T.S. Eliot – The Waste Land (1922)

[Ongoing post]

Some critical approaches:

Franco Moretti, “From the Waste Land to the Artificial Paradise” in Sings Taken for Wonders (1983)

Moretti argues that Eliot attempted to solve certain social and representational  problems in the “The Waste Land” which could only be truly solved in mass culture–the skeleton that is the poem is deliberately unstable, provisional, pointing to changes that will be necessary for the poem to fill out the contours it projects. Nevertheless, the mythical method is not merely negative. it attempts to proscribe an equation between meaning and value in the word “significance.” Myth allows us to connect various registers of human experience…in so doing it tires to bring together “objective experience” with “ideal consensus”–the subjective satisfaction of the reader. But attaining this equivalence entails the poem’s relinquishment of its aesthetic attributes in favor of a classificatory structure: it becomes myth at the moment it ceases to become literature (Adorno is obviously lurking here).

Michael Levenson, “The Waste Land” in Genealogy of Modernism (1984)

The Waste Land is the culmination of a debate that runs throughout early modernism, between the celebration of the free, expressive artistic ego (Pater) and the celebration of formal, conservative constructivist impulses (Arnold). He reads the opening stanza-paragraph as a constellation of different voices that uneasily cohere within the voice of Marie: us, we, I, Marie: these pronouns and first-names become destabilized, intractable. he’s working towards something like “point of view” as theorized by F.H. Bradley. There is, in Levenson’s reading, a “disembodied” character to the consciousness on the poem, a curious forerunner to something like The Waves. Of more immediate relevance is the way in which the primacy of the impressionistic (impressionable) ego of Conrad and Ford is discarded in favor of an objective world that becomes increasingly determinate, to the point of coercion and confusion, of the subjective “point of view.”

Much of this is derived from Bradley’s critique of empiricism. Bradley argues that we divide the world into discreet objects as a matter of common sense, but that in reality that is an “Absolute” that subtends these contradictions and synthesizes them in a harmony. Eliot, however, comes away from Bradley convinced that some form of empiricism cannot be escaped. Indeed, the Absolute recedes in Eliot’s poem, but Bradley offer another term, “finite center,” which will somehow thread between mere anarchic futility and universal harmony.

This gets to the binary Eliot sets up between the mythic method and the narrative method (a binary we can already see dissolving in the opening lines, with commas competing with verse-lines for organizational priority). The “false” binary can be resolved in the context of history. If the mythic method refers to a history that poem is importing, then the narrative method highlights how the work itself becomes an act of literary history, or history-making. Thus the western literary tradition does not enter as passive inheritance, but as something that is penetrated by another tradition in the process of appropriation. But if the Waste Land represents the most tense dialectical mediation between romanticism and classicism, then Eliot’s later turn shows a definitive embrace of the classical, effectively reducing the globe to the contours of Europe.



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