T.S. Eliot’s primary concern in “The Waste Land” (1922) is to create an elitist work which establishes its place in the canon of great European writing, and in doing so eschews contemporary popular culture. Can you substantiate, modify or refute this statement?
It has been argued that Eliot is an elitist writer, which can be seen primarily within ‘The Waste Land,’ where there are many allusions and references to specific subjects and people, only a certain amount of people will understand. Drawing upon the work, of Schwarz’s ‘Broken Images’ and Chintz’s ‘T.S Eliot and the Cultural Divide,’ I will aim to substantiate the idea that through Eliot’s elitist writing, he canonized his work and distinguished it from contemporary, popular culture.
One way in which the question can be modified is through the ideas suggested within Chintz’s ‘T.S Eliot and the Cultural Divide,’ In this section, Eliot highlights a connection between the new popular genre of detective fiction and allusions to popular culture. “Eliot describes the […] “’high’” and the “’popular’” as a sort of iron curtain […] to divide the arts,” (T.S Eliot and the Cultural Divide, p. 237) which partly explains why ‘The Waste Land’ is so elitist. Eliot is very critical of melodramatic, contemporary writers who felt obligated to reference the modern. This was a practice that Eliot disapproved of, because he believed it removed any sense of intrigue from their work. Despite this, Eliot does have many contemporary references within ‘The Waste Land,’ for example, Eliot references “Madame Sostotris,” a fraudulent fortune teller from Huxley’s 1921 novel ‘Chrome Yellow.’ By engaging in a practice that he frowned upon, Eliot is satirising the melodramatic writers of the time, by arguing that these writers are fraudulent themselves; by constantly referencing popular culture instead of more elitist things, it expresses their lack of originality and knowledge about their certain areas of expertise. Finally, Eliot may have chosen to include many ‘elitist’ references to distinguish himself from the contemporary writers who constantly mentioned contemporary culture, which Eliot ultimately aimed to eschew.
It can be further argued that Eliot intentionally designed ‘ The Waste Land’ to be an elitist work, through his references to the aristocracy and ancient Roman figures. The quotation “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” (The Waste Land, l. 30) alludes to the fear of death, but it also references ‘Empress Elizabeth’ in Countess Larisch’s autobiography and the Cumaen Sybil. Both of these women are connected through fear of death and growing old, for example, within Larisch’s autobiography, a “running portrait of Empress Elizabeth is painted” to constantly remind her of her beauty. Similarly, the Cumaen Sybil is granted one wish: “to have as many years as grains in a handful of sand.” (Broken Images: a Study of The Waste Land, p. 70) Both characters have a preoccupation with the notion of death and it can be argued that Eliot is highlighting people’s fears of death, a fear that would have only been accentuated by WW1. It should also be mentioned that Countess Larisch was a member of the Austrian aristocracy and it was the assassination of an Austrian aristocrat, which acted as the catalyst for WW1. Through the references to the Austrian aristocracy, Eliot further makes his work more elitist and more appealing to the creators of the canon.
Within, ‘T.S Eliot and the Cultural Divide,’ Chintz suggests the idea that Eliot’s “readings impressed on him that art originated not for purposes of pure aesthetic purpose, but as component of ritual,” (‘T.S Eliot and the Cultural Divide’ p. 238) which relates to Chintz’s earlier comments concerning Eliot’s idea that the “rediscovery of the primitive foundations of art are always accompanied by an insistence that the modern artist do more than simply re-create a primitive style.” (‘T.S Eliot and the Cultural Divide’ p. 238) Both of these quotations allude to Eliot’s attitude to contemporary writers and how they created art for its own sake or for commercial purposes and the art that they create is just a poor imitation of what came before. This could be a comment on how Eliot has become disillusioned with the modern world, because of how it has become ruled by capitalism. “Primitive foundations” (T.S Eliot and the Cultural Divide’ p.238) may be an allusion to Classicism, which features heavily in ‘The Waste Land.’ Its main embodiment is the prophet Tiresias, from Ovid’s Metamorphses, who acts as a third-person omniscient narrator, who gives fragmented insight into the future, which could be a comment on how Eliot believes that the modern world has become very disconnected and broken up. The use of these Classical references could be a comment on Eliot’s disgust at how modern writers have disregarded Classicism in favour of popular culture. For this reason, Eliot makes his work so elitist to eschew contemporary culture and to fit in with his aforementioned beliefs, which thus substantiates the question.
‘Broken Images’ provides evidence that substantiates the question through drawing a connection between Eliot’s failed marriage and ‘the pub scene’ within ‘a Game of Chess.’ This section specifically focuses on the unstable marriage of a working class couple. Through the quotation, “it is a transliteration of the mundane tragedy of the Eliots into a Cockney counterpart” Schwarz, (Broken Images: A Study of The Waste Land, p, 150) Schwarz is arguing that Eliot is using the working class couple’s unstable marriage as an allegory for his own failed marriage with Vivien. Within the quotation, Schwarz uses the adjective “mundane,” which is synonymous with ordinary, suggesting that marriage problems happen in every part of society and transcend social class. Eliot has very little ‘elitist’ allusions within this section, which is effective, because despite Eliot’s decision to neglect these, the extract still eschews contemporary culture. Through this passage, Eliot expresses his disapproval of how the English society has declined in standards, which can be seen explicitly in how Lil talks about she almost killed herself by having abortions. The fact that Lil’s unstable marriage is metaphorical for Eliot’s one could be a final comment on how standards have declined in every single part of society and not just the working classes.
I would argue that ‘The Waste Land’ is predominantly an elitist text with many references to ‘elite’ topics such as Classicism and the aristocracy. Furthermore, Eliot takes a harsh analysis to the members of the working class, despite, the fact that he does partly connect to them and certain areas of their lives. Eliot does eschew contemporary culture, through how he criticises the actions of the working class and of his contemporaries around him. Ultimately, Eliot’s underlining point is how all of the different social classes have forgotten what is really important in society and instead only concentrate on the superficial.
Word Count: 1259
Chintz, David, ‘T.S Eliot and the Cultural Divide’, PMLA, Vol. 110, No.2 (Mar., 1995), pp. 236-247
Eliot, T.S, The Waste Land, (New York: Boni and Liveright,1922)
Schwarz, Robert L., Broken Images: A Study of The Waste Land (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1988)
All subsequent references to Eliot’s work are from this edition and will be given in parenthesis after quotations in the text.
This is the second essay I wrote for my Introduction to Literary Studies Module. It was based on T.S Eliot’s the Wasteland, which was a text I enjoyed reading and studying. Alas, I only received a 2:2 for this essay, as well, but I sure as hell enjoyed the subject matter more than Jane Eyre.