The Mask

After reading Tzara’s “Dadaist Manifesto” and Agnes Ernst Meyer’s article from 291, “How Versus Why,” I understand Dada to be an anti-aesthetic movement that seeks to intellectualize art and re-define art criticism as a fluid medium rather than as a fixed set of standards for interpreting the emotions and reactions art produces.  Artists take more of a scientific or investigative approach to expression, and criticism centralizes on evaluating how effectively art conveys an intended political message.  One of the images that I think best expresses these attitudes towards art is the cover of the April 1908 issue of The Mask magazine.  The image shows an abstract drawing that resembles a Rorschach test placed within the center of geometric shapes and seems to represent chaos/disorder within systematic structure, an overarching theme of The Waste Land.


Taking a Step Back From Historicizing

I’m not usually one to read too much of the author’s biography into his work; however, upon reading Akroyd’s sketch of Eliot, I definitely see parallels between the poet’s personal demons and his treatment of emotional and physical sterility in “The Waste Land.”  In “Game of Chess,” Eliot explores marital breakdown, mental illness, and sexual incompatibility, issues he personally suffered through during his relationship with Vivien Haigh-Wood.  Before reading Eliot’s biography, it was easier to historicize the poet’s treatment of sterility as a reaction to the war’s aftermath, yet now the topic becomes more complex and intrapersonal.  I wonder whether the shell-shocked soldier bears any semblance to Vivien in the sense that both are neurotic and disengaged from their spouses (Vivien- sexually and the soldier-emotionally) and Eliot subsumes the wife’s role of the frazzled yet more stable marital partner.  We obviously will never know Eliot’s true intentions; however, recognizing the parallels that can be drawn between Eliot’s personal life and the poem adds a greater sense of depth to the work.

On a completely unrelated side note, I would like to know more about Eliot’s intentions for “The Descent of the Cross” since it thematically seems to share several parallels with “The Waste Land.”  Akroyd mentions that the work never came to fruition due to Eliot’s lack of inspiration.  If this was truly the case, does the poet ever claim to have achieved a necessary level of inspiration for creating “The Waste Land”?

Trust and Betrayal

“Game of Chess” explores the ramifications that result when the natural order of marriage becomes disrupted; approximately halfway through book II, the shell-shocked veteran’s wife attempts to stimulate his memory by reciting a verse from “The Shakespearean Rag,” a song essentially about ill-fated relationships and betrayal.  The song references three particular instances in Shakespeare’s plays: Desdemona’s “unnatural” marriage culminating in her eventual murder by her husband, Othello, Romeo and Juliet committing suicide as a result of their inability to pursue their love, and Brutus betraying Julius Caesar.  By referencing this song, the wife encourages her mentally debilitated husband to reflect on and to remember chaos rather than attempting to pacify him.  She, like Elliot, promotes a sense of being present in the moment and self-awareness as opposed to idealizing the past or future in attempt to escape the current ill state of affairs.  It is interesting to note that she utters an appropriation of the song’s chorus “It’s so elegant/so intelligent.”  In doing so, she seems to channel the song’s didactic tone which cautions against imparting too much trust in loved ones.  Her husband becomes a casualty of this cautionary tale when he allows his sense of duty to his beloved country to dictate his participation in the war and in doing so destroys his mental well-being and marital relationship.  After the wife’s lines, the husband responds “What shall I do now? What shall I do?”  While up until this this point the couple’s conversation appears disjointed and out of sync, this response actually seems like a logical reaction to the song’s central message and the overall theme of The Waste Land.

Catharsis in Women Beware Women and The Waste Land

The treatment of manipulation singlehandedly serves as the largest parallel between Women Beware Women and The Waste Land for me personally.  Not only do both authors thematically explore this subject in their respective works, they do so to manipulate their audiences/readers into experiencing catharsis.  Elliot’s critical piece, “Thomas Middleton,” seems to downplay his rationale for revering Middleton’s talent as an under recognized playwright because when you actually read a few of Middleton’s plays you quickly realize that they are extremely violent and chaotic, especially The Revenger’s Tragedy (think predecessor to Game of Thrones or The 100).  By creating this sense of turbulence, Middleton aims to rouse catharsis within his audience.  We’ve previously mentioned in class the significance of catharsis to Greek drama, and it is important to acknowledge that catharsis remained a large part of Renaissance drama as well.  Catharsis within this era aims to encourage the playgoer to confess his transgressions, internalize the play’s themes, and reiterate the notion that no crime will go unpunished. (This link to Google Books explains these concepts)

Elliot seems to want to emulate Middleton’s sense of shock value to manipulate his own readers into experiencing catharsis.  In this respect, his homage to Middleton almost becomes meta-theatrical in the sense that Elliot writes about the manipulation of natural order while he manipulates his readers into feeling despondent about the state of affairs in the real world. By the poem’s end, readers should ideally achieve catharsis in the sense that they become aware of the decaying state of society, recognize their role in the destruction, and understand that nature will avenge those guilty of wrongdoing.

Owl and Bat Symbolism

Something that struck me while reading “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela” was the owl symbolism that forecasts the impending doom of Tereus and Procne’s son.  In a Westonian fashion, the traditional marriage rituals fail to occur in their natural sequence which, in turn, interrupts the couple’s ability to raise a child to adulthood.  The following line occurs early in the text and employs rich symbolism to warn of tragic circumstances: “An unclean screech-owl like a nightmare sat above their chamber on the palace roof.  The bird haunted the couple’s union, That bird haunted their parenthood.”  The repeated phrase “bird haunted” emphasizes the owl’s synonymy with death and destruction.  Wanting to know more about the significance of this symbol, I briefly Googled owl symbolism and discovered that many ancient civilizations perceived the owl as almost a demonic figure that foreshadowed omens and the Phoenicians, more specifically, did not eat them, yet they buried them with their dead.  Since the owl foreshadows the destruction of Tereus and Procne’s family in Ovid, I questioned whether or not The Waste Land had a comparable symbol, since thematically both texts share similarities, and noticed that while owls are absent, bats are indeed extant in a similar, ominous circumstance.

The obvious parallel that exists between these symbols rests on the notion that both animals are nocturnal and share similarities in their cultural association with death.  With that being said, there are deeper connections to be made between the two symbols and their respective texts.  In book five, Elliot crafts an image of “bats with baby faces.”  Even after several reads this imagery proves challenging and almost undecipherable; however, in an article I found titled “The Owl in Phoenician Mortuary Practice, the author mentions that “The owl’s unusual face, having a semi-human appearance, and its large eyes and keen eyesight lend further mystery to the bird” (59).  This suggests that Elliot might be making a connection between the human looking owls and his fictional bats with human faces.  Also significant is the connection between the mythical belief that owls steal children and the bat, a creature representing death and sleep, being depicted as a child.  I speculate that this bat imagery in context of the stanza, which describes the physical decay and destruction present in the city, foreshadows the death and destruction that the war will create for future generations of children.  In conclusion, Elliot seems to combine characteristics of owl and bat symbolism to create a more haunting image that presages imminent disaster.

On a side note, the bat also has connections to Dante’s Inferno; “In Dante, Satan has bat’s wings in ‘deepest freezing Hell’. Supposedly when they fly upwards and then come down again swiftly, the witches’ hour is upon” (Protas).

Cited Websites

Impotence and Perlesvaus

I felt that the following excerpt from chapter 2 of Weston’s book closely aligns with Elliot’s notion of impotence in The Waste Land.  Weston summarizes Perlesvaus’ tale as follows: “There is here no cure of the King or restoration of the land, the specific task of the Grail hero is never accomplished, he comes into his kingdom as the result of a number of knightly adventures, neither more nor less significant than those found in non-Grail romances” (17).  This quote emphasizes how erroneous action rather than inaction culminates in the impotence of a government and its constituents.  The knight arrives in the kingdom but chooses not to ask the necessary question that would prevent the infertility of the king and kingdom.  Elliot appropriates this notion as a prevalent motif throughout The Waste Land in the sense that the war ends, yet death, destruction, and hopelessness prevail, and the poem’s denizens are unable to reach purpose or finality (the grail).  Take for instance the notion of romantic relationships within the poem.  These unions are largely platonic and impotent in that they are devoid of love, intimacy, pleasure, and children.  In part 2, “A Game of Chess,” out of sync, highly mechanized, and ineffective communication occurs between a husband and wife, thereby, constituting a lack of emotional intimacy.  The second relationship in this stanza contains an account of mechanical, unpleasant physical intimacy in the context of a sexual relationship that functions as a duty; since Albert has “been in the army four years, he wants a good time,” and it becomes Lil’s responsibility to remedy her physical appearance and provide for her husband’s needs.  The stanza’s speaker insinuates that the fact Lil has four kids and a past traumatic experience from sex and pregnancy should not hinder her ability to perform.  Therefore, these ineffectual romantic relationships fail to meet couples’ most basic emotional and physical human needs and serve as an example of how Elliot depicts life as a sterile entity.

Intertwined Imagery

Section one prepares the reader to experience the ebbs and flows of the life and death imagery present throughout the poem.  Elliot does not seem to offer hope or solace in the aftermath of the war, just lesser degrees of bleakness.  The life that is present is a hostile existence focused on physical survival; similarly, death offers no rest, peace, and finality because no one glorifies the deceased and their accomplishments.  The list below highlights examples that occur in this section.

stanza 1- infertile spring

stanza 2- repeated use of shadows in various contexts

stanza 3- direct mention of meaningless existence alongside floral imagery (life)

“I was neither/ living nor dead, and I knew nothing” (ln 39-40).

stanza 4- death and destruction present in tarot cards

stanza 5- image of a corpse as plant fertilizer (death potentionally feeding life)  and mention of high body count

“I had not thought death had undone so many” (ln 63).

On a side note, I was pleasantly surprised at how seamlessly Elliot weaves allusions into his own syntax throughout the poem.