Wandering Through “The Wasteland”: Part I

As promised, today is all about Part I of The Wasteland, “The Burial of the Dead”. Even if you hadn’t read the poem, you’d immediately guess, from the title of the section that it was not to be all flowers, joy and rainbows. In fact, you’d probably feel somewhat apprehensive. The title itself however is not simply a title; Eliot disliked making superficial statements. Instead, it can be considered an allusion to the Church of England’s funeral service, and also the Cumaean Sibyl, whom we have encountered in the epigraph. The very phrase has implications of endings and rebirth outside  Christianity however, in various elements of life, including the idea of laying something to rest, and cleansing oneself of the past. The Wasteland is fraught with all manner of allusions, from religious texts to mythological ones.

Part I is broadly based on the idea of the elimination of the dead, and the deteriorating nature of society; an early example of this social deterioration is the scene in the Hofgarten, line 10. The statement of “drinking coffee” gives us the impression that the things that take place within the Hofgarten are irrelevant, and are superficial. This superfluous society is a theme that plagues the whole poem; a sense of spiritual degradation, and a lack of meaning in anything whatsoever plagues the society which Eliot describes, and is alienated from. This theme is further expanded upon in lines fifty to sixty; the idea of faux fortune was a profound departure from the fortune and path of a person as prescribed by the Church and scriptures of a number of religions. Eliot’s disdain for this falsity is portrayed in lines such as “If you see dear Mrs. Equitone/Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:/One must be so careful these days.”

An artistic interpretation of the first section of "The Wasteland" (1)

One of the predominant features of the poem as a whole, is the idea that people are blinded, or unable to see, and Eliot includes a number of blatant allusions; for example “Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not see, and my eyes failed”, alongside others, including “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyant/has a bad cold”. This would mean she’d be unable to ‘see’ into the future. “Those are pearls that were his eyes” could also be considered a reference to blindness, and the inability to see past riches, past opulence, to the ‘bigger picture’. This extended metaphor for the benefits of sight continues throughout the poem, and to Eliot at least, to be a very real concern.

Perhaps  the most important part of Part I however, is the final stanza, and the allusion to Baudelaire’s Parisian ‘unreal city’. Eliot however manipulates this allusion to symbolise the working masses in London, in what is to me, perhaps one of the most moving lines in the poem; “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many.” The second line in this extract is an allusion to Dante’s Inferno. The ‘dead’ whom Eliot describes are, to the author at least, a product of the Victorian Industrial Revolution, and of privatisation; they had become slaves to their jobs, and to the city; they lacked spirituality because they had become materially motivated, financially encouraged, as opposed to motivated by finding spiritual guidance, or absolution.

The theme of corruption and sexual exploitation is probably the predominant theme in the first three parts of the poem; it is not until Part IV, “Death by Water”, that a kind of rebirth seems to occur; the spirit has, to Eliot at least, be explored, and murdered for being corrupt before it can be reborn and made into something that can salvage the poem’s namesake, “the waste land”. This part of the poem however contains an almost imperceptible reference to salvation; “Here she said/Is your card, the drowned Phoenician sailor.” Here, again, we find another allusion, to the ancient mythological world, and the character who finally represents the very preliminary stages of salvation, in Part IV.

The ‘deadness’ as represented in the title of the poem is a metaphor returned to in the final lines of the poem; “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”; the frozen ground which is described just before represents a natural deadness; a wasted land, through the lack of spirituality.

Elizabeth Harrison's copy of Dante's "Inferno", which has been an important literary text for centuries, influencing almost every significant author. (2)

In conclusion, the first part of the poem introduces a number of preliminary metaphors, concepts and allusions; the first being superficiality, and the exploitation of materialism. Added to this mixture in the succeeding section is the allusion to aesthetic and sexual exploitation. The idea of the inability to rejuvenate, and be reborn, is also introduced, as are a number of allusions to a variety of texts and concepts, including Greek mythology, Tristan and Isolde, Baudelaire, the Grail myths, Buddhism, Christianity, Dante, Petronius… the list goes on. Shakespeare also plays a significant role, later in the poem. The poet himself had two main works that influenced the writing of the plays; Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, and James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. The poem is an almost endless web of allusions, and metaphor and is possibly one of the most complicated texts ever created.

The next post will be focussed on what is in my opinion, one of the most interesting parts, because it focusses on sexual exploitation and the way in which Eliot perceived it. Part II to follow!

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(1) http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/df/Peter_Paul_Rubens_082.jpg

(2) http://archon.nl.edu/archon/index.php?p=digitallibrary/getfile&id=11&preview=long

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Learning the A, B, C…

When we first started learning the alphabet, words were little squiggles that we struggled to understand. A, B, C… Words were an uphill climb; they represented education that most of us, at the age of three or four, simply didn’t understand, or wish to understand. We were generally far more concerned with play-dough, and the possibility of sticking pasta onto paper with PVA glue. Many of us, even now, as adults, still would rather play with play-dough than plough through the science of linguistics. However, as writers, poets, authors and speakers of language in general, we become fascinated with words. With grammar. And most specifically, the way in which squiggles can be used to create something with significance in an infinite number of ways.

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As I have mentioned before, structuralism and post-structuralism is very much concerned with the idea of language in relation to the world; the way in which it’s meaning is almost completely subjective. This can also be considered in relation to grammatical format; modernism in particular sought to remove conventional narrative forms to produce something more internally focussed, with less emphasis on the outside world, instead being a part of the protagonist’s psyche; consider Ulysses and To the Lighthouse; these are fundamentally modernist texts, using the trademark stream of consciousness format which one will greet as though it is Marmite; it will either be loved or despised, and rightly so; the liberation of being completely free to explore outside the parameters of conventional narrative can be fantastical. However it can also be a form of imprisonment to a reader, because they become absorbed in attempting to understand the outer parameters, and tend to then read against the grain to find this alienating meaning. This can potentially remove the pleasure from the act of reading itself.

So in our quest to understand the entirety of English Literature, or world literature, we grapple with ideas, and find that even once we think we’ve understood, that this understanding is only one interpretation of one meaning. This could be ridiculously frustrating, however for the knowledge junkies among us, it simply means we will never quite conquer the subject, but surely this makes it infinitely more interesting.

I’d be interested to know how everyone feels about the fluctuating nature of language, and whether its futile or fascinating.

(:

(1) http://blogs-images.forbes.com/marketshare/files/2011/08/abc_blocks.jpg

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Heathcliff, I Love You. Best, Cathy.

I may have mentioned on here before that I absolutely adore Wuthering Heights. As clichéd though it may be, it is one of my favourite novels of all time; not least because it represents the beginning of a darker, more emotional age of literature. Emily Bronte also represents the true beginning of the prominence of female writing, despite publishing under a pseudonym. She succeeded Jane Austen as a writer, however was at least in my opinion, the first truly revolutionary writer; the themes of Wuthering Heights were described as psychologically disturbing by critics of the age, especially because of the almost animalistic nature of Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship, and the haunting, omnipotent style of their dependence on one another.

Cathy and Heathcliff, ITV Adaptation (1)

This is I think the most enchanting element of the novel; the essence of it being that nothing could stand in the way of their devotion to one another, regardless of the demands of the social hierarchy that they both existed in. Marriages and children seem to have little or no impact on the connection they had between themselves, and set within the Gothic Yorkshire landscape, the ghosts that seem to envelope the novel, and create a dark, moody atmosphere, become a trademark and allow anyone who wishes to, become a part of the novel.

The Yorkshire countryside plays a very significant part in the novel, purely because it is widely regarded as being a sparse, cold space which is uninhabitable by many. The regional accent of Joseph, demonstrated phonetically in the novel adds a large degree of regional identity, something that modern novels particularly seem to lack, especially when considered alongside the phenomena of social networking; we all inhabit each other’s linguistic space and therefore the regional difference and being able to visit a region with no understanding of the linguistic culture is extremely rare.

At this point, we can consider that Cathy is in herself an institution; she represents emotionally powerful women everywhere and she is not necessarily a victim of Heathcliff’s emotional attachment to her. The idea that she was not  financially dependant on Heathcliff, was almost unheard of at the time. Her financial dependence on Edgar Linton is a completely separate dependence from that which she has on Heathcliff. What is extremely interesting is that the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff is never really defined; the reader never really discovers if they did in fact consummate their relationship, or whether their relationship is based around that of the childhood sweetheart. The indefinable relationship that exists between the two of them is perhaps what makes the characters of the novel so important in this particular instance; the reader is allowed to make up his or her own mind about the nature of their relationship. This unsolvable mystery can be pondered by critics, however will, I think, be open to individual interpretation across the board.

The novel has been remade on several occasions both in film and in song; Kate Bush famously made a song named “Wuthering Heights”, and ITV have recently made a two-part drama adaptation which is fantastic, even if it is not  accurate in terms of the text itself. The number of remakes, and the influence the novel has had on concepts of romantic love, shows the innate power of the novel to reshape and subvert our expectations of a 19th century relationship. It also represents how the novel has become an intrinsic part of popular culture, whether it is explicit or not.

Overall then, I think those who have yet to read the novel should go ahead and do it; if only to broaden their minds regarding 19th century literature. I did once believe that 19th century literature was simply dry social commentary, with very little action and even less depth. However I believe Wuthering Heights transcends our expectations of the 19th century novel and brings to life themes which are not immediately associated with a rural female writer.

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(1) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/wutheringheights/homeimages/poster_wutheringheights.jpg

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Thoughts on Post Structuralism

Today, I was typing out my post structuralism notes into my laptop; remembering how bemused I was, in comparison to today, made me realise that university does inspire a degree of progress in a person; even though most of the time, you feel as though you are swimming against a tide, attempting to conquer the ever-growing reading list (an impossible task). The vague understanding of week three, in comparison to today’s more developed understanding made me think about how much I adore my course; despite the quagmire of definitions, reading and concepts, it does work. The ideas must be percolating in my head; spinning around in a subconscious, dream-like kind of way, ethereal and inexplicable, but they are there. And so then I began to think.

The most appealing idea of post structuralism is the idea of the “ghosts of meaning” proposed by Jacques Derrida. Nothing in linguistics can be absolute; it is in flux, continuously evolving and each linguistic interpretation is different to each person. This means that when you are in “discussion” with your parents about for instance, the wing mirror that may or may not have detached itself from the car door, you can simply argue that this is just their interpretation of events based on their background which then allows you to argue that your background (and therefore your linguistic experience) is different to theirs. This opens a whole new range of ways to try to prove your parents wrong. This is of course to be done at your own risk.

Another brilliant facet of post structuralism is the idea of the de-centred universe. This means, simply put, that you cannot even be sure of where, or even what, you are because there is no external way to measure yourself against something else. Nothing has a central, solid meaning, because like language, everything is in flux. Being completely unaware of your position in the universe is fascinating, and to a certain extent, also liberating. You are in some ways therefore completely free to consider yourself as being absolutely anywhere in the universe. Again, this can be used as a mechanism to argue with authorities, e.g. parents, and teachers. Unfortunately, even the most open-minded teacher is unlikely to accept the argument that because of the theory of post structuralism, you are not entirely certain that you are at a true school at all, and even less sure that your supposed exam board is real, and therefore why should you have to write five thousand word pieces of coursework? If you were feeling particularly inventive, you could even drop in a word or two about string theory physics, and the meaning of the universe. If anyone really succeeds, then please let me know.

Of my critical theory repertoire, post structuralism is the one I identify with most clearly, despite the immense complexity of it when applied to any given text. It’s also fascinating when applied to real life. I think a thesis on Derrida would be extraordinarily complex and yet extremely rewarding. I’m sure several brain cells would die attempting to process such a seething mass of information. Nonetheless, I’m looking forwards to being able to revisit the theory next term; I like understanding difficult ideas. It’s a good thing too really, since I’m at university.

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The Beauty of Structuralism

I woke this morning with a bag of defrosted peas melting into my duvet, and a headache worthy of (possibly) some kind of record. So, minor injuries and a plethora of viral infections. But aside from that, I learnt some interesting things today, about structuralism.

I think the most appealing part of structuralism, at least to me, is the fact that unlike most things in literature, it makes sense. It’s completely logical. Essentially structuralism is they idea that a word has no absolute meaning; it relies on context for meaning to be applied. The example that my eccentric professor used was the word:

“Pain”

Now, in English, the word can be used in context of mental pain, or emotional pain. It can be in relation to physical pain as well. However, in a completely separate language, French, “pain” means “bread”. Which is almost as far removed as is humanly possible, from pain. Most of us enjoy toast. (:

The writings of Saussure and Simone De Beauvoir  are fascinating me at the moment. When I next get a spare hour or two (I’m hoping it’s soon, because the flu thing compels me to not want to move) I’m going to start wading through “The Second Sex”. I’m very excited about starting the philosophy reading group too. I’m hoping that soon my mind will begin to expand and accommodate the ideas of pretty much every French philosopher in existence. Although I’m only human and therefore that much genius can really only be absorbed by supercomputer. But I’m certainly going to try my best and hopefully, soon, I’ll be able to incorporate all these ideas into my writing and essays and make something that has a little more depth, and value of meaning.

It’s hard work, wanting to know everything about everything in the world.

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