The following is a lecture by Dr Hugo Donnelly, Senior Lecturer in English at University College, Chichester

A Performance of The Waste Land

Audrey Lee

As any newcomer to The Waste Land will attest, the poem is not an easy read. There is no easy-to-follow train of thought, no logical structure or build-up, no narrative thread. We appear to approach meaning, and then the poem veers off to subvert it. Sense looms, and then appears to short-circuit itself. Random images are juxtaposed with other random images, without form or order. There is an obsessive repetition of key phrases and images which meet and recombine without any rational coherence. In fact much of the poem, as Eliot’s own end-notes reveal, is not original, but made up of bits and pieces of writing that had been around for years, sometimes centuries. Looked at in this way, the text of The Waste Land is a lumber-room of borrowings, echoes, allusions, fragments of operas, poems, plays, foreign languages, overheard speech, nursery rhymes, and music-hall songs, assembled by the poet with no discernible governing principle. Indeed, the poem appears to be a riddle, a self-conscious tease to attract the psychoanalyst, the theologian, the sociologist, the anthropologist and the mythologist, for there is ample material to attract the interpretative zeal of all of these. But the quest for an interpretative unity, or a governing principle, is the error of a logical mind seeking a coherence that The Waste Land, as an icon of the Modernist temper, manifestly rejects. The poem, so to speak, revels in its own incoherence and fragmentation.

The raison d’être for this apparent anarchy has its roots in the new, principally Freudian, psychology current in Eliot’s day, which introduced a disturbing irrationality into human behaviour. Freud demonstrated that the so-called rational self or ego was only the frailest aspect of our mental character. Our actions, he argued, were motivated by forces of which we know nothing and over which we have no control, and the primal source of these forces is the unconscious, the true psychic reality. What emerges from this awareness is a revised idea of the mental landscape, which is now viewed as a site of conflict, even war, between conscious and unconscious impulses and drives, evasions and disguises, leading to a range of ‘symptoms’, or neuroses, with which we must live. As individuals, the turbulence from this conflict is all we can know of the mind, and ourselves.

In literature, this led to a profound crisis of representation. Any coherent representation of consciousness is now seen as impossible. How can you represent someone who is unknowable, especially when that someone is you? Writers and artists began to inspect with rigorous care this turbulent element we inhabit. Consciousness, they discovered, is not primarily linguistic, but a myriad, shifting combination of images, phrases, sounds, associations, and those fragmentary songs or word-chains which ambush the hapless brain and remain there, without the owner’s consent, looping round and round with an irritating stamina until the unknown power which lodged them there decides to cease the torture (Eliot himself was treated for obsessional disorders in 1921, while he was writing The Waste Land). Modernism witnesses the advent of new literary experiments which attempt a more accurate representation of the mind’s activity, such as the stream-of-consciousness technique we find in Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Eliot himself. These experimental modes reveal that significance and meaning consist in a series of emotional intensities, moments of being, startling if trivial epiphanies, and these separate provinces of our mental existence are inspired and connected by a logic different from that of the so-called rational world.


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