Political and Religious Decay in Eliot’s The Waste Land
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While much of the scholarship surrounding T.S Elliot’s The Waste Land combs Eliot’s letters and lectures in order to uncover the various ways academic concepts influence the poem (from the structure of fertility god myths to the meanings of tarot cards) there is also a school of thought that suggests this work can be read as reflection of Eliot’s anxieties considering the apparent political and spiritual decay of post-World War 1 Europe. While these anxieties bubble throughout the piece they are most clearly manifested in the characters of the Smyrna merchant Mr. Eugenides and the fortune teller Madame Sosostris.

The most central belief of Eliot’s worldview during the twenties and thirties , according to David Russel was the idea that “ In Eliot’s view , the new nations states did not foster the “European mind” the way the old empires did” and instead in Eliot’s own words, there was “ a growing spirit of nationalism… and…{a} multiplicity of reasons which these nations have for failing to get along…Instead of a few potential Sarajevos, we have dozens” ( Russel 171)No “potential Sarajevo” concerned Eliot more than the island of Smyrna. Smyrna was a Turkish territory in Asia Minor but was given to Greece as an acknowledgement of Greek services to the Allies. Eliot thought this was a bad decision for three reasons. Firstly, trade with Smyrna was a sizable part of the British economy bringing in luxury goods such as cotton and tobacco, a trade that might be disrupted now that the island was under Greek control (173). Secondly, the acquisition of Smyrna was part of an irredentist program who’s end goal was a Greece that reached to Constantinople. This belligerent nationalism unnerved Eliot as it was the motivation behind the recent war (172) The quagmire of national tensions deepened with Eliot’s third and most pressing worry: The Smyrna census considered those who were followers of the Greek Orthodox Church, not just those who spoke Greek or had pure Greek blood. This concern about arbitrary nationalities consuming a united Europe appears several times throughout the poem. The primacy of Eliot’s fear is mirrored by its appearance in one of the first lines of the piece “Bin gar koine Russian, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch” (Eliot line 13). A Lithuanian man claims to not be Russian (despite Lithuania being a Russian territory) but rather a true German. This statement highlights the fluid and artificial nature of the new national identity, an artificiality that makes all cites influenced by it, not just Smyrna, “unreal” as Eliot’s famous statement goes “Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandra, Vienna, London. Unreal “(line 374-376). This unreality is in part, causing the blighted crumbling landscape Eliot pays so much attention to in Section Five. However, the concerns of places like Smyrna appear most explicitly discussedin the character of Mr. Eugenides. The connection between the general decay mentioned in Section Five and specific political decay found in the events surrounding Smyrna is made clear by the repetition of the phrase “unreal city” (207). Eliot’s concern about the possible restriction of Smyrna luxury goods by the Greeks is paralleled by unorthodox delivery of Eugenides’ “Pocket full of currents” (line 210) bound for London. Eliot’s belief that many of those officially considered to be “Greeks “were not Greek is emphasized by the fact Eugenides speaks “demotic French” (line 212) this is ironic as demotic refers to the Greek that the common Greek spoke, so Eliot suggests the common Greek speaks a foreign tongue. Eugenides’ proposition to the narrator to “luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel. Followed by a week-end at the Metropole.” (line 213-214) could be taken to have a symbolic connection to the Greek nationalist movement as the battle at Cannon Gate served as an important image for Greek nationalism. However just as the luncheon leads to a seedy weekend Eliot implies Greek nationalism could lead to something similarly degrading and costly. Eliot uses Mr. Eugenides as both a concrete example of the tensions of the new national identity and a coded commentary on the Smyrna situation.

To understand the focal point of Eliot’s concerns about the spiritual state of the post-World War 1, we should look to the character who performs the most prominent ritual in The Waste Land Madame Sosostris. Interestingly enough Eliot give us information about her character in her name. The name Sosostris is taken from Aldous Huxley’s novel Crome Yellow. In the novel, an atheist banker crossdresses as a gypsy fortune teller named Sosostris at a fair as a joke. (Diemart 175). The implication that prophecy and ritual (and by extension religion) has become a hollow joke drained of all meaning that is only used for amusement is damning enough without the connotation of fraud Eliot’s contemporary readers would get thanks to several high-profile fraud cases involving fortune tellers especially those involving fortunes sent by mail (177). Perhaps therefore Sosotris insists that she will “bring the horoscope myself “to avoid such charges (Eliot line 58). Besides Sosostris, the other major religious symbols symbols of the poem are the two churchesmentioned: Magus Martyr and Saint Mary Woolworth.Magus Martyr is given passing mention in a vaudeville song (line 265) and Saint Mary Woolworth is passed by as men walk by “fixed his eyes before his feet” (line 65). These two examples show how religion has become a meaning part of the background of people’s daily lives. Through these examples, Eliot highlight the religious aridity that contributes to the wasteland.

By combing evocative, almost archetypical, images, like the major cites of Europe disappearing in an unreal brown fog or masses of men who shamble about in a blighted landscape with contemporary events like Smyrna conflict and high profile fraud trials. Eliot illustrates the political and spiritual decline of the European mind.

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