The Waste Land and Literary Meltdowns

A few weeks back I contributed a curation of reads for Bibliofeed – the wonderful Instagram based book club of readers and writers alike. One of my selections was T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. About it I wrote this:

I love this poem because it is so epic and because it is so confusing. It is so vast and meta that each time I come across it, I either have an epiphany or find myself in a moment of literary meltdown. It is a poem that muses on how the modern world has become a wasteland, we have forgotten what the earth once was. Collective memory has failed us. Religion no longer has the influence it used to.

Once upon a time everyone identified with a religion, and each religion had a religious text. When faced a spiritual crisis, as humans are prone to do, we turned to this text for answers, whether it was the Qur’an, Torah, I Ching, or the Bible. But now, few humans identify with a religion and have no religious texts. The Waste Land raises the question: what do you do in a spiritual crisis if you’re not religious?

(I would like to say that I wrote this over a month before Bibliofeed posted it, and when they did I was astounded by my own intelligence)

As strange as it sounds, The Waste Land is never far from my thoughts – whether it be in reading A Series of Unfortunate Events, hearing the word ‘April’, or shuffling my tarot deck. I have taken to putting a crackly recording of Eliot himself reading the poem on repeat when I complete mundane tasks – Eliot’s formal otherworldly voice becomes my companion when socks need washing and food demands to be prepared: “Out of the window perilously spread/Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays,/On the divan are piled (at night her bed)/Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.”

And so when the Cambridge Festival of Ideas released their program for this year, I immediately signed up for a lecture entitled ‘Literature, Retellings, and The True Waste Land’ by Apostolos Doxiadis. The lecture itself discussed Greek translations of Eliot’s poem and suggested that translations of it can represent a ‘truer Waste Land’ than Eliot’s. Naturally (like the poem itself) I found this to be utterly confusing.

So, here is my take on retellings of The Waste Land.

The quintessential trope of literature is intimation. All literature is a retelling (of a retelling of a retelling) – Jim Jarmusch’s fabulous “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration…” advice rings true. Apostolos Doxiadis spoke of a text being a mirror – the retelling has to be at once clear and ambiguous. But a mirror also has a frame, what an author chooses to imitate (or steal, or copy, etc) is a selection of the original. And it is this selection that makes the new text an original.

The Waste Land in itself is a retelling – a pastiche of new and old, religious and secular; from Ecclesiastes to The Tempest to Baudelaire to The Odyssey to his own work. It is intertextuality at it’s finest. It is in these textual references that the reader can gleam some kind of understanding.

The fun begins when this vast tapestry – The Waste Land itself – is referenced in a text. Reused and reimagined The Waste Land begins a life of its own when this happens – and an erudite feeling creeps over me when I notice. The feeling of being in a secret club, or having a super power that allows me to discover the secrets of a text that are kept unknown to others; the magic of intertextuality. And then comes the overflowing rush of meaning and understanding as I layer The Waste Land over this new text and it becomes a palimpsest.

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is worlds apart (at first glance) to The Waste Land, but from the very (bad) beginning, Snicket has added Eliot’s poem to the palimpsest that is his story of the Baudelaire orphans: Violet, the name of the oldest Baudelaire, is a reference to a line in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland: “At the violet hour, when the eyes and back/Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits/Like a taxi throbbing waiting…” This line fittingly appears in III The Fire Sermon, a reference to the fire that began the troubles of the orphans and seems to continually haunt them.

But, it’s not just The Waste Land that Snicket has stolen and used – a plethora of other works (many that I noticed, and probably more that I missed) are referenced in the series. Each of these texts is a layer to the palimpsest creating a new Waste Land. Waste Land that is similar if not in meaning then in form and style, and one that can be understood and enjoyed by children. A Series of Unfortunate Events is The Waste Land for children – grooming them for the world of higher literature.

It’s in this world of higher literature that we find The Waste Land again – in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Just as The Waste Land is a collection of fragments, so is The Secret HistoryThe snobbish and erudite characters of Tartt’s novel are exactly the type one can see quoting The Waste Land to one another as a secret code or inside joke (a habit that we mere mortals may scoff at, but we all wish we were part of that classics clique). It is in hindsight that the narrator Richard draws a parallel between an early moment in the narrative and The Waste Land:

I had never been in a boat in my life. Henry and Camilla went out with me – Henry at the oars, his sleeves rolled to the elbow and his dark jacket on the seat beside him. He had a habit, as I was later to discover, of trailing off into absorbed, didactic, entirely self-contained monologues, about whatever he happened to be interested in at the time – the Catuvellauni, or late Byzantine painting, or headhunting in the Solomon Islands. That day he was talking about Elizabeth and Leicester, I remember: the murdered wife, the royal barge, the queen on a white horse talking to the troops at Tilbury Fort, and Leicester and the Earl of Essex holding the bridle rein… The swish of the oars and the hypnotic thrum of dragonflies blended with his academic monotone. Camilla, flushed and sleepy, trailed her hand in the water. Yellow birch leaves blew from the trees and drifted down to rest on the surface. It was many years later, and far away, when I came across this passage in The Waste Land:
Elizabeth and Leicester
Beating oars
The stern was formed
A gilded shell
Red and gold
The brisk swell
Rippled both shores
Southwest wind
Carried down stream
The peal of bells
White towers
Weialala leia Wallala leilala

We went to the other side of the lake and returned, half-blinded by the light on the water, to find Bunny and Charles on the front porch, eating ham sandwiches and playing cards.

Some would say that this reference is just Tartt being high-brow, or Richard’s attempt to be. But it makes comment on the duality of the novel – the official history and the secret history; the idea that what we are told by a (unreliable) narrator may not be the truth and that it is only in hindsight that we (and the narrator) recognise this. We can also conclude that Henry and Camilla both see The Waste Land parallel and are testing Richard, a test that he does not pass until it is too late. Being wholly enraptured by the other characters Richard also fails to notice, as does the unassuming reader, that Henry’s references to Elizabeth and Leicester as secret lovers echoes the hidden sexual relationship of Henry and Camilla.

So another layer is added to the palimpsest – a palimpsest that the reader can choose to ignore, or even enjoy the narrative in blissful ignorance. But there is no denying that to the discerning reader a text that is layered and intertextual makes a richer reading experience.

Retellings and the ‘True Waste Land’ is what the lecture promised, and I attended in giddy expectation, but it wasn’t what I wanted. But this is – an attempt to reign in The Waste Land, to tether it to what I know, and to make sense of it through the retellings that make it new. A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Secret History are ‘Waste Lands’ for a new era and a new reader. And hopefully this reader will be led back to the original.


Palimpsest/intertextuality analysis:
A Series of Unfortunate Events 
The Secret History


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