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The Waste Land at 90

A Retrospective


Edited by Joe Moffett


Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi, 2011

Paperback. xi+258 pp.  ISBN-13: 978-9042033795. €67.00 / $78.00 / £49.00


Reviewed by Steve Ellis

University of Birmingham



What might be distinctively said about The Waste Land at ninety that wasn’t said about the octogenarian poem, or that might not be said on its hundredth birthday, an occasion that this collection of essays somewhat opportunistically pre-empts? Answers are suggested by those contributions that follow in the wake of Laity and Gish’s Gender, Desire, and Sexuality in T.S. Eliot of 2004, stressing Eliot’s ‘sympathetic depiction of women’ in the poem [16], or that emphasise the poem as ‘hypertext’ or ‘mashup’, or that bring to bear theorists from diverse cultural fields we were unlikely to meet with in 2002. On the other hand, there is a fair amount of traditional material here too, with Frazer and Weston still being discussed and an ongoing debate about F.H. Bradley, while several of the essays recycle very familiar positions that would make it difficult to locate them at any particular point in the last few decades.

The collection opens with one of its ‘senior scholars’ [x], Leon Surette, offering the disarmingly entitled ‘The Waste Land : A Personal Grouse’, which is precisely what the essay is, reviewing the critical neglect of the ‘occult theory’ of the poem Surette ‘first articulated in an article published in…1988’ [2]. If this suggests we are still talking about The Waste Land at sixty-six rather than ninety, Surette offers us more than ‘sour grapes’ (in his phrase) by outlining how he now feels the poem is much more sympathetic to Jessie Weston (and hostile to Frazer) than he felt twenty-four years ago. Nevertheless, it is arguable that of the two questions the essay poses—‘what exactly is the occult theory’, and why has it been ‘ignored or suppressed’ [3]—it is the latter that is the more interesting, though unfortunately Surette only has space to reiterate the former.

Immediately following is Adrianna E. Frick’s essay ‘The Dugs of Tiresias : Female Sexuality and Modernist Nationalism in The Waste Land and Les mamelles de Tirésias’, which presents a ‘previously unexamined allusion’ to Apollinaire’s play in Eliot’s poem, and explores its contribution to Eliot’s own depiction of the androgynous prophet. This is a detailed and interesting essay of some substance, though its insistence on Eliot’s ‘alliance with the feminine’ [31] in the poem (in the contrast this offers to Apollinaire’s ‘ridiculing feminism’ [28]), is less persuasive. The two opening essays together give some sense of the variety (or jumble) of the collection as a whole, from broad totalising readings to a close focus on local detail, though with a poem that offers so many points of entry such a farrago might be defended, given that the ‘at 90’ idea isn’t much of a unifying theme. The best essays are those with more focussed topics, like Matthew J. Bolton’s ‘Manchild in The Waste Land: the Narrator of Eliot’s 1921 Manuscript’, which considers the poem’s ur-narrator Sloppy from Our Mutual Friend (and the connections with Joyce through Joyce’s own ‘intense’ interest in Dickens), claiming Eliot’s concealment behind his narrator in the move from confessional to performative in order to deflect specifically his mother’s disapproval of the poem’s content [46]. Aaron Bibb’s ‘Death by Water : a Reevaluation of Bradleian Philosophy in The Waste Land’ carefully reopens the case in contesting Jewel Spears Brooker’s arguments about Eliot’s use of Bradley in the poem, challenging the notion of a quest for transcendence that the latter’s philosophy supposedly underwrites [79].

The other notable contributions are the final three essays, which do attempt to live up to the volume’s title and employ an interesting filter of contemporaneity. Thus Carol L. Yang, in a typically meticulous reading (‘The Waste Land and the Virtual City’), traces the non-linearity of the poem, its multiple invitations to ‘hypertextual flânerie’ [196] through features like self-glossing (though surprisingly she doesn’t discuss Eliot’s Notes), while Joyce Wexler, in ‘Falling Towers : The Waste Land and September 11, 2001’, is keener on the structure provided by the mythical method Eliot proclaims in his 1923 review of Ulysses—which Yang refers to only to summarily dismiss [203]—in attempting to locate the poem in the post 9/11 landscape through a comparison with Galway Kinnell’s poem ‘When the Towers Fell’. The final essay, by Will Gray (‘Mashup, Hypertext, and the Future of The Waste Land’), again talks of hypertext but more arrestingly of ‘mashup’, a term that ‘surfaced around 2005’ [229] to indicate the creation of new works from old as in the practice of DJ Earworm—‘in creating his poem, Eliot was more like a DJ mixing tracks than a musician performing a medley’ [231]. The essay has all the freshness of youth, and thus forms a nice contrast with Surette’s opener, but Gray does get carried away rather, seeming to imply that every line in The Waste Land already existed, and that all Eliot had to do was ‘mix’ them, and that the term ‘mashup’ solves the problem of the poem’s designation ‘for generations to come’ [228]. Progressive ways of performing the poem have been in existence for a long time—witness Harold Acton / Anthony Blanche with their megaphone—and are themselves subject to fashion, and a nonagenarian poem that has seen off so many approaches should guard against such critical assurance and finality. Ironically, Gray here has a flavour of Surette, who cannot proffer his own reading without a high-handed disposal of what ‘nearly a century of commentary has [falsely] supposed’ [12]. Gray’s final pages, where the poem’s multiple discourse is seen as a testament to pluralism, reconciliation and the global community [240-241], is certainly of its time and a younger generation, and forms a striking contrast to the familiar understanding of the poem as concerned with ‘waste’, despair and post-war trauma.

Other essays in the volume that have something to offer are Ben Bakhtiarynia’s on ‘Thinking the Nothing : Nihilism in The Waste Land’, which traces traditions of nihilism into The Waste Land principally through Nietzsche (though it ends on the rather disconcerting suggestion that Eliot at points in the poem escapes a Christian framework and ‘learnt to let go and just be’ [128, italics in original]), and Cameron MacKenzie’s on ‘The Poem as Situation : Eliot’s Meaning and Pound’s Truth in The Waste Land’. This tends to cover pretty old ground in its contrast between Pound as avant-garde de-constructor of what Eliot is more traditionally trying to construct, and its bid for topicality in using the mathematical theorising of Alain Badiou isn’t convincing, but its observations are just and sane, alongside some surprisingly emphatic value-judgements about what is good and bad about Eliot’s original text, or what makes for ‘poetic disaster’ [67].

The poorer essays are smuggled, so to speak, into the middle stretch of the volume, and it would perhaps be kinder to draw a veil over them, though it seems symptomatic that the editing (and standard of English) is also here frequently at its poorest. We get very little that is new, or the discussion is at such a level of generality as to lose sight of the poem, or a critical framework is assembled only to be practically forgotten as the essay unfolds, or The Waste Land’s seductive invitation to ramble at will over the fractured urbanscape proves irresistible. It doesn’t add much to our knowledge of The Waste Land at 90 (or at any age) to be subjected to drawn-out iterations of ‘the aesthetic of disorderly order’ [134], or simplifications about Eliot’s ‘contrast[ing] the glorious past…with the disreputable present’ [141], or the broader suggestion that ‘we could re-investigate Eliot’s understanding and commitment to the Christian religion, to see how it might involve more than knee-jerk bigotry’ [160], as if previous ‘investigation’ had agreed on such a phrase. And these quotations are not from the worst essays in the volume. While the spectacle of younger scholars cutting their critical teeth on Eliot’s poem can hardly be unwelcome, ‘The Waste Land’ at 90 inspires both positive anticipation and some apprehension about the spate of similar volumes that will be upon us in ten years’ time.


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