In the movie Spiderman 2 (2004), Peter Parker, aka Spiderman, gets in to a conversation with Dr. Otto Octavious, the scientist, who later morphs into the super villain Doc Ock. Dr. Octavious tells Peter about his fiancée, a literature student, when they met in college and how she attempted to learn science for his sake and how he tried to learn literature for hers. She was more successful and he less, as he explains to Peter, “She was studying T.S. Eliot, and, compared to science, Eliot is very complicated” (Murphy). A similar perplexity (or prejudice, for that matter) dovetails literary scholarship on Eliot, more specifically in relation to The Waste Land. This paper is not an attempt to make things easier or to determine a synoptically coherent logic behind The Waste Land. Such an attempt would be partially successful, but the main emphasis of this paper is to determine and argue for some markers or critical approaches that dissect the structural anatomy of the poem.
The chief motive for such an attempt is to discover critical approaches that can be applied to the whole poem to garner different readings of the poem. Eliot’s efforts in the poem have laid much of the emphasis on the act of reading, and rather than the complexities of the poem that conjure to ebb reader interest (as immediate reviews of the poem suggested), I argue that the poem, in its fragmented self, is able to take the reader deeper into the poetic experience. The first approach is rather theoretical, based chiefly on the idea of historical sense that Eliot emphasised in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent. The second approach is primarily structural, based on the idea of deriving meaning between the experiences of writing and reading. Outlaying these approaches, it is worth mentioning that there have been numerous instances in the research where these approaches have overlapped, with positive results that have eased the analysis.
The Waste Land, in my foremost argument, is a catalytic entity. This simple derivation, of course, draws from Eliot’s contemporary times and the social aura after the Great War. But other than that, in writing the lines of the poem, Eliot has stressed upon the cyclic nature of historical events that an individual must experience in her/ his lifetime. The evidence for such a claim may be drawn from the poem. First, let us consider the abstract nature of the poem; second, the broken fragments and third, the ambiguous and often changing points of narrative. All, in their blatant way defy a linear comprehension of the poem. This would suggest that the process of composition involved an impersonal thought process that stressed more on the ideas of abstract feelings rather than a personal intent of expression. The response to such a method of composition would not be “what is the poet saying?” but “what is the poem saying?”. More meaning can be derived from answering the later question than trying to bracket the poem within conventional reasons of writing poetry. Hence, it becomes clear that the process of creation, on Eliot’s part, is strictly catalytic, not drawing only on contemporary history, but drawing from a ‘tradition’ of historic cycles that have enriched the contemporary thinker.
These conform closely to Eliot’s claims in theory in the essay Tradition and the Individual Talent. The same argument can be further elaborated if we consider these lines from The Waste Land:
“Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Unreal” (374- 376, From What the Thunder Said).
The symbols of fallen civilisations and falling civilisations come together in the space of two lines to express Eliot’s feelings in the third- “Unreal”. It is a process of condensing history and time within the space of a single reference to convey a singular feeling amongst a collage of expressions. The idea is to stress on the narrowness of the separation of ‘tradition’ (in my argument...