by Shawn Crawford
If T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is the sacred text of Modernist poetry (With Joyce’s Ulysses the sacred novel), then his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” provides the theology to interpret and understand the poem’s byzantine lines and obscure references. How we pored over both, seeking to fathom the mysteries locked inside.
For a Kansas kid raised in a strict Baptist home, the delight of not only reading literature but being surrounded by others with the same desire, cannot be adequately described. “What are you going to do with an English degree?” people would always ask. I knew exactly: I was going To Know, to master the most beautifully written words–the ones that gave me an electric thrill and transcended my shyness and fears—words that provided a solace from the nagging worry about the disposition of my eternal soul. Those words offered salvation of an entirely different kind than the Bible.
Eliot seemed to offer up the perfect life; like many converts to a new religion or culture, he became more British than the British. He had achieved inclusion in the Norton Anthology of English Literature as well as the American Literature anthology. Eliot’s family came from St. Louis, and he was born there. My girlfriend’s family lived in St. Louis. Shocking. Unlike Ezra Pound, who always played with a bumpkin persona he called Uncle Ez, Eliot worked to obliterate all traces of his American identity.
How could he achieve this as an artist, and in his case, as a person?
“Tradition” draws the map. We can never say Eliot lacked ambition or confidence: “what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded.” Not only does his poetry offer an artistic expression, it alters the essence of all that came before it. No pressure.
But Eliot means something very specific when he speaks of art. The essay posits the idea of “the mind of Europe.” The tradition of this mind consumes the artist and allows him to create, for it becomes “a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind.” From Eliot’s ideas would spring New Criticism, the idea that art exists complete unto itself, the well-wrought urn that both improves and reflects the tradition of all great Art. Nothing about the artist, his biography, his prejudices, his concerns, touch his creation or influence our appreciation of it. The cheese stands alone. Eliot had an obsession with cheese. Virginia Woolf draws a portrait of him in her wickedly funny diaries as The Monk, aloof and constantly sniffing his latest fromage.
New Criticism would dominate literature for decades, but all of it would be swept away as I entered graduate school, under the deluge of postmodernism with its post-structural analysis, deconstructionist theory, and gender studies. Today’s identity politics and preoccupation with the self and its projection make Eliot appear like an alien. What was he thinking?
He provides the answer later in “Tradition”:
Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.
We always seemed to gloss over this portion. Eliot reveals so much about this artist we are to know nothing about, and then undercuts it all with his cultivated snobbery: you probably won’t understand. I think and feel so much more deeply than you.
But I understood Eliot perfectly. Who didn’t want to break free from their emotions and personality? I longed for the mind of art, sophisticated and intellectual, an eternity removed from my rural upbringing, where William Allen White served as your literary exemplar. We weren’t even told Gordon Parks grew up just down the road. Little House on the Prairie would remain your lot forever.
I couldn’t figure out how to escape my fundamentalist outlook. Imagining I had made great strides, a professor wrote in a course evaluation, “an excellent writer and thinker, but conservative to the point of fascism.” People at my church would wear a statement like that as a badge of honor, but I was mortified and embarrassed. Eliot’s run from himself into a world of literary allusion and a hermetic aestheticism looked like true sanctuary to me.
You can’t hide or erase who you are though. In 1989, Cynthia Ozick wrote a brilliant essay in The New Yorker, demonstrating that “The Waste Land” and other work carried the echoes of Eliot’s tortured and tragic marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood. As Vivien succumbed to mental illness and stalking Eliot during her release from sanitariums, Eliot increasingly tried to hide from her and disavow his responsibility. She was institutionalized permanently in 1938; Eliot never visited her in the last twelve years of her life. His escape had been into a place of darkness. Ozick’s reading of “The Waste Land” delivered much more than a fresh interpretation. It made the poem come alive in a new way, cracked open the densely referenced lines into something vital and confessional and true.
Under Eliot’s influence and my own self-exile, for years I refused to write about my evangelical roots or acknowledge the emotions intertwined with my place. I rolled my eyes when the composition department at my university adopted a curriculum built around the experience of growing up on the Great Plains. There was no here here. Finally, I left academics and stopped writing my dry, joyless prose.
In the wilderness for a decade, I finally wondered what would happen if I ran toward my emotions and personality and not away from them. I read what I wanted and thought what I wanted and wrote what I wanted. Feeling what I wanted led to many complications and eventually medication. But I’m learning to embrace that too.
Eliot believed “The Waste Land” delivered his observations and vision of a broken world, estranged from his beloved Tradition. Unlike the Tiresias of his poem and mythology, his blindness never made him a prophet, so he remained a cipher to himself, never understanding his waste land was the creation of the emotions and personality that so bedeviled him.