Categories
Essay

T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land: Finding Hope in Darkness

By Dan Meloche

One hundred years ago, T.S Eliot wrote ‘The Waste Land’ to find meaning in troubled times. As we wrestle with trouble in our own times, an examination of Eliot’s paean to chaos can prove instructive. Horrified by the return of war in Europe, disturbed by the looming threat of environmental collapse, and fatigued by over two years of a resilient pandemic, we crave relief and inklings of hope. In Eliot’s poem, relief does not come without tarrying with the darkness. In his 433-line poem, slivers of hope are crowded by the ubiquitous memento mori, the constant reminders of death. With his own hope compromised by a series of personal crises, Eliot’s fractured self mirrored a Europe fractured by the incomprehensibility of the millions sacrificed on European battlefields. To heal the fracturing, the poem represents a therapeutic exercise not only for the poet, but also a generation. After the questionably named Great War, cultural revisions produced modernism, representing a significant departure from traditional poetic sensibilities. 

Before World War I, war retained a nobility exemplified in the “six hundred” of Tennyson’s ‘Light Brigade‘ (1854). After World War I, Tennyson’s sentiment of “Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die” no longer reflected the misery and absurdity of millions sacrificed for a few acres of mud. As the world changes, so does its art. To restore both a fractured mind and a fractured generation, ‘The Waste Land’ assembles meaning from ruins and conflated mythologies to spring hope. Rife with allusions, sometimes obvious, often obscure, Eliot’s poem aligns with modernist principles as multiple narrative voices range freely across landscapes of time and memory.

In the poem’s opening section, hope does not sing forth as in a Dickinson (1830-1886) poem, but lays disassembled in the ruins of desolate imagery. A spark of hope is initiated by a female narrative voice recalling an idyllic childhood tobogganing episode: “In the mountains, there you feel free.” The pleasant recollection shifts dramatically into the middle of a land of “stony rubbish,” “broken images,” and a “dead tree (that) gives no shelter, the cricket no relief”. In a parenthetical note, a whispering narrator offers a hint to relief: “Only there is shadow under this red rock, (Come in under the shadow of this red rock).” The secret told in that shadow comes in the following four lines:

"And I will show you something different from either 
Your shadow at morning striding behind you 
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you: 
I will show your fear in a handful of dust."

What you leave behind is the past and what rises to meet you is the future. The “something different” is what lies between: the eternal present. In ‘The Waste Land’, our reckoning with death produces a despair that can only be relieved by moving meditatively out of time.

In 1922, the war has ended, yet trauma echoes within the workers who return to re-ignite the engine of economic growth. In the final stanza of the opening section, the poet gives us London’s financial district (The City) and a crowd flowing over London Bridge. Emotionally wrought automatons, the men carry a despair that manifests their drudgery: “Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet”. Within this crowd, the narrator recognises his comrade and calls to him: “Stetson! / You were with me in the ships at Mylae!” He does not recognise him from Passchendaele or the Somme, but from the first Punic War between Rome and Carthage in 330 B.C. Whether in modern Europe or ancient Rome, war is inevitable, and solace is often elusive. The dead, “planted” and sustained in our collective memory, can serve to assuage our despondency: “That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” April is indeed “the cruellest month” as the lilacs bred “out of the dead land” are fertilised by dead soldiers. Such is the dubious shape of hope in the aftermath of industrial scale war.

To conjure further hope, Eliot assembles mythologies and merges fragments with references to the Hindu Upanishads, Shakespeare, and the myth of the Fisher King. In the poem’s final section, reference to the Upanishads serves as an incantation to “controlling hands” of a governing Thunder that gives, sympathizes, and controls. Like a “broken Coriolanus”, we are compelled to surrender on the path of cruel iniquities that lead to our “obituaries”. Without surrender, we may suffer the same fate as Coriolanus, whose excess pride cost him his life. As Thunder exhorts humility, Eliot, as narrator, assumes the place of the Fisher King, the wounded sovereign who governs his barren lands: “I sat upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me”.  In ‘The Waste Land’, will a hero fulfill the myth of the Fisher King by arriving to restore both the wounded king and the “arid plain”? Eliot’s answer comes with the rhetorical question, “Shall I at least set my lands in order?” A hero will not come, and the fracturing of both Eliot and his generation endures as aridity persists. In the worst times, the only way to elicit hope comes with adjusting our expectations. For Eliot, his “fishing” is the resumption of his creative endeavours despite the prevailing aridity. To carry on, we must make peace with the circumstances of our time. Eliot invokes this in his final line with the chant that ends each Upanishad: “Shantih     shantih     shantih.”

In his notes on the poem, Eliot equates this final line with Philippians 4:7 and the “peace that passeth all understanding”. Sifting through the ashes of a destroyed Europe or diagnosing the causes of psychological fracture will not yield peace. Peace comes not from understanding why the trauma happened, but from reaching outside the chaos to a higher order. Eliot’s final allusion marks a harbinger to his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927, wherein he found community and peace for the rest of his life.

As the war continues in the Ukraine, memories of the dead live on in the trauma of the living. To cope with that trauma, hope sustains those huddled in the Kyiv metro stations. Below the missile bursts above, Ukrainians singing traditional songs and the national anthem will not bring back the dead, but it will limit the fracturing: “The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished.”

.

Dan Meloche is a full-time professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa. When he isn’t teaching English, social psychology, and economics, he reads widely and writes reviews and personal account essays.

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Essay

A Modern-day Animal Fable with Twists

Dan Meloche visits a contemporary Canadian novel written as an animal fable to draw an unexpected inference

Apologues, or animal fables, deepen our understanding of aspects of the human experience. In both Richard Adams’s Watership Down and George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the authors’ anthropomorphised rabbits and farm animals struggle with class division, malevolent leadership, and violence. Mirroring current or historical political realities, these books remain popular as cautionary tales. Similarly cautionary, Andre Alexis’s award-winning novel,  Fifteen Dogs: An Apologue (2015), provides a twist to the typical apologue genre. Alexis’s animals are not attributed human qualities but become human-like when transformed with human consciousness. Less politically and more philosophical, Alexis’s apologue highlights each dog’s response to the dubious gift of human consciousness and intelligence:

“‘I’ll wager a year’s servitude,’ said Apollo, ‘that animals – any animal you choose – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence.

An earth year? I’ll take that bet, said Hermes, but on condition that if at the end of its life, even one of the creatures is happy, I win.’”

Only three dogs embrace the gift of human consciousness that leads to a “new language flowered within them”. This new language is most significantly embraced by Prince, the only dog that is happy at the end of his life. Throughout the novel, Alexis traces Prince’s journey and the path that leads to his happiness. His path begins with exile after defying pack leadership by refusing to curb his desire for language expansion and poetic expression. Also separated from the pack are two other human consciousness embracers, Benjy and Majnoun. When Benjy and Majnoun die, Prince becomes the lamplighter of their endangered language. Until his death, Prince carries with him Hermes warning: “if you die, your way of speaking dies with you.” By passing on his poetry, Prince abides the warning, saves the language, and ensures his happiness in his darkest hour.

At the outset, Prince revels in his expanded consciousness in the face of threatening forces. Following their escape from the veterinarian clinic, the dogs gather in a coppice to begin the sorting out of dogs wishing to stay “dog” and dogs willing to explore their new expanded consciousness., Atticus, the “crumpled-face” and “natural hunter of small animals,” assumes pack leadership and encourages his fellow canines to stay “dog” and deny the gift of human consciousness. For Atticus and his sycophants, denying human consciousness means denying language development and other ‘non-dog’ behaviour. According to Atticus, dogs already have a language of barks and growls sufficient to communicate basic need and social standing. To Prince, who “entirely embraced the change in consciousness,” language expansion is necessary to express the “new way of seeing, an angle that made all that he had known strange and wonderful.”

Overwhelmed by the wonder of his heightened consciousness, Prince moves beyond his old ‘dogness’ to declare his expanded awareness and express himself in verse:

“The grass is wet on the hill.

The sky has no end.

For the dog who waits for his mistress,

Madge, noon comes again.”

In the last line, Prince plays on the name of his friend Majnoun, a similarly awoken dog. This connection with Majnoun affirms Prince’s poetic spirit and establishes fidelity to the new language. However, Atticus’s henchmen Max, Frick, and Frack are more interested in affirming pack order and want to tear Prince to pieces. Oblivious to Frack and Frick’s menacing postures, Prince, encouraged by from Athena, Bella, and Majnoun, indulges his small audience with more verse:

“Beyond the hills, a master is

who knows our secret names.

With bell and bones, he’ll call us home,

winter, fall, or spring.”

With his cryptic suggestion of a new order of things, Prince’s words are enlightening to some and enraging to others. This second poem entrenches the pack’s two camps: those wanting more poetry, thereby embracing the gift of consciousness, and those unsettled by the “strange talk.” Threatened by Prince’s poetry, the latter camp acts to secure pack order.

After a murderous pack cleansing, Prince escapes into exile to revel in his expanded consciousness. With that comes more poetry, more language. Yet, what good is a language in solitude? Rambling through Toronto’s urban expanse, Prince craves reunion with his pack mates: “But what am I without those who understand me?” Also exiled, Majnoun and Benjy remain psychically connected to Prince. Inspired by Prince and his artful musings on his expanded consciousness, Majnoun tries his hand at poetic expression. Despite its curious subject, Majnoun’s verse is presented as love poetry to his master Nira:   

“In China, where wild dogs are eaten,

I am dismayed to be in season.

I curse men who think of me as food

and dream of rickshaws, and lacquered wood.”

Also inspired by the poet dog, Benjy draws on Prince’s courage to ponder what is seen through their new human lens. Looking across the limitless expanse of Lake Ontario, Benjy wonders: “Why should this bluish, non-land be? And how far did it extend?” Benjy’s philosophical rumination then causes the poet dog, Prince, to magically appear.

Overcome with joy and “tongue lolling out,” Prince revels in his delight in seeing Benjy. Mostly, Prince is happy to affirm that their pack language lives on in at least one other dog. With hope renewed, Prince circles the embarrassed Benjy: “It was as if he were chasing the delight that animated him.” His animation is quickly deflated when Benjy tells Prince of the pack’s obliteration in the Garden of Death. For Prince, the dwindling pack size threatens preservation of the pack’s language: “And his cries were such an unfettered expression of grief that even the humans in the distance stopped to listen.” To affirm the language’s vibrancy, Prince offers a poem as balm:     

“With one paw, trying

the edges of the winter pond,

finding it waters solid,

he advances, nails sliding,

still far from home.”

Nonplussed, Benjy shows no interest in Prince’s description of a dog’s tenuous existence: “He knew no word for boredom, but the feeling was accompanied by a nearly palpable desire to have Prince stop talking.” Less interested in the pack language, Benjy is more interested in reciting Vanity Fair to his master. For Benjy, this party trick secures home and comfort better than a dying language. When Benjy brings Prince home with him, the English speaking, literature quoting Benjy receives an enthusiastic reception while Prince is shown the curb: “In this way, as suddenly as he’d regained a pack mate, Prince lost the dog he believed was the last to share his language.” As the three remaining dogs approach death, the fate of their pack language moves closer to extinction.

While Prince dies happy, his consciousness embracing counterparts, Benjy and Majoun, share crueler fates. After killing off most of the pack (Atticus, Rosie, Frick and Frack) by leading them to a “garden of death,” Benjy invokes a retributive Zeus. Fulfilling Atticus’s final wish, Zeus punishes Benjy with a horrific death: “as if a fire were moving deliberately through the den of his body”. In his moment of death, Benjy “conjures hope” for a place where a just world establishes “balance, order, right and pleasure”. Although Hermes pleads his case that hope is a manifestation of happiness, Apollo dismisses hope as “a dimension of the mortal, nothing more.”

After a five-year vigil pining for his missing master, Majnoun approaches death heavy with the ravages of unreciprocated love. Tormented with more than just a broken heart, Majnoun struggles with unresolvable questions: “What, he wondered, did it mean to be human?” As Hermes tried to explain to Majnoun, a dog will never understand love the same way as a human. Unable to square his canine-human experience, Majoun rests uneasily “adrift between species.” Bearing witness to Majnoun’s philosophical torments, Zeus strong arms the Fates to mercifully cut short the thread of the lovestruck dog’s life.  Heart-broken, philosophically perplexed and, consequently, unhappy, Majnoun makes his transition.

How, then, is Prince’s response to consciousness different from the experiences of his awoken confederates? Benjy’s final appeal for a just world can only be followed with the unhappiness that results from recognising that such a thing is impossible. Also given to unreasonable expectations, Majnoun cannot find happiness as he’s unable to neither bridge the canine-human divide, nor mend his broken heart. While Benjy and Majnoun base their happiness on things over which they have no control (the entire world and Nira’s love), Prince’s goal is to preserve the pack language: “There was at least one thing he loved, one thing that would be with him always; his pack’s language.”

By saving the pack language, Prince saves himself from misery. In his death throes, Prince loses his sight. Fearing the same fate for his language, “in a heroic effort to preserve his language, Prince began to speak his poems to the woman.” When Prince hears his human guardian repeat his poetry, happiness comes: “Somewhere, within some other being, his beautiful language existed as a possibility, perhaps as a seed.”

For Hermes and Apollo, that seed represents access to the eternal. As they both agree to the indisputability of Prince’s happiness prior to death, the sons of Zeus acknowledge the notion claimed by all immortals that “all true poetry existed in an eternal present, eternally new, its language undying.” By preserving the language and passing on his poetry, Prince gains access to the eternal. As his poetry exists eternally, so will he, thus overcoming the greatest fear of those governed by human consciousness. In a uniquely human way, Prince’s happiness comes from realising that the surest antidote to the fear of death is the most transcendent and eternal of emotions: “In his final moment on earth, Prince loved and knew that he was loved in return.”

Dan Meloche is a full-time professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa. When he isn’t teaching English and economics, he reads widely and writes literary criticism, reviews, poetry, and personal account essays.

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Essay

Hesse’s Siddhartha: Towards a Shadowless Present

Dan Meloche revisits a hundred-year-old classic by Herman Hesse that is based on Buddhist lore

He who binds to himself a joy 
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies 
Lives in eternity's sunrise. 
– Eternity, William Blake(1757-1827)

Blake challenges his readers to move beyond everyday existence and delve “out of time” into the eternal presence of a moment. In Hermann Hesse’s novel published a hundred years ago, Siddhartha (1922), the titular character embarks on a similar quest to break the bonds of temporality and move towards eternity and spiritual awakening. The bonds that tie him to the temporal include relations with family, friends, a lover, a business associate, and holy men. The latter include Brahmins, Samanas, and the Buddha: all of whom provide unsatisfactory direction with knowledge that, ultimately, becomes useless and distorted by time’s passage. For Siddhartha, relying on temporally bound advice, from temporally bound humans serves no advantage when aspiring to the eternal.

Early in the novel, a dream suggests Siddhartha’s aspiration. Whereas Blake symbolises the eternal with a sunrise, Hesse uses the vast, ever-flowing permanency of a river: “Dreams and restless thoughts came flowing to him from the river.” Called by the river to the eternal, Siddhartha begins to detach from all relationships that bind him to history and time. To experience the eternal present, Siddhartha must unbind from both his father and son, suggestive, respectively, of past and future.  With these, and other detachments, Siddhartha untethers from the temporal attachments to produce the “readiness of soul” necessary to experience the eternal present.

In the opening chapter, Siddhartha’s spiritual restlessness evokes its most profound exhortation in his defiance of his father, a holy Brahmin. By leaving home, Siddhartha separates himself from his past and rejects a life pledged to holy books and learning. More than youthful rebellion, Siddhartha’s defiance represents a repudiation of book learning and the Brahmins as “they did not know the one important thing.”  As they anchor knowledge in the past, books and learning have no use to Siddhartha, who seeks to transcend the time continuum.  Unbound from the twin anchors of his past, his father and the Brahmins, Siddhartha joins a group of ascetics, the Samanas, with his friend Govinda.

Continuing his journey to the eternal, Siddhartha pores himself into the experiential exercises associated with asceticism: thinking, waiting, and fasting. With seeming ease, Siddhartha perfects his practice. Yet, he rejects practices that serve only as a “temporary palliative” that could be learned “more quickly and easily in every inn in a prostitute’s quarter, amongst the carriers and dice players.”

Produced and subsequently distorted in the temporal realm, the Samanas knowledge is insufficient to produce the awakening Siddhartha craves. Further, were he to heed the wisdom of holy men and ascetics, he would only further bind himself to the temporal realm from which he seeks escape.

Leaving the Samanas, Siddhartha fortifies his belief in the uselessness of knowledge. Not even Govinda’s enthusiasm to see a charismatic spiritual leader can dissuade Siddhartha from his well-formed belief. When the Buddha’s popularity grows, Govinda’s interest to hear the Illustrious One is met with Siddhartha’s resignation. Uninterested in learning from holy men, Siddhartha confronts the Buddha by stating that “nobody finds salvation through teachings.”  That is, the Buddha’s awakening is an incommunicable event experienced outside of time which cannot be taught or duplicated. Therefore, trying to explain “in time” that which occurred “out of time” is futile. In addition to rejecting the Buddha’s teachings, Siddhartha further unbinds himself from his past by leaving his friend, Govinda, as he bids him well: “May you travel this path to the end.”

Limited by temporal bonds, Govinda’s path to wisdom and knowledge has a reachable end. However, for Siddhartha, such confinements represent obstacles to moving outside of time. Parting from Govinda, Siddhartha further detaches from his personal history and associations to time. Only by releasing himself from the temporal can he prepare himself for communion with the eternal. Continuing alone, Siddhartha avails himself of a spiritual moment and is transfixed by the permanency of nature. This meditative glimpse of the eternal anticipates his goal: communion with the unity of all things.

However, the path to enlightenment is rarely straight as sexual desire stalls Siddhartha’s journey towards timelessness.  Powerless to the charms of the beautiful courtesan Kamala, Siddhartha loses all yearnings for spiritual ascendancy and returns to temporality and the material world. To pay for his tutelage in the sexual arts, Siddhartha masters commercial trade to generate income. Disdainful of the mastery and accrual of money, Siddhartha attaches no value to his gains as he squanders his wealth gambling. Burdened by temporality, Siddhartha wears a discontent wrought by unhealthy attachments: “the soul sickness of the rich crept over him.”

Mastery of the sexual arts leads to a comparable weariness as the limitation of his passion with Kamala is mutually understood: “People like us cannot love.” In their loveless union, Siddhartha and Kamala desperately try “to extract the last sweet drop of fleeting pleasure.” As pleasure evaporates, so does Siddhartha’s desire to remain committed to the temporally bound pursuit of love. Feeling spiritually deprived by the pursuits of sex, money, and possessions, Siddhartha clearly sees the absurdity of time-bound relationships. Just as his loveless romance withers, his possessions of a mango tree and a garden are also deflating. To Siddhartha, how can nature, the image of eternity, be possessed?

Spurred by a dream of a dead bird, Siddhartha leaves everything to sit by a river and evaluate his life’s worth and considers a permanent unbinding from the suffering associated with temporal existence: “He looked down and was completely filled with a desire to let himself go and be submerged in the water.” Unfulfilled by all temporal desires, Siddhartha gambles with higher stakes: the desire for death. Having tried, and even mastered, engagement in the temporal domain, Siddhartha found it to be “a troubled spring of deep water”. In his moment of crisis, Siddhartha finds no solace in holy words, but is restored by the wordless, echoed distillation of the eternal, the universe’s vibration, the Om. The troubled waters of temporality then become the life-giving force of an eternally flowing river. Siddhartha recognises the river as his portal to the eternal: a place he “would not leave it again so quickly”.

On his way to the permanent harbour by the river, Siddhartha finds the ferryman, Vasudeva. The humble, taciturn ferryman becomes Siddhartha’s spiritual guide. Although Siddhartha claimed after meeting the Buddha, “no other teachings will attract me,” he finds in Vasudeva a teacher who directs rather than preaches. Vasudeva’s singular precept: “Love this river, stay by it, learn from it.” Sharing ferrying duties, Siddhartha permanently settles at the river’s edge to receive Vasudeva’s help with unbinding from one final temporal link.

After the Kamala’s death, Vasudeva returns to the ferrymen’s hut with Siddhartha’s son, who reacts with tantrums and runs away. Unnaturally loquacious, Vasudeva recounts Siddhartha’s life and experience and points out that to find home, one must leave home. Unpursued, the boy leaves Siddhartha with a “burning wound”. To extinguish this fiery pain, Siddhartha needs direction from Vasudeva, who becomes less man and more deity: “that this motionless man was the river itself, that he was God himself, that he was the eternal itself.” Carrying on with his ferrying duties, Siddhartha witnesses the love between others and feels jealous. This vanity compels him “one day, when the wound burned violently”, to follow his desire to find and make up with his son. Before binding himself again to temporality, Vasudeva instructs Siddhartha to seek counsel with the river. Standing before the river, ready to be relieved of his suffering, Siddhartha receives the river’s unequivocal response: “It laughed! It laughed clearly.” From the river’s eternal perspective, individual desire and suffering have little consequence to the limitless expanse of experience that comprises the unity of all things.

Further instructed to look into the river, Siddhartha not only sees images of his father, his lover, and his friend, but hears the multitude of sorrows, yearning, and suffering of humankind that coalesce into the “song of a thousand voices.” This song, representing “all things” beyond the temporal blends into the eternal perfection that is Om. With the extinguishing of Siddhartha’s “burning wound,” his final bind to the temporal is broken. Emptying all his pain and history into the river, Siddhartha is fully unbound from temporal existence thereby liberating his soul to the eternal.

In the novel’s final chapter, Siddhartha reunites with his friend, the still questing Govinda, who has sought out the mysterious wise man by the river. Siddhartha convinces his old friend that time is not real. Inspired by Siddhartha’s peacefulness, Govinda solicits inspirational advice. Unwilling to limit explanation with mere words, Siddhartha offers to share with Govinda a glimpse into the eternal. As Govinda bows to kiss Siddhartha’s forehead, he witnesses the parade of humankind (babies, murderers, and lovers) in the thousand-fold permutations of love, hate, birth, and death.

Authenticated by the experience of sharing the eternal present with Govinda, Siddhartha represents a fully awakened being. Whereas Govinda had been confounded by seeking a specific end goal, Siddhartha focused on the readiness of soul that comes with unbinding from temporal relationships, riches, and knowledge. Released from the time-bound continuum, Siddhartha releases his suffering into the channel of eternity that the river represents. Only by experiencing the suffering associated with temporal existence can Siddhartha then unbind to move outside the shadows of both the past and future into the eternal shadowless present.

Dan Meloche is a full-time professor at Algonquin College in Ottawa. When he isn’t teaching English, social psychology, and economics, he reads widely and writes reviews and personal account essays

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL