HOLDING THE KEY: T.S.ELIOT´S “THE WASTELAND”

 Section V: What the thunder said.

Lines 411-414

“Dayadhvam: I have heard the key

Turn in the door once and turn once only

We think of the key, each in his prison

Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison.”

 

            Regardless of Eliot’s theory of the objective correlative -according to which it would be enough for me to infer the presence here of some oriental wisdom lecturing on solitude and selfishness- I will start this paper giving the sources to these verses. After all, no man is like another, or knows what knows another, and a much vaster tradition permeated Eliot than it does me, and probably many others.

            These sources are three-fold: mythical, literary, and philosophical.

In the first place, we find a reference to the Hindu fables called Upanishads. Gods, men, and demons, having concluded their study of sacred knowledge, ask their father Prajapati to speak to them. He, embodied as the Thunder, only says “Da”, which each interprets in its own way. “Dayadhvam” is what the demons interpret, a word to be translated as “sympathize”, or “be compassionate”. Together with what the others interpret, namely “give” and “control” or “be restrained”, they represent the three main virtues necessary in life.

Next, we find a reference to Dante’s Inferno, Canto XXXIII, verse 46, which could be translated as “And below I heard the door of the horrible tower being locked up”. Count Ugolino, accused of treachery, is locked up in a tower, and starved to death together with his two children and grandsons.

Finally, Eliot himself, in his notes on the text, said these verses paraphrase some of the ideas of the philosopher F.H.Bradley, whose “Appearance and Reality” he worked on for his doctorate. These ideas grossly amount to the fact that the theoretical distinction between appearance and reality no longer functions, as they are inseparable. A degree of reality is to be found in all appearances, being reality an all-inclusive unity. The reality of the individual ego is, according to both Bradley and Eliot, limited to its particular and subjective point of view, and they search for a greater truth. Bradley finds it in the Absolute, a concept not shared by Eliot.  For Eliot this greater truth is Tradition, the living and integrating whole, a labyrinth of bridges that connect the individual conscience with all other consciences having lived before in all times and places.   

In the context of the whole poem these three references are highly significant as they enlighten us on the true nature of the wasteland man is found inhabiting by the end of the Great War. Not only has the physical world –people, cities…- crumbled down, but the spiritual one –society, civilization- as well. Man stands among the ruins, and he stands alone, though he be crowds walking as if forlorn. Eliot presents the modern mind and the destruction of the values that maintained it alive. Spiritual death, loss of meaning, chaos, fear, decay, denial, emptiness, sterility, is what we have. Not even love can be taken in any more, the desire to be left alone –even more alone- pervades, as we see in the fragment of the typist and her lover in The Fire Sermon (lines 222-256). The progressive rise of the individual, that has been taking place along the 19th century, has not led to man’s integration but to his disintegration in his solitude. In the end, we find man trapped in the tower of his self, condemned to starve in spite of having become a cannibal –Dante represented Ugolino gnawing at a human skull-, while the Thunder pronounces one of the key words to his liberation: be compassionate.

 This commandment could be understood as a clue to the possible relief eventual rain could bring. After all, it is the Thunder who speaks, and we are in our self-made desert yearning for rain. However, we must not forget that though appearance and reality are linked, they are not the same thing: the Thunder said “Da”, not “Dayadhvam”, it is the demons who understood it that way. Accordingly, what the Thunder really said remains unknown. Anyway, this counsel, though it were true, comes too late. Ugolino is paying his due for his treason, he has not sympathized.  As J. Bottum points out, “What the thunder said is that God has departed from both the poet and the city, and that death and decline alone remain… a doomed defence alone remains: ”These fragments I have shored against my ruins”.”

On the other hand, in these verses we also find elements that represent what was to be Eliot’s spiritual “grand tour”. According to David Naugle, “Before arriving at his Anglo-catholic destination, he had travelled by way of Indian thought and the philosophy of the English metaphysician F.H.Bradley”.  These are the three stages of Eliot’s intellectual and religious development, and the three of them are reflected in this fragment, with the single aim of reconstructing the world. Dante and the Upanishads were both made explicit by Eliot himself in the notes to the poem, notes whose mere existence also deserves a commentary. For as Viorica Patea says: “Las notas son selectivas en el reconocimiento de alusiones y referencias literarias: revelan algunas fuentes, pero ocultan otras. El problema fundamental no consiste en aceptarlas o rechazarlas, sino en saber cómo interpretar su doble juego de menciones y silencios.”

In my opinion, the allusion to Christianism is clear in the mention of a “key”. For though it is not referred to in the sources, the occidental mind will sooner than anything else think of Saint Peter, the holder of the keys that open –or close- the door to the Christian Heaven. Eliot needed not mention this fact explicitly, as the reader would recognize it immediately. This is what Eliot called “symbolism incidental”, as well as an example of the objective correlative working at its best.

Locked in ourselves –for Bradley conceives man as incapable of communicating his own experience, trapped in the limitation of his personal point of view-, thinking of the key –a key that locks, confirming a prison, a consequence that must be undone, unmade, so as to make the key open- surrounded by ruins, destruction and sterility, Eliot seeks for salvation. He has shored all the fragments, heard all the voices, put together in this poem all he has turned to so far -myth, philosophy, religion-, and must, with this baggage, come to some conclusion.

According to many critics, this conclusion implies the acceptance of the commandments of the Thunder, the dictates of a remote religion based on humble contemplation leading to ultimate truth: “Shantih  Shantih  Shantih “ . Viorica Patea says: “El poema de Eliot traza el viaje del alma a través del desierto de la ignorancia, del sufrimiento y de la sed de aspiraciones terrenales. Concluye con la revelación de una realidad que libera su condición fragmentada. En el misterio de la contemplación el ser intuye la plenitud de este estado de conciencia no dual y no objetivable.” Silvia Levirato says: “The myth and the use of fragments represent the cipher-key for the comprehension of The Waste Land: they have no power to unify and revivify culture; but as part of the great traditions of our common history, they have the power to help us turn our wasteland into a garden.” A.N.Dwivedi says: “…the prevailing sterility in The waste land…can hardly be turned into an oasis unless the virtues exhorted by Prajapati are earnestly practised by mankind.” David Naugle says: “Eliot’s concern in The Waste Land was universal and he expresses his concern for a world peace as the remedy to the inferno of modern life in Hindu terms to convey his global outlook.”

But J.Bottum observes: “The last words of the poem are not the last line’s ‘Shantih Shantih Shantih’ but the last note’s dry explanation that” ‘The Peace which passeth understanding’ is our equivalent to this word.” Eliot reduces even “Shantih” to an ironic fragment.”

In fact, Eliot has told us that rain has indeed come. This extraordinary event takes place in lines 394-395 and, though being such a transcendental matter, he has mentioned it quite superficially, as if it were something of no importance whatsoever. Rain happens midway through section V of the poem, randomly, and the Thunder myth follows, as well as the Grail myth and the Fisher King myth. Nevertheless, to me, after the strange relief of this random rain, the myths seem empty. Nature brought relief, but not to man, to the Earth, a “thing” man is quite alienated from. Thirst continues as we inhabit an inner wasteland that can find no relief. Thus, the outcome of the poem is not positive. Eliot remains a sceptic. The key we hold will never open anything. Humankind is lost. Whatever rebirth we might invent will ever be a partial one.

In 1927, five years after publishing The Waste Land, we find Eliot has embraced Anglo-catholicism, the High Church, which is the most traditional and conservative branch of the Church of England. For him, this, his most famous and ineffable poem, has become “a thing of the past”. He has walked back on his steps, retraced the path that only leads to despair, a despair deeply envisaged by him. Who knows if he, such as so many, needed to believe there is some key, somewhere, that can be held in one’s hand and open something.

 

 

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