Let’s talk about fragmentation. The first modern fragmentation grenade was invented in 1915 by a British man named William Mill. They were called Mills Bombs and were used frequently by the British army during WWI. The soldiers were instructed to throw the grenades as if they were “bowling” (a move performed in the game of Cricket). I thought that was interesting, in light of that propaganda poster we looked at in class on Tuesday that said that the Army isn’t all work and had people playing sports. Throwing a grenade’s just like throwing a cricket ball! This is a great adventure! It’s fun! (citation: http://www.firstworldwar.com/weaponry/grenades.htm)
I thought what Tara said about war literature often being told in a fragmented way was a good point. I haven’t read The Things They Carried, but I have read Slaughter House Five, which is based on Vonnegut’s experiences fighting in WWII—in particular the Dresden Fire Bombing. The protagonist Billy Pilgrim has come “unstuck in time” so the story is told in this non linear, fragmented format as Billy time travels randomly to different parts of his life. That idea of being “unstuck in time” is I think a sort of commentary on modern society: Like Billy, we’ve lost our bearings, we’re wandering, aimless, confused, lost, unsure of our place in history.
What else gets fragmented in WWI? Bodies get fragmented, blown apart and disfigured. Families are fragmented; fathers, sons, brothers gone. The ground is fragmented, torn up, scarred by trenches. Souls are fragmented; there is trauma and stress and horror—hence shell shock. Society is fragmented; people are disillusioned and hopeless, and feel alienated from one another (especially those with shell shock trying to readjust to normal life). “Things fall apart” says Yeats. They can’t be put back together, either. You can’t unsee the horrors. You can’t undo the deeds. Billy at one point in Slaughter House Five watched a movie about WWII, but watches it backwards. It’s too good; I’m going to post the whole quote:
“It was a movie about American bombers in World War II and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers , and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans though and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again. The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby.”
As if to say: You can never go back. You can never go back to the innocence of being in high school. These fragments can’t be put back together.
Well I’ve talked a lot about fragmentation, and zero about The Waste Land. Early on in the poem, Eliot writes, “You know only/ A heap of broken images.” That is modern life. Broken images. No sovereignty of God, no overarching, guiding plan or trajectory of society, no progress, no clear connection between one event and another—just a pile of broken images. And that’s also what Eliot gives us in the poem: really disturbing, often paradoxical images that are cobbled precariously together, seemingly without any meaning or guiding hand. It’s disconcerting—makes you feel like you’re losing your mind. There’s the flash to this scene of childhood innocence right near the beginning—sledding with your cousin—then there’s vegetation trying to grow from a stony field, and there’s dead trees, and dry bones, and an unreal city full of specters, ghosts walking over London Bridge, and an old war buddy shouting at you about the ships at Mylae, which is a battle that took place during the Punic War between Rome and Carthage, back when people were patriotic, and he asks you if the corpse in your garden has bloomed yet—that is, has life sprouted from death, was the sacrifice worth it? And later, there’s the mountains—rocks and water, where is the water? aren’t you thirsty? and it’s burning burning burning burning where is water? will God pluck us out of the fire or will we be consumed?; and there’s all these primal, meaningless sounds “co co rico,” “drip drop,” “weialala,” “DA,” “jug jug” and a little girl singing “London bridge is falling down” and then the repeated mechanical voice HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME and what exactly is it time for? “What shall we do tomorrow?” she asks—that is, where do we go from here? And “Do you remember nothing?” Are you dead or alive? “Why do you never speak?” Alienation. And there’s all these quotes from classics of Western literature, as if Eliot is searching for meaning in the past, trying to find some wisdom, some explanation—looking for bearings in the middle of the chaos. And then the poem ends with the thunder of judgment, as if God is going to judge the world, as if it’s the 2nd Coming like Yeats says, and there’s this mantra from eastern mysticism talking about inner peace, and it’s over. It’s a really chaotic, fragmented, unsettling poem. Reflects the mindset of the time. Uncertainty, anxiety.