The Aristotelian Mr. Eliot: Structure and Strategy in the Waste Land

Article excerpt

Agnostic though he was at the time, T.S. Eliot undoubtedly was searching for some degree of spiritual direction in his Waste Land Cycle of poems. His thoughts might well have been incarnated in Gerontion's words:

   I have not made this show purposelessly
   And it is not by any concitation
   Of the backward devils.
   I would meet you upon this honestly. (1)

The pronoun "this" in the final line is strategically ambiguous. Does it refer to his earlier deliberation on the vacuity of human history and the soul-robbing lack of passion in the modern age? Or, more likely, does it refer to the immediate subject of the stanza in which it appears--the spring (appearance or leap) of the tiger in the new year (spring)?

Since Eliot did consider "Gerontion" as a prefatory poem to The Waste Land, the questions are not without merit, both in their criticism of the modern age and also their search for the meaning of Christ in an age without apparent meaning. "Gerontion" sets against each other, in a tension typical of The Waste Land, the Logos of the Gospel of John, the sign already given, and a search for answers located within the age itself. Thus, while "Christ the Tiger" is divided in a profaned sacrament by such people as Mr. Silvero, the profanation itself causes the tiger to leap and snap our hollowness under its jaws. The pivotal passage on human intellectual history--"After such knowledge, what forgiveness?"--that also expresses Gerontion's own rationalist defense against passionate commitment, whirls apart in mere words when the tiger springs.

Spiritual stultification marks Eliot's modern wasteland. The individual self remains impotent to reach beyond itself in any directed commitment. The inhabitants of the waste spaces peer into mirrors, unable to escape the pitiless stare of their shrunken passion. The Waste Land, with its sustained deliberation on self-gratification and urgency, welds together the bleakness of modernism and the tense uncertainty of a culture mired in spiritual quicksand. Yet, The Waste Land also points toward a way out of the wasteland.

Many readers have recognized the lyrical and symbolic suggestiveness of Section V and have related it as a response to earlier sections. Only partially explored is the careful way in which the thunder's commands respond to the debased trinity of earlier sections. Essentially, Eliot establishes a three-fold devolution in which passion becomes mere urgency, the quest for the divine becomes immediate gratification, and civilization becomes the Unreal City. In each of these patterns, moreover, Eliot carefully adapts the philosophy of Aristotle to nuance his analysis of the modern human condition. Particularly important to this study are Aristotle's use of the via negative, his analysis of animal and human distinctions in Partibus Animalium and De Anima, and his teleological ethics in Nicomachaean Ethics.

Aristotle, Aquinas, and the Via Negativa

Eliot's acquaintance with Aristotle was lengthy and profound already by the time of The Waste Land. Sections of his dissertation lauded Aristotle for his ability to combine realism and idealism in the Physics. In a 1916 essay on Leibniz, Eliot appreciated this balance of Aristotle: "Aristotle is too keen a metaphysician to start from a naive view of matter or from a one-sided spiritualism." (2) In "The Perfect Critic" (1920), an essay that addressed the modern schism between intelligence and sense perception, Eliot turns again to Aristotle: "He was primarily a man of not only remarkable and universal intelligence; and universal intelligence means that he could apply his intelligence to anything.... There is no method except to be very intelligent, but of intelligence itself swiftly operating the analysis of sensation to the point of principle and definition." (3) This modulation of intelligence and sensation to a syncretic whole became something of a lifelong creed for Eliot, affecting his life, essays, and poetic theory. …