Monday, November 19, 2007

T.S. Eliot and Community: Part II of III

Part I from last week.

In The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot furthers his description of the fragmented community. In the opening lines of The Waste Land, April is considered the “cruelest month” [1]. Rather than its traditional symbol of renewal and rebirth, April becomes an aching reminder of a better past in the midst of a wintery present. In other words April becomes an unfriendly reminder of the unhappiness that permeates the present. The past holds an account of our sins and acts as a conscience that brings man into contact with the true nature of the wasteland. The memory functions to make us painfully aware of the current ruins that surround us. But this experience has been deemed as cruelty because of the desire to be disconnected with the past. Accountability becomes unbearable. In turn this disconnection with the past has blinded man to his own nature and cut him off from the means of knowing and fulfilling his own natural end. Quite literally, the poem brings this image to life by showing people as ghost of their former selves.
Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winder 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. [60-64]

People surround each other, but there is no communication and no community. People are more dead than they are alive, but unable to recognize that lack of life because they are unable to recognize each other. As with Prufrock, they are stuck in the world of the self.

This isolation takes concrete forms in the two unloved women of The Waste Land. In section II the aristocratic lady waits hopelessly for love and human affection. However, even the bird of love becomes meaningless.
Yet there the nightingale
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
“Jug Jug” to dirty ears. [100-103]

The voice of the nightingale is nothing more than a meaningless cry that ceases to signify. The symbol of love no longer signifies love; in other words, the sign is not signifying. This action with no meaning personifies the hopelessness of the women waiting for love. On the other extreme, the description of the second lady shows another type of isolation even more discontenting. The lady dreads the return of her husband from war who only wants “a good time” regardless where he has to go for it. Her husband will not sexually leave her alone. Despite this physical intimacy she feels alienated and used by her husband. Both women are not really loved and these two antidotes juxtaposed together identify two perspectives on the disconnection between people.

In the poem The Hollow Men it seems the best we can achieve is communal meaninglessness.
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Learning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar [part I]

Here Eliot indicates that language no longer signifies and communicates meanings. We are without substance and stuffed with learning that only gives off the semblance of communication. Language is depraved of its creative power to transcend the physical and inspire the soul. This fragmented culture is left with “Shape without form, shade without colour,? Paralysed force, gesture without motion” [part I]. These contradictory pairs show how the meanings signified by certain actions are being divorced from their sign. Common language is destroyed and communion becomes impossible. One by one all things begin to lose their meaning: education, relationships, the singing nightingale, love, physical intimacy, and eventually language.

So if Eliot's poetry is correct about the current state of language, where does this leave the possibility for meaningful communication? I will look at this question in the next post.

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