07 April 2010

The Waste Land [part I]

It seems fitting with the onset of April and beautiful weather to offer some remarks about T.S. Eliot's extraordinary poem The Waste Land. The poem famously opens with the line "April is the cruellest month." The perversion implied in this declaration is often lost in the extreme confusion caused by reading the poem. Let us try and capture how this opening line articulates the essential nature of the curse that has hold over the wasteland. The cruelty of April is specified as follows: it "breed[s] / Lilacs out of the dead land," it "mix[es] / Memory and desire," it "stir[s] / Dull roots with spring rain." These three charges laid against April all relate to the awakening of life from death, the natural resurrection that cycles year after year. Miraculously, each year spring comes. What sort of a person prefers the warmth of "winter?" The paradox implied in this line is that there is something so objectionable to the inhabitants of the wasteland about new life that they would rather it not happen at all. What sort of a people clings to infertility and a perpetual, zombie-like existence instead of the exuberant risk of new things?

Usually the cause of these people's rejection of spring is interpreted as the fear of death. This reading, while somewhat correct, misses the reason why the people are so afraid of death. After all, (almost) everyone who has ever lived has feared death. But the wasteland is something new, something modern. So we are not just faced with the fear of death. We are faced, rather, with the fear of life! Rain, the life-giving force that the poem's parched soil screams for, is what everyone in the poem is trying to avoid (until the end). When the rain comes the inhabitants of the wasteland venture into the "colonnade" or the "closed car at four." If I may venture an explanation of why this is the case, I would suggest that it is precisely the incredible power to control (seemingly) everything, or at least potentially control, that has led the inhabitants of the wasteland into this darkness. Those things that they cannot control grip them with terror. In an image of a diabolical Pentecost, the sound of the "wind under the door" which betokens a divine manifestation possesses the lady in the chair (symbolized by Belladonna in Madame Sosostris' wicked pack of cards) with an overmastering fear instead of a life-giving spirit.

5 comments:

PSEUDONOMA said...

Nicely put, Seb!

The fear of life, or even the incapacity for it, is of course already in the reader's ears before the Wasteland's first line ---in the Sybill's "Apothanein 'thello." But I wonder if one can resolve this to the "subjective side" of the encounter with spring --by which I mean that one would situate the "perversion implied in this declaration' as a perversion of the people of the wastedland, as in the question "What SORT OF PERSON prefers the warmth of winter?" Of course the "forgetful snow" that immediately follows this line would immediately counter any tendency to think of confining things to "the subjective side". You yourself leave the issue ambiguous an unresolved in speaking of a curse, and of a "diabolical Pentecost". Is the cruelty of life more radical then something like 'a good thing appearing bad to a bad man'? Could it be that the fact that life is no longer bearable at all, and that its insistent return is now cruel and merciless, is something proper to life itself?

Sebastian said...

In regards to the "subjective side" distinction you speak of: my interpretation of the poem (which will hopefully be carried out at some length) holds that the wasteland being described is a state of being. I'm not sure I would agree that it is "proper to life itself;" I don't find it to consist in a recognition that "its insistent return is cruel and merciless," but something else which I will continue to elaborate. That being said, despite the fact that "being in the wasteland" is a state of being that is from one point of view possible for human beings, it is also impossible for human beings precisely to the extent that the wasteland transforms people into something not human, nor even living -- yet unable to die. For these reasons I would hesitate to refer to it as "subjective."

PSEUDONOMA said...

"I'm not sure I would agree that it is "proper to life itself;" I don't find it to consist in a recognition that "its insistent return is cruel and merciless," but something else which I will continue to elaborate."

I will have to wait for your "full elaboration", but your use of the semi-colon in the above quoted portion of your response urges me to ward off any misunderstanding of my initial comment: my final question did not mean to imply any necessary connection between the fact that life's "insistent return is *now* cruel and merciless" and "the property of this fact to life itself." (In this case, the word "now", which you omitted in quoting my question, served to further enforce the possibility that this cruelty could just as well belong to the human experience of life's resurgence instead of inhering in life itself). Indeed it seems to me that the likely interpretative inclination would be to say something to the effect that the fact that life is NOW cruel, where before it had not been, is testimony to the way this cruelty is dependent on human experience (i.e. life is cruel FOR man). So I guess what I am saying is simply that my final question was inquiring into the less likely (and not more likely --and certainly not necessary) possibility of interpreting this "cruelty" as one inherent to the essence of life.

As regards your preliminary (and I think astute) characterization of "being in the wasteland" as something that, while possible for human beings, is also to a certain extent "impossible for human beings" in so far as the wasteland transforms such human beings into "something not human" ---I think here the meaning of the "not" of "not human" must be taken into account, since it seems --unless I read you incorrectly on this, that this "not" is interchangeable with a "no longer". In other words, the transformation enacted by the wasteland on human being is one only possible FOR human being; a rock cannot be non-human in the way that an inhabitant of the wasteland is. (The ancients would call this "not" which the wasteland effects on human being, and which, as non-living, is to be distinguished from proper death, a form of steresis). So if this impossiblity is only possible for human being, then it still satisfies my initial criterion for the designation of "subjective," which was of course being employed only loosely (since philosophical conceptuality is perhaps unnecessary in even a tangential treatment of poetry). In keeping with this second point, one would be inclined to think that your alternative designation of a "state of Being" would at any rate have to refer to *a* being in which such a "state of Being" could be discovered, and that this would then require that the question as to where this cruelty properly belonged be revisited. But, of course, this is subject to the results of your full elaboration...

Amos Johannes Hunt said...

Well said. Now I would only have you explain in what respect the fear of death reading is "somewhat correct."

Sebastian said...

Amos,
At the risk of providing a highly unsatisfying response, I called the "fear of death" reading "somewhat correct" because, while not exactly wrong (the people are, after all, afraid of death), they are really more afraid of life than afraid of death. If I had to choose one way of speaking of the matter I would say "fear of life," but I permit myself the ability to equivocate in reading this poem as I believe there are a number of very fruitful ways of looking at it.