Calvin Bedient: On "The Waste Land"

This might be as fair a place as any to take the pulse of the notion of a single and unifying protagonist in The Waste Land.

Again, the argument is that this notion has not been sufficiently entertained and tested in earlier commentary on Eliot. Stanley Sultan's few pages on the subject in Ulysses, The Waste Land, and Modernismform--as will be more fully noted--the one substantial, and neglected, exception.

As has perhaps been demonstrated, part I presents no obstacles to reading the poem in this light. On the contrary, the hypothesis of a single speaker and performer adds shadow, depth, drama, and direction to everything in the movement. It discovers a poem of far more seriousness, profundity, and complexity than Edward Said (among others) regards it as being: namely, "a collection of voices repeating and varying and mimicking one another and literature generally."

Certainly the original working title, "He Do the Police in Different Voices," implies the presence of a single speaker in the poem who is gifted at "taking off" the voices of others--just as the foundling named Sloppy in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend is, according to the doubtless biased and doting Betty Higden, "a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the police in different voices." This speaker has a flair for tones of criminality, sensationalism, and outrage--the whole gamut of abjection and judgment; or so the title implies. He shows a relish for such tones, he is virtuosic at rendering them. The working title was thus itself a harsh judgment on the protagonist (whom it travesties). All speech is abjection? The very impulse to perform voice is suspect? A complicity in the fascination of crime--say, murder? To create and to murder are near akin? These severe intimations are of a piece with the contemptus mundi of the poem.

The hypothesis of an all-centering, autobiographical protagonist-narrator is not only consistent with the working title; it explains the confident surfacing, in the latter part of the poem, of an unmistakable religious pilgrim. Unless this pilgrim can be shown to develop (to inch, scramble, flee) out of a waste land that is, or was, himself, the poem splits apart into two unequal sections, a long one constituted by what Lyndall Gordon calls "the Voices of Society" and a shorter one on a lone pilgrim to elsewhere. Neither Gordon nor A. D. Moody--each so admirable on The Waste Land--connects what they concur in regarding as a pilgrim with what they might agree to call the Voices of Society. But there is no difficulty in the way of positing the former as the "doer" of the latter--as one of the social voices, yet he who surpasses them in being able to do and place them in an ironic relation to other voices, including his own.

Gordon's valuable suggestion that the poem belongs in the religio-literary category of "the exemplary life" is in fact better served by this more unifying reading. "In the lives Eliot invokes," Gordon comments, "--Dante, Christ, Augustine, the grail knight, Ezekiel--there is always a dark period of trial, whether in a desert, a slough of despond, or a hell, followed by initiation, conversion, or the divine light itself." The protagonist is not merely one among others in hell (and the "conversation" between him and Stetson, who were alive and comparatively heroic together so long ago, only makes sense in a dimension of hell); hell is not merely others; the protagonist is hell, and it is out of this hell, at once his own and collective, that, through conversion, he must climb toward the divine light. If he does the voices of others, it is because in the first instance his ears are whores to them; he dramatizes, thus, his own abjection. He is not merely one of the denizens of the waste land; he is their sum, he is sin upon sin, even sinner upon sinner--or so his self-multiplying and self-shading ventriloquism suggests. Not that he does the voices altogether helplessly; on the contrary, he gathers them in his fist like a rattlesnake's severed coils and shakes them so as to disturb his own and his readers' war-dulled, jazz-dulled, machine-dulled ears. But, in any case, he demonstrates thus--he confesses--his own hellish entanglements with secularism and the flesh. The first three parts of the poem present the equation the others = me, if in a way that proves the equation a little false (it involves a sick self-belittlement). The rest of the poem clarifies the actual opposition of others/me that endows the first three parts with insidious drama.

[. . . .]

The protagonist both suffers from and exploits this essential theatricality of voice. His nature is a poet's nature, at once powerfully secretive and helplessly "open"--empathetic, susceptible, yours for the asking. The protagonist is, in a phrase Delmore Schwartz applies to Eliot himself, a "sibylline listener." He listens in on others with the mercilessness of one who fails to hear "the silence" in their speech yet with the full dramatic sympathy of his empathic nature, too--with a tenth of that capacity for sympathy which also, at its fullest and subtlest stretch, enables him to detect the ethereal presence of an attendant "hooded" figure (part 5), or look into the heart of light.

Eliot's prose poem "Hysteria" was about just such a protohysterical, protosalvational empathy. "As she laughed, I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it ... I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled by each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles." Laughter is hysteria, empathy with voice is hysteria-in-the-making, acting is controlled hysteria. The protagonist "acts" the voices of others as if he had little choice in the matter, and even his "own" voice is, to him, theater, the voice of Hieronymo as he plots a Babel of other voices, plots the crash of Babel itself.

Almost helplessly many, almost incapacitated by his capacity for openness, the protagonist will nonetheless find in this susceptibility to otherness and outsidedness (a susceptibility that, largely "sympathy," makes them inward, his) his virtú and virtue, his identification with what is pure and utter: so Other that sympathy with it minimalizes his abjection, which becomes no more than a clot of sound that he must cough up, a phlegm of speech. By imbuing his protagonist with his own auditory and vocal genius of participation in the abjectness of his times and in approaches to the Absolute (for "the silence" must be heard, and speech must edge it), Eliot made his poem a barometer sensitive both to the foggy immediate air and to the atmospheric pressure high and far off, the "thunder of spring over distant mountains" (part 5). A group or medley of voices cannot attend to a charged, remote silence; for that a single protagonist was necessary, one who could both "do" the group and find in himself the anguish and strength to leave it, repressing the fatal impulse (as Moody puts it) "towards a renewal of human love" and seeking, instead, the Love Omnipotent.

From He Do the Police in Different Voices: The Waste Land and Its Protagonist. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1986.

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Title Calvin Bedient: On "The Waste Land" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Calvin Bedient Criticism Target T. S. Eliot
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 03 Nov 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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