Writing about The Dead vs. Writing among The Dead – Modernity and The Waste Land

Y: I have to ask is it right to judge a previous century against the more recent in regards to technologies available? It’s like getting critical of cavemen for not using Adobe Photoshop CS5 to do a painting. But yes, I can tell a difference between Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev. So really, I guess I am asking if Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev had the same assets or resources and tools to draw from to create music? Or is this angle of analysis even relevant?

Z: For what it’s worth, it’s the very fact that you’re able to ‘relate’ to his music which would prompt Eliot to say Tchaikovsky’s music is not especially great. As for the technologies available to Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, I would imagine they were working with relatively similar material resources at their disposal. The symphonic instruments we recognize today were developed in the 19th century.


What differs is the way the two composers chose to deploy those resources. Whereas Prokofiev’s music has the lightness and energy of modern transit and cinema, Tchaikovsky’s music still feels absurdly ponderous, bloated with sentimental, narcissistic and wretched 19th-century emotionalism.

With regard to the technologies of different eras, it’s crucial to recognize that Eliot considers prehistoric cave painting — such as had been discovered recently in Lascaux and Altamira — to be supremely powerful, as good as any art created in the subsequent 36,000 years. It does not matter what technology – whether a straw, a paint brush, a photographic camera, or a radio is used to create art – what matters is that the artist use it cannily to produce art which is appreciated for its abstract qualities as opposed to its personal appeal.

This is why Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though a fascinating reflection on modern recording technologies, would, for Eliot, still be a failure as art. It describes the latest and most unsettling technologies, but it does so from the outside and through the familiar techniques of 19th-century realism and the epistolary novel. (Odd though it might sound, I would argue Stoker’s novel, unlike most others, would actually gain something by being transferred to CD and heard on an iPod.)

In strict contrast to this, Eliot’s poem, “The Waste Land,” should, according to his own professed terms, be considered great art, because it doesn’t speak merely about the latest technologies but rather it attempts to speak from within and through the latest technologies. Eliot, it should be observed, deliberately adopts forms of speech of the sort generated by the latest audio technologies. The effect of disembodied voices (on the phonograph or radio) is uniquely modern, yet it can’t fail to recall, uncannily, an archaic ritual of summoning the dead. Consequently, Eliot’s art functions as a modern recapitulation of primitive necromancy, and displays some of the same power as that produced by artists in prehistoric times.

The Waste Land

I. THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

. . .

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel.
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying ‘Stetson!
‘You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
‘Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
‘Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!

‘You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!’

The American Folklife Center
The Alan Lomax Collection

Alan Lomax

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