Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Waste Land

Western sky after storm

For unaccountable reasons, I reread T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land".

Written in 1922, it was, when I was in college, regarded as the definition of Modern. Yeats was mystical-traditional, Dylan Thomas plain drunk and Ezra Pound plain crazy. But Pound's influence, his encyclopedic knowledge and precise language, is evident in every line of The Waste Land, which Pound edited.

I read it in the aftermath of the first big storm of the season, a rip-roaring downpour that emptied the streets and filled the vaporettos to capacity and beyond. My ride from San Zaccaria to Zattere, normally a pleasant eight-minute zip across the basin and up the Giudecca Canal, was a complete nightmare. There was barely space to breath. I was standing in an exposed area, partly covered by other people's umbrellas; the poor English chap in front of me, in his shirtsleeves, pushed against the gate, was streaming water and somehow smiling good-naturedly. His wife tried to hold her umbrella over him above the shoulders of other people but one slight turn of the boat and the wind flipped it inside out.

A tumultuously wet and thundrous day. A good day to read The Waste Land which ends with a rain storm of expiation and rebirth.

The Waste Land not only held up, it was, in fact better; that is to say, I appreciated it in a new and wholly personal way.

When I was 19 I was struck by the stark and unique beauty of particular phrases, but lost in the maze of mythology and footnotes about arcane references. I didn't worry about the footnotes today. I just read the poem, got into its flow, into its sequence of situations, dissolving, like film dissolves, one into another, or jump cutting away. The language of the cinema was only just being developed, but Eliot and/or Pound understood the concepts of montage and the principles of film editing. The poem is "cinematic" the way Puccini wrote movie music before there was any and movie music as we know it would have been far different had there been no Puccini. Similarly, Eliot was modern before there was Modern, when all he had to go on was The First World War with its astonighingly bloody trench warfare. Airplanes and bombs made it bloodier than Austerlitz or Waterloo; but nothing, for sheer barbarism, compared to what was to come. Eliot's vision reverberates with the rest of the Twentieth Century; its style is the style of the Twentieth Century par excellence; it was in 1922 and remains so today. In that sense, it is a timeless masterpiece.

And that says nothing about its sensibility. It is the outcry of the parched soul, the spirit and the intellect, for salvation, and that is why it ends in that thundrous rain of grace, undeserved perhaps, but that's what grace is all about.

"And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
 I will show you fear in a handful of dust."

This could have been written in sands of the Almagordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, Los Alamos, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, the year that I was born. It could be about the apocalytic power of the universe released when atoms collide at high speeds. When the twin shadows of the blast merge, and the fire consumes the sky and time.

There's fear and repentence, anger and forgiveness, love and betrayal and expiation. It is as vast a saga as The Ring of the Niebelungen; but ruthlessly cut to a few surgically precise lines, the parts that stand for the whole because the whole is beyond comprehension and we only get clues. Ever.

And then there's this:

"At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
 Like a taxi throbbing waiting,
 I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
 Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
 At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
 The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
 Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
 Out of the window perilously spread
 Her drying combinations touched by the sun's last rays,
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
 Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.
 I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
 Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—
 I too awaited the expected guest.

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