T. S. Eliot

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.

Mapping "A Game of Chess"

For my map of The Waste Land, I chose to locate the locations of places alluded to and the settings of "A Game of Chess."  The map that I have created (below) uses blue pins for specific places alluded to and red pins for physical settings of this section.  The yellow pins are meant to represent potential sites of the Garden of Eden, which Eliot refers to in lines 97-8.  The lines connecting the pins trace the linear order through which the allusions travel amongst the pins.

View "A Game of Chess" in a larger map

The most salient insight that arises from the map of "A Game of Chess" is the disparity between the geographic variation of Eliot's references to the Ancients up to Milton and Shakespeare and the rather localized latter sections that are much more locally focused.  Taken in consideration with the temporal motion of this section, which is directly linear from the ancient to modernity, this differentiation could be read as both a comment on post-WWI sentiment and Eliot's larger project in The Waste Land.  The highly localized nature of the modern section of "A Game of Chess" in comparison to the geographically expansive section of antiquity could speak to a sentiment undermining the pervasive nature of nationalism in Europe leading up to and throughout World War I.  While there certainly was nationalist (or at least regionalist) allegiances in the ancient world, these allegiances never led to warfare on the scale of WWI - they never created The Waste Land.  The isolation of modern locals could be read as Eliot dissenting against nationalism.  Another reading of the map could focus on the distinct geographic separation between the past and present in this section of The Waste Land.  As we discussed in class, Eliot's continual allusions represent a formal embodiment of his project to create a new mythology, a new origin story from those of previous generations.  The distinct geographic border (nearly half of Western Europe) between the two geographic groupings could speak to this differentiation that Eliot is seeking to do away with in The Waste Land

The Waste Land in Context

Mina Loy’s “Brancusi’s Golden Bird” and Valery Larbaud’s “The ‘Ulysses’ of James Joyce” from the November 1922 issue of The Dial and the October 1922 issue of The Criterion – respectively – embody a similar discourse to Eliot’s The Waste Land in their focus on generic experimentation and emphasis on interaction.  Eliot’s work, by including footnotes written by the poet, embodies generic experimentation as The Waste Land is thus composed of the interaction between poem and prose descriptions.  Loy’s poem, by focusing on “The immaculate / conception / of the inaudible bird” (508),  alludes to generic experimentation through the simultaneous descriptive and expository depictions of the sculpture.  This experimentation inherent in these dual approaches to the sculpture is further compounded by the picture of the sculpture that immediately follows the poem, which undermines the autonomy of the poem as the reader/viewer is forced with the juxtaposition of two works of different genres that mutually inform each other.  Larbaud’s essay from The Criterion praises Joyce’s inclusion of theological, philosophic, and scientific discourse within his narrative that challenges notions of the novel.  In spite of this experimentation, Larbaud asserts that “[t]hese pieces, which we might treat as digressions, or rather as appendices, essays composed outside of the book and artificially interpolated into all of the ‘tales,’ … [form] none the less an organism, a book” (97).  Much like The Waste Land and Loy’s “Brancusi’s Golden Bird,” Larbaud’s appraisal of Joyce’s work finds its locus in his ability to challenge conceived notions of the genre, what Loy refers to as the “the Alpha and Omega / of Form” (507).

Along with this emphasis on experimentation, the pieces of Loy and Larbaud also contribute to a discourse surrounding the necessity of interaction.  In the simultaneous presence of dichotomous entities (past/present, life/death, poetry/prose, East/West, etc.), The Waste Land calls direct attention to the manner through which these are not binaries, but rather in a state of interaction as a means through which to conceive of a post-WWI world.  Loy focuses the readers attention on this interaction in her explication that  “This gong / of polished hyperaesthesia / shrills with brass / as the aggressive light / strikes / its significance” (507-8).  For Loy, meaning arises from Brancusi’s sculpture in its interaction with its physical environment, which is embodied in the light in this depiction.  This emphasis on interaction is also present in the bibliographic coding of the poem, which – as previously mentioned – juxtaposes the poem with a photograph of its subject.  Larbaud also contributes to the discourse regarding interaction when she asserts that “The reader who approaches [Ulysses] without the Odyssey clearly in mind will be thrown into dismay.  I refer, of course, to the cultivated reader” (93).  As with Loy, Larbaud makes note of two interactions – that of Joyce’s text with Homer’s Odyssey and an ideal reader with the text – that are essential in the comprehension of the text.

A significant distinction in the simultaneous publications of The Waste Land is the volume number of the respective magazines, which creates a variance in the positioning of Eliot’s text.  Created by the American Transcendentalists, The Dial is oriented as actively engaging with the discourse surrounding the foundation of the American literary tradition.  Published in The Dial’s seventy-third volume, The Waste Land emerges as a continuation of this American literary tradition.  Unlike this connection to a broader arch of national literary tradition, the simultaneous publication of The Waste Land in the first issue of The Criterion denotes a connection of the work with an emerging literary tradition.  This play between established and emerging literary traditions is particularly interesting when though of in regards to notions of modernism as Transatlantic.