Ninety Years of Disillusionment in the Waste Land

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Is there hope in this life?

That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?

Published 90 years ago, TS Eliot’s The Waste Land is said (at least by your college professors) to be one of the highpoints of modernist literature. It spoke to a generation. And, we may question whether a poem that references the Upanishads, Buddha, St. Augustine, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Egyptian myth, Greek myth, Roman myth, the book of Romans, and Ecclesiastes—among others—rightly belongs to a “generation.” Eliot himself rejected the charge.

Naturally, judging by the fact that you are right now trying to remember The Waste Land from when you were forced to read it in high school or college, it’s given a voice to more than one generation. In true modernist style (or really, post-modernist style—but to believe that, you would have to believe postmodernity is simply modernity taken to its logical ends), Eliot assimilates symbol wherever he can find it, creating a poem of fragmentation, disillusionment.

Only, “disillusionment” requires some sort of “illusionment” to lose, and perhaps that’s the rub between modernity and post-modernity. We aren’t “illusioned” about anything. Rather, everything is to be questioned, challenged, up for grabs. So, if we can no longer even be disillusioned, why do we read The Waste Land or listen to Wilco? What does a never-illusioned-anyway society want in their art, whether from 90 years ago or last month?

Yes, we want connection: we like to know others are walking around having been never-illusioned. And that is part of art. But another part, and especially prominent in The Waste Land, is the image of death and rebirth. It’s present in Augustine, Dante, Egyptian myth, Greek myth—you get the idea. Can true transformation happen? Can we, in a sense (and this predates Eliot’s Christianity), die and be reborn?

Is there hope in this life?

Or, perhaps we leave the existential question to Eliot himself: That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?