From Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Triumph of Demise (circa 1562). Museo Del Prado, Madrid.
Composed one hundred years in the past, T.S.Eliot’s bitter poem The Squander Land—could possibly have been penned this Spring. April 2020 was absolutely the cruelest thirty day period. Coronavirus was real. Heads have been out of the sand, and the denials echoed hollowly in the mouths of the gentlemen who produced them.
Historical past may not have been repeating alone, but it positive was rhyming. In 1918 humanity was just staggering out of the horrors of a entire world war when she was hit with the Spanish Flu. By 1920, 500 million men and women experienced been contaminated and 50 million died. Far more U.S. soldiers perished from the flu than ended up killed in the war.
Revealed in 1922, Eliot’s grim portrayal of submit war, post pandemic Europe is apocalyptic in tone. His pessimistic masterpiece was hailed as the anthem of a disillusioned era. The poem, like the modern society it reflected, was “a heap of damaged photographs.” Visionary fragments in Italian, Latin, German and French tumbled like a broken kaleidoscope with American slang, Cockney voices and English poets. Allusions to Greek fantasy, Wagner, Dante, pop tunes and yesterday’s newspaper clippings were being all jumbled jointly in a bewildering melange of misery.
Obscure and inexplicable, the poem disturbed and enthusiastic the literary classes. Why was The Waste Land so fragmentary, puzzling and maddening? For the reason that lifetime in 1920 was fragmentary, puzzling and maddening. The war had solved very little. The horrors of modern-day warfare and the devastation of the Spanish Flu left very poor outdated humanity punch drunk and reeling. The poem reads like a madman in a ruined museum hoping to make sense of the artifacts.
Eliot intended The Waste Land to be mystifying. He was keeping a mirror to a decadent and dropped technology. In his belief, Western civilization was by now worm-eaten with materialistic hedonism, atheism and a weary boredom started on the yawning pit of nihilism. The poem merely confirmed the vapid, consumptive encounter of the European modern society as it actually was.
The pandemic of 2020 has offered us a comparable dose of reality. We have not emerged from a hellish globe war. Alternatively we have been dwelling in a Disneyland bubble of affluence and technological marvels. Us citizens, for the first two decades of the 20-initial century, were being ready to dwell in a land the place nearly anything at all was attainable if you set your brain to it. Our health care, technologies and money systems confident us that we could handle all the things. Each and every challenge could be solved. Each individual unpleasantness could be swept absent. Ailment was confined to fashionable, wonderful hi-tech hospitals and when Mr. Demise did appear knocking we cushioned ourselves with euphemisms, a hygienic and affordable cremation adopted by a “celebration of the person’s existence.”
We didn’t have to have a creepy dystopic novel in which every little thing is just far too superior to be accurate. We had been living in a single. With plastic medical procedures, rapid foodstuff, fast entertainment and a cornucopia of consumer goodies cascading into our life, most people seemed to have additional than sufficient. We had an abundance of abundance, and as a single wry foreigner observed, “America is the only region where by the lousy people today are unwanted fat.”
But beneath it all was our possess wasteland. J.D.Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy confirmed us our neglected white underclass. If we took time to glimpse below the at ease affluence we observed a nation or normal individuals reeling from racial inequality, spouse and children breakdown, industrial rust, senseless gun violence, the highest fee of incarceration in the globe by far (737 for each 100,000 population) soaring alcoholism and opioid dependancy, thousands of abortions and a silent suicide epidemic. (48,344 suicides in 2018)
Eliot’s Wasteland in 1920 may possibly just as effectively explain our possess modern society in 2020, so not too long ago driving the roller coaster of affluence and electricity, but now rattled by fear:
And I will show you a little something different from either
Your shadow at early morning striding guiding you
Or your shadow at evening growing to meet up with you
I will display you fear in a handful of dust.
With 85,000 useless we can not turn our gaze absent. Even if the figures are exaggerated, the useless shuffle earlier, crossing the bridge above the river Acheron.
Under the brown fog of a winter season dawn,
A group flowed around London Bridge, so lots of,
I experienced not assumed death experienced undone so many.
Sighs, shorter and rare, ended up exhaled,
And each and every person fastened his eyes ahead of his feet.
With these a grim prognosis shall we wallow in Eliotean despair? In point, Eliot himself loathed the common reading through of his poem. In her monumental biography of the poet, Lyndall Gordon has demonstrated that the very first drafts of The Waste Land were basically interwoven with a lot far more hopeful Christian content material. The atheist poet Ezra Pound certain Eliot to excise them.
From the commencing Eliot turned down the pessimistic looking at of his poem, professing that it was hardly ever intended to be the ode to angst the modernists claimed it to be. Eliot commented in 1931, “When I wrote a poem called The Waste Land, some of the extra approving critics mentioned that I experienced expressed ‘the disillusion of a era,’ which is nonsense. I may possibly have expressed for them their possess illusion of staying disillusioned, but that did not form portion of my intention.”
When reading through The Wasteland carefully it is very clear that Eliot’s eyesight is a paean to depression and disillusionment only in the way that his excellent mentor Dante’s Inferno is a schlock horror poem. There stirs beneath the grim observations a glimpse of redemption and a glimmer of hope. The very first trace is in the opening lines of the poem, ”Looking into the coronary heart of gentle, the silence.” Gordon identified that the younger poet, even though nevertheless at Harvard was reading through all the fantastic mystical writers from the environment religions, and through his yr in Paris in (1910-1911) he expert a transcendent moment that improved his everyday living. It was a mystical expertise he described as “looking into the light—the silence.” Lastly, he expresses his hope due to the fact “these fragments I have shored versus my ruins” and in that he finds “Shantih, Shantih, Shantih”—the peace that passes knowing.
The place is the water spring in our Wasteland? Just wherever Eliot uncovered it: in the depths of our religious tradition. When faced with the uncertainties of disaster, the likelihood of sickness and death and the dissolution of all we assumed solid and guaranteed, a person looks to what a single hymn writer referred to as “the reliable joys and lasting treasures.” It is constructing on a rock—not the shifting sands. It is “looking into the light-weight, the silence.”
It was this existence of prayer, willpower and observance that took Eliot by means of his private wasteland and introduced him to a point of assurance and belief. So at the conclude of 4 Quartets he echoes the fourteenth century English mystic, Dame Juliana of Norwich, “All shall be nicely, and all method of point shall be nicely.”
Fr Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic priest operating in Greenville, South Carolina. His guide Unwilling Allies: Essays on Eliot and the Inklings will be printed in July. Adhere to his weblog, search his books, and be in contact at dwightlongenecker.com