13 April 2010

The Waste Land [part iii]

The Waste Land is often criticized as being "abstract" on the grounds that it is difficult to precisely decide on what is going on at any given point in the poem. We expect poems to either be lyrical or (at least in some rough sense) plot-driven and therefore at least tangentially inhabited by characters. The Waste Land fits in the later category, though the manner in which this is the case is not immediately apparent. Let me first suggest that there are several discrete "locations" identified in the poem. There is the "unreal city," which is largely coterminous with the desert "where the sun beats." There is the hyacinth garden, which is another image of the death by water that eventually overcomes Phlebas. There is the boudoir of the lady (Belladonna), called "rat's alley" by her companion, which is the same as the ruined space by the river where "a rat crept softly through the vegetation." Finally, there is the chapel in the mountains.

The majority of the action (more properly, inaction) that transpires in The Waste Land takes place in the unreal city. The poem's protagonist dwells in this city until he is freed by "death by water," at which point he is able to see the city from the outside as "the city over the mountains
/ [that] Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air / Falling towers." The poem is principally concerned with a journey out of The Waste Land, which is made possible by the recognition that no action or inaction one can undertake alone can free one from the wasteland. Rather, it is precisely the moment at which one recognizes one's inability to free oneself that the possibility that one might be freed takes place. Note well that this is where the poem's greatest terror and greatest uncertainty dwell, for even if one recognizes one's inability to free oneself one still may not be freed.

Many critics make a great deal of the supposed temporal or spatial fragmentation taking place in the poem, but I rather think a better way of talking about what they are trying to say is that the poem is dominated by a coming together of all things. Not the coming together that Eliot explores in Burnt Norton "at the still point of the turning world," but rather a coming together where nothing is different any longer form anything else. Distance is destroyed though the physically measurable remnants of what was distance may remain.

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