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"The Waste Land" as a Manifestation of Dream Content

elibats 4 / 5  
Aug 11, 2008   #1
I've been tweaking this essay for a while now and it just doesn't want to make sense... that was a ridiculous statement, it's my fault, not the essay's, if it doesn't make sense. I know it needs to be reorganized but I'm not sure where to go from here. Any comments or criticisms of any kind are greatly appreciated.

The footnotes didn't copy over from word, so if you want to know more about my citations let me know
Proclaimed by many critics as Modernist poetry's great paradigmatic work, The Waste Land (1922) exemplifies what T. S. Eliot calls "the mythical method," a process of structure that connects parallel symbols and images from literary history with present-day symbols and images. The disjunction between one moment and the next, as well as between seemingly random images, is akin to the mental state during a dream as described by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams. Because readers cannot rely on time to map out the poem's order for them, they must find order in Eliot's complex imagery, which consists of allusions to historical texts and of ambiguous symbols much like those found in dreams. A Freudian perspective brings the reader an understanding of its meaning that agrees with its dream-like organization and concepts.

The poem's language does not coincide with the functions of the human brain in its conscious state; according to Freud, the unconscious thoughts expressed in our dreams possess a language of their own, "The dream-thoughts and the dream-content present themselves as two descriptions of the same content in two different languages; or, to put it more clearly, the dream-content appears to us as a translation of the dream-thoughts into another mode of expression." For the purpose of a Freudian interpretation of The Waste Land , "dream-content" refers to the text of the poem as Eliot presents it to the reader (including his extensive notes), and "dream-thoughts" are the original ideas and narrative concepts behind the language that Eliot uses to obscure them.

Throughout the poem, the concepts of fertility and vitality are manifested as symbols of vegetation and moisture: "And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief / And the dry stone no sound of water."(23-24) Approaching these visual images with Freud's concept of displacement in mind, the reader must form psychological connections between elements of the poem by attaching the same meaning found in other elements. "Breeding" is paralleled with "rain" at the beginning of the poem, so the "dry stone with no sound of water" represents a state of infertility that shows no signs of restoration. The poem's theme of regeneration can only be perceived if the abstract connotations of the first stanza are repeatedly applied to concrete images.

The organization of the poem into five seasons, beginning and ending with Spring, alludes to the cyclical nature of fertility. However, each of the many scenes depicted in each section takes place in its own detached place in time, and there is no implication that the events of the abrupt narratives have any causal effect on each other. The Summer section makes no mention of the tarot reading and street encounter of the first Spring section, nor do its events unfold sequentially: one moment the narrator is being asked question after question by an unnamed woman, and without so much as a word to signify a narrative transition the dialogue switches to one between the narrator and Lil. In the final lines of the section the speaker is no longer talking to Lil but saying goodnight to Bill, Lou and May, and the verse concludes with the voice of Hamlet's Ophelia. The poem's structure does not build toward a climax, nor does the narrator take a moment to reflect upon the preceding action. The fact that time does not perform its developmental purpose parallels the idea of a malfunctioning fertility cycle.

Ruth Nevo declares in "The Waste Land: Ur-Text of Deconstruction" that no reader can possibly "differentiate a subject in the sense of an overall subject matter, or argument, or myth, or theme for the poem to be unequivocally about or to embody." This critics's needless search for traditional narrative structure prevents her from noticing Eliot's fundamental theme: fertility, or, rather, the lack thereof. The novel is "unequivocally about" several ideas, but the most poem's central premise is a society which has lost the ability to reproduce. This theme is introduced in the very first line, with the word "breeding": "April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land..."(1-2) April traditionally takes on cheerful and youthful characteristics, but here it is the object of scorn for the speaker (whose identity shifts throughout the poem). April is "cruel" because it is capable of regeneration, while humans, in the speaker's society, have been afflicted with infertility.

That April symbolizes cruelty and occurs during a time of "dead land" is non-traditional imagery, but that doesn't mean it completely lacks symbolism. Nevo states that the poem's symbols do not perform the "functions" of foci:

"They refuse to symbolize. They explode and proliferate. They turn themselves inside out, diffuse their meanings, and collapse back again into disarticulated images... Is water, or the sea, death or life? Is fire a lust of the flesh or a purity of the spirit?... Or are these possibilities in unceasing dialectical interchange; idea and image, essence and existence, appearance and reality?... there is a language which this mode of phantasmagoria resembles, the language of the unconscious, with its condensations, substitutions, displacements, and [if we] are then challenged to find an interpretive key to this dream, we cannot.(456)"

Upon closer inspection, Nevo would probably discover that the symbols do, in fact, perform their functions, if they are translated from her astute identification of the poem's language as that of the unconscious. Her suggestion that the poem relies on the process of inverting established dichotomies encourages an approach to the poem as to a sequence of five dreams, each comprised of a disjointed story-like experience and seemingly incoherent images. This critique characterizes the poem as incoherent and lacking reason, which are two aspects Freud identifies in our unconscious experiences: "There are no dreams which are absolutely reasonable which do not contain some incoherence, some absurdity," declares Freud. The Waste Land's unreasonable organization and incoherence support the idea that the poem is written in the language of dreams, in which case Nevo's list of absent literary characteristics holds true, except in her declaration that the poem lacks a subject. The poem's language does not coincide with the functions of the human brain in its conscious state; according to Freud, the unconscious thoughts expressed in our dreams possess a language of their own: "The dream-thoughts and the dream-content present themselves as two descriptions of the same content in two different languages; or, to put it more clearly, the dream-content appears to us as a translation of the dream-thoughts into another mode of expression."

It is important to remember that symbols and metaphors, in texts as well as dreams, are subjective entities. As a dream interpreter, the reader of this poem must make use of subjectivity; although Freud's definitions of dream symbols are widely accepted, his approach to interpretation is not the only, or even most popular, method of analysis. A great deal of Freud's writing about dreams has proven useful in understanding The Waste Land, such as the interaction between dream-thought and dream-content and his ideas about unconscious temporality; for the purpose of interpreting specific symbols, however, the reader should rely on his or her personal, subjective construal of meaning, even if the result is an uncommon interpretation.

The following lines contain images that Nevo would refuse to accept as interpretable. "And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, / And the dry stone no sound of water..."(23-24) This passage presents the two kinds of symbols as identified in dream analysis: The more scarcely used conventional metaphor, and the personal symbol that one's mind has adapted through memory - such as Eliot's repertoire of literary history. The tree as a source of shelter is an image that speaks to the reader's common sense, while the cricket that gives no relief is an allusion to the Holy Bible (Ecclesiastes XII), a connection that the reader can only make through experience. With no access to Eliot's memories (Freud helped patients decode their dream-images by asking them questions that led to connections not intrinsic in the dream-thoughts), readers must turn to the poem's detailed notes about historical and personal allusions that are found in the dream-content. For example, a dry stone with could symbolize many things, and no interpretation is "wrong," but only one exposes the concealed dream-thought. Dryness can imply physical discomfort or lack of emotion, stones are, to some, synonymous with lazy people, and to others with unmovable obstacles. Readers who have picked up on the theme of breeding from the opening line can use this theme as a hint as to where to follow the metaphor; "dry" often means "barren," and water clearly symbolizes vitality, or, for this poem's purpose, fertility.

This lack of order can be explained by relating its organization to the similar disorder in the forms and concepts of dreams; in the words of Freud, "The dream is psychic anarchy, emotional and intellectual, the playing of functions, freed of themselves and performing without control and without end." As in a dream, a sense of jumbled eternity accompanies the reading of The Waste Land. By making frequent allusions to literary texts from various times and cultures, Eliot conveys the unity and ever-lastingness of the written word, and the simultaneous experience of emotional extremes expressed by the narrator resembles a state of "psychic anarchy." For example, the speaker describes himself weeping next to the river, and then, implying that he is overcome by a passion that cannot be extinguished, he repeats the words "Burn burn burn burn," a reference to a Buddhist sermon that depicts humanity consumed by intense emotion. Water is commonly interpreted as emotion in dream analysis, which sets up the dichotomy of fire and water in reference to emotion. At first glance, the poem reads as a nonsensical jumble of ideas, but it is actually the result of a carefully planned formulation of meaning. This formulation takes shape in Eliot's mythical method, in addition to what Cleanth Brooks calls "the principle of complexity."

"The basic method used in The Waste Land may be described as the application of the principle of complexity. The poet works in terms of surface parallelisms which in reality make ironical contrasts, and in terms of surface contrasts which in reality constitute parallelisms... The two aspects taken together give the effect of chaotic experience ordered into a new whole, though the realistic surface of experience is faithfully retained. The complexity of the experience is not violated by the apparent forcing upon it of a predetermined scheme."

Although nearly everything in The Waste Land rejects the idea of "the realistic surface of experience," parallelisms which take effect as contrasts and contrasts which function as parallelisms are abundant in this work. Written in the language of parallelism, the following passage expresses a dichotomy, not equality: "And I will show you something different from either / Your shadow at morning striding behind you / Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you..."(27-29) This is one of the many lines in the poem that contribute to its "chaotic experience," while Eliot's organizing of the poem into the cycle of the seasons is its forced "predetermined scheme." Such dichotomies are expressed symbolically with the juxtaposition of traditional metaphors and what would traditionally be classified as illogical imagery. For example, one line gives winter characteristics contrary to those people generally associate with winter: "Winter kept us warm"(5), and follows this obscure statement with the image of "forgetful snow"(6), which is a more easily understood illustration.

Perhaps the most clear and reasonable expression of the similarities between The Waste Land and Freud's "dream-content" can be found in a journal article by Sukhbur Singh:

"Concealed correlations among different scenes, situations, events, incidents, symbols, images, phrases, and words... are often directly or indirectly interrelated with others in the preceding and the succeeding parts of the text. ... These hidden connections create a structural complexity and thematic ambiguity, which together generate multiple layers of meaning and promote unlimited possibilities of new interpretations. Eliot invites the reader to order the "fragments" he has "shored" against his "ruin" into a "coherent whole"... to 'connect nothing with nothing,' creating the poetics of the waste that guides them to the resolution of the human predicament in the modern world through Give, Sympathize, and Control."

This description explanation exposes the poem's meaning-inhibiting images and the language that forms them into a new text passage describing the same psychological aspect that Freud uses in The Interpretation of Dreams, but uses different wording; it is not clear whether Singh is translating the words of Freud into a new language or if he came up with the idea on his own, but the phrases parallel each other so distinctly that an awareness of Freud's concept of dream formation is suggested in Singh's critique. The statement ends with two of the poem's most resonating lines: "connect nothing with nothing," and "Give, Sympathize and Control." Singh's emphasis of the first concept that is adamantly anti-Freudian, and the second is a call for control over the interpretation of the text. This control lies in understanding the displacement inherent in the workings of the unconscious mind, as well as in the mind of the reader of poetry.

The only "interpretive key" we have for the reading of The Wasteland is Eliot's command, "Give, Sympathize and Control." Everything we need to know about hidden imagery lies inside our minds, and knowing how to "control" one's own translation of dream-thoughts and dream-content is also imperative to a reading of The Waste Land. It reads like a series of entries in a dream journal, which at first appear to the waking dreamer as a nonsensical jumble of images and ideas. The careful planning that Eliot used to design his mythical method takes the place of the intricate workings of the unconscious mind. The reader can participate in the mythical method by turning to outside sources, such as Freud and other dream analysts, to find themes like fertility in a text many have labeled "uninterpretable."

EF_Team5 - / 1,586  
Aug 11, 2008   #2
You have good content here and you use good examples to support your theories. Make sure you are properly citing everything that you use to substantiate. Also, watch the excessive comma and semi-colon use. Each time you use punctuation, make sure it is appropriate.
OP elibats 4 / 5  
Aug 11, 2008   #3
Thanks Gloria! This helps a lot. I copied the text over from word so my footnotes were lost in transit, which explains the apparent lack of citations.

I was wondering, when you cite a reference that you quote again later in the text, are you supposed to footnote it again or just put the page numbers in parentheses? That's what I've always done and haven't run into any trouble, I was just wondering if that's the accepted way of making citations.

Thanks again,
EF_Team5 - / 1,586  
Aug 12, 2008   #4
Sure thing!

You know, it really depends on your citation style. MLA requires the complete citation each time you use it. Others allow you to abbreviate the title; this explains why you see so many footnotes in books that say "...will be referred to later in this text as such-and-such." Best to check with your citation style. If you can't find anything, my advice is to go with the full citation each time. Better to be safe than sorry.

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