T.S. Eliot, Dante, and the European Tradition: An International Symposium
January 19th - 25th , 2008
  Promoted by:
Romualdo Del Bianco Foundation
Palazzo Coppini Via del Giglio, 10
50123 – Florence (Italy)


Author : Prof. Nancy Gish

Nancy Gish

Lyndall Gordon, in her chronology dating the The Waste Land fragments, claims that “The turning-point between a hoard of fragments and a unified poem comes about through ‘Gerontion,’ which was written in May-June 1919.” Whether or not a “unified poem” results and regardless of the precise dating–now reconsidered by Lawrence Rainey–Eliot did see “Gerontion” as a prelude to The Waste Land but dropped it at Pound’s insistence. Although Gordon does not discuss the implications of this, as a “prelude,” the 1919 poem represents a re-appearance, as central, of a figure hovering at the edges of poem after poem in Eliot’s early work: the disturbed or mad, muttering, and decayed old man as doppelgänger or alter self. In the persona of this mad old man, Eliot represents forms of consciousness central both to his own poetics and to modernist thought.
In The Protean Self (Chicago, 1993), Robert J. Lifton argues for the emergence of a new form of self as “fluid and many-sided.” This multiplicity of self and consciousness–if not first recognized in the early 20th century–was nonethless a key characteristic of modernism: indeed, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde is as originary to modernism as Heart of Darkness. In the late 19th and early 20th century, a major definition of this multiplicity was Pierre Janet’s concept of “désagrégation,” a term that has been translated as “dissociation” and also as “disintegration.” Eliot, who knew Janet’s work, used both terms at different times. For Janet, “dissociation” was always the defining characteristic of “hysteria.” In its forms of “depersonalization,” “derealization,” and “dédoublement,” or dual personality, this form of consciousness appears repeatedly in Eliot’s Inventions of the March Hare. In The Waste Land, dissociative images recur in coded forms that retain early representations of consciousness in newly structured ways: key examples include the speaker in the hyacinth girl scene, the images of derealization in the destroyed landscape of section V, and the overt doubling of Stetson.
Less defined but more pervasive is the role of Tiresias, who can be read both as the “union” of all the characters and as the contradictory dissolution of consciousness into all fragmented voices. Like Gerontion, he is decayed and his “vision” is sordid. Tiresias is male and female, ancient and modern, sighted and blind, living and dead, the violator and violated in the typist scene (he has “foresuffered all”). Gerontion and Tiresias compose and decompose, multiply personae and disintegrate.
By the time Eliot composed The Waste Land in its published version, his prose comments on “désagrégation” had shifted from primarily using “dissociation” to primarily using “disintegration,” a more total dissolution of self, like that of Gerontion’s “thousand small deliberations” and “fractured atoms.” In The Waste Land, while retaining images of depersonalization, derealization, and doubling, Eliot represents a fragmentation of consciousness so extensive as to be disintegration and at the same time, paradoxically, to define a form of cohesion. In Robert Lifton’s words, rather than collapse in the face of confusion and loss of “psychological moorings,” “the self turns out to be surprisingly resilient.”
Lifton is describing a post-modern response of “tactical flexibility” to the “threats and pulls” in a world of contradiction; the modern response was far less affirmative. My argument is that The Waste Land confronted this breakdown of unified consciousness, immediately during and after WWI, at a time when “a heap of broken images” left Western culture without apparent ways to reconstruct a cohesive “self.” While the many fragments, drafts, and unused poems of the Waste Land Facsimile reveal an unassimilated dissociative consciousness, the function of “Gerontion” and Tiresias is to regain not only an aesthetic “unity” but a newly imagined form of multiple or fluid consciousness. The Waste Land, thus, stands as a defining reaction to “désagrégation.” That this attempt has mixed results is partly due to the available psychological models, but is also a function of Eliot’s reading of the discourse of dissociation.

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