Wastelands

I originally wrote and gave this paper in 2014. After a weekend reading T.S Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ for the first time, I decided to commit this paper to my blog. In the paper, I compare the fallout of conflict in ‘The Burial of the Dead’ form Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ and Titania and Oberon’s quarrel in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (the featured image here is Vivien Leigh playing Titania in 1937).

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Under this conference’s umbrella theme of war and literature, I am specifically interested in investigating the aftermath of conflict, seeing what literature has to say about war when it is over. T.S Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ is a seminal 20th century text, published four years after the 1918 Armistice and I would like to suggest that it is involved with a negotiation of the condition of modernity in the wake of the first terrible ‘Total War’. It is a text that in a number of ways bemoans war because of the death and decay it leaves behind it, but is simultaneously a violent and aggressive attack on preconceived notions of form and meaning, suggesting that it relies on war, indeed it is an act of war, to create something new and radical. I have restricted my close reading of ‘The Wasteland’ to the first part, ‘The Burial of the Dead’.

The title ‘The Burial of the Dead’ suggests a final action that commits dead bodies to the ground, keeping the spheres of the living and the dead completely separate and thereby allowing the living to continue with life. However, the poem opens with an image that suggests otherwise:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land

We are presented with living things, lilacs, rising out of a ground that belongs to death, but is not necessarily dead in itself because it is involved with growth, not stagnation and inertia. Thus a paradox emerges: whilst the ‘burial’ of the title suggests a movement of taking extinguished life down to the ground, the opening of ‘The Wasteland’ suggests a movement of death bringing something life-like back to the surface. The poem emphasises that this is a ‘cruel’ movement instigated by April, a month that traditionally has a cultural relationship to spring and new birth, but here becomes the site of death becoming an inescapable presence that infects life and the living. The snow of winter covers this ‘land’ which enables us to temporarily ‘forget’ its disturbingly deathly quality and, potentially, the conflict that made it this way, (Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow’) but April serves as a reminder that the earth is teeming with deathliness.

This is cemented by the speaker’s reference to lilacs, which are flowers with a mythological history: Syringa (the botanical name for lilac) was a nymph who hid from the amorous advances of the woodland god Pan by turning into a bush of flowers. Therefore, lilacs are involved with disguise and have a history that suggests that figuratively, there is more to them than what meets the eye. Within the context of ‘The Burial of the Dead’, the lilacs are masked harbingers of death, metaphors of bodies belonging to death that are hidden but nevertheless inherent to the post-war landscape. The use of the verb ‘breeding’ to describe the production of the lilacs complies with this, a word that is defined in the OED as ‘bringing to the birth’. It points to the bodily, inorganic quality of the lilacs that re-enter the sphere of the living hidden within the form of a flower. This image is echoed at the end of ‘The Burial of the Dead’ when the speaker calls out to Stetson:

“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,

Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”

There has been a reversal in the terminology of growth and surfacing employed: whereas the lilacs are bred out of the ground like bodies, the corpse, it is proposed, will grow out of the ground like a flower, sprouting and blooming. This implies a commonality between the flowers and the corpse, suggesting that they are exchangeable and fluid.  The distinctions between them are done away with because they are both objects coming forth from death’s land, and we can see that the landscape inhabited by the living is at the mercy of a deathliness that seeps into it as a result of horrendous conflict, making the two states of life and death indistinguishable.

This can also be seen in the speaker’s description of London;

Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

The repetition of ‘so many’ points to the extraordinary number of people that the war brought into contact with death in one way or another. The image suggests that in the aftermath of conflict, death controls and oversees existence, stripping life away from people left behind and reducing them to a deathly state whilst still alive. As a result of an existence defined by death blurring itself with life, the city and the people within it are ‘unreal’, occupying a liminal and disturbing position that they might not be able to properly identify themselves, hence the interchangeability of the lilacs with the corpse as previously mentioned. Death’s infection of life has become hegemonic, and is not challenged and questioned by the inhabitants of the city.

The image of the ‘brown fog of winter dawn’, a pervasive meteorological nuisance, helps to exacerbate the murky and indivisible landscape of deathly life, and also helps to develop the poem’s melancholic and depressive tone. It is at this point that I want to draw a comparison between ‘The Wasteland’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, a text produced 300 years earlier, where we are also presented with a traumatised landscape that has resulted from conflict. Eliot’s ‘fog’ recalls the image of the fog produced by Titania in her description:

But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.

Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,

As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea

Contagious fogs.

This is one of numerous images of the sickly landscape described by Titania that has resulted from her conflict with Oberon over an Indian boy. The personified seasons and elements have been neglected by the fairies, and avenge this abandonment by unleashing nature’s fury, causing chaos, sickness and ‘distemperature’ through floods, rotten harvests and ‘rheumatic diseases’. Most importantly, however, and in a way that links to Eliot’s wasteland, is that Titania shows how these have caused the seasons to change and merge with one another:

[…] the spring, the summer,

The childing autumn, angry winter, change

Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world

By their increase, now knows not which is which:

And this same progeny of evil comes

From our debate, from our dissension;

We are their parents and original.

Titania warns Oberon that the seasons have inadvertently undone themselves and have exchanged and adopted the appearance of each other, in the process throwing off what categorises them individually. The identities that contain and separate them from each other have collapsed so that now it is no longer obvious what time of the year it is supposed to be, causing confusion and bemusement amongst human beings. This motion is similar to what is at work in ‘The Wasteland’, where the boundaries separating death and life have disintegrated and death has blurred and intermingled with life, manifesting explicitly in the realm of the living, meaning that it is now difficult to successfully differentiate between the two states. However, there is a significant difference between ‘The Wasteland’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’: Titania delivers this speech during the middle of the conflict. Not only is there time for the situation between them to be resolved, which over the course of the play is achieved, she and Oberon have the power and the capability to reverse the deconstruction. As the fairy Queen and King, the parents of the seasons and the elements, they can restore the status quo through reconciliation and ending their conflict.

However, in ‘The Wasteland’, the conflict is already over and the speaker and humanity as a whole are left in a world that has not been restored to its previous state, but has seen the irreversible movement of death entering into the sphere of life and having an unwavering presence amongst the living. The speaker is not in a position, indeed no one is in a position to solve this, which is evident in the speaker’s assertion: ‘I was neither living nor dead, and I knew nothing’. Titania and Oberon know that if they reconcile and take up their parental responsibilities, the seasons will once again don the right appearance. However, the speaker in ‘The Wasteland’ is trapped between the states of life and death and has neither the power nor knowledge to resolve the conditions, and does not know how to continue existing within them. This is because death is the ultimate powerful force at work that has made itself an unquestionable presence that undoes people’s relationship with life, rendering them deathly whilst still alive. The poem suggests, therefore, that there is nothing more powerful and controlling than death in the post-war wasteland.

We have seen that the post-war environment that the speaker of ‘The Burial of the Dead’ presents is one that is mournful and aware of the presence of death that conflict has brought into the world. I would like to argue that this war has bred another war:  ‘The Wasteland’ as a poem that has been produced in a damaged and deathly world, has no choice but to carry on attacking, suggesting that the only way to exist is to perpetuate conflict. This it achieves through an attack of established poetic conventions, taking on the quality of the death it presents by rigorously undoing the standards we are familiar with. One of the last phrases of ‘The Burial of the Dead’s’ curious ending is ‘You! Hypocrite lecteur!’ which translates as: ‘You! Hypocrite reader!’ We can see that the speaker constructs a notion of readership through the use of ‘you’ that it immediately challenges by addressing the ‘you’ in French and by accusing ‘you’, this reader, of being a hypocrite, itself a curious insult that suggests that we are guilty of falsely professing some kind of virtuousness. I would argue that it points to the futility of people attempting to live life forgetting to acknowledge or pretending to not acknowledge that death is an almost tangible feature of the post-war landscape. Nevertheless, we can see that the poem aggressively sets up a concept that we might be familiar with, the position and audience point of a reader, but immediately undercuts it, throwing it into doubt and uncertainty through the use of a different language to the predominant one employed, and by using it imperatively to challenge and question. This is one of a number of ways in which the poem destabilises comfortable notions of poetic address, form and meaning, attacking conventions and norms in a threatening and war-like manner to create something new. Another example of this would be the endless references and inferences that are made in the body of the poem and for which Eliot provides notes at the end, which playfully lead to new references and inferences. It thus aims to send one on nothing short of a wild goose chase to uncover a meaning that the poem suggests, in doing so, does not exist.

Therefore, the poem, in this its first part, presents life post-war as not a unified thing, but is something pertaining to, undone and controlled by death. As a result of this, poetry itself is fragmentary, and can do nothing but arise from the ashes of one war to begin another, on the poetic form, and our conceptions of form and meaning. This, ‘The Wasteland’ suggests, is not wholly regrettable, and is an unmistakeable and undeniable condition of modernity post-1918.

World Book Day 2019

I have always loved World Book Day. At school, I loved receiving a book token and legging it to Waterstones to buy something new to read. I explicitly remember Roald Dahl’s ‘George’s Marvellous Medicine’ and Jacqueline Wilson’s ‘Lizzy Zip-Mouth’ being two of my World Book Day purchases, which I re-read about twenty times each.

You guys: World Book Day is not just for childhood, it’s for life. I continue to enjoy World Book Day because it gives me an excuse to happily blither on about books for a whole 24 hours (not that I ever really needed an excuse but, you know). Reading is such an incredible, immersive pastime, a treat for the imagination and important means of acquiring vocabulary in childhood. It is also so important to help explore the limits of language and to challenge our preconceptions about race, gender, age and sexuality. I think we should all be encouraged to read as much as possible. I know that our lives are so busy and we’re all perpetually tired, but I try to follow my Dad’s example: he will not end the day without reading, even if it’s just one page of a book. Not only does this help me wind down after a day of work, it means that I create distance between myself and my screens and helps to take me somewhere beyond my busy, chattering brain.

In light of World Book Day, I wanted to share with you some books that I really think you need to know about:

The books I have just finished

The Wisdom of No Escape and When Things Fall Apart both by Pema Chodron

Pema Chodron

I have always been interested in spirituality and these books, written by Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, introduce basic concepts of the Buddhist dharmas in an accessible, relatable way. They have become a go-to for me when I feel anxious, uncertain and groundless. Every single word of these books is steeped in wisdom: I almost wish I could have eaten them so that I could digest it all properly. I have enjoyed learning about Tonglen meditation, which is a practice that involves breathing into anxiety, uncertainty, fear and anger etc. and breathing out clarity, spaciousness and peace for yourself and behalf of everyone else who is suffering. With Chodron’s help (and that of another great Buddhist friend) I have learnt how to embrace the impermanence that characterises life, making our relationships all the more precious; and the importance of compassion, non-judgement and moving from a place of loving-kindness. I saw on Twitter recently someone’s opinion that ‘being kind’ is a wishy-washy, beige way of living life: after a read of Chodron’s work, however, I couldn’t disagree more. I have come to realise that there is perhaps nothing more radical or fearless than accepting egolessness and consciously moving from a place of joy, compassion and care for the world and everyone else in it.

The book I am currently reading

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama

I am half way through the former First Lady’s memoir and I am enjoying it immensely. Her story is compelling and characterised by a complex mixture of personal drive, determination and striving, whilst juggling her African American heritage with the white patriarchal power structures of Ivy League universities and law firms. Race is central to the book, as Obama recounts the frustration of the lack of opportunity afforded to her talented, smart grandfather and uncles and her own frustration of being caught between not being black enough (a cousin/classmate asks her early on why she ‘talks like a white girl’) and not being white enough (she finds herself outnumbered by predominantly white men at Princeton, Harvard and in the law firm Sidley and Austin). As such, it is a really important read that directly challenges the unthinking white privilege of many of the readers who are likely to pick up her tome. Obama also gives us a tour of her treasured friendships, her family and, of course, her relationship with Barack Obama. I know I get mushy really easily but, seriously, their story is bloody romantic. I know that she opens up about marriage counselling later on in the book, and I am very much looking forward to reading a refreshingly un-Disney account of what it really takes to be in a long-term relationship. And Trump. I can’t wait to see what she’s written about him.

The book everyone should read

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy

This book is beautiful but was definitely a tricky one to get into at first. After 100 pages I was still not finding myself suitably immersed, which is a testament to how brilliantly challenging this book is. I persevered because I am slightly loathe to leave a book I’ve started reading unread, and was so glad I did. 100 pages in, and after a lengthy and hilarious description of various groups of people protesting various political and religious in a central Delhi square, I was swept away. The novel features a myriad of interesting characters, but centres on Anjum, a transgender hijra living in a cemetery in the heart of Delhi. Infused with Urdu poetry, political satire and witticisms, Roy’s novel investigates love, conflict and chaos in the colourful and brutal Indian capital, through the life of an extraordinary character. Reading this novel feels all the more pertinent now that tensions are once again flaring up over the region of Kashmir, which features heavily in the novel’s second half. I learnt so much about Indian culture and politics in this book, in particular regarding the country’s Muslim population, and was entranced by the unfolding drama and Roy’s bewitching prose. As such, I would recommend this novel time and time again.

 The books I’m going to read next

This is both my most and least favourite predicament: I have easily 50 books on my shelf that are lined up for reading and I get choice paralysis every time I need to decide what to read next. The main contenders include:

Milkman by Sarah Burns

Natives by Akala

A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson (really interesting that she is running for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 US election)

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford

Milkman AkalaMarianneWar and PeaceNaomi againNancy Mitford

Love Note – Inspector Javert and Alyosha Karamazov

AKA men who look at the stars

Last Thursday, I went to see the touring production of Les Misérables at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. In a signature Elizabeth Harper move, I bawled my eyes out pretty consistently throughout the entire production [SPOILER ALERT]: during ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, ‘On My Own’, when Gavroche was shot, when Éponine was shot, when Enjolras was shot, when Marius sings ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ and, finally, during Jean Val Jean’s death with the lyric ‘To love another person is to see the face of God’. I’m not a Christian, but I just think that is the most beautiful idea: there is something spiritually transcendental about loving another human being from your very core.

Turning into a weeping willow aside, I enjoyed Les Misérables because I got to see one of my favourite characters being performed in the flesh: Inspector Javert, who sings ‘Stars’, my favourite song in the musical.[1] Javert reminds me of another of my favourite male characters, who I like for very different reasons but, incidentally, also has a beautiful and interesting relationship with the stars. I am going to offer a short and snappy comparison between Inspector Javert and Alyosha Karamazov from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

On a very basic level, I want to sit Javert down and tell him that everything is going to be OK and that he just needs to ease up on life. For those who are not familiar with the story, Javert is born in jail to parents embroiled in poverty and crime and raises himself in life through his dedication to the law and authority. He becomes obsessed with Jean Valjean, who, in Javert’s singularly black and white worldview, is a thief and an inherently ‘bad’ person. Javert looks to the stars as his guiding lights of order and control within the chaos of revolutionary France, and of his own personal history:

‘Stars

In your multitudes

Scarce to be counted

Filling the darkness

With order and light

You are the sentinels

Silent and sure

Keeping watch in the night

Keeping watch in the night

 

You know your place in the sky

You hold your course and your aim

And each in your season

Returns and returns

And is always the same

And if you fall as Lucifer fell

You fall in flame!’[2]

Click here for Philip Quast’s rendition of the song: 

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He sees stars as pinpricks of certainty, surrounded by a dark, unknowable vastness. He is invested in certainty, predictability, of a specific and very dichotomous construction of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’. He perceives Jean Valjean as Lucifer: a rebel, a traitor, and someone who must be brought to justice. In his search, he is unrelenting, and has no room for mercy or any sense of moral ambiguity. I find Javert so endearing and interesting because he believes completely and utterly that order and control are what keep himself and the world a safe and just place. As a character, I think he speaks to anyone who, at one point or another, has believed that ‘being good’ has in some way protected them from the storminess of life and the people within it. Certainty, however, is an illusion. It is his inability to accept that life is impermanent, fluid and precisely uncertain that leads to his loss of faith: in, what is for Javert, an unprecedented act, Jean Valjean spares his life, thereby undercutting the embodiment of ‘badness’ that Javert has spent decades projecting onto him. It leads to Javert in turn sparing Jean Valjean’s life, which he cannot fathom, he cannot reconcile with:

 

‘I am reaching but I fall,

And the stars are black and cold,

As I stare into the void, of a world that cannot hold.

I’ll escape now from that world;

From the world of Jean Valjean.

There is nowhere I can turn. There is no way to go on!’[3]

 

The world of Jean Valjean is a world of disorder and chaos that overwhelms Javert. He feels abandoned by the stars, consumed by the darkness that he has kept at bay all throughout his life by being so devoted to a very literal interpretation of law and order, good and bad. This, eventually, leads him to take his own life. Interestingly, he does this by throwing himself into the running waters of the Seine, the river being a stark embodiment of the fluidity and tumult that Javert could not accept.

Alyosha Karamazov, on the other hand, rediscovers his faith and love for all of humanity through looking at the stars. His spiritual guide and mentor, the Elder Zosima, dies midway through the novel. His corpse begins to rot, which sends shockwaves throughout the monastery: the superstition is that a truly holy man’s corpse would not rot, but would instead stay pristine and intact. Young and still slightly naïve, Alyosha is swayed by the mutterings of his fellow monks, and begins to doubt the spiritual integrity of the Elder Zosima. Throughout the novel, Alyosha is presented as a character whose goodness, his joy and his desire to help the flailing and chaotic people around him are all expressed through his face. If you’re interested, this essay (‘The Faces of the Brothers Karamazov) is a brilliant summary of the various faces within the novel. One of Alyosha’s faces that the writer of this essay doesn’t mention, however, is Alyosha’s face after the rotting of the Elder Zosima’s corpse. Where his face is closely related to beauty and youth before this point, it changes, at what the narrator refers to as a ‘critical moment’:

‘Alyosha suddenly gave a twisted smile, raised his eyes strangely, very strangely, to [Father Paissy] the one to whom, at his death, his former guide, the former master of his heart and mind, his beloved elder, had entrusted him, and suddenly, still without answering, waved his hand as if he cared nothing even about respect, and with quick steps walked towards the gates of the hermitage’.[4]

In this moment of doubt, which is confirmed as such in the next chapter by the narrator, Alyosha’s normally bright and entreating face becomes different, almost cynical and manic. To see someone described as almost angelic become ‘strange’ signifies an unnerving change in the character. In a novel where much of the action involves the men of the Karamazov family passionately rushing about with Alyosha in their wake trying to tie up all the loose ends, here we see Alyosha himself caught in a storm. This is further emphasised by the uncomfortably long sentence, broken apart by commas, almost as if the words are panted with the effort of hurrying.

Yet, it is the stars that help Alyosha to re-discover his faith, hope and love for life and all of humanity. The following is one of my favourite pieces of writing I’ve ever read. Gear up, it’s a long one:

‘Filled with rapture, his soul yearned for freedom, space, vastness. Over him the heavenly dome, full of quiet, shining stars, hung boundlessly. From the zenith to the horizon the still-dim Milky Way stretched its double strand. Night, fresh and quiet, almost unstirring, enveloped the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the church gleamed in the sapphire sky. The luxuriant autumn flowers in the flowerbeds near the house had fallen asleep until morning. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars… Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth.

He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages. “Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears…,” rang in his soul. What was he weeping for? Oh, in his rapture he wept even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss, and “he was not ashamed of this ecstasy.” It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, “touching other worlds.” He wanted to forgive everyone and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything, “as others are asking for me,” rang again in his soul. But with each moment he felt clearly and almost tangibly something as firm and immovable as this heavenly vault descend into his soul. Some sort of idea, as it were, was coming to reign in his mind-now for the whole of his life and unto ages of ages. He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in that very moment of his ecstasy. Never, never in all his life would Alyosha forget that moment. “Someone visited my soul in that hour,” he would say afterwards, with firm belief in his words…’[5]

 

Where Javert lost his faith in order and the dichotomy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, the stars for him turning into a great void of chaos and confusion, in The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha is humbled and overcome by the joy of life because of the stars. Under the celestial wonder of the Milky Way, Alyosha comes to understand and appreciate the depth and beauty at work in every human being. Whilst Javert is consumed by the abyss, Alyosha cries with joy, ‘even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss’. Furthermore, where Javert throws himself into the waters of the Seine, Alyosha accepts the uncertainty and ecstasy of a life of difference and love, and throws himself to the floor, finding himself on solid ground. It is this paradoxical acceptance of uncertainty, chaos and tumult that helps Alyosha to find a sense of stability, and of his place in the world. Ultimately, and again unlike Javert in the most tragic sense, Alyosha’s reconciliation with mystery and ambiguity leads him to a place of forgiveness and gratitude. It brings him to love himself and all of mankind, no matter what has been done or whatever will be done. It is a moment of irreverence, peace and boundless love, steeped in the wonder of living life hopefully. In short, a piece of writing everyone would do well to keep in mind.

These men remind us that in looking at the stars we have a choice about how we perceive ourselves, our place in the world and, indeed, the universe. Javert’s story is poignant in its tragedy; Alyosha’s for its eruption of joy. Carl Sagan said that ‘we are a way for the Cosmos to know itself’: these two beautifully crafted characters, in their relationship to the stars above them, provide two compelling and very moving blueprints. In the musical and in the novel, we see them play out the archetypal human experience of living with uncertainty and mystery in their own very different but no less endearing ways.

 

 

[1] My assessment of this character has purely come from the way in which he is portrayed in the musical version of the novel (I will get round to reading it at some point) but considering how well-loved and culturally important the musical is, I think that is enough.

 

[2] ‘Stars’, Les Misérables, Claude Michel Schonberg / Alain Albert Boublil / Herbert Kretzmer

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky transl. Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear (London: Vintage Books, 2004), p.337.

[5] Ibid., p.362-3.