Oh Eliot, he is a masterful man! A few semesters back, I formulated one of my favorite research papers around Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and the idea that the transition and degeneration of women in the poem, from Marie to the hyacinth girl to the typist, explains women’s sexual role in the creation of society as a waste land. While rereading and reflecting on “The Waste Land” for class, I was stretching trying to come up with relations between it and Whitman (partly because, I’m sorry to say, I feel a much stronger connection to Eliot than Whitman). However, as I thought back on this project I conducted I began to realize the association between Whitman’s overt and extreme celebration of sexuality and Eliot’s view of its degradation from that spiritual, emotional, and physical connection that drove Whitman to sex as either male force or female seduction thus reducing the modern world to the dry and distant monotony that Eliot sees. Let’s look at the sexual encounter in “The Fire Sermon” between the young man carbuncular and the typist:
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference. (Eliot 236-42)
How different is this mechanical and almost automatic act completely devoid of feeling from Whitman’s declaration that “there is something in staying close to men and women, and looking on them, and in the contact / and odor of them that pleases the soul well” (Whitman 50-2) from “I Sing the Body Electric”! Perhaps Eliot’s world is the loss of Whitman’s world, Eliot is lamenting the loss of connection and human relationships and blames that loss on modernization. The new world of method, efficiency, and go-go-go! leaves no room for the real purpose of life (the Whitmanian purpose of life) which is to experience and connect with fellow human beings, resulting in a waste land.
While I find the discovery of this new connection between Whitman and “The Waste Land” exciting and eye-opening, I do not wish to reduce the magnitude of Eliot’s oeuvre. “The Waste Land”, along with many of Eliot’s works, is so fantastic and so variable because of the immense influences and references to history and literature. For Eliot, one cannot create without being influenced by the past; the meaning of something new depends on everything that has been written before and thus everything before shifts in meaning because of new creations. Therefore, we can see Whitman in “The Waste Land”, but Eliot also wants us to take “The Waste Land” with us in reading Whitman.