Term Paper: Authors Are Obsessed With the Gloomier

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¶ … Authors Are Obsessed With the Gloomier Aspects of Life

It is certainly true that many modern authors seem to be concerned with the "gloomier" or more pessimistic view of life. However there is a good reason for this which can only be understood once we have insight into the context and the time in which they write. The term 'modernism' is associated with the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. Writers and artists tended to reflect on the world around them and to question the societies or the environment and governments of the time. An important part of the function of the artist is to criticize the status qua or the world in which he or she lives and to explore and search for answers to the problems that they see facing society. The modernist period was also period of great change and interrogation of the accepted norms and traditions of the past. This was also a time of great change in world history. In this essay I will be analyzing works by T.S. Eliot and Joseph Conrad in relation to their social and historical milieu.

T.S. Eliot and the Wasteland

T.S. Eliot is seen as one of the great poets and writers of early modernism. He has often been called the artistic spokesman for the way artists of the time perceived and understood the world. Eliot was one of many artists, writers and poets who were of the opinion that the modern world was essentially a moral, spiritual and psychological "Wasteland." Their view was that the modern world and modern western society had lost its direction and had become meaningless and empty. This critical and "gloomy" attitude was an essential part of the modernist movement in art.

Like so many of his contemporaries, Eliot, was influenced by the philosophical, scientific as well as psychological and sociological upheaval in Western society. Like W.B. Yeats he saw the present period of contemporary history as a cul de sac; an era which was severely lacking in the ancient traditional richness of knowledge of the past and which was apocalyptic in its loss of meaning and inner coherence. "Eliot, in his 1923 review of Joyce's Ulysses, called contemporary history an immense panorama of futility and anarchy." (Spears 1994, p. 101)

It is sometimes not often perceived just how much the First World War and the upheaval in the cultural traditions and history affected modernist poets like T.S. Eliot. The following extract outlines something of this background.

The unprecedented catastrophe that led to Versailles had destroyed not only the people and the land, but the culture and institutions of Europe. Most of the once great and ancient houses of European royalty were dissolved and scattered in the wind. The context of this calamity must include the scientific, philosophic, and religious revolutions that were collapsing the intellectual structures that had undergirded the Western mind for centuries. The desolation, too well-known to be discussed in detail, received consummate expression in the Wasteland.

The Wasteland is a very bitter and caustic poem which, through stark and harsh imagery, conveys a view of a modern world without any essential meaning and in which the individual has lost all direction and purpose. This sense of ennui and existential angst is related to the situation an entire generation after the "Great War" or First World War. There was a general feeling at that time that human governments and authorities had become corrupt and power hungry and that civilization had lost any claim to higher moral standards. In the Wasteland, the poet creates a poetic view of a world without traditional or contemporary structures or modes of meaning which is merely a collection of "broken images"; and this is the thematic that runs throughout the poem.

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain

1. lines 1-4)

The rain that falls is not sufficient to provide true relief from the "drought" of spirit and life force in the wasteland. It is only a maddening indication that another possibility to the empty and futile modern existence does exist. It is this wasteland of futility and emptiness that constitutes the contemporary world that Eliot describes and evokes in the rest of the poem.

However the poem is not all gloom. The poet also presents alternatives to the wasteland of the modern world. The Wasteland is a complex poem that depends on understanding many of the symbols in the poem. One of these symbols is water or "rain." Water has always been an important symbol of fruition and growth. An understanding of the poem necessitates a perception that the symbol of water as an image of salvation from the 'modern predicament' and its various constraints, was not a random image selected for its obvious connotations, but refers to an entire tradition of mythical and philosophical thought. Drawing from these ancient roots, the modern usage of the symbol of water is reflected in the intense search for relevance and meaning that was central to the work and the art of the modernist period. The theme or symbolic import of water in the poem is also in many respects dependent on the underlying background to the poem; which is a critique of contemporary society in the modernist tradition that extends throughout Eliot's poetry and builds on the insights of Gerontion

Simply stated, the lack of water that is referred to continuously throughout the poem is a sign of spiritual drought and symbolically indicative of infertility and philosophical and existential stasis. In contemporary philosophical terms, this points to the loss of meaning and the ennui that was the motivation for the existential angst and deep questioning of Western society. On another level the references to water in the poem are often also indicative of the loss of cohesion and meaningful life. The references to water in the first section of the poem, the Burial of the Dead, refers to water as adding to the 'cruelty' of the modern predicament.. Here water serves as a reminder of lost vitality and meaning, which is keenly felt by its absence in the contemporary wasteland. Water acts as a sharp "memory" and spurs the "desires" for what is not present in the world and, as such, becomes a cruel reminder of the present or contemporary loss of meaning.

From the beginning of the first lines of the Burial of the dead it seems as though the wasteland is always waiting for the ceremony of rain, the bringing of water, to the dry land. For most of the poem, the water and the promise that it suggests, never arrives. For example in lines 331 and 332:

Here is no water but only rock

Rock and no water.

Again in line in 342;

But dry sterile thunder without rain.

This concept of the central theme of loss and despair is repeated throughout the first section.

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. (ll. 21-24).

Essentially the Waste Land portrays a land of "drought," a dead land without water to initiate new growth and regeneration.

Joseph Conrad

It is interesting that Eliot uses the most important words from Conrad's Heart of Darkness in his poem the Wasteland. Eliot had also been in ill health before writing the poem and something of the connection between the themes explored by the two writers can be seen from the following quotation.

The Waste Land was drafted during a rest cure at Margate ("I can connect / Nothing with nothing") and Lausanne ("In this decayed hole among the mountains") during the autumn of 1921 by a convalescent preoccupied partly with the ruin of post-war Europe, partly with his own health and the conditions of his servitude to a bank in London, partly with a hardly exorable apprehension that two thousand years of European continuity had for the first time run dry. It had for epigraph a phrase from Conrad's Heart of Darkness ("The horror! The horror!"); embedded in the text... " (Kenner 1959, p. 145)

Conrad, like many modernists, had an essentially pessimistic view of the potential of human nature for greed and cruelty. His work the Heart of Darkness explores this "darkness" in human nature. The book is also a critique of modern society in that it takes place during the early years of the British colonization of Africa. An important part of the novel is Conrad's view of colonization as a cruel enterprise concerned only with power and money and having nothing to do with helping" or 'uplifting" the African people. Like Eliot, Conrad too paints a literary picture of society which has lost meaning ands has become empty and vacuous in a moral and spiritual sense.

While the book is intensely " gloomy" in its assessment of modern society and the contemporary man it also searches for alternatives… [END OF PREVIEW]

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