Themes of an Ironic Postmodernity

I've had to read this particular text several times in my English and Literature career but this has been the first time I've personally been asked to attack the reading myself. 

What struck me most about the poem is the intial big picture stance that Eliot makes at the very beginning. He opens with an all-encompassing thematic map for the reader; like an grand intro that shows the reader what path he's about to embark on.

 April is the cruellest month, breeding
  Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
  Memory and desire, stirring
  Dull roots with spring rain.
  Winter kept us warm, covering
  Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

 

We open with juxtapositions of our preconceived notions. April, the month of spring and renewal. Yet Eliot proclaims thaht it's the cruelest month, bringing lilacs from the dead revitilizing old memories and desires.  Eliot then describes winter as warm, "covering Earth in a forgetful snow".

Eliot uses the reversal of our cultural connotations of the seasons to bring his metaphor of memories as painful to light. This is a specifically postmodern perspective; the ironic retrospect through which nostalgia is criticized. Eliot illustrates the agony of over-romantisized nostagia and specifically how it's blanketed by 'forgetful snow.' These contradictions also highlight the seemingly paradoxical values that are at the base of our basic existential struggle as humans.

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What a Waste

To all those self-proclaimed "poetry haters" out there -- those who think poetry is all just a bunch of fluffy dead people writing about love and religion and things that don't apply to the modern reader -- I defy you not to be moved by the poetry of T.S Eliot. When I think of "modern poetry", or really anything in the realm of modern literature and art, no one strikes a chord that resonates quite as truly with the modern spirit than T.S Eliot. In a modern age where the human experience is forgotten in pursuit of wealth, status, or "a cause", it's hard not to be moved by motifs as striking and beautiful as those which appear in Eliot's The Waste Land.

One passage which really struck me was that of the opening paragraph, before Part I even begins. Eliot quotes a line from the Satyricon of Petronius in which he (the writer) sees the Sibyl of Cumea, who, when asked what she wants, says, "I want to die". This line alludes to the driving theme behind the opening lines of Part I - The Burial of the Dead, which states "April is the cruellest month" for bringing the dead earth back to life, upsetting the forgetful sleep of winter and stirring things into a painful reawakening. However, while these first few lines suggest a feeling of pain in relation to living, Eliot also evokes a sort of bitterness and passion through the last few lines of Part I, in which he sarcastically calls to a man on the street, "That corpse you planted last year in your garden / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?" This part provided some difficult for me, as well as the stanza before in which a clairvoyant gives a horoscope warning of "death by water." I'm not exactly clear on the relationship between the first and last halves of Part I. While Eliot's dedication at the beginning would seem to foreshadow a mood of angst and apathy, there are lines both in the first few stanzas and especially in the last two which suggest a completely different mood. A comprehensive analysis of Part I would suggest an overall allusion to WWI and the anxiety surrounding it, as well as the modern age itself. A motif in the modern age is a sense of lost identity, or perhaps a forged identity, suggested by the line "Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.", translated by Eliot as meaning, "I am not Russian at all; I come from Lithuania, I am a real German." This line, as well as the line in which Eliot calls to the man on the street, allude to a feeling of pain and bitterness in relation to one's national identity and exactly what lengths one would go to in order to protect it. "That corpse you planted last year in your garden..." is a bitter exclamation of loss and frustration, asking if that death was really worth it when he says, "Has it begun to sprout?" The connecting motif, perhaps, is that life is painful, and consciousness is a curse, but man endures it all the same. Passion and fervor are painful emotions to have, but they're all we have until we're dead. It's important to live truly, so if someone dies for a cause they may or may not have truly believed in -- as we can assume the corpse buried in the garden did -- it's important to ask if it really was worth it.

Can meaning be found in the rubbish?

I'm aware that it doesn't take much to clearly identify The Waste Land as a modernist piece of literature, but just the same, having read it once or twice before this time I was still struck by how well he uses "a heap of broken images" to express the emotions of the modernist era. I was specifically intrigued by the 2nd section in The Burial of the Dead. It is not at all surprising that this poem is used so often as a prime example of modern thought. Eliot's lines "What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stony rubbish?" define well the struggle of modernists to find meaning in a world of chaos.

In the rest of that section Eliot uses images ("dead tree," "dry stone") to further depict humanity's grappling for meaning in the modern, war-torn world. And then he offers a place of security from the dry waste land beneath "the shadow of this red rock". For a moment it feels like there is a place of peace in the chaos.  However, the comfort found there is fleeting as the reader finds what awaits them beneath the rock is only more "fear" and confusion. The confusion coming from Eliot's use of a different language for four lines that leaves the reader once again disorientated and grasping for meaning.

The Waste Land Struggle

I am usually the first person to say that I do not really care for poetry, and I can say that reading and attempting to understand The Waste Land did not change that at all. At the end of reading this, I thought I had finally come to the realization that this was about World War II. Which was great... until I realized that this was written before World War II had even begun, which I thought ruined my entire understanding of the work; however, I actually think it makes it stronger. Eliot knew that war is cyclical and will happen again, which he predicted correctly because World War II did happen about 17 years after The Waste Land was written, which gives this work more credibility.

Throughout the poem, Eliot warns that war and violence is a cyclical event (e.g. the pearl eyes of the drowned Phoenician Sailor). The last six lines of section one, specifically, is a warning against letting war happen again and the part you play in it. "Oh keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to men, Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!" The dogs of war are 'friends to men' because men (read: people) have a tendency towards violence and war, so we must be careful and dilligent in keeping that tendency buried and not let it be dug up again. I like that it kind of brought the reader into it and made them, us, responsible for keeping the peace too.

Depressing Themes in "The Waste Land"

Unlike several of my classmates, this is the first time I have ever read "The Waste Land".  It took several read throughs to even try and make sense of it, but the depressing and pessimistic, even morbid, vibes coming from the poem stood out to me right away.  Right off the bat, Eliot mentions April, a month in the season of life and color, yet refers to it as "the cruellest of months".  The lilacs blooming and dead land giving way to the green of nature is something  he views as less than desirable compared to the covering snow of winter.

Eliot uses descriptions of "stony rubbish" and dead ground to continue in the depressing descriptions.  He goes on to talk about the clairvoyant woman, Madame Sosostris, who warns him to "fear death by water".   Near the end of the first section, he speaks of a crowd of people in London, whom "death had undone", which I can only assume means zombies.  To end section one, he sees a friend in the crowd of zombies and asks about the corps he buried in his yard.  

This poem goes in so many directions at once yet the theme of death and misery seems to pervade many of the encounters that Eliot writes about, which is very fitting since the title of the section is The Burial of the Dead.  Even the few happy moments in the sections, such as the girl with the hyacinths, end on a dismal note.  This could be Eliot showing a pessimistic view on life as a whole, how even the happy moments can end in confusion and disaster.  

Eliot's Reluctance to Translate

The way words can never be translated exactly fascinates me. Switching the same message from one language to another always leaves bits of the original meaning behind (much like how some elements of music are left out in MP3 compression, for example).  Nevertheless, translation is an important tool – imagine being unable to read Homer or Dostoyevsky because you haven’t mastered Greek or Russian.

That being said, I still wonder why T.S. Eliot included several other languages in The Waste Land. What did he want to preserve in the original texts by leaving them untranslated? He begins the poem with an epigraph written in a mixture of Greek and Latin. In part I, includes multiple lines in German (lines 12, 31-35, and 42) and concludes “The Burial of the Dead” with some French that seems to break the fourth wall. Eliot’s notes cite Tristan und Isolde for some of the German lines (specifically 31-35 and 42) yet leave the lines untranslated. The French is uncited as well; it seems more of an exclamation, enclosed in quotation marks in the poem but not a reference (as far as I can find) another piece of literature.* Curiously, Eliot flips things around when it comes to referencing Dante’s Inferno – he uses English in the poem itself and Italian in his notes.  So, I suppose, my questions are these: What is Eliot so intent on preserving in each untranslated line? Why, keeping this penchant for other languages in mind, is the Inferno an exception?

*Though untranslated in the poem, a quick Google search turns up translations galore for all of these quotes. I haven’t addressed them here, most simply because I’m not sure how to at the moment. This is the second time I’ve read The Waste Land, but it’s still rather mysterious to me.

The Waste Land

Upon reading The Waste Land for the first time, what stuck out to me the most was the first half of section 2: A Game of Chess. It starts off simple and normal: a woman waiting for her lover to arrive. As time passes and her lover still hasn't shown up, the format of the poem becomes more erratic, emulating her thoughts.

The way the poem is written - appearing well put together at first and eventually breaking apart - struck me as very true of human nature. When we dwell on something for too long, eventually our thoughts become disjointed and unstable, causing panic and anxiety. The passage begins to break apart when the narrator first speaks to herself: "My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me" (111).You know things are bad when you start talking to yourself, and clearly Eliot used this as a device to make the reader feel more anxious as well. There is a clear buildup in this passage, and there seems to be a buildup in the other passages as well. Each story is building up to something, but I'm not quite sure what to make of both sections altogether.

 

Eliot and Empathy

Let me begin my admitting that, even during my third encounter with this text, I found myself having to resort to outside sources for commentary and clarification (Sparknotes...no shame). I find the entire poem to be incredibly challenging, but I love how it can be dissected into smaller and smaller pieces for close study. One of my favorite sections, one which I find quite simple to understand, is the final scene in Section II. A Game of Chess. The scene is one of the most realistic scenes Eliot creates--women at a bar discussing the affairs of their lives. These affair,s unfortunately, are not exactly positive.

Upon this reading of the scene, I found myself struck by the lack of empathy expressed towards Lil. Again, let me be honest, when I read things I British authors, I usually use a British accent. I find that it keeps things interesting. For this passage, I found it extremely helpful in developing the character of the main speaker. The flippancy with which she disregards Lil's sufferings are shocking. For example, her assertion that "if you don't give it to him, there's others will" was so heartless, it made me immediately question the relationship of the characters. Who would speak this way to one of their friends? If the characters are not close friends, why are they having this conversation? What do these comments say about Eliot's view of social interaction and relationships?

I don't have answers to all of these questions, but I think that I can begin to interpret Eliot's view. Simply put, these characters lack empathy. They are calloused and do not feel for one another. I think this holds true with the destruction of social interaction brought about by the war. People had seen/heard/experienced such horrible things that they were made hollow. I still think that a lack of true empathy still exists in our society today. People are dehumanized by the tragedies we (arguably) glorify in our news and media. In this aspect, it appears that Eliot claims that a waste land now exists within the human emotional experience.  

The Waste Land

I found this poem to be extremely interesting, but challenging as well. I have heard reference to it in the past, both in English classes and in movies, but have never actually read it myself. I found the language to beautiful and striking but the constant change of characters (I'll call them characters, since it seems like a more lively way to describe them) was a bit hard to keep up with. I had to reread it a few times to fuly grasp who was being spoken about and when they were being spoken about. The passages with diaglogue also were difficult to follow at first and required further investigation. 

The passage that most caught my interest was the opening passage of the first section. T.S. Elliot described April as "the cruelest month." I personally love spring and find April to be a month filled with the beauty and promise of summer. Yet Elliot seems to feel the opposite. He describes the lilacs as "blossoming out of dead land." Elliot and I also seem to hold vastly different views on the season of winter. While he describes it as "warm, covering the earth in forgetful snow.", I find winter to be depressing, cold and bleak. This flip flop of convention views of the seasons seems to set the tone for the rest of the poem however. 

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Wasted Lands

The section titles in this work surprised me. Why? They match the titles of certain very interesting and mysterious subplots in a game I play called Fallen London. I didn't get the references until now. For the vast majority of you who will be unfamiliar with this game--one of the things that can happen to your character in Fallen London is the accruement of nightmares and recurring dreams. The atmosphere gets quite Lovecraftian, honestly. But these recurring dreams are all named after chapters in The Waste Land. I can't help but be interested in the nature of the connection between the game-dreams' content and the poem's text. Details and a brief overview of the "recurring dreams" can be found here: http://echobazaar.wikidot.com/recurring-dreams . Cross my heart and hope to die if a virus therein lie.

An aspect of the first two sections of The Waste Land that intrigued me was the reference to tarot cards. The specific line "I do not find the Hanged Man" is something I frequently see quoted elsewhere. I consulted the notes section and read what T.S. Elliot has to say about referring to tarot cards in this poem, but the explanation doesn't satisfy me. In fact, when I read over the notes in general, I found myself quite disappointed. The Waste Land was something that really got my imagination going, and it brought to mind all the stories I've encountered over the years that allude to it and draw on it--granting The Waste Land additional meaning. Analyzing it outside of everything else that has been influenced by it proves far less interesting to me than taking supplemental material published later and inspired by it into account.

The Hanged Man card is one of the more well known of traditional tarot sets, as it is a member of the Major Arcana. My first encounter with it was in the game Persona 4, which uses a different tarot card to represent each major character in the game. For example, the game's main character is represented by the Fool. The Hanged Man's meaning varies, but almost without exception it is a transitional card representing transformation, ambiguity, and halfway states. In Persona 4 it is assigned to a character who blames himself for his sister's death, and who is struggling to get over his self-hatred; he's very much in a state of living death, like a man hanging, and the Hanged Man card symbolizes his main arc as a character--which is getting past that and moving on in life.

"I do not find the Hanged Man". This line suggests to me that the fortune teller does not find this situation in the cards--that is to say, she fails to find a transitory state. Perhaps the the situation she is reading is frozen and static with no potential for change. It's like... looking in the deck for a way out or guidance and finding none. The Hanged Man can be an ominous card or a hopeful one alike. Its noted absence speaks volumes.

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