Nancy Gish wrote:
> Diana, I think your word "hallucinatory" is key. Despite much criticism to the contrary, the poem is not logical and organized neatly to demonstrate an idea. That view developed with critics like Brooks and George Williamson and others, but it had not been seen by everyone that way initially any more than now. It is a surreal landscape of psychological states. I don't see why that makes it nonsensical at all. It signifies what it signifies, not nothing. And then the "tale told by an idiot" is life itself.
> Nancy as usual you make a strong argument. But if the significance of all of Eliot's characters and images were as confused and confusing as his use of water, the poem would be nonsensical, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." But it does communicate clearly the hallucinatory breakdown of a psyche that cannot at the moment integrate inner and outer stimuli, so something in the poem must be working better than the poet's use of water does.
It is the attempt to make everything meaningful that reduces the poem to
nonsense. Why is there a long exchange between Touchstone and Jacques
in Act V Sc. iv of As You Like It? Answer: To give the actors time to
change costumes before the wedding. How meaningful is the content of
that exchange? Probably not meaningful at all. The only essential is
that it be reasonably entertaining and not conflict with the overall
thrust of the play. To assign a 'deeper' meaning to it risks reducing
the whole play to a chaos.
To see _everything_ as meaningful is to destroy all intelligible
meaning. And there is no way to confine such general tropes as any of
the four elements to a single meaning throughout a work -- _or_ to make
every trope meaningful outside its local context.
See for a useful discussion of this Robert M. Adams, "Contra Hartman:
Possible and Impossible Structures of Imagery." 117-131 in Earl Miner,
ed. Seventeenth-Century Imagery: Essays on Uses of Figurative Language
from Donne to Farquahr. Berkeley: Univ. of California P, 1971.
Different uses of water in different passages, far from making the poem
nonsensical, is the very condition of there being a poem at all. Any
whole is made up of smaller wholes, and any given trope within a smaller
whole must _first_ be constarued within that part. Even when a given
trope _is_ active throughout a work it does NOT follow that _every_
occurence is meaningful in that sense. The word and concept "sense" is
central in much of Austen's work, but surely Austen must be able to use
the word in a perfectly neutral sense as well -- and it is the local
context of each appearance of the word which must determine its scope
for the reader. The same with water in The Waste Land.