One of the things our class has embraced is the picking apart of The Waste Land in order to enhance our critical understanding of the poem. What better place to begin our tour of Modernist art and aesthetics than with Dadaism, a fascinating artistic movement whose luminaries dabbled in the nonsensical and absurd? In order to restrict the dimensions of this analysis to manageable/portable sizes, I’ll focus on our class’ discussion and several pertinent pieces of information I found online.
Earlier today, scanning the Internet for pliable research topics, I stumbled across the origins of Dada. Rising to prominence in the aftermath of the First Great War (redolent of Our Poet’s rise to the mainstream), the Dadaists trafficked in art that was very nearly antithetical to Eliot’s own. The collective of artists who referred to themselves as Dadaists refused to be pinned down by anything but their own terms and labels; Marcel Duchamp, famed New Yorkian avant-gardist, even refuted associations with the movement despite clear collaborations between him and his contemporaries. Cross-pollination seems plausible, with many recorded encounters between several factions of the group (the three headquarters are typically acknowledged as Zurich, New York and Paris). Famously, Duchamp requested permission from Tzara for the usage of the word “Dada, ” to which the second man, the coiner and originally distributor of the term, replied that Dada “was for everyone.”
So now that we’ve begun to clear the air around the mystery of Dadaism, we can start to demystify T.S. Eliot’s association with the group as well. Due to the dissemination of divergent aesthetics in the artistic community, I believe that T.S. Eliot certainly encountered the Dadaist Movement at one point or another, probably by the mid- to late- 1920s at the latest. In order to justify this claim, I turned to a short excerpted piece by Sean Coffer. Eliot, a recently converted Anglican Christian by the publication date of “Ash Wednesday” in 1927, was decidedly NOT that six years prior during the drafting of The Waste Land. The author of this particular paper claims that by edging closer to the aesthetics of the Zurich Dadaists, Eliot positions himself brilliantly into a new era of poetics, for himself and for popular art in general. The article breaks before Coffer’s thesis can be established and verified, requiring some additional extrapolation on my part.
The language of Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” struck this reader immediately as broken and unsure, quickly alternating between peaks of emotional ecstasy and troughs of despair. The formal repetition of the poem’s opening lines (Section I is patterned off of the statement “because I…”) simultaneously evokes both sacrosanct, religious incantations and depressing resignations/lamentations. Yet the structure of the poem’s first portion IS as absurd as a Dadaist painting; it’s spontaneous, fluid and full of expression. The motivation for these rapid mood swings seems to be external to the poem (possibly hidden in plain sight?), and while it’s clear that he grapples with the values of his faith, there’s an underlying pain that translates beyond the poem. The fact that he can’t, or doesn’t, name this Pain might allude to the Dadaist conceit of calling one thing something else entirely; besides, the “naming” of this Pain seems almost superfluous to a comprehension of it (I expand on this below). While I admit that at the time of this writing I’ve only read the first little bit of this poem, I can sense that Eliot wants to exorcise the part of himself that’s riddled with doubt. Perhaps by confronting the most immediate emotional responses by undercutting the intellectual significance of his word usage, Eliot hopes to contrive a more base yet equally true understanding of self-. Some of the Dadaists were pretty pro-intellectual, but also pretty anti-bullshit; Duchamp’s readymades were so controversial because audience’s couldn’t see why Duchamp would so clearly mislabel a toilet a fountain. Maybe it’s a similar conceit; that Faith and the Emotions of Self are seemingly antagonistic entities who nevertheless must coexist, and while understanding and misunderstanding play a key role in the foundations of belief, overationalization will bring him further from any definition that would seek to reconcile them. Art, for both Eliot and the Dadaists, seeks to reconcile some version of Truth with what they already know and can perceive. Eliot’s ultimate struggle as a man of faith is, after all, to become whole with God, despite his fear of knowing too much about the physical world (man’s world) or perhaps not enough; whether he perceives this is possible still remains to be seen.
Most of this article’s info was shamelessly pulled off the Wikipedia page for Dada and a Poetry Foundation reproduction of Ash Wednesday. Additionally, here are several other sources that helped me break down the movement from a specific vantage point: