. Indeed, in the knowledge that the text itself will generate wisdom, through the process of understanding and interpretation, there is a certain degree of optimism present.
Modernism (particularly Modernist writing) was essentially a search for absolutes, or fundamental truths, about human existence and experience. Art (with a capital ‘a’) was the idealized domain for this aggressive hunt; aesthetic autonomy, however, was far from the romantic notion of beauty as the purest aesthetic. Modernist idealism centered on language, or on the limits of language, as the aesthetic principle that governed the range and depth of their ‘meta-fictions’. It was a theoretical dictum, flavored with euro-centric philosophy and anglo-cultural morality that attempted to address the fallibility of the modern consciousness, and ask the age-old philosophical question: ’how do/should we exist?’ This question was one which Eliot felt the need to pose and respond to in The Waste Land.
Throughout the poem, an underlying spiritual quest is underway. With allusion to biblical, mystical, theological references and characters (e.g. St. Augustine, Ecclesiastes, Buddha, Madame Sosostris etc.), Eliot concludes the poem with an affirmation of all things unknown, a ‘shantih’. This spiritual motif is the organizing and thematic device by which Eliot structures the disjointed contexts of western culture. Each sequence displays literary and classical/mythological allusions that reflect a decaying society whilst positing a philosophically spiritual affirmation of religious idealism, either in motif or analogy. The spiritual themes and recantations subtly and forcibly emphasise the need for spirituality, in a society ignorant of its lack of faith and the consequential connection to social ills.
After Nietzsche’s proclamation in Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883–1892) that “God is dead”, and his recognition of the over riding human will and its tendency toward self gratification and sin, Eliot continued to address the questions raised by the German philosopher in regard to the state of his adopted nation. The use of biblical concepts and classical ideas is present in the description Eliot gives of a 'fallen' world where darkness reigns supreme. Through the clutter and chaos, discord and despair, light breaks through the haze and ‘fog’ of this Babylonian abyss.
It is not the ‘western dream’[i] that lights upon a progressive metropolis, but an eastern sun that illuminates the decline of western civilization. Through the symbolic parallels and contrasts, a message is relayed: the west is no longer the pantheon of the civilised modern world. Now the ancient grace and customs of the east[ii] are the new provider of light in the heart of darkness. In other words, the depiction of the negative suggestively emphasizes the positive or the alternative. Eliot’s subtle proposal in The Waste Land integrates religious idealism into a society whose access to ‘high’ cultural aestheticism has previously been discouraged or impractical. If society at large can believe in the numinous doctrine of religion, then it would follow that their belief in the divinity of aesthetics as a social cure is not beyond grasp. In this respect, the ideal behind the art proposes autonomy on a par with divine doctrine, yet also interdependent on an audience’s faith and understanding of theological principles and concepts.
Modernist texts like Eliot’s were part of a development of an aesthetic sensibility, that was not merely an expression of the interior psychological world, but an experience in itself that forced the reader to decipher their own individual existence as much as that of the text. This reliance upon the reader to navigate their way through the dense forest of metaphor and allusion makes interpretation difficult in relation to the reader’s own knowledge and experience. The author is needed to provide a critical compass to guide through the intellectual organization of the text that would otherwise remain inert to the average reader. Hence, the courteous notes Eliot put together in consideration for an audience that may not ‘be in the know’, after writing The Waste Land. This in itself is a significant aspect of Modernist literature; effectively it generates the necessity for coherence and education through its use of complex symbolism, literary tradition, myth, and philosophy. When one attempts to interpret the Modernist text, one also attempts to decipher the major (and minor) texts of western philosophy, science, literature, and religion.
The Waste Land is constructed with literary remnants and images of a fragmented western civilization that values materialism above wisdom. Apparently unrelated references and contexts evoke a pervading sense of confusion and disharmony, in a cultural, social, and spiritual sense. Despite the negative impressions, all perspectives seem to end with a different proposition, or connection, to larger fundamental issues of human existence and meaning. These remnants are the literary ramparts of Eliot’s craft; used categorically and historically, they form a profound literary image (or montage of images) of post-war Europe and London in particular. A dense allegorical landscape that is as much a reflection of society (literary and social) as it is of Modernist literature, The Waste Land is the epitome of the Modernist tendency in poetry of the Twentieth Century.
Moreover it is a poem consisting of differing viewpoints (from different sources) that ultimately and resolutely provides an overall perspective of a culture (western) without absolute ideals. It is a satirical depiction of a modern world that is supposedly advanced with all its industrial, technological, scientific, and accumulated resources of knowledge. It is a world without coherence and solidarity, despite this great historical capital, that The Waste Land addresses, with its intellectual organization of sensibility and society. Paradoxically, the poem’s complex web of intellectual and literary meaning imposes its boundaries on any attempts at interpretation. For Eliot it is his coup de grace, his poetical entrance into the elevated world of ‘fine art’ as defined by the institution of the literary canon. However, there is a sense of affinity with those outside the institution within the poem. A seemingly moral empathy with the people who populate his landscape of cultural woe and fragmentation.
It is the ‘machine’ of capitalist industrialization, which Eliot undermines in the poem. This is perceived as the enemy of ‘high’ art; with its subtly coercive social structures and powers of mobilization, its ability to envelop whole nations, to process its individuals into social robots, to transform the living into the dead. Above all, The Waste Land attacks modernity’s capacity to ‘dumb down’ its masses, in order to increase economic productivity at the expense of literacy, education, and its culture’s producers that are the writers, poets, and artists. It is a poem that requires (demands!) intelligence, literacy, wit, and above all a certain amount of courage, not just in the reading but ultimately in the writing of it. Like Joyce’s Ulysses, it is a work that is designed to achieve an absolute resolution of literary, aesthetic, and social malaise, that was so much a part of the early Twentieth Century period.
As is the case with most (if not all) Modernist literature, there is a heavy investigation and saturation of selected significant events of the past. It is this quality of Eliot’s poem that connects the reader to all humanity; especially the modern being, to a historical tradition and the “dialect of the [mythic] tribe”. The final stanza of the poem is the best example of this. The solipsistic figure of the Fisher King; the ‘every-man’, the poet, stranded in The Waste Land is revealed “upon the shore, / Fishing, with the arid plain behind” (WL, V, 423-424). In this, the poem’s finale, all the motifs, allusions, and language converge in a chaotic textual reconnaissance, not dissimilar to a battle zone:
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon-- O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Acquitaine a la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih
(WL, VI, 426-433)
The use of “shantih” is interesting, not only, because it is the final line to the poem, but because of its characteristic conformity to the Modernist principle of discontinuity and metaphoric allusion. It has a phonetic resonance that itself imparts meaning. It could be the tolling of a bell; the shuffle of the crowd flowing over London Bridge, the ticking of a clock, the ebb and flow of the tide. Alternatively, it could represent “a savage beating a drum in a jungle”,[iii] the sound of the origins of poetry.
As the sound creates multiple impressions, the literal meaning conveys a complex construction of theological and literary metaphor. Within its Hindu context, ‘shantih’ is a mantra, an affirmative ending to the Upanishads which tell of the personal self or “atman”, originally part of the Godhead. This individual self is seen as separated from God by imperfect knowledge and experience, the redemption being, that “the obligation of each individual is to realize this original oneness by means of extensive and complex spiritual, moral and physical disciplines”.[iv] In this respect, the usage and meaning fits nicely into the general theme, of western spiritual decay, as a counter point and as a redemptive allegory.
In keeping with the classic response to Modernist literature, further analysis also places significance on the symbolism of the line; the three lines resound with exegetic meaning. In light of the questions of western spirituality, one could read the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost (or Mary) into the three Shantihs. There is a sense of overlapping, of one religion taking prominence over another, of a shifting set of values that are fundamentally the same yet experienced in completely different ways due to cultural values.
Tradition, in The Waste Land, is never an obvious foundation for western culture, although it is implied. Tradition presents itself in the form of an assortment of allusions (and illusions) that does not unify itself in any one perspective, as the ambiguous culmination of the poem demonstrates. Consequently, set against this fragmented tradition, the individual proves unstable. Tiresias fails to unify the poem’s disparate voices in a conventional allegorical way; instead, his sexual division creates a tone of ambiguity between the languages and characters of the poem. Each character in The Waste Land, is individualized to the extent that the only common trait to be found amongst them, is either their respective genders, their madness or despair, or else the characteristic and monotonous lack of volition which they possess:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
(WL, I, 61-65)
Thus, with individuality becoming socially detrimental and cultural foundations awry, the hope of unifying social values or of an autonomous moral ideal seems doomed. Eliot’s explanatory note on the character of Tiresias gives the reader an apparent, yet unsatisfactory and somewhat misleading, insight into the technique used in employing such devices in the poem:
Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a ‘character’, is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.
(Note to line 218)
Indeed, what Tiresias perceives, is the substance of the poem, in that his character occupies the majority of the middle section of the poem (hence his centrality). Eliot’s notes prove somewhat ambiguous in relation to the text itself. Whilst they do provide a certain amount of elucidation regarding literary references and modes the notes seem deliberately innocuous. They are almost salutatory in their superficiality, in relation to the metaphoric density of the poem as a whole. This set of token guidelines traces the history of the English literary tradition, albeit at the expense of philosophical or theological explanation. Consequently, this has the effect of encouraging a wider interpretation that in turn questions the possibility of connecting aesthetic appreciation with moral expression.
There are no conclusions however, no affirmation of an ideal world or society. Insinuation and suggestion are the only indicators of any logical answers to the illogical problems besetting The Waste Land. In this sense, Eliot has achieved an absolute of sorts in an artifact that is so metaphorical, that its politics defy definition. All that remains is the text; the aesthetic temporal object, that is as much from its own time as it is from all. Like most other Modernist texts, the ideological goal has been achieved; the work has stood the test of time, to affect discussion and debate about fundamental cultural and anthropological issues up to the present day.
Poetry should not interpret experience for the reader, it should provide the objective means by which the reader themselves discover meaning. Ezra Pound in How To Read argued that rationality of speech, in science and in art, did not come from logic, but from the combination or juxtaposition of objective images. This was the main Imagist tenet that Eliot himself endorsed in his essay on Hamlet. It was he who introduced it as a significant critical term for use in discussions of art and literature; he called it the ‘objective correlative’:
The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.[v]
The artisan was not so, unless they could relay the complexities of the human mind through their art. Image must represent intellect and emotion in such a way, as to invoke the same response from the audience, without the guidance of the artist’s persona or the dysfunction of the art. Therefore, poetry should not concern itself with conventional representation and technique like iambic, regular rhythms. This was the main aspect of tradition the Modernist’s wished to revolutionize. Formal restrictions and convention was avoided and modern poetry freed itself from the past, through the employment of the avant-garde influenced vers libre (or ‘free verse’) as their characteristic literary mode.
The Waste Land is perhaps the most poignant and effective example of the Modernist use and style of free verse in poetry; switching styles, languages, form, narration. The poem epitomizes the liberating use of all words, language, and styles within a modern world where ‘anything goes’. Whilst Modernist verse addresses the world with language and images appropriate to the modern experience, it also feels free to use any thing from all literature to do so. If poetry was to communicate intellectually and popularly to a modern metropolitan audience as well as to the intelligentsia, then its ingredients would have to reflect the present culture as much as any other reference to the past. Eliot’s The Waste Land established a transformed tradition of modern poetry that influenced writers across the globe, especially American poets like Hart Crane, and William Carlos Williams. Eliot’s poem is the main literary doctrine of the modern western consciousness of the early twentieth century.
It is a reflection of a time when language, culture, and society was in a state of flux; the sense of disharmony and instability conveyed, gives a historically accurate picture of a society between wars and between poles of modernity. Cultural definition and identity occurs when the present redeems a reconcilable past. This awareness, of the importance of the past to the continuation of a progressive present, is deep-set within Modernism’s fundamental idealism. Modernism’s involvement with the urban environment reflects a realization that society and its demands determine ‘culture’. The opposite view for critics like Andreas Huyssen, is that Modernism:
constituted itself through a conscious strategy of exclusion, an anxiety of contamination by its other: an increasingly consuming and engulfing mass culture. Both the strengths and weaknesses of Modernism derive from that fact.[vi]
Modernist texts like The Waste Land attempt to integrate, whilst remaining true to intellectual and aesthetic principles, an industrialized capitalist market place without becoming part of the ‘other’ institution of industrialization. Modernist text resists the commonality of mass-produced commodity, by excluding the market from its message. It is the main reason for the tendency in Modernist art to propagate styles that defy mass-appeal, despite their characteristic dealings with fundamental issues of human existence. The language is simply too intellectual, literate, and metaphoric for the average consumer with no prior literary education. It is a significant and characteristic aspect of Modernist poetry, fiction, and art.
Consequently, despite its sophistication and humanitarian idealism, the Modernist style divided the institution of art from the public consciousness. It effectively (whether intentional or not, is a matter for another essay) elevated art up and away from the public’s grasp. This had the effect of incurring the wrath of the avant-garde who basically held the same principles, yet were slightly more politically correct and vocal in their anthropological concerns, about the place of art in society. Therefore, the avant-gardes protected themselves from claims of ‘elitism’ by critics and the public, that otherwise affixed and generalized the project of Modernist art.
After everything said, Eliot shall always have the last word on his poetry and on the style that others referred to as Modernism. Unlike the effect of Modernism and The Waste Land and its imposition of deep analysis and indefinable conclusions, Eliot achieves a retrospective summation of the characteristics of modern poetry and what good poetry should achieve, in rather simple and rarefied terms:
Poetry is of course not to be defined by its uses. If it commemorates a public occasion, or celebrates a festival, or decorates a religious rite, or amuses a crowd, so much the better. It may effect revolutions in sensibility such as are periodically needed; may help to break up the conventional modes of perception and valuation which are perpetually forming, and make people see the world afresh, or some new part of it. It may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we
rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves, and an evasion of the visible and sensible world.[vii]
In this, one of his final lectures (‘The Modern Mind’), Eliot concludes with the essence of his, and ‘Modernism’s’, ideology; that there is a need for cultural and individual experience that transcends the ‘unreal’ to achieve a ‘real’ redemption of culture and the self. It is as much redemption of learning and literature as it is of spirituality that The Waste Land proposes. Culture appears to need a kind of religious haut monde in order to create art that is divine in nature, yet the religious ideal is seen as a redemptive feature applicable also to the degraded society. It is as if before worshiping art, there needs to be a re-installation of fundamental principles of faith, in order to see the divine in the aesthetic. The Modernist style encourages conclusions such as this. As can be seen, it is not necessarily a negative response to the intellectual idealism of writers like T.S. Eliot, whose quest for absolutes dictates a characteristically deep analysis of the ideas and concerns expressed within the text.
[i] Which is more of an American Modernist ideal than English, as seen in the works of writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald Scott, and Hart Crane.
[ii] A very ‘orientalised’ notion that Edward Said investigates in Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1978), which is also apparent in the ideologies of the Modernist avant-garde movement, especially the ‘Primitivists’.
[iii] The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, T.S. Eliot (London: Faber & Faber Ltd, 1964), p. 155.
[iv] See The Wordsworth Dictionary of Classical & Literary Allusion, ed., by A.H. Lass, D. Kiremidjian, & R.M. Goldstein (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 1987), p. 228.
[v] Selected Essays, by T.S. Eliot (London: Faber & Faber Ltd., 1972), p.145.
[vi] From After the Great Divide, by Andreas Huyssen, in ‘Introduction’ (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. vii.
[vii]The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, T.S. Eliot (London: Faber & Faber Ltd, 1964), p. 155.