History in a Hopeless Endgame and a bleak Waste Land: the Futures of Eliot and Beckett

I found it rather entertaining that Endgame is the last work we’ll blog about in this class, though I wish we could have ended on a happier note. It’s rather depressing and hard to grasp at times, though it certainly follows in step with Eliot’s The Waste Land. Both examine the Western World after the devastation of WWI, and both find a bleak, uninviting, and meaningless place.

The Waste Land was about the degradation of Western society, where people were more machines than humans, where traditional actions have no meaning. People act out their lives because that’s how they are supposed to go; they eat their canned food, and one is “glad” for things to be “over” (line 252). Endgame makes use of the same premises (I question the use of the first, however), though it is more concerned with the after-effects of The Waste Land; for example, while in Eliot’s poem people still perform these “traditional actions” that no longer have meaning, Beckett does away with them all together, to bring light into a world without any meaning. Nothing means anything in Endgame.

While Beckett’s world seems to be after Eliot’s, there is no indication of a time-line. The past is simply “yesterday” (p. 2586), though “yesterday” is confused with all the other “yesterdays” that exist. As Clov says, “[yesterday] means that bloody awful day, long ago, before this bloody awful day” (p. 2597). There is no real past in Endgame, there’s only what “was before,” but what “was before” is never expressed. There is no time, there is no past, there is no future, and thus we realize that the world (the Western world, anyway) is devoid of all of these things, and everything is devoid of meaning.

Endgame exists in a world devoid of meaning, in a world devoid of fertility (the death of Nell, the only female in the play), in a world that exists but yet does not exist, an eternal place that was once something else, but will never be something else. The Waste Land gave us an understanding of why, and a suggestion that we may be able to fix it; Endgame leaves us hopeless.

Time Passes : WWI and Virginia Woolf

After having read poems and such about WWI, especially after having read “The Waste Land,” when I read the assignment for today, I expected to read “Time Passes” and find it terribly bleak and depressing, but I was surprised at what I found. The beginning few chapters were a little dark, but the end culminated in a flowering of new life, of rebirth after the storm that I had not expected, but particularly enjoyed.

The bleak world is described in the bulk of part two. For the first twelve pages, we get images of “a form from which life had parted” (p. 129). With the death of Mrs. Ramsay, added almost as an afterthought on page 129 (something which, to me, seemed to satirize the way in which human life during the war was thrown away), comes wave after wave of “emptiness” and decay. A quote that struck me particularly hard was: “What people had shed and left—a pair of shoes, a shooting cap, some faded skirts and coats in wardrobes—those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated” (p. 129); it reminded me of the death toll.

From there it doesn’t get much better. I noticed some war imagery: “Then again silence fell; and then, night after night, and sometimes in plain mid-day when the roses were bright and light turned on the wall its shape clearly there seemed to drop into this silence, this indifference, this integrity, the thud of something falling” (p. 133), the “something falling” being a bomb, breaking into the “bright” of the day, even. Also, “…in the summer ominous sounds like the measured blows of hammers dulled on felt, which, with their repeated shocks still further loosened the shawl and cracked the tea cups” (p. 133), the “shocks” also being bombs, and the idea of the “loosened shawl” and “cracked tea cups” I thought was symbolic of how the war affected those at home, as well. Chapter nine describes what would happen “if the feather had fallen” (p. 139), what would happen if the decaying house, what I thought perhaps to symbolize the decay of modern civilization (i.e., the world), “would have plunged to the depths to lie upon the sands of oblivion” (p. 139).

“But there was a force working” (p. 139), something that stopped the feather from falling and destroying the house, and this is where part two finally takes its turn. Mrs. McNab and Mrs. Bast, along with Mrs. Bast’s son, George, “rescued from the pool of Time that was fast closing over them” the house itself. “Then indeed peace had come,” and “it all looked… much as it used to look” (p. 142). The house had been saved, though through great toil, and Mr. Carmichael and Lily Briscoe, those who had survived the horrors of the war, lived on. (I found it interesting how Lily and Mr. Carmichael, the painter and the poet respectively, two artists, are those who live on and return to the house first).

The end of chapter ten ties in with the idea of “surrealism,” the “unreal” that we saw in “The Waste Land” and other poems dealing with the progression of technology and the modern era. There was a dream-like undertone to them, as if what they were living in was not reality. I took particularly enjoyment in the last word of “Time Passes,” for, after all of this is said and done, after the house decays and is brought back, and people finally begin to return, and “it all looked… much as it used to look,” Lily Briscoe is “Awake.”

The Modern Waste Land : Eliot’s Perspective after WWI

“The Waste Land;” a difficult read indeed! I was driven up a wall by the amount of times I had to read it just to get a vague sense of its meaning. It is to be expected, however—after all, Eliot did say “it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results” (2297). This civilization, “our” civilization, is complex because of the effect that advancement, progress, technology and the like has had on humans, not the advancement itself; WWI, using modern technology in a world that was still behind a century or so in its thinking, decimated a people that were not prepared for the dramatic effects progress and advancement had on them. The loss, the confusion are all evident in Eliot’s poem, as is the change that has occurred between his time and Arnold’s.

Matthew Arnold, when he wrote his Culture and Anarchy, was working in a time where machinery, progress, and technology were becoming more and more prevalent. Arnold told us that culture is “properly described” as “having its origin in the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection,” and “The pursuit of perfection… is the pursuit of sweetness and light” (1596). Arnold states that the use of machinery is a means to an end “which machinery is valuable,” and end to “put in practice an Englishman’s right to do what he likes” (1598). This, Arnold says, “tends to anarchy” (1598), and men must “find our centre of light and authority there [in the state]” (1599). “We want authority, and we find nothing but jealous classes, checks, and a dead-lock; culture suggest the idea of the State” (1600). The use of machines as a means to an end, that end being freedom, the ability to do what one wishes, results in anarchy, which is in opposition to his idea of culture, the “sweetness and light,” the “study of perfection.”

What does Eliot’s “The Waste Land” say about Arnold’s “culture”? In “The Waste Land,” Eliot describes the destruction of culture, the removal of “sweetness and light” that results from the “anarchy” associated with machinery. The technology and progress that WWI implemented for such destruction resulted not in anarchy, however, not in freedom to do what one wants, but rather in a destruction of the “sweetness and light” that Arnold calls “culture.” Rather than doing whatever one wants, the use of machinery has resulted in a kind of indifference among people. We see this in part three, the Fire Sermon. After a sensual scene between a typist and her lover, the man leaves and the woman says “Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over” (line 252). There’s a mechanization of people, where they go through the motions of their lives, the pursuit of machinery resulting in a machine-like trance for those that pursue it.

Blast and WWI

In a world right before a war of dramatic proportions, a man decides to write a magazine, also of dramatic proportions (literally, for the magazine itself is rather large in size), that attempts to start a revolution right before such a great conflict. The revolution he tried to start died out once the war began, though his magazine, Blast, is still of literary importance.

One of the things I found most interesting in Blast was the constant dichotomy of the first two manifestos, beginning on page 11 and ending on page 28. The first manifesto, which “blasts” the things of old times, whether literary or social, and the second manifesto, which blesses things that the author of Blast believes should be embraced in the coming era, are very similar. England, for example, is both “blasted” (page 11) and “blessed” (page 22). Different things are “blasted” and “blessed” about the country, which speak to the dichotomy of all things; inherent in all entities are things that we like and things that we don’t. Some may refer to these as “good” and “evil,” or perhaps “light” and “dark,” though here we get a sense of “new” and “old,” where the old is that which is disliked and needs to be improved. France (“blasted” page 13, “blessed” page 27) and humor (“blasted” page 17, “blessed” page 26) fall under similar scrutiny.

The typography of he magazine is also very interesting. I found the larger font prodding me to continue reading; forty-some pages seems far less daunting when half of it is in large print. Moreover, the author makes use of the different font sizes, as well as lower- and upper-case letters, to draw the attention of the reader to different places in the work, to add different layers of meaning to what he is trying to say. For example, the words “BLAST First <(from politeness)> ENGLAND” (page 11), while not portrayed very well when all the font is the same size, grabs are attention at three different points, on three different levels. “BLAST ENGLAND” grabs at it first; it is in the largest font, all in capital letters. “First” next (seems a little ironic, that “first” comes second); it is capitalized, but not all of the letters in the word are upper-case, though it is the same font size as “blast England.” Lastly is “from politeness,” which is in all lower-case, a very small font size comparatively, and in parenthesis. While these are all in the same line and we might read them altogether, there are different layers to the meaning; blast England, the first but not the least to be blasted, and though we are blasting it “from politeness” the importance is that it is blasted not from where it is blasted. It seems like the act of blasting, and the act of blessing, are more important than the reasons “why.”

Joyce’s Prose : Araby and Eveline

How are James Joyce’s prose works “Araby” and “Eveline” like poetry? I read several of the other posts here, and a lot of them start out with “it’s poetic” and move on to describe how it matches imagism. Well, there’s a difference between being similar to imagism and being poetic, in my opinion, and I’m not so sure he does the latter. I’m not saying the work isn’t well written—I like the style—though the claim at it being poetic is a little vague. Yes, it is similar to imagism, though it reads to me like any well-written fiction. Nothing exceptionally poetic about it. Perhaps that’s me not looking hard enough, but it didn’t strike me as “poetic” when I first read it.

Anyway. There are many similarities to imagism, a school of literary thought that sets up different images that the reader must draw from to both understand what is happening and the meaning of the images themselves. Every time I think if imagism, I always think of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” Two lines of poetry; “they don’t use any unnecessary words” is how it was described in class. Joyce’s works are like that. They’re short and sweet, and display a set of vibrant, surface images that do have a connection, though they’re not always perfectly linked. For example, in “Eveline,” at first the woman (whom we assumed is Evelin) “sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue” (2222), and after a page or so of explanation, she is suddenly “among the swaying crowd in the station at the North Wall” (2224). Two completely different images that the reader must reconcile, for there is not a narrative in the traditional sense. It’s interesting, though I’m not sure how much I like the style, myself.

“Araby” is similar, and it has just the same vibrant images. The bazaar, though quiet and dark, appears in the minds eye, as does the sight of the “uninhabited house of two storeys” at “the blind end” (2218) of North Richmond Street. There’s a kind of hopeful element in the beginning—fresh love, that kind of butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling that confuses the young child, but in the end all the hopes are dashed away, and rather suddenly, I might add.

“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger” (2222). These are the last lines of the work, and the fact he came to this conclusion both startled and confused me at first. There was a depressing quality about these words, which added to the confusion. There is an aspect of modernity that is trying to create new ways to deal with the changing world, a mourning for times past, but coupled with an understanding that those times are gone. I found the last element most present within these lines; the boy realizes that this love was stuck in vanity (and, if I recall, the Victorians were very concerned with image, and there seems to be an element of irony in here when you associate the image and surface with vanity, considering this is imagism, which is surface images) and he best let it go, that the times past are gone. In his “anguish” he accepts that.

Darwinism in Fiction : “Our Society at Cranford”

Darwin is an interesting character. His views on natural and sexual selection and evolution, especially as expressed in the The Descent of Man excerpt we read, seem blunt, verging on offensive during the time period, and “in-your-face,” to use a modern colloquialism. None of that, however, is seen in Gaskell’s “Our Society at Cranford.” Darwinist theories, if truly displayed with any intention and not simply because the ideas of the time accidentally influenced the majority of writers from that period onward, are hidden beneath a veil of humanity and queer society, and, to be perfectly frank, I was not even sure for what to search.

What I thought was interesting, and possibly telling to the idea of natural selection, is that “Cranford is in possession of the Amazons” (1432). Ladies are the prime population of the little town, and the only man mentioned for any lengthy period is Captain Brown, whom settles within the town and lives out his life rather happily. Perhaps, Gaskell is using Darwin’s theory of natural selection to describe the quaint, dated society in which they live; that it is not reproducing, and will eventually die out.

I discovered something similar in the death of Captain Brown, which, after the lively and brilliant descriptions of his kindness and character, upset me deeply. On page 1438, Miss Jenkyns and Captain Brown have quite the dispute over which author is better: Samuel Johnson (“Dr. Johnson”) or Charles Dickens (“Mr. Boz”). No concrete conclusion is reached on whom is better, though the debate, in which Brown asserts that Johnson’s style is “pompous writing” (1438), sparks some animosity between the two for some time. With Brown’s tragic death, however, Miss Jenkyns seems to drop her previous objections to the man, and is exceptionally kind to both of his daughters.

It is not within Miss Jenkyns’ actions that I found a point of interest, however, but rather, within their argument. The Pickwick Papers, the work by Dickens of which Brown is in favor, is humorous, witty, and an entertaining read, while Johnson’s work Rasselas is serious, moral, and philosophical. I found it interesting that Brown died while reading the Pickwick Papers, though Miss Jenkyns, who reads Rasselas, lives on into her old(er) age. There seems to be a comment here on the idea of “survival of the fittest,” for, while Captain Brown was certainly more physically fit for survival than Miss Jenkyns, she may have been more mentally fit, a quality that is becoming steadily more important amongst civilized society. This says something about the adaptability of the human race; while Darwin assumes that natural selection and survival of the fittest are applied in a physical sense (he is most capable of tilling a field or hefting bales of hay is more qualified for survival than he who tills metaphorical fields within the mind and hefts books), this idea that man’s continued survival depends on his moral, ethical, and philosophical prowess is certainly interesting.



Arnold’s Modernity : Dover Beach and Culture and Anarchy

Modernity. A simple word with a taken for granted definition. “That which is modern,” one would say. Well, what defines modern? The word “modernity” encompasses the contemporary times of about the eighteenth century up into the twenty first, approximately three hundred some years. During all of this time, much has changed, but this sense of modernity has stayed constant, due to the continued effects of its causes: capitalism; a rise in the interest of science, reason, and logic; the industrial revolution; an increase in literacy; greater personal wealth; and, later on, the effects of World War I. Disregarding the disastrous global conflict, these other factors contribute heavily to the ideas of Victorian times, and such influences are seen in the works of Matthew Arnold.
One of these great ideas that is found in both his works “Dover Beach” and Culture and Anarchy is the ideas of science, reason, and logic, associated with the ideas of the ancient Greeks, and generally in opposition to the idea of religious ideas. Hellenism, as Arnold called it, a word that encompassed the entirety of scientific thinking. Arnold says “The uppermost idea with Hellenism is to see things as they really are” (1601), a clear indication that Hellenism is based in the idea of fact, of observable, objective ideas. Science, logic, reason, particularly associated with Greek thought, the ancients who are said to have founded Western culture. Hellenism, when combined with Hebraism, based in Judeo-Christian ideals, which states that one must be in total control over their body, are in opposition to one another. Hebraism is what Arnold sees as the old ways of conducting oneself according to strict morality, perhaps in accordance with  religious ideals. Hellenism, however, seems to be the greater praised of the two, and most likely because it roots itself in scientific theory.

In the Victorian era, the idea of evolution and baby steps in to the information age overwhelmed the Victorians, and they felt the need to reconcile these new ideas with their current beliefs, and slowly the world began secularizing itself. This is mentioned in the poem “Dover Beach,” when the focus is drawn away from a tragic Greek writer to the sea, we are given a stark and lonely picture of the “Sea of Faith,” in which it:

“Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore / Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.  But now I only hear / Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, / Retreating, to the breath / Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear / And naked shingles of the world.”
The idea of secularization, or rather, nostalgia for a time gone by, is evident in these two works. Considering that people had once thought that the bug scurrying across the floor was “divine providence,” but no longer.