Reading a literary text in a certain type of physical space can make what was previously unintelligible come to life. Greek tragedies make more sense when you remember ancient theaters were built into sloping hills: The stories of grief and loss emerge against the “wild” backgrounds of sea or mountain valley, large, physical forces of nature that threaten to swallow up fragile, individual humans. Similarly, the rambling city of York was once the stage for the mystery cycle plays. A whole host of troops would follow a circuit through the city, performing their one little scene from sacred history, all the while in the shadow of the cathedral—just as human beings wander throughout history, groping for God. For Andrew Marvell, a formal garden, in which one enjoys that leisurely, time-slowed experience of order and variety, was the physical space most like a poem.
But the best place to read T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land—in order to commemorate its one hundredth anniversary this year—is the airport.
The airport is a sacrament of modernity, an icon of power, control, efficiency, logistics, and smooth banality. It’s the placeless instrument by which millions of people, who don’t know one another, don’t want to know one another, nevertheless profitably use one another for a few hours to further advance their authenticity, somewhere else. At the same time, more than any other place in the world, our ordinary human actions—eating, talking, walking, waiting—are so completely confined to an arbitrary grid of order, it’s like a physical incarnation of despair. A few minutes there; a quick walk here; a well-placed utilitarian exchange there. Indeed, Houellebecq’s “inkling that, more and more, the whole world would come to resemble an airport” is haunting, because it’s a vision of a meaninglessness, placeless, communion-less world.
This is the context in which the peculiar horror of The Waste Land—a horror that comes from emptiness—makes sense.
One day this spring, I was preparing for a Humanities class I was teaching at Wyoming Catholic College, sitting on the filthy carpet in the airport, reading The Waste Land. That morning, I had been in San Diego; the afternoon was passed in snowy Denver; evening would be in colder Wyoming. As I sat there trying to read Eliot’s confusing poem, I couldn’t tune out the interminable sharp commands from TSA over the speakers, nor the light rock music that quickly followed the governmental snarl. This clutter of sound was mingled with words from self-important CNN analysts. All the while, I couldn’t help but overhear snippets of medical conversations from people who had gone on vacation. And then, because it was Mahler appreciation month, I was listening to his music through my headphones. Gossip, artistic inspiration, packaged talking points on world affairs, changing landscapes, altering weather patterns: My brain was a fluid movement of fragmented texts and landscapes. It was the perfect context for reading Eliot.
Like the interwoven “textuality” of the airport, Eliot’s Waste Land is a pastiche of discourses, an absurd collision from multiple strata of society: High culture—quotations from German poetry, French Symbolism, Shakespeare—is punctuated with radio songs, banal conversations about upcoming medical procedures, descriptions of spoiled nature, and the rustling of rats over debris along the river. In this way, The Waste Land did, in words, what Picasso was doing in his collages, or what Stravinsky was doing with his complicated musical textures, such as in his so-called polytonal and polyrhythmic ballet Rite of Spring.
Just a few years before he started working on Waste Land, Eliot attended a performance of Rite of Spring in London. He loved it: “Whether Strawinsky's music be permanent or ephemeral I do not know; but it did seem to transform the rhythm of the steppes into the scream of the motor horn, the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels . . . and the other barbaric cries of modern life; and to transform these despairing noises into music.”
For Stravinsky, the strange combination of instruments, shifting rhythms, and melodic lines played in different keys are commingled; and, likewise, Eliot created, as literary critic Cleanth Brooks put it, “ironic contrasts between the glorious past and the sordid present.” He creates moments of “crashing irony,” such as when he cites Spenser (“Sweet Thames, run softly”) but contextualizes the ancient lyrical words with a description of the debris of the modern river and the grating clatter of modern machinery:
But at my back from time to time I hear
The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring
Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.
“Horns and motors,” just like Stravinsky’s music of “motor horn” and “rattle of machinery.” Waste Land is, then, Rite of Spring rendered in language: the barbaric cry of modern life.
But it’s not just the representation of the endless drift of flotsam and jetsam of our streams of consciousness that makes Eliot so prescient, foreseeing us and our airports, nor his ability to describe the emptiness of space and destruction of place. Eliot also had a talent for hearing the vague authoritarianism behind the polite, fun, goofy, upbeat personality of marketing:
The chemist said it would be all right, but I've never been the same.
You are a proper fool, I said.
Well, if Albert won't leave you alone, there it is, I said,
What you get married for if you don't want children?
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,
And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot—
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.
Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.
These excellent lines capture the vague anxiety that runs in the background of time-bound, hyper-productive modernity. “I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting something very important . . .”
Eliot at one hundred is still shocking. Although he wrote before the digital and personal computing revolutions, cheap air travel, and mobile phones, he nevertheless lived in a world that was qualitatively like ours, even if quantitatively it would continue to accelerate.
He understood the collision of discourses that make up our brains, the radical democratization of all forms of speech, such that government propaganda, quotations from classics, music from masters, gossip from those in the vicinity, and messages from marketers are all on equal footing.
There is a point of hope, though. The fragmented, polytextual style of The Waste Land, while developed as a despairing critique of modernity, became for Eliot a language of potency—broken things, by their brokenness, suggest the hope of restoration, and in turn can mend each other: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Eliot, decades later and post-conversion, continued to turn to this style for his Christian poetry. He’d found a way to baptize High Modernism.
Jason M. Baxter teaches Great Books at Notre Dame and is a curriculum consultant for St. Thomas More Academy in South Bend, Indiana. He is the author, most recently, of The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
Photo by kallerna, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.