Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Eliot's The Waste Land and the Need to Exist

I find that every time I read The Waste Land I get caught up in the footnotes, which, though informative and helpful, prevents me from reading the poem fluidly. On a personal level, I often wonder if Eliot would have done his readers a better service had he let the poem stand alone without ever publishing the footnotes. I suppose that I ought to follow Eliot’s own advice from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, in which he says that “the more seasoned reader . . . does not bother about understanding; not, at least, at first” (93)—that by way of introduction.
Rather than try to take the whole poem on, I thought I’d address a few issues that came up as I was reading the poem and the articles. Throughout his paper Brooks makes a big point out of the Eliot quote he introduces at the opening: “‘So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing; at least, we exist [italics Brooks’]’” (186). I really like the observations he draws from the poem in relation to this statement. However, I am struggling with the consistency between this reading as applied to a section of the poem and another statement he makes later in his paper.
My confusion arises when Brooks says that “the comments on the three statements of the thunder imply an acceptance of them” (203-4) and then proceeds to quote three lines of the Datta (give) section:
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Brooks treats this section negatively as far as I can see. The “mere ‘existence’” (204) represented here is insufficient for him, an example of man’s inability to “be absolutely self-regarding” (204). However, Brooks’ overarching emphasis on the primary need to exist regardless of whether such existence results from good or evil action seems to oblige you to read this section as positive. After all, through this “moment’s surrender” the speaker did achieve existence, the mere being a qualification added by Brooks (I think deriving from the use of only, which does not apply the existence, but to the action). And though this section is not immediately connected with the injunction to control, a positive reading would seem to present a contradiction (a moment’s surrender=good as opposed to the need to control=good). Whether Brooks would appreciate what I’ve done here is no longer the point. Now it’s a matter of personal inquiry: can the ideas of ascetic control and imprudent abandon both be accepted?
If I were to try to reconcile them, I would do so by returning to the beginning of the poem. As a young child, Marie was afraid of sledding at the arch-duke’s. However, when her cousin (the arch-duke?) told her to “hold on tight . . ., down [they] went” (16), and “there you feel free” (17). The control obtained through holding on allows for the subsequent freedom and defeat of fear. Perhaps you could parallel the fear factor of sledding in the mountains to an imprudent surrender, but I’m not sure. I could justify the connection of control with the sledding image by the fact that when Eliot writes about control in section five, he uses the image of “the boat respond[ing] / Gaily, to the hand of the expert with sail and oar” (419-20). The guidance of a boat and of a sled are so similarly framed by the hands as controlling agents that I feel the stretch not too outlandish. However, if the connection between the surrender and sledding does not hold, if the surrender must be a negative action, then I would be forced to call into question Brooks’ championing of the existence motif in the poem.

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