A very powerful portrayal of a grim scenario.
The 20th century must be the darkest period of human history.
A genuine frame of reference for The Waste Land, the century's
bleakest poem. Here are some excerpts for the list's
from Eliot's Notes to The Waste Land:
366-76. Cf. Hermann Hesse, Blick ins Chaos:
Schon ist halb Europa, schon ist zumindest der halbe Osten Europas auf dem Wege zum Chaos, fährt betrunken im heiligen Wahn am Abgrund entlang und singt dazu, singt betrunken und hymnisch wie Dmitri Karamasoff sang. Ueber diese Lieder lacht der Bürger beleidigt, der Heilige und Seher hört sie mit Tränen.
[Already half of Europe, already at least half of Eastern Europe, on the way to Chaos, drives drunk in sacred infatuation along the edge of the precipice, sings drunkenly, as though hymn singing, as Dmitri Karamazov [in Dostoyevski's Brothers Karamazov] sang. The offended bourgeois laughs at the songs; the saint and the seer hear them with tears.]
One may view the following lines of the poem vis-a-vis the first World War:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, 20
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock, 25
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
I think we are in rats’ alley 115
Where the dead men lost their bones.
The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear 185
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.
A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank
White bodies naked on the low damp ground
And bones cast in a little low dry garret,
Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year.
To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest 310
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience
Here is no water but only rock
What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only 370
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London 375
A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings 380
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed 405
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aetherial rumours 415
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time; so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and to save the world from suicide. — T. S. Eliot, “Thoughts After Lambeth”
|Meditation on a theme from Yeats
It has been over 50 years since I saw All Quiet on the Western Front, and I
remember one scene (or hope I remember accurately) near the end. The burly
sergeant is carrying a wounded man slung over his back. Then in an upper
corner of the screen a plane appears in the distance. Then there is a brief
chatter of machine-gun fire and the sergeant trudges on, unaware that the
man on his back is now dead. I think of that corner of the screen whenever I
think of Yeats's wonderful and vile poem, "An Irish Airman Foresees His
Death." That airman is in the air (as the poem makes clear) for pure
personal joy: he neither loves the 'side' he fights for nor hates the 'side'
he fights against; no conclusion of the war can bring either joy or sorrow
to those he loves. That scene near the end of All Quiet brings that airman
vividly to mind. The war is over; there can be no rational motive for the
flier; he kills for joy, as does the sniper in the movie's most famous
scene, at the very end, when the central character, moments before the
armistice takes effect, reaches out for a butterfly, is seen by the sniper,
What brought all this to mind was listening to a radio program on Straus's
_Elektra_, which was framed by the opera's appearance at a time, 1909, when
the 20th-c was looked forward to as a century of peace and plenty -- five
years before the Horror of WW1, and by an occurrence three years before the
death of Strauss, the fire-bombing of Dresden (where Elektra had been
produced in 1909) -- a raid as near to the end of WW2, for all practical
purposes, as that airplane in the corner of the screen had been to the end
of WW1: 40,000 people died in that pointless raid. (Read Vonnegut's
Slaughter House Five). And the century was to end with the deliberate
destruction by the U.S. Air Force of the sewage system of Baghdad and, a few
years after the close of the century, the horror of Fallujah, an equal to
any of the great atrocities of the 20th-c. Whenever I read or think of
Yeats's poem it calls up for me this history -- and also the present: a
soldier comes home from Afghanistan and greets his mother with, "Mom, I'm a
monster." My dentist, who served a year in Vietnam, is dying of ALS --
almost certainly as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. The Vietnamese
people, of course, continue to be exposed to that deadly chemical: during
the war a book on it was entitled: Not Since the Romans Salted the Earth.
The Romans made of Carthage a wasteland, the U.S. made of Vietnam an endless
destroyer of the people who must live there. The death toll so far
approaches 3 million and counting.
I don't know enough about music in general or Wagner & Strauss in particular
to really make sense of the radio program I listened to an hour ago, but it
was of interest that the woman recounting it said of Elektra that though
produced 5 years before the beginning of the Century of Horror in fact was
truer to that coming world than to the optimistic world in which it was
composed and produced. And this brings me to Eliot's grim War Poem, TWL. It
is against this tapestry that An Irish Airman or All Quiet epitomize that we
should see Eliot's poem. We've already discussed the grim irony of the final
line. I would like to suggest that we should see the domestic scenes (of
frustrated or sterile sexuality) within that same context. (Bernard DeVoto,
in a somewhat philistine harangue still of interest was to remark that
people like the young man carbuncular and the typist were to be the heroes
of the Battle of Britain. If you think about it, that does not lessen but
enhance the poem's power.) TWL gives us life on the home front of a savage
and purposeless war, a war that introduced a century of unending violence:
think of them as 'citizens' of Dresden. "The anatomy of man is a key to the
anatomy of the ape," an aphorism which Bertell Ollman usefully glosses with
the concept of "doing history backward." An event, an act, a whole age
throws little light on the future: without the perspective given by homo
sapiens the potential of that species in the ape could not be recognized;
without the perspective given by modern capitalism the 'meaning' of events
in the 16th-c British countryside could not be grasped. (See Ellen Meisins
Wood, _The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View_). I want to suggest that
Dresden & Agent Orange & Fallujah give us the perspective from which we can
more vividly see that final line of TWL as well as the inability of TWL's
personae to achieve sexual satisfaction. The meaning of "Finding the stairs
unlit" revealed 90 years later with "Mom, I'm a monster." The meaning of
Lil's husband in Iraq & Afghanistan veterans throwing their medals into the
street in Chicago:
http://news.infoshop.org/article.php?story=20120522093448249; "If there were
only water" 'fulfilled' in the destruction of Fallujah.
This is not a 'reading' of TWL; it is just one of many frames within which a
reading could be developed.