Modernism and Mass Politics: Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Yeats

By Michael Tratner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
Movements Unconscious Of Their Destiny

The Culture of the Masses in 'The Waste Land'

The Waste Land has become an icon of modernism's sense of the incomprehensibility of modern life and of impending apocalypse. Like "The Second Coming," it is read as a poem revealing the twentieth century as a disordered era full of violent forces out of control. It has been used to describe varied social phenomena that seem incomprehensible, destructive, or simply wasteful, such as world war, urban crime, and even television. And like "The Second Coming," much of its power derives from this adaptability: it serves as an emblem of almost any form of cultural disintegration. Nonetheless, there is still value in trying to recover the specific historical situation to which Eliot, like Yeats, was reacting. Images in The Waste Land that seem to, us to refer to generalized sexual anxieties, for example, also carried for Eliot connotations of specific political anxieties (loss of potency of leaders, of the nation). In what follows, as in the preceding reading of Yeats's poems, I again want to trace out a narrow line. I do not intend to reduce Eliot's great poem simply to the contemporary social and historical movements and concerns that appear within it; I do, however, wish to show what is too often denied--the degree to which those movements and concerns inform the poem and helped motivate the poetics that underlie it.

Just as Yeats, in his later poems, embraced violence in order to break through the decayed mentality of bourgeois English culture and to release a genuine Irish culture, Eliot saw English culture as in need of an equally radical political aesthetic in order to reverse bourgeois decay and reestablish any culture at all. We can begin to specify the historical and politi

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