Incomprehensible and Primitive

Dada has a lot going on, to say the least. But in the issue I chose (291 Vol. 12), the works within it directly references several of the ideas within the Dadaist manifesto. Firstly, there is a poem by Katharine N. Rhoades that takes to heart the assertion that a poem that is intelligible is the “wretched lining of a coat for public use; tatters covering brutality, piss contributing to the warmth of an animal brooding vile instincts. Flabby, insipid flesh reproducing with the help of typographical microbes.” The poem is extremely fragmented and aimless. It depicts pointless and incessant motion. Eliot’s utilization of imagism is an adherence to the injunction to be purposefully abstruse. He also uses similar experimentation in form as Rhoades.

The Manifesto also includes the Modernist obsession with “primitive” arts, mentioning the origin of the word dada as originating from “the Kru Negroes” that “call the tail of a holy cow Dada” and how the critics attack them “as a relapse into a dry and noisy, noisy and monotonous primitivism.” In this issue, the cover is a photograph of an African mask. Zayas asserts that “Negro art has re-awakened in us a sensibility obliterated by an education, which makes us always connect what we see with what we know…” In essence, looking at primitive art helps western art release its preconceived notions of representation and reality.  The fifth part of The Waste Land has a similar emphasis on the embrace of primitive cultures.

 

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That Damn Gramophone

“She liked to go to plays and to dance to the music on the phonograph” (61). If that doesn’t place the presence of Vivien starkly within the world of the “The Waste Land” then I don’t know what would. The influence of Vivien on Eliot’s ideals and morality is stark and becomes incarnate in the plot of “The Waste Land.” His marriage to Vivien began a “lifetime of misery,” and her youthful identity and sexuality become adversarial within the poem (64). Her presence is obvious in “The Fire Sermon” where a young woman insipidly accepts sexual attention and then dances to the gramaphone. Vivien “possess[ed] mental passion but not physical passion” and her own difficulties compounded Eliot’s already tense and morally anxious relationship with sexuality (66). She possessed the freneticism of the post-war generation and all the instability that came with it, which first attracted then repelled Eliot. It is fascinating to see how deeply Eliot’s personal life influenced his poetry and how he utilized classism to explore his own relationship and to put his own suffering into a broader context.

Oh, God, Anything but Gramophones and Jazz

Eliot must have hated this song so much. It honestly stands for everything he hated in the modern world. It bastardizes past elegance and sticks it into a modern, licentious song played over a gramophone. “The Waste Land” presents this as practically a middle finger to everything decent in this world. It’s closely juxtaposed with Ariel’s song from The Tempest, a play by Shakespeare that Eliot esteems as a return to order. However, “The Waste Land” is not about a return to order. It’s about entropy of values. So instead of a natural and classical (read as good) song, we get a jazzy and syncopated song (read as evil).

The song, presumably played on the paragon of modern evil, the gramophone, is the backdrop for a shell shocked couple’s content-less conversation. It intensifies the frenetic quality of the scene, as the woman frantically attempts to get her husband to speak and then plan the next day. The song encapsulates the woman’s desire to appear as if everything is okay and to ignore horror. “Shakespearian Rag” treats tragedy casually and disrespectfully.

Tragic in Any Century

The concept of morals that should hinder and restrain human passion, as well as its timeless quality, is salient in all these works. In his essay, Eliot points out that the play is a very traditional “Italian melodrama” that somehow catches “permanent human feelings.” He points out that Bianca, although initially she seems merely an archetype, is a real woman with real and honest human feelings. The idea that morality often and violently conflicts with feeling runs throughout the whole of Women Beware Women, and the pursuit of feeling beyond the justifiable creates a bloody tragedy.

Part II, “A Game of Chess,” brilliantly combines the tragedy of Women Beware Women with the tactical drama in A Game of Chess, as a woman relates her attack on another woman’s husband. Like Middleton, Eliot tries his hand at creating real women in tragedy. The story of Lil and her husband, taken from gossip from Eliot’s maid, transforms the petty drama of these women’s lives into the latest installment in an ageless saga. Eliot seems to be saying that Women Beware Women has a realism to it that defies its melodrama and continues to apply past its own century. Humans will always defy morality and do as they wish, especially in the sexual arena.

Sex and Violence

These three pieces all concern classical tragedy’s relationship to sex, which The Waste Land then coopts and places in a modern setting. Within the chapter “The Medicine Man” in From Ritual to Romance, Weston inserts an assertion that from “the Agon of the Fertility Spirit, his Pathos, and Theophany,” originated Greek tragedy. It introduces this concept of the struggle of fertility as well as how is visits mankind that is more explored in the Ovid reading. In both the stories of Tiresias and Tereus, Procne, and Philomela, sex becomes tragic in the violence that accompanies it. The reference to Bacchus, god of fertility and ritual madness, in both works contributes to the close association of sex and violence that is played out in the bloody scenes that follow.

In The Waste Land, section III. The Fire Sermon, Tiresias presides over a modern tragedy that both echoes and subverts its classical antecedents. A young woman in lines 218-227 submits to sex without love. While it explicitly references both of Ovid’s poems, the young woman’s lack of sexual pleasure as well as her apathy towards what can be read as a rape scene directly defy both of them. However, the violence associated with fertility is just as present in the young man’s “assault” (239). Elliot depicts what he presents as a quintessentially modern scene (complete with gramophone and combinations) as possessing all the tragedy and more of the ancients’ understanding of sex and violence.

Virility and The Waste Land

Elliot’s allusions in From Ritual to Romance grounds The Waste Land in an ancient tradition of fertility and barrenness. The legend of the Fisher King and the Waste Land-as Elliot’s poem does-inexorably links the well being of the land to its king. It assumes a great connection between the state of man and the condition of the earth. However, this king, unable to pass on his duty of guarding the land to the next generation because of the wound that takes his virility, wastes away, unable to pass the torch, as his kingdom and the very earth crumbles around him:

“the condition of the King is sympathetically reflected on the land, the loss of virility in the one brings about a suspension of the reproductive processes of Nature on the other…the forces of the ruler being weakened or destroyed, by wound, sickness, old age, or death, the land becomes Waste, and the task of the hero is that of restoration.[23]” (From Ritual to Romance)

Read as a parallel to post World War 1 Europe, the Fisher King takes on the broader identity of the dead men in the war, unable to continue their lines and give the responsibility of the land to their children. Throughout the poem, the sexuality and sexual encounters are barren and loveless, indicating that the impotence affects all. Europe has become as waste land just like the one in the legend: “I sat upon the shore/Fishing with the arid plain behind me/Shall I at least set my lands in order?” (Elliot 423-425). However, unlike in the legend, no hero has yet appeared to put the people to right, to continue the line, and to restore the land.

 

First Impressions

I really cannot wait to understand this poem. At first blush, this poem is entirely overwhelming and impenetrable. Eliot makes it actually impossible to read and comprehend the poem the first time through—unless I’m alone in lacking a casual knowledge of several languages and a plethora of obscure allusions. There are so many characters introduced so quickly, with no helpful introductions, and often the antecedents of the pronouns shift with only context to indicate the change. The “we” in the first stanza is especially protean and shifts between corpses underground, German people chatting in a café, the arch-duke’s cousin, and an unidentified insomniac.
These violent and abrupt shifts in perspective are common in the poem, destabilizing the narration and the boundary of individual identity. The reader too is drawn into the poem, as “In the mountains, there you feel free” destroying any sense of safety and removal from the poem. There is no margin between you, the reader, and the dead in the ground.