Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Totalizing the City: Eliot, De Certeau, and the Evolution of "The Waste Land"

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Totalizing the City: Eliot, De Certeau, and the Evolution of "The Waste Land"

Article excerpt

In his 1974 essay, "Walking in the City," Michel de Certeau theorizes a vision of urban landscape that depends on descending from "above"--a perspective from which the view is rigid, panoptic, totalizing, and false--into "the city's grasp" (92), where one may interact with waste, difference, and disorder, and consequently "enunciate" a more authentic (though less legible) version of place. This model establishes a helpful background for an examination of the way in which The Waste Land evolved, for in parts of its early stages, Eliot's poem very much anticipates de Certeau's construction of the city that encourages individuals to resist official notions of the urban via a "rhetoric of walking" (100). The drafts of The Waste Land--and especially the two primary versions of the poem's opening--enact a struggle between these two interpretations of urban place: an early incarnation of the poem embraced a perspective from "ground level" (97) and literally articulated what de Certeau terms a "chorus of idle footsteps" (97), only to give in, partly under the guidance of Pound, to a viewpoint from "above" that endorses the "urbanistic ratio" (94), though the poem's final formulation struggles to reconcile this clash of visions. This evolution towards order tells us much about the artistic, cultural, and theoretical battlegrounds over which Eliot and Pound skirmished on their way to constructing a poem the latter called "the justification of the 'movement,' of our modern experiment" (Pound 180). Around this time, Eliot was very much attracted to the energy of the "everyday," but he ultimately engaged in a process of suppressing that interest (as much as was possible) during the editing of The Waste Land in favor of the official, the universal, and the legible. While many readers today see Eliot as vigorously upholding ideals like tradition, authority, and order, reading The Waste Land through de Certeau demonstrates that the poem originally attempted to balance those values by embracing alternative perspectives that celebrated popular culture, liberty, and chaos--in effect, resistance to power structures--and that Eliot ultimately traveled quite a distance from this original position.

The central preoccupations of de Certeau's essay and Eliot's poem overlap to a significant degree. They include concerns about the problem of perspective; the mythification of place; the presence and purpose of waste within urban landscapes; the function of authority and its relationship to the individual; and the readability of texts (both linguistic and spatial), which, in the case of Eliot, is expressed as an attraction to systems that might stabilize those inherently unstable entities, and, in the case of de Certeau, is articulated through meditations upon how to embrace, and live successfully amidst, the inherent instability of the urban landscape. Perhaps the most haunting similarity, though, is in their shared concern with the towers of cities, which in de Certeau's essay enables the panoptic vision that he mythologizes in the view from the top of the World Trade Center and in Eliot becomes a symbol for the declining civilizations in the "falling towers" that surface in "What the Thunder Said." Because both writers tend to hierarchize their worlds, towers serve as effective tools to emblematize stratified spaces. Indeed, de Certeau's speaker first looks out upon Manhattan and sees "A wave of verticals" (91). Eliot's passage alludes to both the deteriorating edifices of actual named cities in the poem--a sequence that culminates in the reference to London, apparently collapsing before our eyes--and an implied evocation of the crumbling towers of Troy and the corpses that littered its streets, a grim scene recalled in book two of The Aeneid that comes into even greater focus when Aeneas hoists himself up onto the rooftops of the city. Eliot is also explicitly calling on the visual imagery of the Tower in the Tarot pack, introduced earlier in the poem through the figure of Madame Sosostris, "famous clairvoyante" and supposed expert in the Tarot, though she turns out to be more charlatan than prophet. …

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