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Module 1: The Wasteland

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Twentieth-Century Fiction
Prof. Avishek Parui
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Madras

Lecture – 23
The Wasteland – Part 4
(Refer Slide Time: 00:16)

So, hi and welcome to this NPTEL course entitled Twentieth Century Fiction. We were looking at T S Eliot’s poem the Waste land and in this lecture we will hopefully conclude the poem as well as summarize some of the themes we have discussed already. So, the final two sections of the Waste Land, the penultimate section called the death by water which is a very small section it is about the figure of drowning and; obviously, as you know Eliot uses what he described for James Joyce is a mythic method.
So, he brings in myths from you know historical, prehistorical times and he connects those conditions to contemporary times in terms of how those are connectible and relatable and there are structural similarities. But, the whole point of using certain mythic methods, mythical figures as it were is to underline the decadence and exhaustion of civilization which is what the Waste land is all about. It is about the exhaustion of civilization. It is about the Waste Land as in the western civilization coming to an end, dying a natural death.
So, we talked about sexual sterility; we talked about spiritual sterility; we talked about different kinds; different orders of decadence which the Waste Land keeps dramatizing. So, just see section before that the fire sermon we saw how at the end of this particular section we have the references to Saint Augustine as well as Buddha and how the eastern and the western philosophies they meet and how the movement is towards spirituality from sexuality. So both Buddha and Augustine, they had very earthly sensual lives before they became spiritual.
So, the two figures are very carefully chosen by Eliot and this section, the penultimate section death by water which is again which repeats corroborates entire sense of drowning which you find over and over again in Eliot’s early poetry, if you remember the love song of J Alfred Prufrock; you find that the final image is one of drowning until human voices wake us and we drown and we have these images of mermaid singing. So, it is all about drowning and drowning the sinking feeling of drowning, is something which is connected to existential annihilation right and that annihilation is something which the Waste Land keeps dramatizing through contemporary as well as mythical figures.
So, this is Death by Water and this should be on your screen, the penultimate section of Waste Land. Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead, forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell and the profit and loss. A current under sea picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell he passed the stages of his age and youth entering the whirlpool. Gentile or Jew, O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
So, we find that you know the Waste Land among other things it mentions bankers, it mentions typists, it mentions you know clerks, insurance agents. In other words, it mentions a very mixed example of London demography in terms of being a financial center.
So, Phlebas the Phoenician who is mentioned over here is a mythical figure. Again, one of the archetypal drowning figures in western myths, Judeo-Christian myths, but he is used over here to talk about to underline the whole feeling of sinking of sinking, the sinking feeling that comes to London inhabitants. And, we find how London keeps getting mentioned in Waste Land as a city in connection to Rome, in connection to the ancient mythical cities which fell historically and mythically. So, London too is compared to such a city, such a metropolis which is; obviously, mutable, but also come into a natural end, dying a natural death right.
So, and this particular image of the human corpse at the bottom of the sea where passing through stages of age and youth inside the sea is; obviously, an example of temporality or the decadence of temporality. How temporality becomes a decadent condition, a sterile condition, where the age and the youth pass away very quickly and all you can look forward to is decadence and then death.
So, death by water is about decadence death by water is about existential sinking and flip this definition is who is a fortnight dead. So, again we have this image of deadness growing or the temporality emerging out of deadness. If you remember the first section burial of the dead, it talks about how there is this you know corpse planted in a garden and it’s beginning to sprout. Right, that is the only vegetation only fertility possible, only fertility available is through deadness is through markers of deadness right and that; obviously, underlines the deadness in Waste Land.
So, to say. So, here too we have Phlebas the Phoenician who has been a dead who has been there for a fortnight. So, again the deadness growing or emerging or continuing the only life available, the only animation available, the only growth available is through deadness and that is something which is being underlined here as well. (Refer Slide Time: 05:06)

Now, that brings us to the final section of the Waste Land what the thunder said and we find that in this particular section lot lots of references to Jesus; lots of references to the betrayal of Jesus. The garden where he got betrayed and you know the references of Judas and also the whole idea of the walking third figure, who is an invisible presence, but whose footprints are seen in the sand. So, again that you know that is a very interesting combination of spectrality and spirituality right.
So, spectrality it normally has negative connotations in the Waste Land in everywhere, but that spectrality is also a sort of protective spirituality. So, that that combination is interesting that is a very complex combination that Eliot is trying to underline. And what is even more interesting is the fact that by the time this section ends by the time the Waste Land ends as a poem, we find that there are a lot of references to Eastern myths especially, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad that Eliot mentions when he talks about Datta Dayadhvam Damyata and Shanti shanti shanti with which the poem ends.
So, this reference towards looking at the east, this reference towards looking towards other forms of knowledge other forms of spirituality and we have already seen how the section the fire sermon is a reference to Buddha’s sermon. The whole spirituality of Buddha, the spiritual message of Buddha of moving beyond physical pleasures, sexual pleasures and getting true nirvana through spirituality right. So, that sermon is something which was part of the message in Waste Land.
Now, this section what the thunder said, it begins with references of Christ. So, this should be on your screen and the text goes as follows: After the torch light red and sweaty faces, after the frosty silence in the gardens, after the agony and stony places, the shouting and the crying, prison and palace and reverberation, of thunder of spring over distant mountains, he who was living is now dead, we who are living are now dying with a little patience.
So, again the whole idea of dying with a little patience, dying as a movement; dying as the only movement available; dying as the only form of life available is something which the Waste Land keeps dramatizing. He who was living is now dead that could be a reference to the death of Christianity as a figure, death of Christ as a you know spiritual figure as a faith figure, something which is dead, something which you cannot connect to anymore and then you cut back into the present, present London where it has been said we who are now living are now dying with a little patience.
So, this is something like the death of faith or the collapse of faith and with the collapse of faith the spiritual sustenance going away everything else just becomes a biological phenomenon. If you take the faith away; if you take spirituality away; if you take the whole idea of the human spirit away; everything else just becomes bodies ticking away, it is like a time tick towards death.
So, everything is a movement towards death, because there is no spirituality; there is no comfort; there is no sustenance left at all. In that sense the Waste Land connects very interestingly with Matthew Arnolds’s Dover beach which actually is it occupies historical moment, where Darwinism comes up in a big way and you know the entire lost the faith in the Christian church and how Darwinism suddenly makes things difficult and to believe to grasp.
It is a paradigm shift and the trauma and the shock, when such an epistemic paradigm shift takes place when the level of knowledge changes; when the understanding of knowledge changes; when the knowledge of knowledge changes. So, to speak that poem occupies the moment of shock. So, Waste Land is the further consolidation of that shock, consolidation of that deadness of faith in a western world which Eliot is dramatizing and as you know a little biographical detail of Eliot is interesting.
He was seriously considering move becoming a Buddhist when he was writing the Waste Land which was by the way written in an asylum in Lausanne and then; obviously, after this he became a catholic. So, some of his later poetry, his more spiritual poetry, “The Four Quartets” for instance, a deeply catholic in quality and so, the Waste Land represents that purgation period in his life where everything is sort of burning away and; obviously, the Burning! Burning! Burning! burning image comes in the fire sermon reference to Saint Augustine ok.
But the whole idea of we who are living now, are now dying is an example of how the loss of spirituality loss of spiritual sustenance and loss of faith, so to speak makes human beings you know just biological mere, biological organisms ticking away towards death ok. And then we continue reading the poem. Here is no water, but only rock, rock and no water and the sandy road, the road winding above among the mountains, which are mountains of rock without water.
So, again look at the reputation of rock and water and road and water and rock again. So, the whole the whole geography over here is not really about natural landscape, is actually about the mindscape, it is about the spiritual landscape which has become rocky and mountainous and water less and the waterless-ness is important, because just prior to this we saw images of people drowning in water.
So, we know this is not exactly about water per say not the mineral water right this is about the spiritual sustenance and the lack of water the waterless-ness is actually what causes the drowning. So, it is not an ontological opposite. So, waterlessness and drowning, they are actually connected and they are connected and point to the same existential condition of despair and drowning right.
So, that is something which we need to keep in mind the waterless-ness is what causes drowning in the Waste Land is not really about the physical availability of water. So, here is no water, but only rock, rock and no water and a sandy road, the road winding above among the mountains, which are mountains of rock without water. If there were water we should stop and drink, amongst the rock one cannot stop or think, sweat is dry and feet are in the sand, if there were only water amongst the rock.
(Refer Slide Time: 11:01)

Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit, here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit. There is not even a silence in the mountains, but dry sterile thunder without rain. So, the sterile thunder is an important metaphor over here. The sterility of rain, the rain which does not actually bring in a regeneration and we talked about how even reproduction in the Waste Land. We talked about sexual reproduction; we talked about pills taken to enhance one’s sexuality; pills taken to make oneself more sexually attractive and all reference of the First World War is about sexuality.
When the soldiers come back from the war and they want to have good time with a woman and we have these anxious women talking to each other in the pub very workingclass conversations about taking pills and making yourself more sexually attractive to the men who are coming back from the war and they find that it is entirely about loveless sex, is about reproduction without regeneration right. So we talked about producing children, but that is just a continuation of deadness.
So, this break between reproduction and regeneration is something which the Waste Land is dramatizing over and over again. So, there are rain, but these are sterile rains, these are thunders which do not have any sustenance in them. They do not really bring anything new; it is just a continuation of deadness and thus lies the significance of sterile thunder without rain.
There is not even solitude in the mountains, but red sullen faces sneer and snarl, from door of mud cracked houses, if there were water and no rock, if there were rock and also water and water a spring, a pool among the rock, if there were the sound of water only, not the cicada the dry grass singing, but sound of water over a rock where the hermit thrush sings in the pine trees, drip drop drip drop drop drop drop, but there is no water ok.
So, Eliot takes a lot of pains to talk about the waterless-ness over here and as we just mentioned the waterless is not about the physical unavailability of water. The waterlessness is a faithlessness which has been talked about in a symbolic significance way. So, the waterless-ness causes of drowning, you know the drowning which comes out of the loss of faith and then there is a direct reference to Christ the spectral figure, the spiritual figure who is invisible, but at the same time who makes his presence felt and the lines go like: Who is the third who walks always beside you? when I count, there are only you and I together, but there is always another one walking beside you, gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded I do not know whether a man or a woman, but who is that on the other side of you?.
So, the invisible figure or the faith figure who is invisible been walking beside you in a desert right. So, someone is making his footprints felt, but you know without being physically present.
(Refer Slide Time: 13:41)

What is that sound high in the air murmur of maternal lamentation, who are these hooded hordes swarming over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth reigned by the flat horizon only. What is a city over the mountains cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air falling towers Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna, London unreal.
So, look at the way again London as a city as a metropolis is connected to the mythically, archetypically fallen cities, right Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, all the cities which were burned, which came to an end, which died of natural death Vienna and now London.
So, London is in continuation of that spectrum of fallen cities and the final image, the final line the final word is unreal right. So, all these cities are becoming unreal in a sense of dying a natural death. So, London too is a Waste Land is a purgatorio and as I mentioned that the entire poem begins with reference to Dante’s Divine Comedy. So, if you divide Dante’s Divine Comedy in three different spectrum we have the entire idea of hell and then followed by the purgation phase and then we have the paradise phase right.
So, this is the purgatorio, right, the inferno purgatory of Paradiso right. So, this is the purgatory, where everything burns away and only at the end of it do we have any hope of a Paradiso. So, London is connected as a geographical historical space. London suddenly becomes a mythical city, over here which is not to say it is elevated into a myth and it is actually connected to the mythical cities which fell, the historical cities which fell, you know existentially, as well as physically, as well as politically, right unreal ok. (Refer Slide Time: 15:22)

So, and then we skip and suddenly come to the whole idea of the eastern geography which is interesting the topography changes and of course, we know that a topography is not really a physical topography.
The topography over here is about the spiritual landscape which is shrinking and the image of this should be on the screen Ganga was sunken and this is a very important image Ganga was sunken and the limp leaves waited for rain, while the black clouds gathered far distant over Himavant, the general crouched, humped in silence, then spoke the thunder and now we have references to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad Da Data Dayadhvam Damyata and then Shanti shanti shanti, but just prior to that the whole idea of the sunken Ganga is important, because again it refers to an original myth which says that all the waters in the world actually come from Ganga.
So, Ganga over here does not really is not really about river over here, it is about the sinking or the shrinking away of the source of water which sustains this as a planet which sustains us as human being as humanity right.
So, Ganga was sunken. So, the sinking of Ganga is an important figure over here and again it is sort of alluding to a drawing on the mythical map the mythical meaning map which is being referred to over here. The waterlessness is what is being talked about over here. Ganga was sunken and the limp leaves waited for rain, the limp leaves waiting for rain also becomes an inertia also becomes this futile Sisyphean wait for regeneration which does not happen, while the black clouds gathered far distant over Himavant. So, Himavant of course, is the you know the mountainous region which forms Himalayas the general crouched humped in silence then spoke the thunder.
So, the voice of thunder comes over here and obviously, interestingly what Eliot draws on in terms of offering the only example, the only possibility of regeneration is not any western myth, but eastern myth he refers to Indian philosophy he refers to the Upanishads in terms of the only possibility of regeneration coming from there and of course, as you know I mean if you situate it historically in modernism there is a lot of interest, intellectual, as well as spiritual in terms of looking at the eastern philosophy, the Indian philosophers. So, this is also a time where these texts were getting translated the translation industry was big and booming at that point of time.
And of course, the spiritual faith landscape in a western world was under some sort of crisis still coping with Darwinism, the First World War. So, all that was like big blows at the entire tenets of noble and you know peace loving Christianity. So, the whole anxiety to look at something which is from the other world and grasp it, sometimes unproblematically is something which modernism does over and over again right.
So, the whole reference to you know nonwestern mythical frameworks, nonwestern mythical figures and also this is a time where nonwestern literal figures were becoming important again for the same political reason in a in terms of looking at alternative orders of literature alternative voices of literature and spirituality when Tagore was a big phenomenon.
I mean Eliot was a student in London where Tagore was a celebrity after having won the Nobel price, but the references to the Indian non-western literary landscapes are quite pervasive in Eliot’s poetry and the Waste Land is no exception, actually dramatizes it quite strongly towards the end.
Thus, then spoke the thunder Da Datta what have we given. So, Data Dayadhvam and Damyata. So, Datta is giving generosity, charity, Dayadhvam is kindness, compassion and Damyata is; obviously, the whole idea of compassion in a more existential sense. So, the whole idea of giving, charity, kindness and compassion put together that can only take you towards the peace which is mentioned in the end shanti shanti shanti which Eliot would describe later as a peace with passive understanding and some kind of a metaphysical peace which cannot be understood empirically or analyzed empirically, right.
So, again the whole idea of looking at the eastern philosophy as non-empirical it is very problematic, but at the same time that was very contemporary that was something which was happening a lot in terms of a very unproblematic understanding of eastern and Indian myths as the meta answer the panacea to all the problems in the western world and Eliot is; obviously, voicing that contemporary trend so to speak in a Waste Land ok.
So, the voices of the thunder speak to each other. Datta: what have you given? My friend, blood shaking my heart the awful daring of a moment’s surrender which an age of prudence can never retract, by this and this only, we have existed which is not to be found in our obituaries or in memories draped by the beneficent spider or under seals broken by the lean solicitor in our empty rooms.
So, again look at the way in which something as spiritual as giving a body and blood to a moment’s surrender has a lean solicitor in it. So, again this is a very good example of how London as a metropolis it doubles up as a mythical place as well as a place of bankers, who are suffering post First World War, suffering a major financial crisis. So, and as some of you would know Eliot did work in a bank for a period of time right.
So, this whole references to bankers over and over again as fallen human beings and situating them in certain mythical, existential landscapes, it does have a something of a metaphysical conceit quality about it in terms of producing a shock effect producing a juxtaposition of opposites which is which will generate a shock and a degree of rattled among the among the readers, it will discomfort you and that is the whole point right.
The lean solicitor sitting over here in his spiritual landscape is something of a
contemporary presence put inside a mythical landscape ok. Dayadhvam which is about kindness. I have heard the key turn in the door once and turn once only we think of the key each in his prison thinking of the key each confirms a prison. So, again a very bleak description of modernity as being a prison house of existence where every person is in a prison and every person hears the clinking of a key thinking of a key and by that confirming a prison.
So, in other words the prison over here it is not really a physical space. The prisoner over here is something which you generate out of your thought processes, something which you generate out of your lifestyle, something which you generate out of your grasp of meanings around you, you confirm a prison. So, every person over here confirms the prison and that can be connected back to the section where you know we talk about the typist and the in a club and they have this loveless sex with each other where human motor movements become more and more mechanized right,
So, the mechanization of the motor movements. So, even at the level of motor movements humans are numbed and I did talk about George Simmel’s book modernity in metropolis and mental life which talks about the modern condition the European modern condition as essentially a neurotic condition, a condition of nerves right. So, and there are references of nerves all over the Waste Land the nerves are back to mind.
So, the entire crisis of nerves is then becomes a more macro crisis in terms of people creating prisons for themselves and the only way you can have any home is through the creation of a prison right. So, the prison is the only home available to you. So, again the opposites over here they cease to be opposites. They are just like deadness is the only way you can perceive life, prison is the only way you can perceive space in this modern metropolis of modernity ok.
(Refer Slide Time: 22:50)

So, and then Damyata which is about compassion. The boat responded gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar the sea was calm, your heart would have responded gaily, when invited, beating obedient to controlling hands. And then the final section of Waste Land is interesting where there is a mention of London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down, which is essentially a child’s nursery rhyme. But, again look at the way in which how that is situated in this otherwise very somber, profound, mythical landscape which Eliot is creating and in that sense at a very stylistic level the Waste Land is actually very postmodernist right. Although, Eliot would hate it if that were told to him because he is a very conservative modernist. But looking back as students of post modernism the way Shakespearean drag pop culture, London bankers, mythical figures, nursery rhymes, you know Upanishads, all put together into one collage of quotations that actually stylistically makes Waste Land from a purely representational politics’ perspective, actually a very postmodern poem right.
So, the whole idea of London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down the nonsense child rhyme inserted into this otherwise mythical landscape and then he come to us and the Waste Land where the speaker says these fragments I have shored against my ruins why then I will fit you? Hieronymo’s mad againe which is a reference to the Spanish tragedy again, a reference of Renaissance theatre and we cut back and do Upanishads where the last the last couple of sentences are Datta Dayadhvam Damyata Shanti shanti shanti which is about peace peace and peace, the peace that passed all understanding which is what Eliot had described.
So, that concludes the Waste Land. So, this is essentially about the decadence of western civilization it is quite you know heteroglossic in quality, in the sense that it has many voices and sometimes the voices are one of voiceless-ness, if you remember the myth of Philomel, which is mentioned over and over again. the Archetypal woman brutalized by a powerful man and who has chopped off her tongue. So, she becomes Archetypically, the voiceless woman.
So, she too becomes the presence in a Waste Land like Tiresias, who was essentially the focalized figure the the camera presence in Waste Land so to see through, whose eyes everything you see, everything is unfolded, visually speaking, but then at the end of day he is also an impotent prophet in the sense that whatever he says will not be believed and he is he has got his wrinkled body, shrinking body. So, again the from the example of decadence is there even in the all-knowing prophet right.
So, and the final image of Waste Land Hieronymo’s mad againe which is an example of fury and that is immediately contrasted with the Shanti shanti shanti which is about peace the peace that passed all understanding. So, the Waste Land is attitudinally veryvery ambivalent, affectively speaking it is very-very ambivalent it has got lots of different contrasting affects, it has got lots of different contrasting styles and all put together it becomes a very interesting affective document of a post war metropolis which is mourning; which is hysteric in quality; and which is; obviously, coming to terms with the violence of the First World War; which is interestingly never mentioned except one time directly the references are other mythical wars.
But the First World War is never really mentioned except for that little phase where two working class women are working are talking in a pub and talking about their husbands coming back and wanting to have a good time, because they have been so traumatized by the war; it is the only time when the war actually gets mentioned in the Waste Land, but despite that this is entirely about the First World War it is about the London the post war metropolis still coming to terms with PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
And, the entire metropolis is suffering from the disorder and hence, the numbness; hence the zombie like quality; hence the machinic movement of motor limbs by the human bodies and the human beings who are essentially you know reduced to machines in a very-very mutable and hysteric metropolis which is London in the Waste Land. So, with that we conclude this this poem and I just mentioned that I have an article in the Waste Land which might be of use to you.
So, if you just you know go up to my academia.edu website and I am happy to upload it in the online forum that we have for this particular course. It deals exactly with the kind of issues we talked about. So, it might be helpful in terms of looking that up, yeah in terms of looking at how the entire violence in the Waste Land, is actually violence on our nerves; the violence of language; the violence in voices and how that is manifested using a mythical method.
So, the mythical method can be seen as some kind of comfort cushion for Eliot, it helps him not to deal directly what is happening in London at that point in time. It gives him an oblique reference style, an oblique reference, you know technique through which the trauma can be conveyed. So, myth over here becomes something of an absorber of trauma through which a traumatic mindscape is actually represented without getting too real or too direct with contemporary reality which is nevertheless present throughout this landscape, but it does not have to be mentioned over and over again.
So, that comfort of distance, temporal distance, geographical distance, is something that a mythic method provides Eliot, but this is a deeply personal poem. This is about Eliot’s own negotiations with modernity, with the own negotiations with violence of modernity and of course, with spirituality. So, the reference to the Upanishads in the end is reflective of his own inclination spiritually at that point of time and of course, as I mentioned post Waste Land.