Literature Long Read: This World Is On Fire – Mysticism, Rejuvenation and Peace in The Waste Land

2022 is the centenary year of TS Eliot’s modernist masterpiece The Waste Land. It is one of the 20th century’s greatest and most influential poems, and yet seethes with such profound imagic, linguistic, cultural and religious references that it appears intimidatingly impenetrable to the lay reader. That’s the modernist way. But let’s not be tempted to think that works such as The Waste Land are early examples of gnashing postmodernism, written where the impenetrability is the point. Despite the poem being written in the aftermath of the utter dismemberment of the First World War, there is no absoluten Zerrissenheit on display here.

That’s not to say that abject nihilism isn’t far from the surface, but the poem is essentially one of hope, an emotion or theme that postmodernism is incapable of eliciting. This strange dichotomy of doom attenuated by hope is right there is the poem’s famous opening lines.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull Roots with spring rain.

April, the cruellest month? It’s April right now, and outside I see sunshine, my lawn standing proud in lush verdance, daffodils and forget-me-nots blooming, and peonies readying themselves for their joyful explosion of colour. Doesn’t seem very cruel. And yet (re)birth is a traumatic experience. The land is dead. The ground may be dry. And yet life has no option but to find a way, pushing through even this “stony rubbish” to allow roots to take hold and branches to thrust desperately towards the light.

It’s not completely correct to say that the entire West was in a state of disillusion after World War 1. In 1922 The United States was already embarking on The Roaring Twenties, an economic and cultural boom that brought huge changes in industry, music, art, and economics. Yet where the United States was brimming with confidence, Europe was bereft. Its old world was shell-shocked, and its future was at best uncertain, and would be birthed with much trauma. Germany was defeated, humiliated, and brought to heel by the punitive sanctions of the Treaty of Versailles (the full implications of which would not become clear until the horror show that 1930s Germany became). Much of Belgium, the Netherlands, and northern France had been ground into mulch, and the United Kingdom welcomed back a community of soldiers destroyed in body and mind. The borders of Central Europe were in flux as whole empires crumbled and new lines appeared on the map in the form of Austria, Hungary, Poland, Finland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Turkey. And the Twentieth Century was not done with redrawing those lines just yet.

Europe after WW1.

Eliot saw all this. It’s there in the poem.

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.

Where does the poet turn, then, in the desperate search for meaning and hope? Not to America, self-absorbed in its almost guilty search for wealth and materialism. And not at home. The western tradition, its Judeo-Christian heritage and civilisation, was bleeding. “God is Dead!” Nietzsche had proclaimed a few short years before the war. Hard to disagree, looking at this decadent display of existential materialism. So no, not here must the poet turn for succour. The answer is clear. He must look to the east.

The three great religions of the world are often touted as being Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. That’s more or less a western perspective developed from the mid-twentieth century onwards, and may not be the perspective of somebody from Asia. Eliot, from his position in the late 1910s / early 1920s, saw the great three world religions as Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

The Waste Land cites thirty-five writers, songs, and employs six foreign languages, one of which is Sanskrit, while Buddhist and Upanishadic words are used in parts two and five of the poem: ‘A Game Of Chess‘ and ‘What The Thunder Said‘. Specific tales and myths from Indian tradition and Hindu philosophy are tailored by Eliot to suit his own intentions. The Dhammapada, the Vedas and the Upanishadic visions are all of supreme importance, both conceptually and symbolically, when applied to the problems that Eliot’s poem addresses. Common themes and motifs such as water, fire, death and sex are used as building blocks to create the theological bridge between the two cultures.

On that note, a slight interjection. One of my subscribers, Anita Vij, has written several excellent introductory explanations to some of the vast aspects of Hindu Scripture, myth and imagery on her Perspectives On Life blog. They are well worth reading, as this rich well of Hindu mythology sits beneath the running water of Eliot’s masterpiece.

The Upanishads offer a path to understanding this poem
Water

Eliot doesn’t turn his gaze eastward until he has become exhausted by the exhausted inhabitants of the postwar west, particularly London. The modernist period was in part an artistic reaction to the emergence of industrialisation, war, and the industrialisation of war, and Eliot imagines the antiquities of Europe, artistic, architectural, and cultural, as being swept away. Brave and sometimes odd artistic innovations abounded, from Schoenberg’s atonal music to Picasso’s cubism.

The first three parts of the poem – The Burial Of The Dead, A Game Of Chess, and The Fire Sermon – show crumbling bits and pieces of the west, where spiritual nourishment is gathered through tarot cards and the half-blind medium Madame Sosostris mediums rather than Christian teachings. Tellingly, the religious idea of spiritual transformation is universal, and is often conveyed through the metaphor of the ultimate physical transformation, that of resurrection after death. We see this most pertinently in the figure of Christ, whose resurrection at Easter is the highest order of symbolic rebirth in the Spring season. But in The Waste Land Christian teachings are not overtly in evidence. So from where does hope of rebirth spring if the systems that teach it are crumbling?

The old ways were being washed away. London, symbolic of the metropolis of old, is dying. In summer, the most exuberant point of the year, the Thames is at its most polluted:

Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.

Summer nights. The most hedonistic and self-assured time of the year. But we are not reading this poem from the perspective of the summertime. Summer has gone. The nymphs are departed. We read the poem in April, after winter has frozen the land and washed away stale decadence. We are reading the poem as the river, and the world, readies itself for rebirth. For sure, the stillness of the water evokes death – we see images of the drowned sailor, the dying rat crawling from the riverbank, the Hanged Man tarot card – but the poem is underpinned by a grinding sense of revivification.

Eliot looks to the spiritual fathers of Indian and Asian thought, where religions have survived the flux and reflux of civilisational upheaval, a kernel of immoveable truth. The river flows, but it also remains where it is. And wherever it is, the river will, eventually, pump life into the world around it. Such is the Buddhist myth of the Bodhi tree as told in the Dhammapada. The Bodhi is the tree under which Buddha found enlightenment, and which is irrigated by Sapta Sindhu, the Seven Rivers of the Punjab river which were dry-locked because the rainclouds were guarded jealously by the demon Vritra. And so the Gods fashioned a club to smite the clouds, making them relinquish their loads and filling the rivers with cleansing water, washing away the old and enabling the growth of the new.

Eliot’s Thames harbours a sinister secret, a paradoxical threat that subverts the traditional image of water as life giving, as a source of sustenance to those who strive towards it. The theme of ‘death by water is a reflection of the danger of allowing the potentially redemptive Bodhi tree to drink from a tainted chalice. The Londoners populating Eliot’s decadent London are nameless and aimless, surrounded by cheap temptation, drink, sex, powder and gramophone music, are nonetheless consumed by a sense of being thrown, and neither here nor there. Half swept away by the water, and half-malnourished by the water that remains, London and her people are fractured, tossed.

“Trams and dusty trees.
Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew
Undid me. By Richmond I raised my knees
Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe.”

“My feet are at Moorgate, and my heart
Under my feet. After the event
He wept. He promised a ‘new start.’
I made no comment. What should I resent?”

Part 4 of the poem is entitled ‘Death by water.’ The death, ostensibly, is that of Phlebas the Phoenician sailor, predicted by Madame Sosostris. Sosostris is a seer plagued by ague – a rich symbol in itself – and gleefully deals out fate with her “wicked pack of cards.” Yet she herself is diseased. She is only half-right. Water brings death but also revivification; Christ is often symbolised as water (The Holy Spirit, that symbol of the Resurrection, is labelled the Water Of Life), inasmuch as he can sustain, but also drown.

Phlebas The Phoenician, James Gleeson (1951)

Phlebas, a sensuous and wealthy man of some seeing ability himself (“Those were pearls that were his eyes, look!”). He was once handsome and tall but, as we are made aware, he has drowned in the waters that fell from the clouds guarded by the demon Vritra, and his corpse is destined to unceremoniously flake away upon the seabed. Phlebas is like the hollow men of the age; they enjoy sex without love, and materialism without spirit.

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
                                   A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
                                  Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

We are all sailors, turning the wheel at the prow of our ship, looking windward. But we ought to pay deference to the water as well as use it for propulsion. We are all bound to the same fate.

Fire

The blaze that rages in Part 3 of the poem, ‘The Fire Sermon‘, is taken from the sermon delivered by the Lord Buddha to a thousand priests. It tells of the human suffering that arises from the reckless pursuit of passion and sensuality. In that respect it is a counterpoint to the tired and empty acts of sex in part 2, ‘A Game Of Chess‘.

Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.
And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert,
He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,
And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.
Oh is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said.
Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.

Chess: erotic.

Broken people. Lil with her broken mouth and teeth, and Albert, demobbed from the war, broken in spirit, which’ll take more than “a good time” to fix. Later, in the Fire Sermon, we see the image of a possible coda to this fleeting episode.

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”

It’s at this point that the poem turns and the quest for Nirvana, the blowing out of the fires of desire. This is as integral a part of the Buddhist creed as the Sermon on the Mount is to Christianity. Eliot demonstrates that the respective religions’ methods of tackling human temptation, and the channels for salvation, are similar. The idea of fire is as potent a metaphor as water; fire is burning, cleansing, purifying, but also dangerous, invasive and spreads. Water is also cleansing, washing, pure, but can bring the flood. These are universal metaphors; all cultures universally have flood myths baked into them, as they do fire gods. And while Christianity does not have a fire god, there is such a thing as the “holy fire” which is, unsurprisingly, connected with Easter, particularly in the Orthodox tradition.

So we’re very much in universal territory here. The idea of fire is to burn away that which is unnecessary, or extraneous to progress or growth, like a forest fire clearing the dead wood so that new shoots can emerge from the forest floor. But one can also burn with desire, with lust.

To Carthage then I came… burning’

Buddha taught that an ascetic soul was required to quash the fires of passion, and simultaneously quenching the thirst of compassion. The exuberances of youth, the vanity and pagan idolatry, the excesses of the flesh that typified Augustine’s journey to Carthage are the lusts of the flesh, saturated in sullied water, needing to be purged in fire; the Fire Sermon provides the means by which one may be cleansed. Fire is fearsome, but also brings hope. This is the “new start” of which the narrator speaks, just before these lines:

To Carthage then I came

Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou Pluckest

burning

Consider also these lines from the Buddha’s actual Fire Sermon.

All things, O priests, are on fire. And what, O priests, are these things which are on fire? The eye, O priests, is on fire, forms are on fire, Eye-consciousness is on fire; impressions received by the eye are on fire; and whatever sensation, pleasant, unpleasant, or indifferent, originates in dependence on impressions received by the eye, that also is on fire. And with what are these on fire! With the fire of passion, say I, with the fire of hatred, with the fire of infatuation.

Buddha delivering the Fire Sermon. Note the wonderful colours, as though the very perception of the image is on fire!

The eye is on fire. And Eliot says, thou pluckest me out. Because as Christ says, if thine eye causes thee offence, pluck it out! (I believe this is a joke on the part of Jesus, but that’s probably saved for another time). Fire purifies, but also rages, consumes and devours. The thing that links many flood myths is the sense that things need to be washed away, that they’ve gone too far, and they’re too far gone. Wash the whole damn thing away. Up to this point Eliot gives just prtents and warnings, and fractured images of decadence and a sense of thrown wrongness (lilacs out of the dead land).

But the floods do come, and it is here that Eliot brings transformation in the form of the eastern religions. Part 5, ‘What The Thunder Said‘, uses the Upanishadic visions of the Brihadaranyaha Upanishad to proffer to men the ideals by which they should strive to live. But they also bring rain, and water, and cleansing. Similarly to the bells ringing in Revelations, the thunder speaks in three peals, revealing the three different qualities of the righteous man: Datta, Dayadhvam, and Damyata.

Peace
Da da da: datta, damyata, dayadhvam.

Datta literally means ‘giving oneself away’ rather than merely ‘give’, which is what Eliot states in his commentary to the poem. Datta refers to those situations that emotionally try us; the poem asks us “What have we given?’ It is a measure of a man’s life upon his Judgment Day, how much he has been prepared to sacrifice of himself during life.

The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of providence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not found in our obituaries.

The second peal of the thunder brings the order Dayadhvam, meaning compassion, the emotional bond between people in which all feelings, joys and woes, are shared without inhibition. The lost man is one who has erected a walled prison around himself. He does this to protect himself, and the prospective of removing the wall is a strange and terrifying thought. In our perfect atomisation, our spiritual isolation, we afford ourselves this sort of grotesque aegis, but we also desire to be rid of it, if only we had the courage.

We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison.

Compassion becomes a subterfuge of the night, an almost underground practise, out of the line of sight of the inhibited.

Only at nightfall, aethereal rumours
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus.

This passage is steeped with metaphorical allusions to compassion being only a fleeting phenomenon that can only be witnessed during the cover of night in western civilisation, that broken Coriolanus, like seeing a comet or other celestial event for a mere second before it is gone again. The coming of compassion is ‘aethereal’, arriving only in ‘rumours”, showing its fragile nature, only momentarily reviving a sense of emotional bonding. with those around us.

The final command of the thunder is Damyata, the decree of self-control. Let’s return briefly to the plight of Phlebas in Part 4, Death By Water, where the sailor was unable to prevent himself from being swallowed and drowned by the vortex. This time, with self-control, the outcome is more optimistic.

Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands.

Phlebas’ watery grave swallowed him due to his lack of self-control. When the sailor is ‘expert with hand and oar’ and his hands are ‘controlling’ his boat will sail and respond with obedience and tranquillity. The whirlpool perilous, as shown by the Phoenician sailor’s demise, so to curb this peril one must exude control over one’s leanings towards one’s eye-conscious desires. Curiously, Eliot alters the sequence in which the thunderous words are spoken;

Eliot captures the Indian notion of the whole truth within the cosmic absolute in the final passage of the poem, which he levels at his contemporary, the troubled post-war Londoner, whose “London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down”;

‘Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata./ Shantih shanith shantih.

Eliot says of ‘shantih’ that it is “the peace that passeth understanding“. To Hindu myth, shantih is not fragmentary but whole; yogi interpretation of the Truth is closely linked to the cosmic absolute. The yogis emanate an Indian wisdom derived from the Upanishadic visions, whose commands encompass the entirety of the aspirations of ideal human spiritual existence. Eliot’s understanding of the absolute meant that he did not parenthesise or punctuate the final repetitions of shantih. They exist alone, absolute, neither contained nor containable. They are all.

The critic Grover Smith sees the passage as an invitation given to a crumbling civilisation that must atone for its recent travails, but is not without hope. “Over against the prospect of its irremediable calamity stands the counsel of the Aryan myth, to give, sympathise, and to be controlled, that all may come at length to peace. Peace will vanquish demons and madness from the Wasteland, purifying the poisoned waters of the Thames, allowing the Bodhi tree to flourish.”

Peace

The ending of the poem with a thrice sounding chant of ‘peace’ may once again create a link between the religions of the world, where shantih is comparable with the Christian ending to prayer, ‘amen’, climaxing with a collective understanding of the world’s ills if the west is prepared to accept the doctrine of the monumentality of eastern culture.

Dwivedi sees shantih not only as an Upanishadic ending, but also as an integral section of the Yajur Veda. The shantih path is articulated as a literal mantra, repeating the call for peace.

May sky be peaceful.
May atmosphere be peaceful.

May waters be peaceful.
May earth be peaceful.
May medicinal herbs be peaceful.
May plants be peaceful.
May all the learned persons be peaceful.

May God and the Vedas be peaceful.
May all the objects be peaceful.

May peace itself be peaceful.
May that peace come unto me.

The Waste Land ends in peace, a peace that alleviates the chaotic implications of the wasted land that appears to be unalterable earlier in the poem. Eliot offers an ultimately optimistic outlook for the inhabitants of the wasted western land. We are inclined, like the narrator of the poem, to ‘set [our] lands in order’ after the reassessment of our values, which is sparked within us by the three cracks of the thunder. The image of true peace is perfectly triangular, the three vertices represented by the repetition of shantih, the three cracks of the thunder, and the three great world religions that encompass this theological doctrine. Three groups of three, from which the world may be taught. Despite the drowning of Phlebas, Eliot assures us that the path to enlightenment can be trodden if man is heedful when the rains come, and that they will eventually bring about peace on earth.

Published by Dan Jones

I'm a science fiction writer and podcaster. My debut novel Man O’War was published in 2018 by Snowbooks, and I’ve had a few short stories published here and there. I also host Chronscast, the official podcast of SFF Chronicles, the world's largest science-fiction and fantasy community. Away from writing I work for the UK Space Agency on a programme of space robotics for advanced satellite and planetary exploration technologies. All of which comes in rather handy when coming up with new ideas for science fiction stories.

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