Surrealism, even Dada are apt descriptions for TWL, which is a modernist poem, in my view, with postmodern tendencies. Novelists were ahead of poets in presenting raw subjectivity, or as raw as descriptions of the mind at work could be and still qualify as art (a distinction the Surrealists' did not recognize with regard to automatic writing, to the detriment of their literature's artistic quality.) Woolf, Joyce, Lawrence, Conrad, among the English novelists had done it, and Dostoevsky did it before them. Eliot is not the first to have depicted abnormal mental states; Roskolnikov's mind is more uncomfortable a place to be than Prufrock's.
No reading of the poem except one that posits a focalizing character establishes coherence among all the poem's elements. When that character's perceptions are allowed their distortions the poem makes sense. Minor details, as Woolf illustrated in To the Lighthouse when a character thinks about new boots at the funeral of someone dearly loved, can assume more emotional importance to a character that an ostensibly important event, or provide a distraction from a threatening possibility, as when Joyce has Leopold Bloom concern himself with kidneys and girls on the beach to defend himself against his knowledge of his wife's adultery.
As a monologue of a central narrator TWL is not so postmodern as the later chapters of Ulysses or all of Finnegans Wake, both of which do away with the authorial voice and a narrator, cutting characters loose to face the reader on their own. TWL, though tending in that direction, never kills off the author or narrator. To make a case that it does requires some evidence from Eliot's work after TWL, and that is meager. Of course one could say with some validity that TWL represents a unique moment in Eliot's career when he allowed himself, under the duress of his own breakdown, to collect dissociated fragments and call it a poem, but I for one do not see the poem as that radical a departure from the rest of his oeuvre.
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: Water in TWL--why?
Date: Thu, 2 Aug 2007 16:18:09 -0400
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.
Very best, Diana
>>> Diana Manister <[log in to unmask]> 08/02/07 3:55 PM >>>