Essay: Waste Land French Lieutenant

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Waste Land French Lieutenant

The Waste Land and the French Lieutenant as Exemplary Modernist Texts

Modernism and Post-Modernism are considered the dominant literary movements of the twentieth century, with Post-Modernism continuing into our own century. Each was an artistic movement representing a clear break with the past. Their literary components were especially unique, revealing the myriad unexplored forms that literature could take.

Although famous, these movements are difficult to define because their canons are composed of highly unconventional works, escaping easy categorization. Both movements are impossible to define through common features alone. Therefore, classifying a text, such as the Wasteland or the French Lieutenant's Woman, as Modernist or Post-Modernist, involves much more than identifying features off of a checklist.

The terms Modernist and Post-Modernist cannot be understood without an understanding of the social, political, and cultural contexts out of which these literary works were born. This paper will analyze not only the literary features that these works exhibit, but also analyze them as responses to social, political, and cultural forces influencing their creators.

Thesis: It will demonstrate that these texts are exemplary not because they possess the most Modernist or Post-Modernist features, as these terms are understood now. Rather, they are exemplary because they at the time, so unlike any work before it, and unique in a way that could be articulated with the understanding and terminology of that time.

Background: The Realist Period

Before the Modernist period, the artistic world was heavily influenced by Realism. Realist literature was primarily concerned with showing what life was actually like, much in the same way a photograph showed what a scene actually looked like. For many writers, this meant depicting human thoughts and social relations in a new way. (Fried, p. 11). For instance, Dostoevsky depicted, expertly and dramatically, the petty, neurotic thoughts of a repentant murderer in Crime and Punishment. (Snow, p. 87).

In literature, the Realist trend affected content and style. Writers started to include the mundane details of everyday life, especially middle-class life. (Fried, p. 13). They also ditched flowery, elegant turns of phrase for unadorned prose, preferring bare, detailed imagery to poetic or metaphorical description.

The Waste Land

The Waste Land is a 434-line poem by Anglo-American poet T.S. Eliot shortly after the First World War, in 1922. (Eliot). It is a very unconventional poem, lacking a dominant tone or style. The narrator of the poem seems to be based on Eliot himself. It is a heavily fragmented and disjointed poem, composed largely of literary quotes and references. It incorporates these quotes and references into scenes from modern, urban, and industrialized Western society. It is considered a quintessentially modernist poem, and one of the most important poems of the 20th century.

The Modernist Context of the Wasteland

Disillusionment, Alienation, and Despair

Modernist literature was partly a reaction to the increasing dehumanization of Western Civilization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The society and culture of all Western nations were undergoing rapid industrialization, urbanization, and secularization. (Low). These trends served to make Western nations more hostile, to non-Western nations, to each other, and to the natural environment.

The culmination of these trends, to Modernist artists, was the disastrous First World War, which left continental Europe, particularly France and Germany, in shambles. Modernist artists lost the sense of the certainty and promise induced by the Enlightenment. Moreover, they could not revert to the comforting notion of a benevolent, all-powerful Creator, which had been discredited by the Enlightenment. Modernist artists realized that individuals were all alone in a hostile universe. (Merriam-Webster, p. 1236).

The Wasteland conveys a deep disillusionment with human civilization. Part of this disillusionment stemmed from the exceptionally brutal Great War, now known as the First World War. The First World War seemed to thwart all of the promise that Enlightenment age values held for human civilization. It demonstrated that Western civilization would utilize reason and science only in the creation of weapons, not in the negotiation of political disputes. This indicated that mankind, though equipped with more sophisticated weapons, was as barbarous as ever.

Modernist writers were artists who were unwilling to conceal their awkwardness as individuals in society. They wanted to convey that a real human was fit for such an inhumane society. Postmodernist literature portrays society as the faceless antagonist and the individual as the suffering protagonist. As a consequence, postmodernist literature tends to place great value on the individual's sensitivity and integrity of mind. The individual's actual efforts are less important in Modernist literature because of the sense of futility and despair that runs through these works.

Modernist writers like Eliot were individuals who felt alienated from the dominant societal institutions of the day. They did not adopt the dominant narratives, views, and interpretations of society. (Baym, Vol. D, p. 17). Thus, although Modernism makes heavy use of creative works of the past by means of allusion, incorporation, and satire, these works are usually presented out of context, out of the traditional narrative.

The Wasteland represents the evils of an industrialized, hostile society, embodied in World War through the perversion of human sexuality. Just as the natural world was being stripped bare and used for inhumane purposes and base impulses, the female body was being objectified as a source of pleasure, without acknowledgement of the female body's sacred purpose of creation. (the Wasteland, III.237-244; III.249-243). The impossibility of pure, true love is echoed in the narrator's own romantic self-frustration, demonstrated the hyacinth scene, where he shies away from the love of the beautiful young lady that he presented with a hyacinth. (the Wasteland, I.40-42).

Sterility, the Lack of Vitality, and the Loss of Creativity

The Wasteland touches on a key feature of industrialized society, the cold sterility. lack of vitality and the Wasteland's very title points to the barrenness and sterility of the post-war world. The natural world had become infertile and obscured through the influence of modern, industrialized life, leaving a world where "…the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, and the dry stone no sound of water."). (the Wasteland; I.23-27). This phenomenon was at the heart of the Naturalist literature that preceded Modernism, represented by the back-to-nature works of Whitman and Thoreau. (Baym, Vol. C: p. 467).

It makes a bleak estimation of the ability of the individual to live out a full life in modern civilization. (Rainey, p. 27). All of its scenes are marked with disappointment and frustration, a sort of world-weariness not acknowledged, or even recognized in the familiar works of literary history. (the Wasteland, I. 35-4). The Wasteland references these works in order to show that the seeds of modern disappointment and frustration already existed in such works. (the Wasteland, I.30-34; I.42).

In the Wasteland, the natural world's barrenness is represented in the barrenness of the human psyche. This barrenness is revealed by modern artists themselves, who were no longer felt capable of true creativity, constantly confronted by literary tradition. Rather, Modernist writers chose to appropriate the creative works of earlier periods. These works were broken down and reprocessed to explain modern day problems, in the same way that trees were broken down and reprocessed for the daily newspaper, the enduring and the sacred sacrificed for the transient and trivial.

The Wasteland references literary works of the past to provide thematic structure, for sections as well as stanzas. The third section is named after the Buddha's Fire Sermon, where the Buddha preached that the world is on fire, inflamed with desire, represented in the Wasteland as lust. (the Wasteland, III. 308) Just as the Buddha preached that nothing satisfies for long, Eliot illustrates a "tired, bored" young woman who makes love to some random young man, only to comment, after his departure, "Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over," before smoothing "…her hair with automatic hand, and puts a record on the gramophone," seeking another diversion for her bored, restless mind. (the Wasteland, III. 253; 256-57).

The genius and beauty of such classics were publicly admired by the modern literati, much like the industrialist extols the sacred beauty of nature. In both cases, the object of admiration is never admirable enough to keep in its original state. The great creative works of the past were chopped up, referenced, analyzed, parodied, incorporated, alluded to. Eliot, in a separate essay, called this process "…a dialogue with tradition," the mark of a truly original work. (Eliot, 1919).

The Wasteland is marked by the sort of extensity and confusion which marked Western Civilization itself at the start of the modern era. Western nations were already penetrating much of the whole known world through trade and Imperialism. The appropriation of past creative works extended beyond the famous and familiar, into the exotic and obscure, such as India. This sophistication and erudition, actually, was often what distinguished the most iconic modernist writers, the T.S. Eliots, Ezra Pounds, and James Joyces of the world. Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, much like the Wasteland, was virtually impossible to understand without the aid… [END OF PREVIEW]

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