Second Eliot Lecture

The focus of the lecture was on The Waste Land as probably the definitive Modernist American text. I started with what TSE said in his 1922 review of Joyce's Ulysses, which like The Waste Land was also published in 1922. Modern reality as "a vast panoroma of anarchy and futitily" -- that, I said, is the place where Modernist art starts -- cf. Henry Adams' "Chaos was the law of nature; order was the dream of man." We contrasted that conception of history to Whitman's in his poems (cf. esp. p. 60): where Whitman saw purpose & progress, TSE and The Waste Land assume spreading chaos. Typically World War I is cited as occasion for this idea of history & reality as "waste land," but in the poem TSE uses specifically the Russian Revolution (cf. emigré Marie at poem's start & p. 1190).

To make the modern world possible in art, TSE goes on to say, narrative will be replaced by mythical method -- ironic juxtaposition of (in Joyce's novel) Homer's heroic poem with Bloom's anti-heroic life or (in TSE's poem) grail legend of rebirth with the modern failures that The Waste Land articulates: chiefly the loss of God (can't be reborn through faith) and the failure of love (cf. the many ex's of impotence, sterility, mindless or perverse sexuality). I talked about the books TSE refers readers to in his notes. (1)Frazier's Golden Bough, a work of comparative anthropology which gave TSE the tropes of fertility & nature's rebirth, & allowed him to connect the preoccupation of "Prufrock" (i.e. sexual failure) with the great Modernist theme of the death of God (the corpse that doesn't sprout). (2)Weston's From Ritual to Romance, a work of literary criticism that gave TSE specific "plot" he used to organize The Waste Land -- ironically. I.e. Weston's account of the Grail quest as way to redeem the "waste land" gives way to what doesn't happen in TSE's poem. (Once again we're dealing with urgent expectations that give way to anti-climax, with what "doesn't happen" as the plot of a text, etc.) Specifically what doesn't happen is the resurrection (cf. way section 5 begins: "He who has living is now dead, We who were living are now dying" -- way death of God leaves man with only "time," not eternity, churches keep only "hours," etc.); and love (so in a sense "climax" of poem is squalid sexual congress between the typist and the carbuncular clerk in middle of middle section, which Tiresias "sees" and knows is meaningless.

Using "mythical method" allows TSE to give the poem an (ironic) structure, which means the surface of the poem can reflect, reproduce the sense of modernity as chaos, through its ruptures, disjunctions, juxtapositions of past greatness & modern squalor, "litter" of allusions, high art, pop songs, religious music & din of city streets, etc. In its themes -- the very portentious absence of God, the emptiness & sterility of the (sexual) forms of "love," the way history has happened as an act of violent rupture, dispossession, & feels to be getting more violent all the time -- and in its techniques -- especially the use of the (heroic or meaningful) past to measure the "horror" of the modern (anti-heroic & meaningless) present -- TSE's poem showed writers like Faulkner & Hemingway (& Fitzgerald -- Great Gatsby is enormously indebted to The Waste Land) how to be Modernist writers, as we'll see after break.

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