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patron saint

Still, the close reading. Fine. You will have your blasted close reading. However, I will conduct this reading on my own terms. I will shuffle, and play the cards at my whim, sometimes to my detriment. First though, a word on why and how I’ve resisted the close reading.

“The Waste Land” begs a different criticism. My initial interest in the poem sprung from the seeming impossibility for anything clever to be said about the poem, and yet everyone went on assigning it, sometimes with a tone of reverence normally associated with religiosity: “You don’t get it? None of us do, it’s a mystery! Work toward it though, it has its rewards!” That Eliot can be enjoyed without thorough understanding is entirely true. The danger, of course, is that Eliot may or may not be part of what we might call The McMansion Canon. This canon has the look and feel of substantial lodging, but was erected specifically for this appearance.

I have said that Eliot is not an elitist, but a nerd. I stand by this. What I failed to mention, however, is that often, in pursuit of the mastery of an idea or ideal (in this case, language) the nerd becomes the bully. An elitism by submission if you will. Indeed, Bill Gates, the patron (saint?) of nerds reminds us, “Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.”

Thus, in this age of the internet, where I take my rigor and turn it into something a bit more performative, something which (if I may deign (I deign)) engages the audience and recognizes that this act of internet writing is, as it occurs at the push of a button (thereby drastically cutting the gap between writer and reader), more similar to a stage than a page, it is not much of a surprise that Eliot is having something of a popular revival. The ability to split-screen, open tabs, tap hyper-links with a finger, express-order live performances of, say, an epic utterance that can be enjoyed in less than thirty minutes, etc., have enabled happy days for Eliot, precisely because he is so famously complicated. Notice that “The Waste Land” for iPad has been Mac’s best-selling book app, surpassing Marvel Comics and Twilight. “The Waste Land” has always begged its readers to multitask, to make leaps, to be both attentive and creative readers. “Garbage Picking,” this method where I invoke the poem and then collect its significant rubbish, was created for “The Waste Land.”

Upon arriving at the first line of “The Waste Land” proper we’ve read lines from Petronius’s Satyricon, Dante’s Purgatory, The Book of Common Prayer, and hopefully Miss Westion’s From Ritual to Romance and Frazier’s The Golden Bough. That’s six texts, counting “The Waste Land” itself, and four languages. And do not try to sell me that—ahem—garbage about the terms and circumstances that led Eliot to write the footnotes. It is an odd mythology this poem engenders: it asks to be read impersonally, and often the same readers who hold this fact to be sacrosanct are the readers who form all sorts of logics as to why Eliot included the footnotes: “He was being ironic, he was having a laugh at the people who said the poem was difficult, he was trying to buttress his reputation (it’s critical success was not guaranteed, after all).” No, the footnotes are a part of the text. If there is a personal fact from Eliot’s biography that is important, it is that he was a sickly child and spent his youth indoors, reading.

Let’s look at the excerpt of the Satyricon. I have a translation here:

I have seen with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her ‘What do you want?’ She answered, “I want to die.”

A powerful and brilliant epigraph. It does a number of duties, two of which I will remark on. First, readers of Miss Weston know that the trope of the Priest/Healer runs parallel to that of The Fisher King’s hero, the hero who makes the kingdom plentiful by healing its wounded king. So “The Waste Land” opens with a priestess who wants to die. We then ask “The Waste Land,” what about you is a climate where the healer wishes herself to be dead? That Sibyl of Cumae signaled the coming of Jesus might also prove relevant.

Second, and you have to know the Satyricon to know this, Sybil of Cumae asked for eternal life without asking for perpetual youth. Above, when the boys question Sibyl what she wants, she has aged into a pile of dust. In a sense, she is neither living nor dead—thus, her answer, “I want to die.” The epigraph also implies that death would be preferable to an in-between state. This reading assists with lines like, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

Finally we read the first line. “April is the cruelest month, breeding.” A famous line for good reason. It’s counter-intuitive. April is the Easter season, the time of rebirth! But based on what we know from the epigraph we might guess that the speaker has not yet earned rebirth. Is the speaker, who later turns out to be the Phoenician Sailor and the hero of the poem, like Sibyl of Cumae, a handful of dust in a cage, wishing to die?

Aside: Eliot takes shots at the Romantic tradition throughout this poem, and when the second line goes onto read, “Lilacs out the dead land, mixing,” we should read that as a slap at Mr. Lilacs in the Dooryard himself. Quick fixes and emotional blabber that solves nothing, that is how Eliot reads the Romantics. Eliot wants to go deeper, down amongst the roots of the dried tubers.

“I. The Burial of the Dead” is a ritualized invocation bringing the proceeding elements and themes of the poem. WWI is indirectly referenced in the first stanza. If the poem begins with the Burial of the Dead, what can the poem bring us? Note, in the Book of Common Prayer the initial passage is from John: “I am the resurrection and the Life saith the lord: he that believeth in me, though dead, yet shall live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.” So belief grants eternal life. But what if, like Madame Sosotris (a play on a Aldous Huxley character, symbolizing Bertand Russell, famous atheist (and a close friend of Eliot’s then wife)) we do not find “the Hanged Man,” whom Eliot tells us he (Eliot) associates with Jesus. Are we then merely pieces in a game with rigid and very certain boundaries?

For a student of comparative literature, something very interesting occurs in “II. A Game of Chess.” A woman speaking to our hero commands him to think: “‘My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me./’Speak to me. Why do you never speak?/’What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?/’I never know what you are thinking. Think.’” In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot the master, Pozzo, commands his servant, Lucky,
“Think, pig!” Also, Eliot’s “East Coker” uses the phrase “The end is in the beginning.” Beckett’s corrective is in Endgame. Hamm announces “The end is in the beginning, and yet you go on.” Hold on to this. I will argue that Eliot is, by lineage, more properly an ancestor of postmodernism than Modernism, and that the McMansion Canon too readily charted Eliot’s position as distinct from Beckett’s.

Can you find the sonnet in “III. The Fire Sermon?” I’ll give you a clue. It contains a veritable rape scene that highlights the name of the section by describing a cocky “young man carbuncular” and a typist who finds it easier to allow him access than to refuse. “The Fire Sermon” comes from the Buddha’s sermon on overcoming the flailings of pleasure. For Eliot it is not just the body that must be usurped; the other’s body must also be usurped.

The theme of water is the most interesting and most complicated theme in “The Waste Land.” Water, Miss Weston tells us, will restore the land, and yet throughout “The Waste Land” the hero will “fear death by water.” Also, the phrase “Those are pearls that were his eyes” sung by Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest suggests a transformation that might occur were one to drown. “IV. Death by Water,” the shortest section, is an invitation to hope against hope for redemption, that we might die and the hands of our redemption and be transformed. Death, for Eliot, permits life.

The final section contains the most convoluted denouement in the English language. “The Waste Land” ultimately tries to answer Miss Weston’s call for a piece of literature that combines the entire history of The Vegetation Gods and later Holy Grails myths, and we see Eliot’s belligerent, mechanized program of unity in the final eleven lines:

_______I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down

Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

_______Shantih_____shantih_____shantih

Now, what I am about to do is for your eyes only. The point of this poem is this brokenness, the stretching of the lungs too wide that it might inhale all of history, and resurrect its own story. The speaker is nuts. If there is an emotion in “The Waste Land,” it is that this command to multitask has driven her insane. But for our purposes:

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down

Then he hid himself in the fire that purifies them
When shall I become like the swallow?—O swallow swallow
The prince of Aquitaine in the abandoned tower
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Give. Sympathize. Control.

_______Shantih_____shantih_____shantih

There is a concession. The poem suddenly reduces its lens to “my lands”; a second ago the speaker was naming every major European city in history, we’d been to Ganges and Jesus had appeared in the walk to Emmaus . . . and now one sits on the shore and the plain is arid. The land, or that which is exterior, has not been restored. It seems that the speaker shrugs in the face of defeat; an image of a city in ruin, but a famous child’s rhyme, a whimsical and simultaneously sinister gesture; and suddenly, English now, we see a narrative.

The Fisher King (“he”) has again disappeared, into the fire that purifies. (Remember Weston’s Vegetation God is dumped back into the river after there is no use for it.) But so when will I be transformed, made into the once ravished swallow that now sings? No: instead, I am the prince of my abandoned tower, my cage only, and I’ve collected what I can to ensure my survival.

At that moment, when the speaker is merely protecting against ruin, The Fisher King returns, using his guile to bring out the causes of his son’s death. And the cycle begins again. Give. Sympatheize. Control.

Formally “The Waste Land” is most similar to an Upanishad; it’s nature is philosophical, it is most effective as a performance, and it even makes not just one, but all Upanishads a part of its body. But it’s also special poem. It’s wildly irregular. And Eliot is a special poet. He is cool because his design and detail are radically weird. His work looks like nothing else. And I find that I can return and return and reimagine and reimagine.

But he is also an idiot. I take a hands on approach with the folk I admire. Eliot is entirely racist insofar as “The Waste Land” is granted its departures by entirely prioritizing the enactment of written culture over the spoken word. And, my friend lewis will help me here, but the ethos of art as luxury is bunk, too. Art is neither luxury nor rebellion. We’ll talk.

And if I may borrow from Eliot, my real gripe with “poetry is an escape from emotion” is that it is an inexact formula. Like O’Hara’s notion of “Personism,” in which a poem is directed to a specific recipient, thereby launching the poem into abstraction for the general audience (the intensely personal becoming impersonal), Eliot’s impersonal poem is the most personal. When Eliot says impersonal, he doesn’t mean inspired, he means necessary. To paraphrase myself, it is Frankenstein’s monster: Made of the component parts its master uncovered, and forever bearing that master’s name.