By T.S. Eliot; Edited by Michael North
Norton Critical Editions, $13.75 paper
The pleasure of reading T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is the horror of the epiphany. If this sounds paradoxical, it is. How can a poem written and published 89 years ago say something about the way we live now? And what is the pleasure of reading something that should scare us? If pleasure means instigating an emotional response, a catharsis, then Eliot’s poem offers pleasure even in the face of its horror.
The poem is frightening, sprawling, prophetic, historical, confusing, elliptical, dangerous, even sexual, but also, as Conrad Aiken points out, incoherent. F.R. Leavis counters Aiken by saying Eliot’s “touch with which he manages his difficult transitions, his delicate collocations, is exquisitely sure. His tone…exhibits a perfect control.”
For the record, I agree with I.A. Richards who finds the poem “a music of ideas.” Or Leavis when he says, “the seeming disjointedness” reflects “the present state of civilization.” I can validate Delmore Schwartz paraphrasing E.M. Forster “that Eliot was one who looked into the abyss and refused henceforward to deny or forget the fact.”
Eliot writes about his world—post-Great War England, pre-Great Depression. This is a world awakening to genocide and murderous weapons of mass destruction, an age of social upheaval and the beginning of the rise of the military-industrial complex, although that term would not be invented until the end of the Eisenhower administration.
Eliot’s Wasteland is a hallucinatory, nightmarish, parallel universe mired in drought, observed by the Greek blind prophet, Tiresias, and ruled by the Fisher King who has failed in his quest for the Grail and cannot redeem himself. Death haunts the inhabitants: “Your shadow at morning striding behind you,” Eliot writes in the first section, “The Burial of the Dead,” “Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you.” Throughout the life cycle, Death is a constant companion.
Life in the Wasteland is fractured and fragmented, haunted by strange noises and cloaked figures who are “wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded.” The various ghosts who wander through the poem lead empty, disconnected lives: Lil, the prostitute; the woman who sits in the “burnished throne”; sweet Ophelia whom we hear only en voce; the aforementioned Tiresias with his “wrinkled female breasts”; Phlebas, the sailor, whom “a current under sea / Picked his bones in whispers”; and a host of others.
However, the horrific pleasure of reading The Wasteland is found in its relevance to our times. This is The Wasteland 2.0. In Eliot’s disturbing prism, we see our own fractured existence: the horrors of war; the bloodshed and violence on our streets; the victimization of children (what if Lil were a twelve-year old child?); the fear and loneliness of daily life (we live in an age of instant communication with nothing to say!); the rise of technology and the digital frontier; and above all, the specter of the terrorist with a bomb strapped to his chest, willing to annihilate himself and everyone else for his beliefs. In an eerily prophetic section entitled, “What the Thunder Said,” he writes:
What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
As I read the passage, I could not escape the vision of those towers falling that day and the panicked people running for their lives through the streets of a new Jerusalem, the New York City of September 11th, 2001.
Contrary to what some critics have written, Thomas Stearns Eliot ends his poem on a positive note: “Shantih shantih shantih,” the formal conclusion of an Upanishad, “The peace which passeth understanding.”
Eliot’s last line of hope did not come to fruition. Wars and bloodshed, bombings and fragmentation continued throughout the twentieth century. We, here in the morning of the twenty-first century, shiver with recognition of our own world rendered in The Wasteland. However, we also expect, against all evidence to the contrary, that the wished for peace will come to us. Pity human civilization if our children and grandchildren continue to wake up each day and find that God is dead, the world has not changed, and April is still the “cruellest month.”