A New Culture

In Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold states that culture is “a study of perfection,” and “the pursuit of sweetness and light.” However, if one applied that simple description to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” he would quickly come to the conclusion that Eliot’s poem is anything but an example of culture. Brokenness, confusion, and darkness reign in “The Waste Land;” this poem is certainly not a study of perfection. If anything, it is a study of the widespread imperfections in 20th Century Europe. The dark subject matter, fragmented language and use of quotation all contribute to the notion that though “The Waste Land” is far removed from Arnold’s idea of what culture should be, it remains culture.

Throughout the poem, Eliot quotes from a wide variety of famous literary works, writings that Matthew Arnold would certainly consider “culture.” For example, he often quotes and references ancient Greek and Latin stories, sometimes using the original language. Arnold absolutely loved the Greeks; in fact he considered the Greeks the grandfathers of all western culture, and their Hellenistic society something to be desired by Victorian English society. However, rather than using this classic culture to add clarity to his poem, Eliot uses it to add confusion and fragmentation. The epigraph is composed of a mash-up of Latin and Greek, giving the poem a jarring jumble of two different languages. The actual translation of the epigraph is equally unnerving; it consists of the Sybil’s request to die, a feeling mirrored by many WWI soldiers plagued with PTSD. Within the epigraph, Eliot sums up modern culture. He emphatically states that culture is not all about sweetness and light. Rather, culture is a fluctuating concept that changes with the prevailing mood of society. For post-World War I Europe, culture is darkness, fragmentation, and despair.

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Eliot critiques education, isolation of individuals

Arnold believed that through education men could become (more) perfect individuals. As such individuals, they would be concerned with the social welfare of those around them and would work hard (within their respective classes and spheres) to better themselves and others morally and intellectually. In “The Waste Land,” Eliot presents the failure of this notion of culture. He depicts a place lacking in knowledge, and any kind of emotional attachment, occupied by isolated individuals.

The lack of knowledge, or the failure of education, is stated beginning on line 19: “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stormy rubbish? Son of man, / You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images…/ And the dry stone no sound of water” (19-24). Here, education is depicted as being thoroughly inadequate; men have no notion of their history (symbolized by the image of roots), or even of themselves in the present time (symbolized by the branches). Rather than the real, useful, knowledge and education that Arnold believed in, Eliot depicts a world in which men have only “A heap of broken images” for guidance. The lack of knowledge is further seen in the lack of water (“no sound of water”). Eliot emphasizes this towards the end of the poem, saying: “If there were water we should stop and drink / Amongst the dry rocks one cannot stop or think” (335-36). As water is often associated with knowledge, the inability to find any spring, pool, etc. anywhere to drink from symbolizes the ignorance of the modern age.

The fragmentation of culture is also reflected throughout the poem in the lack of any kind of emotional connection between individuals. Eliot describes London and a crowd in that “Unreal City” (60), but as the crowd moves “..each man fixed his eyes before his feet” (65), suggesting that there is no connection and no desire for connection among anyone. Everyone is only interested in his own business. This is also reflected in the interaction between the typist and the “young man carbuncular” (231). They sleep together but have no real connection; the typist “is bored and tired” (236) and the young man “makes a welcome of indifference” (242). This scene presents both an emotional and a moral decay. Whatever culture these two are a part of, it has not made them better human beings.

The ignorance of the isolation together help to undermine any kind of culture that unifies individuals to become some “people” who work for the public good and ordaer. Instead, every human thinks himself a prisoner (“We think of the key, each in his prison / Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison” (414-415) ). In this manner, Eliot critiques Arnold’s notion of culture, showing that it leads only to confusion and the fragmentation and withdrawal of the individual from others.

Desperation and Insecurity in the Modernist Period

Joyce’s prose embodies the spirit of modernist poetry in two ways: there is a sense of all-consuming desperation, and of disappointment and insecurity. The first selection, “Araby,” perfectly expresses the possessed fervor that overtook early twentieth century art, sparking the many revolutions of the period (artistic style and expression, popular literature, music, pastimes, wars, and radical social changes). The boy in “Araby” is driven to the brink of insanity by his love and obsession, and then plunged to the darkest despair when he fails to find his crush a gift from the bazaar. Although he never speaks to her, he is infatuated by her, and indeed she is all he thinks about: “Her image accompanied me even in places the most hostile to romance” (Joyce 2219). Joyce’s  character is barely even able to think or speak around her, and yet, like a stereotypical poet, he is consumed by his need for her. The poetry of the modernist period seems to come much more from the gut than the head, and whereas in previous times meter was just as important as meaning, the modernists utterly rejected that sort of box. Joyce reflects that rebellious, emotional, wilder sentiment in that his prose falls on its knees bowing down to instinct, and indeed impulse, rather than the stifling authority of reason or sense. That technique serves to express the uncontrollable emotions of what is presumably a teenage boy more honestly and accurately than with the formulaic prose of earlier styles.

The second selection, “Eveline,” actually mirrors the sentiments in both poems from Monday’s reading, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot and “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound. Eveline wants to “[e]scape! She must escape!” but finds she is quite trapped, not really by her life, but by herself and a promise no one is asking her to keep (Joyce 2224). When she and her lover, Frank, whom we have no reason to distrust, arrive at the point of leaving, her fear grips her and she is unable to leave her lonely, unpleasant, and, from the description provided, completely unsatisfying life. She freezes, “like a helpless animal,” and is doomed to trudge through the monotony of her daily existence forever (Joyce 2225). This mirrors the work of Eliot and Pound because it demonstrates the self-consciousness felt in the time and expressed in “Prufrock”–” ‘Do I dare?’ and ‘Do I dare?'” (Eliot 2288); and the common theme of the crowd painted in “Station of the Metro”–“these faces in the crowd/Petals on a wet, black bough” (Pound). The great fear of unstoppable change gripping the world in the modernist period led to equally impressive insecurity, which is experienced by Eveline when she is incapable of following the change she both wants and needs. The all-too-common phenomenon of fading into a faceless, dead crowd, often expressed by modernist poets, occurs once more in Eveline, for in failing to do something different, to set a new precedent, she becomes just another face, another petal, another cog in the machine.

The Waste Land and culture

Eliot’s poem The Waste Land depicts a world that is truly in a wasted state, from the barren land to the worn out society and culture. Fragmentation pervades the poem, full of decayed, dying, apocalyptic imagery. Eliot also draws heavily upon fragmented allusions to cultural influences and literary works in the midst of this bleak imagery. I want to focus specifically on the final section, “What the Thunder Said.”

Within these disjointed lines, Eliot makes frequent references to biblical, cultural and literary contexts that assume a well-read audience of this poem. Unlike Arnold, who viewed culture as a means of improving society and reaching closer to perfection, Eliot offers no picture of redemption for humanity by cultural improvement within this desolate wasteland. The fragmented, though recognizable, references to specific allusions are corrupted and inversed. The idea of culture and society falls to ruins as much as the landscape in the poem. The first stanzas of section V are full of religious elements and make references to Christ and his resurrection. But the picture here is not one of redemption. The fragmented lines begin by telling of “The shouting and the crying/Prision and place and reverberation” (ll. 325-6), which underscores an idea of a purgatory or hell-like place, a vast, echoing prison where there is much “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (see Luke 13:28, which refers to this as the response of those who attempt to enter of Kingdom of God, but are thrown out for living unfaithfully to God). In the following lines, there is a direct perversion of the resurrection story of Christ, which the Bible narrates as “He who was dead is now alive,” and that his followers, who were once dead in sin can now have eternal life. Eliot turns this around to “He who was living is now dead/We who were living are now dying” (ll. 329-330). Not only is this culture dying, but the very religion upon which it vested its hope of redemption has fallen to decay and despondency, quite the opposite of the ideal held by Arnold.

Within the final stanzas of the poem come a number of fragmented literary references, each serving to uphold the idea of ruin and collapse of culture. The image of a prison returns, as we are all “each in his prison” (l. 414), and reference is made of “a broken Coriolanus” (l. 416), a legendary Roman general whose story was adapted into a tragedy by Shakespeare. This Coriolanus’ life, much like the society whose doom Eliot forecasts, began with inspiring promise and conquest, but ended in exile, violence, and death. Once again, cultural contexts serve only to illustrate man’s fall, rather than the hope for societal improvement advocated by Arnold.

Eliot follows with more rapid-fire of literary examples, which he explains,
“These fragments I have shored against my ruins” (l. 430). In this falling, ruinous world, these meaningless fragments of culture are all that remain. He alludes to aspects from the Fisher King, to nursery rhymes, to Dante’s Inferno quoted directly in line 427, to a quote from a Spanish Tragedy, and finally ending with fragments of Hindu fables “Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.” (l. 432), which, according to http://www.swami-krishnananda.org/brdup/brhad_V-02.html, is rearranged from the original form: Damyata, datta, dayadhvam iti, tad etat trayam śikset, and are instructions to possess self-restraint, charity and mercy. The final words of “Shantih” (l. 433) translate to signify peace and tranquility. These final lines denote a sense of defeat and resoluteness, an ultimate resignation to destruction and decay.