“I’ll show you fear in a handful of dust.” (Eliot, T.S. 1998: 32)
T.S. Eliot’s 1922 war poem, The Waste Land is known in literary circles as the most influential poem of the twentieth century. Written in the aftermath of World War 1 and within Eliot’s own recovery from a nervous breakdown The Waste Land in structure, style and content provides a significant critique on the fragmentation of social life. Emerging at a time of deep unrest, the poem reflects not only the physical manifestation of destruction in society but also the social and psychological. The predominant Marxist perceptions based on the structuralist top, down perspective had predicted revolution via the proletariat which had not come to fruition. Instead, the war’s devastation and subsequent rise of fascism brought down utopian belief and created a search for deeper truths. The poem poses no answers to societies problems yet through the use of images and prose it suggests an urgent need for reassessment of traditional Marxist ideology. The poem’s display of desperation shows society at its tipping point within a time of crisis. Intended to be a complex poem, Eliot creates multiple layers and references to classical literature, juxtaposing fragments of various elements of literary and mythic traditions with scenes and sounds from modern life. The effect of this poetic collage is both a reinterpretation of canonical texts and a historical context for his examination of society and humanity. The poem reflects Marxist ideas of ‘alienation’ and ‘species being’ through the use of voice gives the reader a sense of chaotic emotion. Eliot’s representation of societal ideologies (and the breakdown of these) challenges the reader into questioning conventional intellectual discourse. This essay will look at how The Waste Land through the use of different voices provides a social critique on society and social theory. I will draw primarily on The Waste Land and Marxist concepts of alienation and species being with reference to The Frankfurt School (Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse) to support the discussion.
T.S. Eliot was an American born, English citizen who believed strongly in the tradition of the poet and poetry as a way to rewrite the past, ignite a shift in thinking and help to initiate a more positive future. He stated within his own literary critique that “the poet in our civilisation, as it exists as present, must be difficult” (Eliot, T.S. 1945: 50). T.S Eliot was a man who critiqued his own work, acknowledging what he believed to be the responsibility of the poet to society as a whole. The Waste Land reflects the complexity and frustrations of society with the dramatic effect of being ‘on the outside looking in’, separated from society. In the 1844 Economical and Philosophical Manuscripts Marx states that “man is a species being….and free conscious activity constitutes the species-character of man” (Wartenberg, T. 1982: 77) of which is a central concept to his writings. Eliot’s use of different languages and incoherent, disjointed conversations gives a clear indication of the separateness people are experiencing from their ‘species being’, they are anything but free. Eliot’s intense use of citation and referencing of classical literature; Baudelaire, Dante and Chaucer amongst others creates an underlying intellectual elitism which links the past to the present to the future with ethereal effect. Eliot clearly saw society to be in a state of crisis and writing thematically he opens the poem with;
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
(Eliot, T.S. 1998: 31)
By parodying Chaucer’s prologue to The Canterbury Tales and presenting nature like a patient being anaesthetised upon a table (almost like an autopsy), Eliot confuses our ideas of rebirth and resurrection traditionally associated with April with death and cruelty. Clinically dead in tone it creates a sense of depression and from the first line we feel alienated, separated and at a loss of belief in the once strong and hopeful ideals of revolution. The emergence of fascism post-war confirms this pessimism and makes way for Adorno and Horkheimer’s critical theory of which seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” (Horkheimer, M. 1993: 76).
Through the disjointed structure; incoherent ‘babble’ in different languages (mass immigration into London), references to past texts (as an emotional and intellectual anchor), men and women’s voices and the voices of the dead Eliot draws us into internal enquiry. It is within this constant barrage of voices that the reader questions and tries to make sense of society around them, and indeed their place within it. Eliot poses no answers to the desolation; however he does allude to tradition and poetry as a possible solution. In his 1921 essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent Eliot states that transcendence can come about through the use of words and speaks of poetry in a metaphysical sense with alchemical ability. It is through his poetic style that the socio-psychological wellbeing which Adorno speaks of as incoherent and alienated comes about. His use of voice is both haunting and profoundly relevant to any period in history where there is a collective feeling of confusion, anxiety, distrust and unrest.
For the theorists at The Frankfurt School, an interdisciplinary approach was used to critique and formulate a reassessment of social theory in the wake of two World Wars and fascism. Drawing heavily on Hegel, Marx, and Freud; Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) which portrayed ambivalence towards the ‘ultimate source’ or foundation of what they described as ‘social domination’, questioning the very ideas of modernity and the enlightenment. The ambivalence presented in The Waste Land points towards the pessimism within which The Frankfurt School saw as overruling the possibility of emancipation and freedom.
In Part 1 of The Waste Land, (The Burial of the Dead) Eliot presents us with the new religion of the occult through the character and voice of a medium with a pack of tarot cards. Based on Madame Blavatsky from the early 20th century we are taken through a reading;
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
(Eliot, T.S. 1998: 32)
The loss of belief in religious ideology and its replacement by the occult (through the tarot) questions not only Christian historical grounding but also references the pagan, hooded figures in one of the cards later in the poem to Jesus. The disillusionment in religion runs throughout the poem in one form or another and creates the experience of aloneness without explicitly stating it. The poet is presented as the more insightful medium who brings the past, present and future together through words.
In this brief look at T.S. Eliot’s, The Waste Land we have seen how the rich and complex critique of society in post war London comes alive through Eliot’s use of voices, descriptions and referencing. We have discussed Marxist ideas of alienation and species being in relation to the poem and how social theory progressed with The Frankfurt School’s reassessment and emergence of critical theory. The legacy of The Waste Land has re-emerged at significant points in history and in differing forms as a base for social critique. Desolation Row (1965) by Bob Dylan is one example and more recently in the movie The Hunger Games. Both examples draw on Eliot’s use of voice, which is heightened by the use of digital technology and speaks directly to contemporary society via music. Eliot as a young, revolutionary character created waves in social and literary discourse in the modernist, aftermath period of WW1. Like other pivotal points in history associated with the search for truth there is a period of transition from one regime of truth to the new. The Waste Land is an excellent example of being in the eye of the social storm; a literary work of art created at a crucial point in history and one which reflects the regression from reason which questions modernity in its entirety.
Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, 47-59. London. Methuen & Co. Ltd. 1945. Print.
Eliot, T.S. The Wasteland, Prufrock and Other Poems. New York: Dover Publications, 1998. Print.
Wartenberg, Thomas E. Human Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Apr. – Jun., 1982), pp. 77-95 ‘”Species-Being” and “Human Nature” in Marx.’ Published by: Springer. Web. Nov 26th 2012.
Horkheimer, M. Between philosophy and social science: selected early writings / Max Horkheimer; trans. G.USA. Cambridge Press. 1993. Print.