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

Lecture – 21
The Wasteland – Part 2
(Refer Slide Time: 00:16)

So, hello and welcome to this NPTEL course entitled Twentieth Century Fiction, we were looking at T S Eliot’s poem the Waste Land with which we have started already. So, in this particular lecture we will start with the second section of Waste Land which is entitled A Game of Chess, which is a line taken from Thomas Middleton’s Elizabethan drama Women Beware Women.
So, as I mentioned in my last lecture, there are a lot of allusions in Waste Land, allusions to other literary texts, allusions to other non-literary texts; for instance James Frazer’s book on anthropology the Golden Bough is something which keeps getting mentioned in Waste Land. And I will come back to Golden Bough in a moment little later; yeah Eliot does seem to draw on heavily current or contemporary works on anthropology especially Frazer’s work on non-European civilizations and primitive myths and ancient tribal rituals in totemic science etcetera.
So, all those get you know sort of filled in, they sort of fill in the text of Waste Land so to say. Now in this particular section, A Game of Chess it’s essentially about the collapse of communication and we have seen how the entire poem is about the collapse of western civilization, the production of waste, from the production of trash, and how trash and waste are consuming the western metropolis.
So, if you remember the line in the previous section which is about the unreal city and the fog settling on the city and how that is consuming the people, the crowd of people flowing in and they all walking like zombies which is essentially like a dehumanized people and you know that becomes a very graphic and cinematic image of tiredness, a cinematic image of inertia, right. And that image is interesting, because that is once that is an image which keeps coming up in the Waste Land. And of course, the production of trash; the whole idea of producing something out of deadness, so deadness is the only thing which grows in Waste Land, right.
So, these if you remember the last section, it ended with an image of a corpse being planted in a garden and is beginning to sprout which is again something which you find in Frazer’s a Golden Bough. In the anthropology book which talks about how some ancient non-European civilization would bury a male body, a male corpse and then with the hope of you know getting fertility in the soil. Because the belief was, if you put a male corpse into that soil, it will make the soil fertile. But even if you take away that anthropological allusion, what we get instead in a very direct and literal way is the production of deadness.
So, deadness is only thing which gets produced and reproduced. So, this reproduction it is not really regeneration and that is the difference that the Waste Land dramatizes very often that reproduction is not regeneration reproduction is just a mechanistic, a mechanistic existence, a mechanistic activity you just reproduce. And we already seen this happen, this mechanistic quality; humans becoming machines and machines becoming human. In a certain sense we saw that, in a Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock we saw that in preludes. So, that kind of an inertia that metropolitan mundaneness, the metropolitan boredom, the metropolitan neurosis is something which we find in Waste Land as well.
And this section, particularly a Game of Chess which we will study today in this particular lecture is essentially about the nervous condition induced by the metropolis, as a collapse of communication. And that collapse of communication is a neurotic condition right and that neurosis is something which Waste Land dramatizes quite often. (Refer Slide Time: 03:39)

So, it begins with an image of abundance and it begins with image of fertility, an image of splendor; but then you know what undercuts that image immediately is this squalid quality of modern life and let us take a look at this. The Chair she sat in and this should be on the screen the Game of Chess; the chair she sat in, like a burnished throne, glowed on the marble where the glass held up by standards wrought with fruited vines. From which a golden Cupidon peeped out another hid his eyes behind his wing. Doubled the flames of seven branched candelabra reflecting light upon the table as the glitter of her jewels rose to meet it.
So, again it is about jewels, about illumination, about a very very abundant place resplendent with glory and splendor and wealth and appearance; but what is; obviously, beneath all this is a image of decadence, is an image is an feeling an attitude, an affect of decadence, right. And that decadence is something which cannot be hidden by the appearance; the appearance is there on a surface in a very superficial way. But if you take away the shine, if you take away the sheen; what we get is a dead decadence, which is essentially what this particular image is trying to portray. From satin cases poured in rich profusion in vials of ivory and coloured glass.
(Refer Slide Time: 04:55)

Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes. Again, this is the first image of decadence, the first signifier of decadence; synthetic perfumes is like perfumes which is very strong, but not natural, not organic.
So, these are synthetically made and that becomes the first signifier of decadence over here. Unguent, powdered or liquid troubled, confused and drowned the sense in odours. So, again there is a sense of drowning, confusion, cognitive confusion and odours are consuming each other. So, this is what I mean when I say the opulence over here; basically, becomes the dramatization of decadence.
So, the opulence is not really ontologically speaking positive; the opulence over here is used very deliberately and very strategically to further underline the decadence that this particular image is trying to convey, ok. And drowned the senses in odours; stirred by the air that freshened from the window, these ascended in flattening the prolonged candle flames, flung their smoke into the laquearia, stirring the pattern on the coffered ceiling. Huge sea wood fed with copper, burned green and orange, framed by the colored stone, in which a sad light a carved dolphin swam.
Again, the sad light becomes important over here. It is not really about illumination positive sense; it is about illumination which further accentuates darkness, which further accentuates sorrow, which further accentuates mourning and melancholia, right. So, there is a degree of melancholy about this light, about this illumination. Above the antique mantel was displayed as though a window gave upon a sylvan scene the change of Philomel, by the barbarous king. So, rudely forced.
So, again the image the myth of Philomel, who is who was brutally and whose body was brutally violated by the king Tereus and then her tongue was chopped off. The ancient myth of Philomel or Philomela in certain other cultures that becomes signifier over here, very potent signifier of what a violence on a female body and also about the muted agency of the human being.
You cannot speak anymore, because the tongue has been chopped off after an act of sexual violence. And this whole idea of sexual violence becomes important in Waste Land, because it will come back later; especially in this section at the end, where you have two working class women, talking to each other about their husband and how they are getting sexually violated by the husbands come back from the war. But over here look at the way in which again Eliot uses a mythic method to talk about violence and the lack of agency; because the chopping of the tongue becomes very literally and symbolically chopping off of agency, you cannot speak anymore because you do not have a voice anymore.
So, literally and symbolically the voicelessness of Philomel becomes an extended signifier, an extended pointer to the lack of agency or the annihilation of agency in the modern metropolis which is something which we will find again and again. So, if we move on to the next section, which we will in next lecture Fire Sermon; we find that in that image, in that section we have the image of a typist who is getting violated, whose body is being sexually violated by you know a clerk, a carbuncular clerk. And she again is voiceless, she does not have agency, she does not have any voice to articulate her anguish, articulate the sense of violence that she is receiving or experiencing as a female subject, right.
So, these become these muted, female figures become very important in Waste Land; because particularly because of the way in which agency-less-ness is played out in the modern metropolis. And the myth of Philomela over here becomes a very interesting way to represent that voicelessness. It is back to the mythic method that, Eliot had mentioned in reference to James Joyce’s Ulysses. So, he is using a mythic method as well, in terms of using mythical figures to portray certain human conditions in contemporary times, ok. The whole idea of voicelessness becomes important over here and Eliot’s mythic method is very handy in that regard, ok.
So, the change of Philomel into a brutalized subject into a voiceless subject by the barbarous king, Tereus over here, so rudely forced. So, the violation of human body is again very interestingly portrayed. Yet there the nightingale filled all the desert with inviolable voice. So, again the nightingale is something that Philomela’s voice transformed into and still she cried, and still the world pursues Jug Jug to dirty ears. And other withered stumps of time. So, the withered stumps of time become very important over here.
These stumps of time are quite literally the worn-out human negotiations with time. So, time becomes an important figure in Eliot’s early poetry and you have seen it already in the Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, where time literally transforms into something you know, embodied. So, it’s an embodied negotiation with time; and hence the word withered over here becomes important, because that quality of being withered is something which can only come with an embodied negotiation.
So, time becomes over here a pointer to enervation, a pointer to exhaustion, a pointer to the sore lack, this crisis of agency,
(Refer Slide Time: 09:56)

And then we come back to contemporary time. So, we have the mythic method, we have the landscape of myth which just played out before us in terms of conveying certain signifiers, in terms of conveying certain images of enervation, exhaustion, voicelessness, etcetera.
And we cut back to the present time, where we have this very urban couple with a complete crisis in communication and a very complete crisis of any kind of relationship, sexual, romantic all relationships are on a verge of failure, on the verge of collapse. And that collapse is being conveyed with the crisis of communication over here ok, where you know one particular speaker is telling another speaker telling another human subject about the nerves failings.
So, you know again the whole idea of neurosis becomes important and how the modern condition is essentially a neurotic condition, and that is something which we see over and over again in Eliot’s early poetry. So, if we take a look at in a Prufrock for instance; the Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock is about a neurotic male speaker who is constantly procrastinating; because of his neurosis. And the procrastination becomes the performance in neurosis in that sense, it’s an extension of his neurosis, right. And we have a more deadly description of a depiction of neurosis over here, when one human subject tells another subject that my nerves are bad tonight, so stay with me.
So, this it is on a verge of a crisis in communication, the complete collapse not the crisis; a collapse in communication which is being depicted over here. My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me. Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak. What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? I never know what you are thinking. Think.
So, again the whole idea of begging the other human subject to speak becomes important; because you know again this is connected to the whole idea of voicelessness, but also more darkly this is about the inability to communicate in modern times, where you are surrounded by machines, you are surrounded by this very mutable and you know maddening metropolis. And that takes a toll on your nerves; the constant negotiation with machines and the rhythms of the modernity, the modern metropolis it takes a toll on the nerves, it numbs you down.
So, over here we have an example of a numbed condition right, and that numbed condition becomes very much part of the modern European condition according to Eliot.
And that is represented in Eliot’s early poetry, where human beings are getting more and more dehumanized and numbed; because of their constant and endless negotiation with machines and the metropolis.
So, I think we are in a rat’s alley, where the dead men lost their bones. So, again the idea of a dead space, we are in rat’s alley, right; so the rat’s alley, where the dead men lost their bones. So, we have skulls and different kinds of skeleton structures. What is that noise, the wind under the door; what is that noise now? What is the wind doing? Nothing again, nothing. Do you know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember nothing, right.
So, the whole idea of the recursive quality of nothing over here is basically a pointer to an existence in nothingness, right. So, nothingness becomes the normative condition like numbness. So, numbness and nothingness become the normative conditions in modernity and that is represented in a very graphic and dark way in this particular poem, right. Do you remember nothing? Do you know nothing? Do you see nothing? So, you see nothingness, right.
So, it is very, in a way it is akin to a Kurtz’s idea of horror in Heart of Darkness, where he realizes that he is being consumed by nothingness. He is starring at the abyss of nothingness and that is what he looks at and that looks back at him. And hence the whole idea of horror, the whole experience of horror is experienced in nothingness; that you have been converted into a nothingness, you have been completely emptied out of your humanity.
I remember those are pearls that were his eyes. So, again these are references to Elizabethan drama and those are pearls that were his eyes. Are we alive or not? Is there nothing in your head? Again, the word nothing comes back, but O O O O that Shakespearean Rag. It is so elegant, so intelligent. What shall I do now? What shall I do? I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street with my hair down. What shall we do tomorrow? What shall we ever do? The hot water at ten, and if it rains, a closed car at four, and we shall play a game of chess, pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.
Now, there are quite a few references over here, which are interesting. So, those are pearls that where his eyes is a reference to a line from Elizabethan theatre which is brought back over here as an example of decadence, example of deadness etcetera. But more importantly than that, the whole idea of the Shakespearian Rag is the popular allusion to Shakespeare in the contemporary times, it is elegance so, and so Shakespeare converted into the popular forms of entertainment.
And then he comes back to this whole idea of this genteel urban couple on the verge of a collapseof communication and everything has been mechanized, everything is being converted into some mechanical existence in a very routine and sequenced way. So, how are things planned out, I shall rush out as I am and walk the street with my hair down. So, again the whole image of hysteria, the hysterical subject, hystericized subject and that is interesting; because the whole metropolis over here becomes a hystericized metropolis, right. This is post First World War; this is a mourning metropolis, this is a
numbed metropolis.
A metropolis always waiting for a bomb, always waiting for an act of violence to happen; and all the act of violence is formally stopped that wait for violence is always there. And that sort of invades not just the public space, but also the private intimate spaces which also become numb spaces waiting for violence to take place, okay. And look at the sequence of things over here; if it rains a closed car at four and we shall play a game of chess, pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.
So, again the whole idea of a game of chess becomes important, which is a reference to the Thomas Middleton play A Game of Chess; but also it becomes a literal game of chess, because that becomes the proxy that becomes a substitute for any romantic activity, for any sexual activity, for any intimate activity that is all that a couple can do over here, isplay a game of chess and waiting for a knock upon the door.
So, that knock upon a door it could be a stranger, it could be a visitor, it could be a guest, it could be anyone; that would actually redeem the situation, that would actually save them from not talking to each other. So, this constant tension which comes at not being able to talk to each other, not being able to communicate anything to each other that is actually being portrayed and dramatized quite heavily in a very dark graphic way, right.
So, this is about the urban condition, this is about how the collapsing human condition happens in the urban metropolis which is getting more and more numbed by time, numbed by machines, right.
(Refer Slide Time: 16:24)

So, the last section is about a conversation between two working class women and this is about you know pills, pregnancy pills, sexual pills and it is also about men coming back from the war. And it is the only reference in Waste Land to the First World War; the only time in a Waste Land where the war actually gets mentioned. And if you remember the first section, the burial of the dead it does mention the battle of Malay, you know that is a mythical war which is actually an allusion to the contemporary times which is about the First World War.
But in this section the First World War actually does get mentioned ok, and it is important to mention over here; where men coming back from the war who want to have a good time and the good time; obviously, is euphemism for sexual activity, amorous activity with the wives. So, we have these two working class women talking to each other and expressing their anxiety to make them sort of sexually attractive for the men who have come back.
So, it is an image of consumption over here, and the men are consumed. They come back and they want to consume the women and we have the women taking pills which are consuming them sexually. So, it all now becomes an act of consumption and again a production of waste, a production of trash; the human body is converted into trash, the human sexual activity is converted into a trash, right.
So, this endless production of trash and waste is what gives Waste Land this very dark cynical, sinister quality as a poem and then this reference comes up. So, this should be on the screen, the final section of the game of chess. When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said I did not mince my words, I said to her myself, HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME. So, you know this reference hurry up please its time which is written on a capital letter is presumably the bartender’s voice.
So, this is happening inside a bar or a pub and a bartender is reminding everyone that this is closing time. So, that keeps cutting in the conversation hurry up please its time, hurry up please its time, hurry up please its time, ok. There is a bartender, the very standard statement of the bartender telling everyone to finish their drinks; because closing time is coming up.
Now, Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart. He will want to know what you have done with the money he gave you to get yourself some teeth. So, again the whole idea of Albert the archetypal white male soldier coming back from the war and now he wants to have a good time with his wife. So, he will want to know what you did with the money that he gave you to make your teeth better. So, again look at the way in which the human bodily decadence is being represented.
So, the woman over here presumably had bad teeth and she was given some money to make her teeth better, you know through some cosmetic presumably painful process right and that was given by her husband. And now the husband is coming back from the war and he wants to know he would want to know, what she did with that money to make herself better. He did, I was there. You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set. He said, I swear, I cannot bear to look at you. Right, husband telling the wife that get yourself a good set of teeth, I am giving you some money, I cannot bear to look at you.
So, again look at the way in which human relationships or human intimate relationships whether it is sexual or romantic or emotional, they get mediated by ugliness, right. So, ugliness becomes a trash or waste become they all become very important categories of you know cognizance over here and that is important for us to notice when reading this particular poem. And no more can I, I said, cannot I, and think of poor Albert. He has been in the army four years and he wants a good time. So, again the reference to four years 1914-1918 is you know that, that is the period of First World War technically speaking.
So, he is coming back from the First World War and he will want to want to have a good time with his wife. And then this very sinister line comes up. And if you do not give it to him, there’s others will, I said. So, again look at the way in which this normal human marital relationship and trust and intimacy they all fail, they all collapse you know; what is being said over here the husband is coming out from the war make yourself sexually attractive, if you are not attractive, he will go to someone else, someone would give him a better time, ok. And everything is mediated by money, by garbage, by trash, by cosmetic surgery, etcetera so all these become important over here.
Oh is there, she said. Something of that, I said. Then I will know who to thank, she said, and gave me a straight look. So, again this is like a very cynical conversation taking place between two women; one of whom is being told that, if your husband comes back and sees you are not attractive, now he will go to someone else and then wife tells then I will know who to thank, you know it will be you, ok. So, this is very coded, covert conversation taking place between the working class women. And if you look at the linguistic register over here, it is actually very non-elegant, right.
So, Eliot is; obviously, giving you an authentic representation of working-class conversations which are said with grammatically incorrect sentences sometimes, very colloquial in quality. Hurry up please its time, again the bartender’s voice hurry up please its time. If you do not like it you can get on with it, I said. Others can pick and choose if you cannot. But if Albert makes it off, makes off, it would not be for lack of telling. So, this is like a warning voice told by told to the wife that, if Albert goes off and commits and has relationships with other women, it would not be because you were not warned; you were being warned, but you did not do enough, ok.
You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique. So, again the whole idea of antique becomes important; outdated or left behind by time or abandoned by time, antique becomes very important a very loaded adjective over here, antique you are looking so antique, you are not really relevant enough, you have been left over by time. So, you are left over essentially. So, again the whole idea of being left over or being convert into a left over or a waste becomes important over here. So, waste over here becomes an abandoned human subject, just converted to abandoned human object, right.
So, abandoned, something which is being left behind antique. And her only thirty-one. So, again the whole idea of premature aging becomes important, only thirty-one year old and yet you look so antique, you look so abandoned, you look so exhausted. And why is that so and the explanation comes in; I cannot help it, she said, pulling a long face, it is them pills I took, to bring it off, she said. So, again the pills become important; the pills could be pregnancy pills, the pills could be certain cosmetic pills, the pills could be other kind of sexual pills, but that takes a toll on the human body.
So, again the entire invasion of machines and inorganic entities into the organic human body becomes important. So, the human body becomes exhausted, because of its negotiation with pills, with medicine, with waste, with urban modernity, etcetera right. So, pills over here becomes a metaphor or a signifier of urban modernity which is constantly invading the human body all the time; it is them pills I took to bring it off, she said. She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.
So, again the whole idea of reproduction, not being a good exercise, not being a healthy positive exercise that is what is being told to us over here; that you know human reproduction is not really about regeneration anymore, it is about the continuation and production of deadness, right. So, reproduction becomes an extension of deadness, it is producing deadness over and over again.
The chemist said it would be alright, but I have never been the same. You are a proper fool, I said. Well, if Albert would not leave you alone, there it is, I said. What you get married for if you do not want children? So, again the whole idea of having children and marriage is used in a very Christian sense over here; but the point is reproduction or producing children or having children it is not necessarily a good and happy exercise anymore, it becomes a sinister exercise, it becomes an exhaustion on a human body and it further accentuates the idea the experience of exhaustion that is faced with entire numbed metropolis and its modern life.
Hurry up please its time. Well, that Sunday when Albert was home, they had a hot gammon. So, again hot gammon becomes the metaphor of sexual activity over here, it is a euphemism for sexual activity. And again, look at the way in which a contrast has been made; the hot gammon over here in a working-class conversation and a game of chess, in a genteel conversation which becomes a metaphor for not having sex, right.
So, again the genteel conversation and the working-class conversation it is very interestingly mapped out and that is something which is linguistically very complex and very challenging to engage with. So, the hot gammon becomes euphemism over here, they had a hot gammon. And they asked me in to dinner, to get a beauty of it hot. So, again very coded covert communication over here. Hurry up please its time, hurry up please its time; good night bill, good night Lou, good night may, good night ta-ta, good night, good night ladies, good night sweet ladies, good night, good night.
So, it is closing time. Now and I will end over here; but just to very quickly unpack what is being said over here that, closing time in the bar becomes a more extended closing time, it becomes a more extended symbol of a certain kind of temporality. Something is coming to an end, things that are coming to an end, it is an exhaustion time, it is getting liquidated by time; liquidation means, is getting emptied out, is a business economic metaphor from economics.
But the whole idea of the bar coming to an end, the closing time of the bar becomes in a way more existential closing time for human activities, for human emotions, for human affect, for human trust, for human intimacy all of which are coming to an end, all of which are being closed and exhausted. And that is how the poem this particular session comes to an end; it is about exhaustion, it is about the crisis in communication, it is about the collapse of communication, it is about the complete collapse of human intimacy which just completely gets devastated and exhaustive.
And a war of course, becomes very important metaphor, it is a very spectral presence as I mentioned beginning of this text; the war very rarely gets mentioned and the only time it gets almost directly mentioned is in this section, where we have the soldiers coming back from the war, wanted to have a good time and then the violence of the war and that how that is replicated over here. In the violence on the human body by the pills, by the medical pills which are taken sometimes dangerously for certain sexual needs, for certain sexual desires and that becomes the violence on a human body and the human body gets more and more degenerated.
So, essentially the Waste Land is not just a landscape; the Waste Land becomes an affect, the Waste Land becomes a mood, the Waste Land becomes an existence which consumes the human body, the mind, communication, everything together into one spectrum of deadness. So, I end this lecture this point and in the next lecture we will move on to third section of Waste Land which is the Fire Sermon.
Thank you for your attention.