aPriL does feral sometimes's Reviews > The Waste Land

The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot
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Mar 10, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: literary, poetry
Read from March 10 to May 12, 2012

T. S. Eliot, who was a literary man who previously had faith in literary wisdom and social norms, I think discovered during World War I how useless lessons of wisdom and defined social mores were against processing the experience of massive wartime deaths and maiming. His personal tragedy of a very damaging marriage was also very difficult.

In 'The Waste Land', I think Eliot was ranting at literature, society, religion and culture for failing to stop the 'collapse' of civilization. Eliot also rages at the ultimate impotence of classic literature to warn the individual or society about the utter devastation and cruelty of war. The poem is full of allusions to those myths and wiseman sayings which reflect the darkness in humanity rather than the wisdom. He includes bits of memory in his poem which emphasize the cluelessness and obtuseness of people.

In my opinion, most Westerners suffer at a certain point in their lives a sudden feeling that civilization is collapsing because they think society has moved away from the classic ideals which maintained the life they imagine they grew up in. In most cases however, civilization is actually continuing on as it always has; it's the veils of classic idealism that the educated observer was looking through that were ripped way. To a child, Reality is a description which he has been taught to believe in. Grownups do their best to live ideally, but I think true wisdom is accepting that we often fall short of what we aspire to, but we need to get on anyway. Eliot's poem, though, is a wail of despair.

I read that hundreds of thousands of young male aristocrats, many of whom were officers and the next generation of leaders, died in WWI along with millions of 'ordinary' people. I guess that this massive die-off of millions hastened the end of centuries-old medieval-class relationships which probably had given comfort, continuity and stability to most European people of the early 20th century. But the generation educated to rule by maintaining class divisions beneficial to that upper class died.

I think wars before WWI used to have long pauses in the conduct of war, which was no longer possible in WWI due to the advances of war mechanization. Adding to the psychological turmoil, for a soldier surviving ongoing warfare it means you get sent to the front on multiple tours. In addition, the aftermath of every war fought close to home is a huge upheaval because of the resulting shortage of young men, a spread of disease vectors, transfers of and new concentrations of wealth, and disrupted markets.

But added to the usual wartime disruptions, I think, WWI was the first war which had massive long-distance killing, not the more honorable warrior to warrior battle. Fighting sword to sword probably feels different emotionally than being killed by invisible shrapnel or powerful percussions that come out of nowhere without pause, from hearing the sound for hours of constant shelling, or dying from a gas which suffocates you invisibly. I can only imagine it.

I've heard accounts from Vietnam fighters, and I guess among the usual horrors that cause PTSD, in particular, was not being able to see anything because of the thick jungles combined with the distances bullets could travel invisibly. I think the change from single face-to-face combat to sudden mass mechanized death on any army unprepared by training or TV or movies or video games (I'm not being flippant) was exponentially devastating. I know everything about war is bad, but I'm guessing if you can't see, hear, or feel the distant soldier who is killing your friends sitting 1 inch from you is a more searing experience, even with mental preparation.

I think random death makes the ideals of unquestioned patriotism and honor more difficult to hang onto. Among the few rewards of being a warrior is that 'mano y mano' victory - I believe it's biology-based for many men. However, when a person's strength and intelligence and value is made moot simply because of where you accidentally happen to be standing or sitting when shrapnel strikes, it probably feels unjust, wrong, unfair, whimsical, more pointless, more meaningless, and random than you can mentally prepare for. You'd have to be shocked by the randomness of dying! It would raise questions about everything you believed about the protective 'shields' of religion, societal mores and expectations; and about being a good person as a strategy for deserving to stay alive, and about the having a purity of purpose to be deserving of winning, even being too educated, thus too smart or valuable to be killed, etc.

For most Americans, the closest experience of the possibility of death comes from car or sport accidents and illnesses. Many people, of course, rely on the normal life patterns surrounding them for reassurance that they are magically protected from death. In war, though, there are no normal life patterns around them. Soldiers become aware that anyone can die and no one has magical immunity. No prayer, no amulet, no ritual, no strength or skill, no powerful person or strategy, nothing can protect you from a sudden act of warfare in the physical space around you. In the days of battle you see perfectly decent, good, family men chopped mercilessly into pieces despite their utilizing every bit of training and good fortune.

I feel like having a bit of a rant myself.
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Reading Progress

05/09 page 8
3.0%
05/10 page 145
45.0% "This is an informative book. Excellent for studying this hard poem"
05/11 page 165
52.0% "I agree with the essay on page 163, Malcolm Cowley 'The Dilemma of "The Waste Land"'. This is an aristrocrat's lament over the death of the medieval world."
05/11 page 210
66.0% "Although the poem is as bleak as the dead planet Mars, and with an atmosphere as smothering, it provokes a reincarnating tree of grafted parts which results in a variety of fruits continuously"
05/11 page 230
72.0% "Denis Donoghue essay: "On one side stands the world of things; on the other, a rival world of disassociated forms, Platonic cities. Between these worlds stands the individual word, maintaining a secret life, double allegiance or double treachery.""
03/28 marked as: read
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