“The Waste Land” is most usually and most persuasively read as a satire. The argument for “The Waste Land” as a satire sounds something like this: Written in the wake of WWI, a time of immense cultural (and personal) confusion, Eliot’s waste is pure disharmony between body and mind; the triumph of industry over civility and of frivolity over responsibility; and the ultimately sallow consolation of restoration only in one’s own headspace. Poetry itself is implicit is this decay— Romanticism’s unearned novelties a reflection of hubris and Victorianism’s decadence only spit-shining a deeper blemish. But of course, Eliot is a poet. This irony of “The Waste Land” is best represented by its only true emotional center, the second line of quoted material taken from Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins/Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.” Here our “The Waste Land”’s speaker is channeling a father gone insane with the death of his son—the opposite of Hamlet—in which he (the father) will use the stage to draw out guilt from his son’s killers. In “The Waste Land” we see that poetry, for Eliot, only continues to be a possibility because of this father, this tradition, which can be reused and recycled at the given historical moment’s discretion.
So fragments are the order of the day. The text is divided between poem proper and footnotes, the poem proper is divided into sections, no narrative calcifies among these sections, even the allusions divide their ancestry between what is known as East and West. The speaker, of course, is worse for the wear (ie so nuts they’re still roasting him (yes, that‘s a Fire Sermon joke)). And the one solace, these ‘fragments shored against ruin’ (please note that this is a metafictive trope regarding “The Waste Land”’s own design, famously described as collage), beacons an effort to stave off despair, heralding a tradition that has simultaneously abandoned its decedents as its decedents have abandoned it, leaving a trail of empty gestures, an uncultivated culture, a poem breaking itself apart with the without of guidance, composure, and love and compassion. Thus, “The Waste Land” is a satire, finally, of western tradition and culture. It is not linear, it does not usher a transcendent meaning, it does not reason, it’s barely for the public—and yet its contents are: Dante, Spenser, Shakespeare, etc. And so where the poem is at all comical it is so with a sort of hysterical laughter, high-brow, perhaps, but more especially high-pitched.
Given this assumption, I consider my counter to be self-evident. If “The Waste Land” is a satire by way of referencing and containing the diamonds of the West while simultaneously parodying the West’s finger-banging for an easily communicable Truth, then it is only a satire by way of its mode of reference. Were it not for “The Waste Land”‘s allusions it would be a fragmented poem. An experiment no more or less attention-grabbing than practically the entirety of Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations. A hybrid of Prufrock and Eliot’s collection titled Poems, it is the domineering use of allusion in conjunction with its teen-like angst at the lack of tangibility of the texts of which it is made that makes this poem in any way ironic.
Thus, first and foremost, “The Waste Land” is—in the tradition of Dante and Eliot’s later flag-bearer Thomas Pynchon—an encyclopedia. The notion of encyclopedic narratives comes from Ed Mendelson, and I’ll expand on this tradition in a moment, but my point here is that Eliot’s sense of responsibility is not to conjure a well-informed guffaw, bludgeoning the calamitous sexual needs of a brutish poor, but an attempt to save a few lines, a few poems, a few books for later use. I direct those who scoff to Eliot’s own “Hamlet and His Problems,”
Qua work of art, the work of art cannot be interpreted; there is nothing to interpret; we can only criticize it according to standards, in comparison to other works of art; and for “interpretation” the chief task is the presentation of relevant historical facts which the reader is not assumed to know.
The work of poetry as a material. As something physical, like lumber. And, according to Eliot, interpretation is matter of facts. That’s a bewildering prescription. Also, the word “standards” is odd here, and we’ll return to these things. But as an encyclopedia, “The Waste Land” is not a satire at all; instead, it’s an earnest documentation of Eliot’s very profound and very personal experience with literature. The fragments, after all, are shored against my ruin.
Three asides (concluding with awesome segue):
1. In this context, the poem proper and the footnotes—together—make a cohesive whole that is “The Waste Land.” The footnotes are part of the body of the text, nothing less. Eliot’s flippant attitude toward we-the-reader’s interpretation, the dozens of allusions (aka suggested reading), even the notes that inject Eliot’s own understanding into the text, each are elements of the poem that enjoy an all-but-equal share in consideration.
2(a). In “Burial of the Dead” the speaker says “Come in under the shadow of this red rock/(There is shadow under this red rock),/And I will show you something different from either/your shadow at morning striding behind you/or your shadow at evening rising to meet you”—why does the speaker assume you are traveling eastward? Why does Eliot’s footnote for “Shantih, Shantih, Shantih” go out of its way to mention that this is a formal closing of an Upanishad, much like “Amen” at the close of a prayer. Eliot wants one mythology to rule them all. And so he writes his western Upanishad.
2(b). For Eliot, form is not a matter of fitting the inspiration for a strait jacket. Eliot’s form creates a historical object, something with borders and boundaries. Form tempers the bleeding from one thing into another; but this is not to say that the boundaries are not, when at their best, porous.
3. What Whitman means to the epic is still becoming clear, which is nice because it means it’s a process in which we’re partaking, if we’re partaking. Speaking of process, it seems to be the hallmark of this tradition. The American epic is not as much the all-encompassing sweep of any particular poem, but is instead the motion—the before, during, and after—of each particular poet. Hence, Leaves of Grass is the becoming of Whitman. And Eliot is a full-fledged participant in this tradition. Much like Leaves of Grass, after 1925 Eliot put all of his poems, with exception of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a children’s book, into one book of Collected Poems. And if this is not enough to convince you that Eliot was invested in process, read his remarks on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which explicitly instructs readers to look at this as a one aspect of the totality of Joyce’s career.
True, Eliot’s speaker is more ornamented than our barbaric yawper. Eliot’s poems are built with closed doors, where Whitman wants the doors entirely removed. He (Eliot) prefers the ritual of technique to the ritual of intimacy. So although Eliot winces while he nods to Whitman, he nonetheless makes the nod. Remember, they are lilacs that breed from the dead land. The two are of the same lineage. Even the tension between the two is a classically American tension: Whitman, poet of action, newspapers, egalitarian even in his glances. Eliot, poet of inaction, journals, a representative from the creative elite.
Here we might again note that Eliot was a sickly child. He couldn’t play games. So he stayed inside, reading. The American stylizing of freedom is Whitman’s frontier as its absence is Eliot’s. Whitman participates, and Eliot envisions.
Encyclopedic narrative does not proceed as dramatic action. The narrative is not of people, places, and things but of words, ideas, and histories. It provides references. The processes of narrative only occur as an intellectual exercise in describing, categorizing, and reformulating. For the encyclopedia, events take place within ideas, not time. Take our dude Dante for instance. We’ll look at the Inferno.
In the Inferno Dante provides an intensely systematic description of sin. Notice that the dramatic action of Dante’s plot is decided from the beginning. There is no suspense here, no ‘what next’. The pilgrimage has been divined and it’s a comedy because it will end in Paradise. The characters are two dimensional. They’re representations of ideas—excuses for Dante and Virgil to have a chat. The current of this story is not action. Instead it is the detail of the vision. Each punishment sheds more light on the nature of its corresponding sin by way of synecdoche (eg the lustful are blown around by the whims of the winds). His vision of Hell’s circles and their rigid hierarchies, the historical figures of his choosing, his own (Dante is a character is his own story) reactions to the punishment—all of these things lend to Dante’s classifying sin from least to most egregious.
Eliot’s encyclopedia is more . . . playful. I won’t say that it is pure play. Thomas Eliot is not Thomas Pynchon. But if Dante’s encyclopedia represents a well-ordered world and Pynchon’s encyclopedia represents a world ordered only by the patterns of one’s perception, then where is Eliot? In short, how do we read “The Waste Land” as reference? How do we use “The Waste Land”?
Eliot’s most obvious break from Dante occurs in the realm of aesthetics. To be clear, Dante’s preferred mode of operation is allegory. Eliot’s is symbolism. When I say symbolism, of course, I am referring to the aesthetic movement of which Eliot describes a variation as the definition of a poet in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The poet as a catalyst is the symbolist in motion: At the hands of the mind an emotion or feeling is processed and transformed into an entirely independent material. Like how lumber becomes a house. For Eliot, the poet is essentially a specialist. Everyone uses words but the poet designs words. The poem does not “convey” meaning. The poem is meaning.
With this in mind, that the poem’s presence is its meaning, we use “The Waste Land”’s “historical facts,” (eg the images of speech it performs, its allusions, even its lapses) like atheists in a friend’s church. We show up. We’re polite. We scoff. We’re confused. We’re offended. We like the way some things look, so we look more closely. We take what we need, we use what we can. We go Garbage Picking. We say thank you. Thank you.
It might be noted here that although the fragment was one of Eliot’s wild “inventions,” a necessary consequence and weakness of Eliot’s poetry are these fragments. For whatever reason, Eliot’s poetry is incapable of performing pattern perception. It may be that the specialist undergoes a certain occupational psychosis. The current trends toward reflexivity in nearly every discipline of study would suggest a closedness that I sometimes assume hurts everything.
Or it may be that Eliot’s prioritization of entire realms of experience either above or below others. Exclusion of this sort, the kind that takes short cuts and calls them standards, is a mutilation. And the perpetrator is often first to be scarred.
But to be as plain as I can be, my goal here has been to define the terms and conditions for Eliot as an American. America faces some special conditions. We’re founded by slaves and idealists and—the combination of the two—entrepreneurs. The numerous paradoxes of American culture often find their home in the tension between an egalitarian proverb and the reality of the creative elite. Eliot’s poetry reflects a very specific reaction to the poet-as-a-person-who-must-get-up-and-work-everyday. For Eliot, poetry is a spiritualization of luxury. It’s the finest things, it’s the time to enjoy the finest things, it’s the burning that comes with acquiring the acquired taste. It’s the confusion thereafter, when possibilities for praxis need practice.
For choosing to write about Eliot, I have also noticed that many of my poets-in-arms borrow Eliot’s snobbery and use it against him. Yes, he is a big dumb white man. Yes, he was racist and sexist and anti-Semitic and a royalist if not a fascist. Still, it seems to me that one of the dangers of not engaging with a strand of thought is that it seeps into your own with you being able to detect its presence.
And the possible lesson from Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is that we agree on a canon, not The Canon, or even a tradition with the same guiding principles. In “The Waste Land,” Eliot hands us his own canon. This idea, that what we read can be completely private and completely public might be useful. Or a canon with the potential for flux would be nice, one that changes as needed. Certainly a canon that would include all of the voices marginalized for centuries. But a canon is there for a reason: The Community. If we are talk about the same things, if we are to really talk at all, we must have some commons between us. Straight people should endeavor to understand other sexualities. Asians should read Hispanics. White people should read black writers. Men should read women. Women should read men. Black people should read white writers. Hispanics should read Asians. The queer community should endeavor to understand other sexualities. If democracy is to exist let all permutations therein dance around a bit. This is the lesson for democracy of T. S. Eliot, the fascist.