Philosophy of Literature


 T. S. Eliot 

(Read Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3)

“The Wasteland”, by T. S. Eliot, is considered by many to be the most famous modernist work ever published.  Within the chaotic lines of this poem Eliot seeks to portray the sense of decadence, decline, and despair that characterizes the post-war West.  This work was highly influential, and it injected its nihilistic themes into the cultural bloodstream.  “The Wasteland” would come to influence many subsequent works of literature; including the two novels which have already been addressed.

With his description of London as the “unreal city” (Line 60) whose population has been undone by death, Eliot clearly portrays the despair experienced by the British after the war.  The city is not only inhabited by the clotted river of sighing masses which flows through its fog-covered streets, but by the ghostly memories of soldiers like “Stetson” who lost their lives during the war.  What happened to the corpse planted in Stetson’s garden (the millions who died in the war)?  What ghastly fruit will come of it?  From his vantage point, Eliot saw Western culture crumbling into “a heap of broken images” (Line 22), yet within the fractured and fragmented lines of The Waste Land, Eliot at times seems to hint at an answer.

Similar to The Sound and the Fury, “The Wasteland” attempts to convey the nihilism of its day through its very form and style.  By its disjointed lines and multiple obscure references, the poem presents an age in which spiritual and existential certainty has been replaced by “a handful of dust” (Line 30).  I must confess that the first time I read this “The Wasteland” I was quite baffled and a bit annoyed by the sheer amount of references.  However, each time I read the poem the more I discovered that the references themselves convey one of this work’s most powerful messages.  

The Wasteland

Nearly all of the quotes and allusions are derived from renowned Western literature.  Shakespeare, Dante, St. Augustine, and the Bible all make appearances, along with many other famous works.  It is as though Eliot was seeking to gather the ruins of Western civilization and piece them back together again (however disfigured the finished product may be).  The numerous references of “The Wasteland” reinforce Eliot’s message that the modern age has lost its soul, and that the only redemption for it will be found in a return to the eternal truths to which these references adhere.

Standing in the background of this poem is the Fisher King, a mythical figure from Arthurian legend.  His impotence (see Jake above) represents the sterility of the age, and his only hope is that someone will ask him what it is that ails him.  In “The Wasteland”, Eliot is emphasizing the fact that the problem for modern man is not to be found in the lack of abundant answers, but in the lack of the proper questions.  The age that produced World War I could not fix its own problems; only a return to the wisdom that had preceded it offered any hope.

All of these works communicate a powerful truth: that in his rise to power and scientific prowess, mankind lost his way.  Confusion reigns and his tower is left to crumbleThis is nihilism: the disintegration of all value; the fatal mistake of forgetting that the most precious things that a man possesses are not those things which can be stuffed in a pantry, stored in a bank account, or measured in a test tube.  Yet, as Eliot perceived, there is hope: escape from the maze of meaninglessness is not found by pressing forward into the darkness, but by following the breadcrumbs of antiquity back to the entrance…and to escape.

William Faulkner(Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.  Read more in Part 4)

The Sound and the Fury also foreshadows its theme by means of a literary reference it its title; in this case, Macbeth’s desperate testimony to the futility of life.  Within this novel, William Faulkner expresses the dissolution of value for modern man and his descent into existential nihilism.  By adopting the unique (and sometimes confusing) perspective of the mentally-handicapped Benjy, Faulkner explores life as “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Time is a key motif within The Sound and the Fury.  Benjy has no sense of it, Quentin is obsessed with it, and Mr. Compson seeks to explain it out of existence.  Indeed, the nature and perception of time is probably the most important key to understanding the nihilistic concepts that permeate the book.  Until the twentieth century (which brought Einstein’s relativity theory), Newtonian time was the great constant: linear, immutable, and persistent as it flowed like a river from past, present, to future.

Mr. Compson is the perfect representation of the modern undermining of traditional thought.  At the start of “Quentin’s Section” of the book, we are presented with Quentin’s memory of his father glibly explaining “the position of mechanical hands on an arbitrary dial.” (Faulkner 77)  In essence, Mr. Compson is stating that what we call “time” is nothing but human convention, a thing that we ourselves have invented measurement for and in which we anchor our daily existence.  One can hear in his words the echo of the Logical Positivist’s of the day, as they dismiss God, morality, and all metaphysical inquiry as nothing more than ludicrous linguistics.

Quentin, the recipient of Mr. Compson’s doleful pontifications, stands in sharp contrast to his father.  He represents the traditional values which have crumbled due to the influence of modern ideology.  Quentin is quite obviously obsessed with time; he is a traditional moralist and must have an absolute standard to sustain his reality.  However, he perceives that the world in which he lives does not conform to his ideals and (to his horror) neither does he, himself.  In the end, Quentin smashes his watch in the morning and drowns himself in the afternoon.  He believes that his view of reality is not feasible, but chooses to die rather than face a world that has failed to conform to his wishes.

Benjy’s character represents a chaotic fusion of the two aforementioned characters.  He is the modern man who must face reality after the traditional views of it have been destroyed (Quentin’s suicide) and the modern views of it have been found wanting (Mr. Compson’s drinking himself to death).  Benjy is neither obsessed with time, nor does he attempt to explain it away; he is simply oblivious to it.  His section is a confused string of random memories and experiences without any consistent order or logical coherence.  What does Benjy do?  He moans.  He moans in “utter horror; shock; agony eyeless, tongueless; just sound.” (320)  He is a man drowning in the despair of nihilism, unable to assign any transcendent meaning to his suffering but feeling the harsh and visceral reality of it nonetheless.

Faulkner’s answers are elusive.  Indeed, the only hint at a resolution is found in the final section of the book when Dilsey takes Benjy and Luster to church.  There, while listening to the passionate Easter sermon of a visiting minister, Dilsey has a somewhat mystical experience and finds comfort in her troubles.  Faulkner, by his reference to the Resurrection of Christ, is telling that a jettisoning of the past age and its truths is not the answer, but rather a realization of something worth keeping: namely, hope in redemption and new life.

All quotations taken from:  Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury. New York: Vintage. 1990

Ernest Hemingway(Continued from an Part 1.  Read more in Part 3, and Part 4)

The Sun Also Rises is a novel about those most impacted by the Great War: the individuals who made up the aptly named “lost generation”.  World War I took nearly 9 million lives, but it ruined the lives of many more who survived.  Hemingway’s story of Jake and his post-war companions presents more than just an interesting account of Parisian social life and Spanish bull fighting; it demonstrates the incredible toll that the war took upon those who were most intimately involved in it.  For them, the effects of the war never ended.

Hemingway gives a wink and nod in his title to anyone familiar with the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.  Within its ancient pages we find a story of existential angst as presented through the eyes of a Jewish king who was repeatedly frustrated in his attempts to find meaning in life.  Ecclesiastes’ theme “vanity of vanities” perfectly elucidates Hemingway’s novel.  The characters in his book fly from one diversion to the next, but never to anything substantial.

Jake and Brett represent the two paths down which the worldview of nihilism can lead and the diverging experiences of Europe and America after the war.  Jake’s impotence is an important symbol within The Sun Also Rises.  It represents the loss of ideological life that resulted from World War I.  In his outward appearance Jake looks perfectly healthy, but he has lost something vital: the ability to consummate passion and impart life.  This is a strong comparison to post-war Europe: it had survived the Great War, but it had come out of it vitally wounded.  No one could pretend any longer that things were alright with the world.  A society that had produced such atrocities was fundamentally broken.  “Enlightened” Europe had entered the war ideologically robust; it had emerged sterile.

Brett is the antithesis of Jake and the “Americanized” nihilist of the novel.  This may come as a surprise to some readers due to the fact that Brett seems to be the most vivacious and care-free character of the book.  However, a closer reading will reveal that this is nothing more than a veneer to cover the inward angst that she is experiencing.  “I’ve got to do something,” she tells Jake as he walks her to Romero, “I’ve got to do something I really want to do.  I’ve lost my self-respect.” (187)  A few sentences later she bemoans the fact that she “can’t stay tight all the time”. (187)  Alcohol is her panacea to a painful existence.

Brett is the quintessential nihilist-turned-hedonist.  Traditional values are shattered, nihilism ensues, and hedonism is embraced as the existential life-raft to keep from going under.  Thus Brett becomes an excellent picture of the “booming twenties”: an era of music, art, excitement, and despair. 

It is interesting to note that Hemingway does not seem to extend any hope at the end of his novel.  Brett remains a devoted pleasure seeker and Jake seems to adopt the same artificial and shallow set of values that “the Count” (67) has embraced.  However, this is consistent with the cyclical emphasis of the novel: “The sun also arises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to his place where he arose.” (Ecclesiastes 1:5)

 All quotations taken from:   Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner, 2003

NietzscheThe Arts reflect the spirit of the age and literature is no exception.  Nihilism, a worldview that rejects ultimate meaning and purpose in life, heavily influenced the literature of the early 20th century, in which this philosophy was illustrated and addressed.  The influence of nihilism is particularly evident in The Sun Also Rises, The Sound and the Fury, and “The Wasteland”.

The early 20th century was ripe for the advent of nihilism.  Indeed, its arrival had been predicted by one of the most influential philosophers of the previous century, Friedrich Nietzsche.  “What I am now going to relate is the history of the next two centuries,” he wrote in his notes which would be published in The Will to Power, “I shall describe what will happen, what must necessarily happen: the triumph of nihilism.”  The nihilism that Nietzsche viewed upon the horizon was the inevitable consequence of the undermining of traditional Western thought that was underway in his own day.

Darwinian evolution, the psychoanalytical theories of Freud, the First World War, and the consequent decline of the Christian faith in the Western world were the primary contributors to 20th century nihilism.  Darwin’s theory left mankind bereft of his own unique status in the natural order. Freud transformed man into a psychological marionette whose invisible puppeteers were the various neuroses that he had developed from repressing (largely sexual) desires.  World War I with its incredible death toll and socio/political upheaval left the modern world wondering what had happened to the utopian vision inspired by the industrial revolution.  And looming over everything like a great, gray thundercloud was the solemn declaration of Nietzsche, “God is dead”.

Nietzsche’s declaration seems to capture the spirit of the age better than any other.  When the ultimate Absolute is stripped away, where does humanity get its existential bearings?  What remains for man when objective beauty, truth, morality, and immortality have vanished?  To quote Nietzsche once again:

“What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space?” (The Parable of the Madman)

WWI Soldiers

While these questions occupied the minds of many philosophers in the early twentieth century, the First World War was the catalyst that caused their consideration outside of the ivory tower of academia.  The horrible events that took place between 1914 and 1918 shattered the illusion that the civilized world was morally progressing as millions of men were slaughtered in a mechanized massacre that proved to be more pointless with each death.  Western civilization was stripped of its ideological finery and compelled to grope its way through the “infinite nothing” that had been predicted by Nietzsche’s madman.  How could this have happened?  What will become of mankind?  These were the questions that modernist authors attempted to address in the years that followed the war.     

(Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)    

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