T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land through the Lenses of Modernism and Postmodernism

Journal of a Changing Artwork
(Parts I & II)

Part I:
T.S. Eliot & Foucault: Structuralist history & Modernism

T.S. Eliot was once afraid that the beginning of the twentieth century would bring with it the end of art. For him, and many of the great thinkers and writers of his time (such as James Joyce, Marcel Proust, etc), a collapse was occurring in which the “ways of knowing” that had served the Western mind since the Renaissance – most notably, science and philosophy – were giving way to new doubts, the most important being: how do we know what we know about the real world? The weight of this statement brought with it fear, disorientation, and uncertainty about the future of creation, and of knowledge. Yet, with it too came innovation, and the motivation to continue to create. One thing was certain, though: creative activity required some form of conscious or unconscious epistemology in order to sustain it.

Though interested in the complex relationship between its impossibility and inevitability, Eliot was not a fan of epistemology – unconscious or not. For Eliot, turning to epistemology in a time of confusion and esotericism (“what is the meaning of life?”) was like “tying knots in the wind”: essentially impossible. Eliot turned, instead, to history for guidance; specifically, what Foucault called periods of episteme throughout Western history. For Foucault, two great periods of episteme have existed so far: the “classics period” (Ancient Greece – 17th century) and the “modern period” (post-renaissance onward), the second of which as being currently dominated by three epistemological models: the biological model (romantics), the economic model (modes of production), and the linguistic model (signification). All of these models are interlinked and are still present today (as parts of the two larger periods of episteme), and they have always been and still are in constant competition with one another to be at the forefront of human thinking. Eliot studied Foucault’s theories of episteme at Harvard, and took a great interest in what appeared to be a new way to discuss the constant fragmentation of history as a whole. It was not the epistemologies themselves that interested Eliot, but the idea that all of them are merely pieces that never quite make a whole. In short: a solution to thinking about the nature of “the real world” and how we know what we know about it.

The Waste Land (and poetry in general) was Eliot’s way of considering new possibilities for reality; it was his way to invent new ways of seeing the world. Other writers, such as Proust and Joyce, used prose to do a similar thing. The experimentation of form, the focus on time and memory, and the “heap of broken images” that make up Eliot’s text and the texts of his contemporaries are the primary examples of how artists tried to find their way in the twentieth century. Jewel Spears Brooker and Joseph Bentley, from their book Reading the Waste Land: Modernism and the Limits of Interpretation, describe reading The Waste Land as being “about reading in the early twentieth century (33).” They go on to explain that the problem of knowledge and its subsequent breakdown is what allowed Eliot’s poem, and the work of what we now call “the Modernist writers”, to be simultaneously self-reflexive and an outsider’s guide – how to understand the twentieth century, how to read in and about it, and how to prepare for its future: the postmodern world.

Part II:
The Waste Land:
a Modernist text Flirting with Postmodernism

“Fear death by water,” writes T.S. Eliot in the first section of his poem The Waste Land, which is undeniably one of the more haunting statements among the “heap of broken images” that makes up the poem’s famous opening section. Yet, the world of The Waste Land in the opening section, The Burial of the Dead, seems to be a land devoid of water – a literal waste land as much as a metaphorical one. For example, Eliot’s narrator, called Marie, begins by reminiscing about a lively place, one in which there was “spring rain” that “went on in sunlight (11)”, only to realize that the landscape around her is, in actuality, one “where the sun beats/And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,/And the dry stone no sound of water (22-24).” Yet, though Marie’s current vision seems to be one of desert-like qualities, there is a constant threat of water that runs throughout. Statements like “Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor (47)” and “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many (62)” are images that clearly consider the possibility of water in a world of dust. One might wonder, though, why water should be feared in a desert – a place where water is so rare, and nearly always celebrated. Why does Marie’s “desert” fear “death by water”, then? Doesn't that seem somewhat contradictory?

Upon closer inspection of the poem’s opening lines, a similar contradiction becomes apparent within the memories of Marie’s once beautiful environment: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land (1-2).” April – month of fertility, new life, beginnings, etc. – is described as “the cruelest month”, a juxtaposition that seems, at first, to make no sense. Should not April be considered the “most generous month” or perhaps the “loveliest month?” Even more curiously, Marie’s memories also recall a winter that “kept us warm” and a summer that “surprised us” – notions that also seem paradoxical if based on the general consensus that winter should be cold and stunning, and summer should be warm and expected. However, it is important to remember that these opening “memories” are memories of a childhood, one that was special to Marie because winter was warm and summer surprising. As an adult, Marie’s world is one in which these paradoxes still exist, but are no longer special – they seem to have lost that childish quality, and now Marie, having been warned to “fear death by water”, and having seen that “death had undone so many (63)”, looks to a future that is bleak and fragmented. Jewel Spears Brooker and Joseph Bentley explain this in more detail (within Reading the Waste Land: Modernism and the Limits of Interpretation): “She [Marie] perceives the dualistic and paradoxical present as cruel because, in remembering the past and intuiting the future, she is left with a vacuum in the present moment, an absence in the middle of her life (62).” Brooker and Bentley go on to suggest that the opening section of Eliot’s poem is, in fact, a brief introduction to the Waste Land itself (the Waste Land being the narrative space for which the poem is named). The Waste Land is a place in which an individual fails to transcend the separate parts of his or her self and become whole…Marie is unable to connect her childhood self to her future self, as well as connect both of those to her current self. The Waste Land is cruel, like Marie’s April, because it allows life to come from death, over and over – and within it, time itself is cyclical and therefore unavoidably paradoxical; the Waste Land is also, consequentially, a place teeming with paradoxes: a desert that fears water.

Modernism, as a philosophy, claims that it is through fragmented narrative spaces that we define ourselves in the modern world, like Eliot’s Waste Land, and are proof that the great metanarratives (such as history itself) of the world are dying. While this might seem like a tragedy, the voices of postmodern writers (such as Jean-Francois Lyotard) see it more as something to be celebrated. The opening section of Eliot’s poem presents itself in a way that embraces modernism in its attempt to introduce the Waste Land itself as the broken, splintered metaphor for the current state of human history (and therefore, all metanarrative “truths”), but it also seems to suggest something more through the voice of Marie and her surprise, but not necessarily despair, at the world around her – after all, she was once a child who celebrated death, so to speak, through her love of a winter that, for her, was warm. As the opening of a very long poem, the expectation for something larger to be revealed by the end develops right away, but even at its beginning the voice of Eliot’s Waste Land seems to tease the mourning nature of modernism in a somewhat mocking, more postmodern voice…but perhaps it would be wise to wait until the end of the poem before deeming it modernist or postmodernist, for the two overlap quite a bit and “One must be so careful these days (57-59).”

Works Cited:

Brooker, Jewel Spears, and Joseph Bentley. Reading The Waste Land: Modernism and the Limits of Interpretation. Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

Eliot, Thomas Stearns. The Waste Land. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1922; Bartleby.com, 1998. www.bartleby.com/201/.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (English translation). Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

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