I often think that Eliot was a premature post-modernist in the sense that he foregrounded the indeterminacy of meaning. The struggle to interpret his poems pits not only one reading against another, but also requires readers to question the conventions of interpretation.
To a large extent Eliot made language his subject, prefiguring Saussure and semiotics. Not just by writing several different languages within TWL, but by placing the same English word in different contexts to the extent that its meaning becomes variable, i.e., the sign has a certain independence from the signified, but by emphasizing the material properties of words separate from their function as signifiers (i.e., "auditory imagination") he anticipated later linguistic investigations.
The magic of Eliot's work is that various, even contradictory approaches to analyzing it produce convincing interpretations! Could it be that the poems factor in that indeterminacy? Diana
From: Nancy Gish <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To: "T. S. Eliot Discussion forum." <[log in to unmask]>
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: a Jeremiah sighting?
Date: Sat, 7 Jul 2007 22:55:45 -0400
It depends what you mean by "spiritual." Eliot also said that at the
time of TWL he considered becoming a Buddhist, though he rejected that.
And my previous point was that there is a dry cistern in
"Introspection": dry cisterns can exist also apart from the Biblical
ones, and that one did.
No one denies there are allusions to the Bible in TWL. There are also
allusions to Buddha's "Fire Sermon" and to many other things. The three
themes in V include the image of the half of Europe on the way to chaos,
singing drunkenly like Dmitri Karamasoff.
So if your point is that there are Biblical allusions, that is not at
issue. But there is no necessary connection to Jeremiah in the surreal
scene of a destroyed landscape just because there is a cistern there.
We do not "establish" anything by showing that there are cisterns in
both places and that the poem also is about water. The poem is not a
puzzle, and the landscape is individual and nightmarish. Eliot said his
writing of this was like the illumination that a long illness could
produce in literature as well as religion.
I'm trying to note that the poem is not explained or experienced or
understood by making every individual word part of something else, even
if he did use allusions. Many critics, in any case, have read it
differently. Kenner made a great point of dismissing source
hunting---as did Eliot.
>>> cr mittal <[log in to unmask]> 07/07/07 9:58 PM >>>
It's not just a matter of "cisterns", Nancy.
Let me add to Jeremiah ii, 13 Solomon's exhortation in
Proverbs v, 15 :
'Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters
out of thine own well'.
Eliot could easily have these biblical sources in mind
vis-a-vis "empty cisterns and exhausted wells".
Mark also in this context the preceding 29-line quest for water
beginning "Here is no water..."
And all this in the context of the opening lines
"He who was living is now dead" etc.
as well as the context of the journey to Emmaus and to Chapel
What more context do we need to establish that Eliot's quest for
water here is a spiritual quest? Incidentally, Eliot thought that
quest-for-water lines to be the only 'good lines in The Waste Land',
the rest being ephemeral (Letter of 14 August 1923 to Ford Madox
Ford, WL Drafts, p. 129). [Manju Jain, Notes, p. 184]
Nancy Gish <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
Yes, it is now placed in a new context that can, if you want, be read
religious, but that is not its first appearance. That is what I said.
There are cisterns in the Old Testament and plenty other cisterns.
What is significant here is that TWL has been read in very different
ways since 1922; the religious reading is mainly a look back from later
work and was not what readers first thought. That there are religious
images is not, in itself, reason to see it as longing for religion. In
any case, the cistern does not need to be read through the Old Testament
unless one places it in a larger context that is only one way of reading
>>> cr mittal 07/07/07 8:13 PM >>>
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.
The context of this line from 'What the Thunder Said' is already
there in the opening lines of the section:
// He who was living is now dead //
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience
And this elaboration of what Peter Montgomery wrote :
In the Old Testament the empty cisterns and wells signified the loss
of faith and worship of false gods. God tells the prophet Jeremiah:
'For my people have committed two evils; //they have forsaken me
the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken
cisterns, that can hold no water'// (Jeremiah ii, 13).
~ Notes on T.S. Eliot's Selected Poems by Manju Jain
(Delhi: OUP, 1998, p.188):
Nancy Gish wrote: The image of the cistern
appears in a loose leaf of Eliot's notebook,
INVENTIONS OF THE MARCH HARE. It is undated but part of material well
before TWL and in the context of "introspection," which he was thinking
about in relation to Bradley and wrote about to his mother in 1917.
//Eliot used images over and over, but this one does not seem to
have begun in religious or in Waste Land sources.//
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