Margot Norris

Margot Norris: On "The Waste Land"

[Wyndham] Lewis' Nietzschean derision of "the crowd" in Blast was widely echoed in modernist representations of patriotic enthusiasm, as in Yeats's elegy for Major Robert Gregory, and the blind obedience of massed armies and the mass casualties they produced, as in Eliot's "A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many / I had not thought death had undone so many." But in Blast Lewis doubly politicizes the crowd by naming its desire as suffrage, echoing Nietzsche's excoriation in Ecce Homo of women's democratic movements as bids for cattle voting rights: "Their attitude is as though these universal crowds wanted some new vague Suffrage" (B2, 94 ). Of Cantleman, his alter ego in Blasting and Bombardiering running with the crowds at the Olympiad, Lewis writes, "he was very stupid. He was a suffragette." In "The Code of a Herdsman" Lewis writes, "As to women: wherever you can, substitute the society of men. Treat them kindly, for they suffer from the herd" (BB, 70). This feminization of the crowd brings modernism's contradictory discourse of population control into sharper focus, and exposes the logical strategy that lodges control with art. The 1915 war issue of Blast blasts "Birth-Control" and blesses "War Babies" (B2, 92-93). The logic of the etymological play—the blighting of birth control as enabling the breaking out of the embryo—is clearer than the political logic of a polemic that simultaneously despises the crowd produced by overpopulation and inveighs against the contraception that would reduce its size and proliferation. The issue is clearly the investiture of control: the indiscriminate population control by war preferred to the discriminate population control by democratic female suffrage, because the violence of the war at least releases energy and creates a vortex while feminism empowers the herd. Modernism ultimately enacted, in its own textual strategies, the function of the war as an imperfectly self-correcting machine that disciplined the masses and thereby institutionalized itself as the war's cultural counterpart.

The modernist text that becomes most conspicuously identified with the contradictory effects of this project is, of course, Eliot's The Waste Land. Canonized as the premier address to "the unprecedented death toll of the First World War," its historical reference encloses the illogical nexus of maritial and feminist discourses of population control in order to sublate them wholly to the mythology of sacral fertility. Upon the editorial pruning by Pound, the poem's opening introduces a montage of displaced historical codes for the outbreak and aftermath of World War I: the post-war haunting of watering places by the dislocated German aristocrats from eastern Europe, the ethnic chauvinisms and tensions of the Hapsburg Empire displaced from the Balkans to the Baltic, and the figure of the arch-duke careening downhill on a sled nearly out of control: "Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch. / And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke's / My cousin's, he took me out on a sled, / And I was frightened." The challenge of the poem may be sited in the insomniac reading of the baroness: "I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter." What does one read after the catastrophe of a war that murders sleep, and what a writing replaces the peace foreclosed by historical nightmare? "Falling towers / Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London." The fall and dispersal of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Vienna) opens the text, and the deferred twilight of the British Empire (London), ingesting the religion of its colonies along with India's tea and spices, closes it in a cacophony of indigested and untranslated quotations that textually foreclose geopolitical peace. The poem's tacit attempt to reconstitute a third empire of polyglot and polymath a culture—what Eagleton describes as "an alternative text which is nothing less than the closed, coherent, authoritative discourse of the mythologies a which frame it"—becomes no more than another haunting, another invasion of the poem by the dead. "Eliot celebrates the voices of the dead," Maud Ellmann writes, "but he comes to dread their verbal ambush in The Waste Land."

Ellmann's elegant rhetorical summation of the poem's compulsive attempt to remember and resurrect the dead through a doomed prosopopoeia—"The Waste Land strives to give a face to death"—endows the impossibility of representing the mass death and destruction of World War I with a compelling figure of poetic performativity. But one might argue that there are two kinds of dead trying to appear in the poem, and that they are not equal: the poetic dead voices of the literary tradition, whose eloquence is the louder for the fragmentariness of their utterance, and the voiceless war dead. Indeed, even the figure of the spared, the demobbed of returning soldier who gives the poem its most direct and specific historical reference, is not detachable from the repulsiveness of the mob. His wife, in fact, is given a face, or gives herself a face ("pulling a long face"), and it is the face of an anti-Helen; the face that launched a thousand ships becomes the young version of Pound's "old bitch gone in the teeth." Lil is a young bitch gone in the teeth, whose toothless face creates universal aversion: "He said, I swear, I can't bear to look at you. / And no more can't I, I said." In fattaching Lil's supreme ugliness to the unwholesomeness of her class, Eliot tracks highly specific causalities—the toothlessness of calcium deficiency from the multiparity of six pregnancies before the age of thirty-one ["You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique. / (And her only thirty-one)"]—back to the pullulating breeding of the masses.

The poem reverses the flow of the war dead to return them, by way of London Bridge, to the teeming slums from which they came. Eliot, like Lewis, tropes the war as a bridge between home and front, between living and dead—"The bridge, you see, is the war" (BB, 2)—and this bridge crosses, too, the discourses of population control that have cast their contradictory shadows upon other modernistic war writing. Reversing Gaudier's "good mouth," Lil's toothless head is carved into the barren landscape like a giant dead skull: "Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit" [I. 339] to be traversed by "the hooded hordes swarming / Over endless plain, stumbling in the cracked earth." But in spite of the industrial and urban pollution ("The river sweats oil and tar") they produce along with the "White bodies naked on the low damp ground / And bones cast in a little low dry garret," the poem blasts Birth-Control for the masses as surely as did Blast. "You are a proper fool," says Lil's interlocutor of her botched abortion, and Lil replies, "The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same." As a form of population control, the war too was a botched abortion—of the sort that reduced her progeny, but left Lil ill, disfigured, and prematurely aged. World War I may have reduced some of Europe's unwanted masses, but at the price of leaving her countries weak, disfigured, and spiritually dessicated.

The conversation in the pub that retells the conversation with Lil is Eliot's Arnoldian demonstration that the discourse of the Populace is impervious to poetry because it lacks the porosity of other parts of the poem that let quotation leak in. For discourse to become art like sculpture requires the scission of metaphoric teeth. "I didn't mince my words," the speaker says, and her narrative is conspicuous in its seamless wholeness, unchopped by the parataxes that segment the poem's other speech. The masses produce a nearly perfect redundancy of citation, the episode suggests; culture and tradition are replaced by verbatim or unmasticated reproduction of earlier verbatim reproductions. This pullulation or regurgitation of trivial discourse—the speaker telling us what she told Lil Albert had said before he left—reproduces endless Heideggerean Gerede or idle talk deprived of teeth, "You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set, / He said." The conversation's twice-told and triangular structure, whose parenthetical asides make a confidante of the poem's addressee, restores the implied reader herself to the masses. It is among the poem’s projects to break up this mindless abulia of the masses by using the text's erudition to babelize its readership, carving its homeogeneous philistinism into polyglottal segments and cultural elites. By refusing to translate or reference many of its citations, the poem's cultivation creates borderlines of incommunication and minefields of incomprehension that recreate the conditions of geopolitical war and class revolution. The unified empire of culture the poem conjures up in its referenced appeal to the cosmopolitanism of Cambridge anthropology and the archetypalism of comparative religion becomes no more than a bogus sublation of the poem's politics into a myth of universal order that its own textual babelization ritually destroys.

In America's Modernisms: Revaluing the CanonEssays in Honor of Joseph N. Riddel. Ed. Kathryn V. Lindberg and Joseph G. Kronick. Copyright © 1996 by Louisiana State University Press, 1996.