In 1922 one of the greatest pieces of modern literature, T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, was published. While its scope is universal and timeless, it is also very much a product of its place (Britain) and time, both in Europe and North America. While critics have offered many interpretations, it is most commonly regarded as a criticism of the spiritual state of humankind. This essay looks at the significance of the poem today and asks whether the world it portrayed is still the same.
Eliot in 1922 was in his early thirties and rundown. His wife was sick and he himself was confronted by a sexual dysfunction that may have been impotence. Adding to his gloom the boom after World War I had collapsed, the Spanish Flu had struck, and there were two million people unemployed in Britain alone, with similar conditions in Europe and America. On top of all this, Eliot had formed a pessimistic view of history in which order and discipline evident in previous times had given way to a sterile pandering to desire, a materialism and moral laxity which were ugly and joyless.
Eliot was not alone in his thinking. Reviews were mixed, partly due to the novelty and density of the poet’s style, but very soon, as his biographer Peter Ackroyd relates (T. S. Eliot, Abacus, 1985, p. 128), a cult of Waste Landers developed. His admirers saw him as telling deep truth about contemporary society, and doing so in a syncopated and colourful (or colour-drained) way that was entirely appropriate.
What the poem says
The Waste Land is decidedly critical about something, but what? Perhaps the best way of answering this question is to look at each of the five parts of the poem. Here is a summary:
The Burial of the Dead introduces the key idea of a dead land as metaphor for some deeper psychological or spiritual loss. Associated with this death is loss or absence of love. London is identified as a waste land, an “Unreal City” where a crowd flows like so many dead souls in winter. Death is everywhere, on land and at sea. There is the thought that new life may arise, but it would not be without pain of some kind.
A Game of Chess tells us how squalid reality (as in sex) underlies the finery of romantic love. The way we relate to each other even in the small details of everyday living can create a type of waste land.
The Fire Sermon goes into more detail about the waste land. We see that lack of charity, lack of feeling for others and lack of self-control have led to forms of death – joyless seduction, rape, and mass murder.
Death by Water appears to say that death is irreversible and that even the strong can die.
What the Thunder Said, however, finds hope in a Hindu prescription for living – give, show compassion and exercise self-control. We have failed in these areas before and they have led us into our present waste land, but they may be a path back to beauty and fertility.
The Waste Land is not a treatise or an argument but a poem, and we should read it as such, not forcing out of it too much logic or reason. While it seems to be set in some sort of present day there is plenty of reference to things from the past that parallel in some way the sorts of things we see in the modern world. Rape and murder and other instances of inhumanity are not limited to a particular time or place; and yet it does seem that the poet is acutely conscious of his own world, his own time, as being full of the worst things that humans can do to each other.
The poem seems random in its structure, like the pack of Tarot cards in Part I, but it is tied together by the waste land myth which relates to the missing Holy Grail. The Tarot cards convey diversity as well as randomness. Through this apparent confusion three main themes recur – desolation or deprivation of some kind, desire for relief (which may be recovery or the ability to forget), and the presence of an intermediary or seer. All three themes are part of the waste land myth, and the poem presents us with varieties of waste land linked by these themes. At the heart of everything is the wounded and impotent Fisher King, guardian of the Holy Grail who is one of the characters uniting the poem. Another central character, not dissimilar, is Tiresias, the blind seer from Greek mythology who was half man and half woman and also impotent. We might speculate that Eliot saw himself as such a character, a person with insight and gifts sufficient to chronicle the varieties of degradation around him but unable to do anything about it. At any rate the poem as a whole presents us with a remarkably diverse set of images of desolation and decay. What are we to make of them?
The imagery is disconnected from any clear argument and seems vague, leading nowhere in particular. As a package it is highly evocative though in detail it is hardly more than a lot of scraps of language, all conveying some sort of mood or feeling: a dull canal, a rat dragging its sleepy belly onto a bank, or the brown fog of a winter noon. Only some of the imagery is about actual loss, as in lines 22-24:
… where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
Specific social, economic and political issues of the time are not mentioned at all. The passages that most address contemporary life are those about the crowd where “each man fixed his eyes before his feet” (lines 60-68), the women in the bar at closing time (lines 139-72) and the seduction scenes (lines 207-56). Whatever contributed to Eliot’s mood of desolation, the waste land he is actually writing about is essentially a moral and spiritual one that transcends the brownness of his own time. It is one where people are unkind towards others, uncaring, or simply lack self-control. The effects of these failings are often most evident in sexual relations, which is where Eliot has focused much of his attention, though in actuality they spill over into all human relations.
Significance of the poem
While images from the dreariness of London in 1922 are perhaps the most memorable parts of the poem, they don’t add up to an argument about this year or this time in particular. So we have to think more deeply about the meaning of the words Waste Land.
I said earlier that the waste land myth is about loss of some kind. Exactly what has been lost is not clear from the poem. There are occasional phrases which allude to loss, but they don’t add up to anything coherent. Certainly there has been a loss of innocence as in the raped Philomel, loss of life as in the drowned Phlebas and crucified Christ, and loss of whole civilisations as in the torched Carthage. Gilbert Seldes, however, writing in T. S. Eliot “The Waste Land”: A Casebook (Macmillan, 1968) p. 41, finds more. According to Seldes, Eliot is
concerned with the idea of the Waste Land – that the land was fruitful and now is not, that life had been rich, beautiful, assured, organized, lofty, and now is dragging itself out in a poverty-stricken and disrupted and ugly tedium, without health, and with no consolation in morality; there may remain for the poet the labor of poetry, but in the poem there remain only “these fragments I have shored against my ruins” – the broken glimpses of what was.
Sometimes death leads to new life, sometimes there is only the hope of new life. This perversity and accompanying frustration and despair are expressed through water imagery. There is the water that causes lilacs to breed but equally the water that drowned Phlebas in Part IV. Sometimes there are both, as in the death of Jesus followed by his resurrection. Against the gloomy interpretation proffered by Seldes above there is the thought that, while morality has failed in the past, it might still be a path to future redemption. Even the most sterile landscapes can have new growth. Towards the end of the poem Eliot allows for the possibility of such growth through his references to the Hindu prescriptions of datta (give to others), dayadhvam (sympathise) and damyata (exercise self-control). The point of using these Hindu ideas may be twofold: that we have to step outside our settled Western ways of thinking and that we have to take personal responsibility for our lives.
A century of change
Human nature does not change too much over a hundred years. People are still kind sometimes, exploitative and self-centred at other times. What does change is the different kinds of environment we move in: the social, economic, political, technological, and natural environments. So much has happened in these environments over the past century that I doubt whether waste land would be now an appropriate metaphor (assuming that in fact it was in Eliot’s time). I would say now we’re rather in a hot land.
World War I and its aftermath were undeniably an ugly time for Europe, with much of the achievements of the imperial age – the time of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII – squandered by bad politics and militarism. A whole generation was blighted and we could say that in a very real sense there was much that was laid to waste. Rebuilding happened but all too soon the Great Depression struck then World War II, so that Europe was in a state of desolation all over again. For some parts this lasted much longer than others, as the Cold War held Eastern Europe in its icy grip until late in the century. Anyone visiting Iron Curtain countries in the 1980s as I did could be forgiven for thinking that this was the real waste land, much more than Eliot’s Britain and Europe. As well as economic and social ravages and the loss of all sorts of amenity in cities, there was prevailing political oppression that made the daily lives of ordinary people a living kind of hell.
But parallel with all this there were other dynamics developing. In the past century we have had:
· population increase from two billion to eight billion
· corresponding growth in industry, transport and communications
· corresponding growth in technology
· corresponding growth in competition together with reluctance to accept restraint
· corresponding growth in institutions, rules, standards, accountabilities, red tape
· corresponding growth in systems of thought, academic disciplines, expressions of spirituality
· corresponding growth in arms and in centres of power, including non-state actors.
We are now in a fiercely competitive world where the pace of living has quickened alarmingly. There is a sense of being on a never-ending treadmill. Living standards have improved for many but poverty and inequality continue, so it seems, unabated.
From waste land to hot land
My metaphor for the world of today is hot land. A hot land is a place which is overheated. The heat source may be external as in equatorial regions too close to the sun, or it may be internal as in a volcano or hot springs. Heat may also be generated by an excess of activity.
We are all familiar with the phenomenon of global warming, the climate change that has led our planet into a perilous zone of widespread damage to health and wellbeing. Global warming makes us not just a hot land but a hot planet. Parallel with this there are other forms of overheating. They can be summed up by saying there is too much competition between too many things. There are too many news items to absorb, celebrities to follow, rules to obey, passwords to remember, reports to read, gadgets to master, court cases to contest - the list is endless. It is not just that there are too many but that they are all driven with such seriousness, such intensity. This phenomenon of overheating seems to occur in all areas of our being. In spiritual life, for example, the already long list of religions present in 1922 has mushroomed, with everyone being his or her own pastor and bringing his or her own New Age. Effectively this is the democratisation of faith, the ultimate collapse of organised religion, atomisation of belief to the nth degree. The word “democratisation” leads us to another set of examples: politics and government. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries move to organise political thought and to streamline government has literally disintegrated as more small groups and independents “pop up” claiming attention, creating headaches for bodies politic around elections. Governments have attempted to regulate everything in sight in an effort to save their citizens from themselves, with the result that red tape along with sorts of security controls has become like the plastic waste polluting our river and sea life. Which brings us back to climate change and the global warming where we started.
All of this is grim and there is no sign of any change for the better. We can’t even begin to catalogue all the harms that wittingly and unwittingly we have brought upon ourselves. These are harms of a different kind from those in Eliot’s mind, the selfish and exploitative harms evident in the bedroom quite apart from society at large or the very ground we walk on, water we drink, air we breathe. Eliot’s waste land has not gone away: all the inquiries into child abuse, domestic violence, forms of discrimination and the like, so characteristic of our time, are testament to that. Eliot’s waste land is still here but ramped up a notch or two, with dimensions he a century ago could not have foreseen. The overheating I have described is an overlay on top of the waste land. Indeed the two are connected.
To understand this connection we have to go back to the roots of the malady, as Eliot did. He described a society that had been untended, unwatered by the human qualities of compassion and kindness and basic respect. Such a society is bound to dry out. There are examples from the past – the great civilisations of Greece, Rome and others dried up and went to dust; and in our own time we see the same thing happening with the United States and previously the Soviet Union. When this happens it is all too easy for citizens to retreat into self-protection and an undue focus on “me”. Thus the rot is compounded and there is no protection when unexpected enemies emerge under cover of darkness. Such enemies are unrecognised until it is too late. One is the Trojan horse of technology, welcomed at first as saviour of humankind but now in many ways dragging us down, leaching us of our humanity. A second enemy is the market which we ourselves spawned to sustain us but which has turned into an Oedipus, making us eat and indulge ourselves to death. A third enemy, again unsuspected, is the coronavirus which has invaded us and cut us down as the barbarians did to ancient Rome. There is no more potent image of a society plunged into overheating – a furnace of its own making – than the daily concatenation of government regulations, medical bulletins and statistics, the testing queues, the lost livelihoods, the lost lives, and the all-pervading anxiety.
In part I have expressed my views of our present day society in poems published at https://www.memorablespeech.net/poems-of-society. These poems are relatively simple, worlds away from The Waste Land which might itself be described as a hot land, a fierce jungle largely impenetrable with all its literary, historical and other allusions. The poet cannot save us in any way: the poet can only draw attention to what’s going on, doing so in a way that compels attention and forces us to think. This is crucial for the solution, to the extent that there is, lies within us ourselves. We have to see there is a problem and understand the necessity of thinking – thinking before action. The ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu knew this when he wrote the Tao Te Ching and invited us to submit to the simplicity and profundity of the Tao (the divinely ordered way of life), turning our backs on the frenzy and error of complexity manifest in the “ten thousand things.” This, it is worth noting, was written around the sixth century B.C. Even then there was a sense that civilisation had overreached itself and got too warm for its own good
The Tao Te Ching verse 67 recommends three treasures of behaviour which we would do well to adopt – love, moderation and humility. This is not unlike Eliot except that it goes to the further stage of humility. Humility allows us to see the world more honestly and opens us up to new ways of living that may in time be less harmful. Mao Zedong in 1958 made what he called a Great Leap Forward which turned out to be a disaster; we, however, may need our own kind of Great Leap Forward into different ways of thinking if we are to survive. We surely cannot allow ourselves to drift yet another century, heading for yet another iteration of the human push to self-degradation and self-destruction.
The Waste Land has poetic edge from portrayal of conditions of its time but it is not bound to its time; a century later it is still relevant. The moral and spiritual failings Eliot identified in 1922 have not gone away. Not only that, but they have in part contributed to the dangerous overheating of all kinds that our society experiences today. The waste land has become also a hot land, and we don’t seem to know what to do about it.
Eliot’s impulse was to look for answers outside his own civilisation. This is not to say that he rejected Christianity but rather, at the time of writing his poem, he was finding more nourishment of the soul from Eastern religions, specifically Buddhism and Hinduism. Nevertheless there is some merit in taking a step away from the familiar for it introduces a new sharpness and clarity of vision. The implied message of the poem is that rejuvenation of our waste land is something for which we are responsible ourselves. The more obvious message is that kindness, compassion and self-control are needed to restore the things that have been lost. This is undeniably good advice.
The hot land is a harder nut to crack. The reason for this is twofold: firstly we are on trajectories which presumably cannot be reversed, and secondly the very nature of these trajectories is such that we cannot see where we are going or how we can manage better. We are heading towards more and more complexity, more and more dependence on technology, more and more struggle for survival as individuals, forced by institutional failures into an endless self-help mode which all too quickly becomes sterile self-assertiveness and aggression. The time has come for a humility and honest self-awareness such as we have never felt before.