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The Manifestations and Consequences of Boredom in The Waste Land

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From Baudelaire’s Spleen:

Nothing could drag as do those limping days

When, beneath flakes each snowing season lays,

Tedium, the fruit of glum indifference,

Takes on a frightening deathless permanence.

Consider the manifestations and consequences of boredom in The Waste Land.

When The Waste Land was published, I.A. Richards found in the multiplicity of its voices an articulation of “the plight of a whole generation.” And though Eliot discouraged interpretations of the poem as a criticism of the contemporary world, he conceded, “A poet may believe that he is expressing only his private experience; his lines may be for him only a means of talking about himself without giving himself away; yet for his readers what he has written may come to be the expression of both of their own secret feelings and of the exultation or despair of a generation.”

Eliot’s observation is particularly significant in an analysis of boredom in The Waste Land, because while the poem may present to the reader a series of injured episodes that illustrate the gradual breakdown of a paralytic and lifeless civilisation (“Oed’ und leer das Meer “), it is more importantly also emblematic of the crisis within the self. This is however not to suggest that the poem need be viewed reductively and literally in terms of events in Eliot’s private life, but to see those events connecting deeply with the poem, and their essence of pain, boredom, and unhappiness reverberating on some obscure, emotional and psychic level. Certainly, the loosely anecdotal structure (“a heap of broken images”) of The Waste Land, on the one hand aids a multiplicity of emotional representation in its characters, while on the other, and perhaps because of this, it resists any unitary interpretation and attempts to move beyond “one man’s personal intuition.” Section 1, for example, which directly addresses the reader with Baudelaire’s quote “You! hypocrite reader! – my double, my brother!” suggests that he too is, by extension of being addressed, afflicted by the same symptoms that the speaker suffers from.

Thus in the epigraph, the reader is introduced to the image of the Sibyl at Cumae, for whom being granted long life initially held great appeal but eventually, with a bleak opinion of the prospects that such a life holds, her existence came to become an agony of perennial boredom. Aging steadily, but with no end in sight, she looks at the future and proclaims that she only wants to die. And her predicament is not unlike what the other speakers too see as their own. They live in a culture that is decayed and withered but will not expire, and are continually reminded of its past glory. In effect, they have no hope for their situation being bettered in the future either. Life in the present has lost all its charm, and death is only seen as a welcome release from boredom for the sufferers.

The opening line of Section 1, “April is the cruellest month …,” portrays the disturbance of this eternal peace achieved at last by those who have waited long for a release from their boring existence. Unlike April’s description in the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to which it alludes, and where spring is a season of life renewed, joyfully and unambiguously, after the ‘death’ of winter, April in The Waste Land is shown as an active aggressor (there are five present continuous verbs–‘breeding,’ ‘mixing,’ ‘stirring,’ ‘covering,’ ‘feeding’–that are used at the end of each of the first few lines) which disturbs the ‘dull roots’ that were more satisfied at being left undisturbed by the winter which kept them warm, covered in ‘forgetful snow’ (lines 3-6) than in being surprised by the renewing powers of sunshine. The lilacs, with their associations of romantic nostalgia, are indeed ‘bred,’ but bred out of death. Until the advent of April, all life had found in winter, a certain sense of relief, of relief from the intolerable obligation of choosing to continue to live a tedious life. Unlike life in the Baudelaire extract, life in Eliot’s winter, prefers the “glum indifference” of winter rather than the momentary flowerings of intuitive life from a soil which promises no nourishing qualities, but instead reminds them of a painful past and of a discouraging future (“Memory and desire”).

Memories, past lives, and its remembrances are merged with the present. Marie’s childhood recollections are painful. The simple world of cousins, sledding, and coffee in the park has been replaced by a complex set of emotional and political consequences resulting from the war: a certain hour of conversation in Central Europe, remembered against a spring background of alternating sun and rain; scraps and fragments of the old, established order of what was thought to be a civilised life; a child’s memories of an adventure on a sled, in which fear (“I was frightened”) was inextricably mingled with the sense of exhilaration which a surrender from life provokes, and which is reiterated in the adult, by a retreat into a safe, but meaningless and boring routine. “In the mountains, there you feel free./ I read much of the night and go south in the winter”: are reflections of an ambivalent state in which ‘freedom’ is a memory that is replaced by the more reassuring tedium of the present orderly living, cloistered in safety with her books. And this practice of ‘reading nightly,’ which otherwise would be considered a good practice, is (however in the prevalent mood of ‘being left undisturbed’) emblematic of Marie’s desire to escape from the reality of the oppressive boredom around her to a perhaps happier one in a make-belief world.

Sexual boredom in Sections II and III is a recurrent theme in The Waste Land and perhaps in its literal biological reference echoes the same tardy and dilatory reluctance to reproduce that the “dull roots” of The Burial of the Dead seem to suffer from. While the Fisher Knight who “sat upon the shore/ Fishing, with the arid plains behind” him is unable to restore vitality to his own lands due to his sexual impediment (resulting from no choice of his own), nature in Section 1 as well as the lady’s lover in A Game of Chess prefer to abstain from monotonous acts of reproduction. His state of mind does not suggest an interest in his lover, but instead a macabre preoccupation with loss and death (“I think we are in a rats’ alley/ Where the dead men lost their bones”). The description of the dark room, candle-lit and enclosed, increasingly claustrophobic in its effect, points at the lady’s bored frustration at being kept waiting, while in the meanwhile she uses her time to mouth fragments of old songs.

Eliot juxtaposes this sterile encounter between a lady of the upper class, with the helpless fertility of one from the lower class, but the latter’s sexual experiences too are far from satisfactory. Child-bearing is presented as a squalid burden, with the wife’s health and appearance deteriorating, while the husband remains unsympathetic and irresponsible. The characters are trapped in time, emphasised by the repetition of the barman’s calls (reiterating the sense of stagnation), and no human value is asserted to give them dignity. Lil prefers an abortion over mothering another child–in effect she prefers to negate life to the extent that she is willing to suffers from its physical side-effects.

While the title, A Game of Chess, encompasses both couples, both relationships are a negation of romantic love and, more importantly, of life. In the first episode, the characters no longer even communicate. In the second, Lil looks ‘antique’ at the age of thirty-one and is withering away not unlike the Cumaean Sibyl. On one hand, we are presented with a dry, barren interchange, inseperable from neurosis and self-destruction, while on the other hand we have an image of rampant fecundity associated with a lack of culture and rapid ageing.

Lil’s disinterest in her husband’s advances are not unlike the typist’s, who looks upon the creative process with a similar distaste and dispassion. “Hardly aware of her departed lover;/ Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:/ ‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.'” Her seducer’s action is portrayed as a grotesque parody of the act of love, while the ‘victim’ herself is only relieved that the meaningless episode has come to an end, and now she can get on with the more interesting business of listening to the gramophone.

In The Waste Land, sexuality is thus selfish and appears to be the root of most troubled existences–it is pursued without compassion for the victimised partner, without reference to human feeling, or for the furthering if a creative purpose. Life in this desert, on all levels of society, reduces itself to an attempt to evade responsibility, and it is only through death that the characters can ultimately escape from the suffocation of their current existence.

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