The Present of the Past - Drafts of Memory in T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" and Toni Morrison's "Beloved"

Term Paper 2007 21 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1 Introduction

2 T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” and the past
2.1 T.S. Eliot towards the aesthetics of memory
2.2 Rhetoric of memory in “The Waste Land”
2.3 Does “The Waste Land” correspond with Eliot’s view towards memory?

3 Toni Morrison, “Beloved” and the past
3.1 Toni Morrison towards the aesthetics of memory
3.2 Rhetoric of memory in “Beloved”
3.3 Does “Beloved” correlate with Morrison’s view towards memory?

4 Conclusion

Works Cited

1 Introduction

In his book about “Tradition” Edward Shils claims, “there are two pasts.” One is the phenomenal past; the past of realism, the past of occurred incidents which builds a sequence of human action until the present is reached.

The other past is the perceived past. As “a much more plastic thing” this form of past is recorded in myths, memory and in literature, which are built up on the encounters and experiences with the occurred incidents.

Sethe, the fictional figure and protagonist in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”, offers a view towards the timelessness and power of memory: “If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place – the picture of it – stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world.” Does that mean that memories live amongst us? Of course many things we remember today have been there long before our generation was born – for example experiences of our ancestors during World War II, or even myth, traditional orals. Nevertheless, its appearances before do change in the mind of the living generation which is referring to it.

Concerning a pedagogical purpose, in his book, Shils claims for a need of tradition as T.S Eliot does in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”. With a sensitive regard to the past as function and feeder for a modern artist, it becomes obvious that even novelty presupposes what T.S. Eliot calls “historical sense”. In his essay from 1919 Eliot debates about the problem of time and its relation towards the past. In Eliot’s understanding

“[…] the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; […] This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional.”

This term paper has the aim to draw on two different draughts of perceived memory in English Literature – “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot and Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved” – to prove an eventual reciprocity of past art and literature to itself in Eliot’s poem, and to offer a recital of Toni Morrison’s novel as a meditation of a memory based on “hard facts”, the body of slavery.

Besides the authors’ personal understanding of the past and their personal views on memory some of the sources, fictional as well as factual, Morrison and Eliot refer to in their works should be slightly enlightened. Moreover, this work wants to analyse the visible presence of the past in the form of words, referring to the sense of identity as a result of memory.

Though Morrison’s and Eliot’s draughts of memory differ from each other not only temporal - “The Waste Land” was published in 1923, “Beloved” in 1987 – do comparable techniques or motifs of memory occur?

The formula in Tim Burton’s adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s tall tale “Big Fish” that “you cannot separate the man from the myth […]” underlines a timeless understanding of the past as duality - a physical past or realism, the man, on the one hand and on the other hand a mental past of perception that is institutionalized in the body of language, the myth.

The phenomenal past could therefore be regarded as foundation of any genre of literature. Shils in a way paraphrases T.S. Eliot’s thought of the “historical sense” and mentions also an artistic ideal of depth that one could find as well in Toni Morrison’s description of hard facts in “Beloved”:

“The past of hard facts is a past of unfathomable depths. We can never be finished with discovering what it was and what it is as a result of what it was. The past of hard facts is ineluctable and unchangeable in principle but we are constantly having to change our ideas about those […] hard facts as new ones appear […].”

2 T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” and the past

That past literature involves a new work was not a novel thought at T.S. Eliot’s time, but in his essay on the “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, I already referred to above, the young author made a statement that alienated him from the coeval point of view, because Eliot thought one step further: He argued that a new work would likewise involve the literature of the past. By adding each individual to the literally whole, something new is added to the whole, which changes it, even though the changing is merely slight.

Eliot’s loose relation towards the idea of a chronological-lineal development seems to be fundamental of his poem “The Waste Land”. Past, culture and tradition are central concerns of Eliot’s work and “The Waste Land” is a lyrical source, rife with methods and ideals that correspond with his assertions.

Therefore, the author’s essay “Tradition and the Individual talent” could be recommended as theoretical preparation before reciting the poem. Contemporary readers recite it as the “Magna Carta of modern lyric”, but the enthusiasm is based on archaic motifs and artificial occurrences of pre-modern and timeless figures keep the poem alive.

The question remains, why Eliot refers to archaic classical themes and cultural memory?

In his work about “Das kulturelle Gedächtnis” culture critic Jan Assmann claims that art and literature in European modernism replaced religious contexts and cults, which lose their convincing strength during Neuzeit. Eliots draughts of memory in “The Waste Land”, a modern world wherein meaning is deconstructed, an artificial world, give special significance to the receipt of these antiquities. “The Waste Land” builds up an aesthetical room, which is free from ethic. The myth and the archaic motifs in the poem become memory figures that are gradually isolated from their original context, then again comprised into a new context in then poem. They are no longer ritualized moral principles that are community orientated, but gain an individual sense and understanding of the past with direct reference to each other in the present of “The Waste Land”.

Eliot draws the picture of the decay of civilization together with its cultural memory. This drastic deconstruction of human culture, the decay, the darkness, the sadness and the text swindle nevertheless symbolize the waste away of morality and values. Thereby, “The Waste Land” becomes an isolated artificial space that exists without social structure. A space with an order among itself and a complete rearranged symbolism

Eliot’s criteria for “the existing monuments [which] form an ideal order among themselves” are based on his personal canon of classical works. Of course “The Waste Land” does not consist of an instantly canonized literally whole, which he draws on in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, but the poem offers an insight into Eliot’s selection of exclusive art.

The preface of the poem by Sybille von Cumae summarizes in advance the primary temper of “The Waste Land”:

“’Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σίβυλλα τί θέλεις; respondebat illa: άποθανεϊν θέλαω’”

These words written in antique languages of Greek and Latin bundle past, present and future within themselves. In the context of classical mythology the prophesying codes of Sybille were regarded as moments of destiny, which clarified the futility of human meditation – comparable to the introducing scene of the three witches in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”.

Besides the foreboded moment Eliot likewise uses antithetical structure in the first chapter “The Burial of the Dead”. Eliot’s deconstructive and contradictory beginning reveals his personal attitude towards the memorization of the past, the necessity of the awakening of “memory and desire”, of the myth, for the present to guarantee their importance for the future:

“April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring […]”

By the use of his voluminous intellect of fixed denotations, Eliot assigns completely new connotations to a high amount of mythological themes and cultural memory. It seems that every line, nearly every word, has thousand dead voices within it.

He refers to his individual memory from the bible story of the disciples to Emmaus; he cites from Greek, Latin, Asian and Oriental culture up to quotations from Charles Baudelaire’s poem collection “Le Fleur du Mal”.

Even though contemporary students realize a cultural memory repertoire of high intellect that could be recited as a helpful guidance to gather the past for the future, Eliot’s use of deconstructive elements is no impromptu cutting of culture, but an appeal for awakening renewal in a wasted land:

“And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells.

[…] Shantih, Shantih, Shantih”

2.1 T.S. Eliot towards the aesthetics of memory

In 1923 Eliot expresses in an essay about James Joyce’s “Ulysses” that his use of myths draws a linear parallel between present and antiquity. Further the poet describes Joyce’s novel as mythological method to structure the immense panorama of vanity and anarchy. The arguments in his interpretation about the “Ulysses” could simultaneously be understood as Eliot’s own artistic “method”. Moreover, the author is regarded as mentor, motivator and mouth piece for the time of transition from Victorian tradition to “modern” poetry. Although to draw a strict demarcation line between Eliot and Victorianism would be inappropriate; for his view is the literature of a certain decade also part of an “organic whole”, which should not be regarded as a collection of individual writings. The artist therefore has to come up with a fund of knowledge as fundament to serve Eliot’s ideal of a poet:

“Only the man who has so much to give that he can forget himself in his work can afford to collaborate, to exchange, to contribute.” To point out Eliot’s attitude towards memory, especially cultural memory, and his ideals as an artist the interconnection between poetry and life has to be applied. He speaks up for Christianity, because he is likewise a social critic.

As already stated above, we have to take Eliot as a poet and as literary and social head, but we should try to see both aspects in common. Besides Christian dogma and conventions it is Eliot’s critical ideal with its critical but open minded view of every culture, nationality and religion. In his essay “Religion and Literature” the reader can clearly realize Eliot as poet and as a critic who defines himself by a moral humanism view as Christian: “[…] We must tirelessly criticize it [literature] according to our own principles admitted by the writers and not merely according to the principles admitted by the writers and by the critics who discuss it in the public press.” Eliot’s belief in this power of an individual is build up on a personal collection of experiences, of knowledge, of memory.

To go one step further Eliot’s acceptance for individual art has to be proved by personal moral values. First of all he accepts every piece of art – but it has to be tested by a personal self-educated critical code.

With regard to Eliot’s personal “Notes on ‘The Waste Land’” written a few years after the poem was published the reader can realize the variety of hidden meanings in the poem just by the form of the text. Comparable to an appendix Eliot mentions his muses who encourage several passages and gives direct references to the works he quotes in the poem. Moreover he gives insight into the complexity of the symbolism of his poem. In “The Burial of the Dead”, the first part of the poem, the lyrical I memorizes the European wise woman Madame Sosostris “[…] with [her] wicked pack of cards.” It remembers further:

“[…] Here, said she,

is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,

(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)

Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,

The lady of situations.

Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel

And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,

Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,

Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find

The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.”

Eliot’s own reference in his “Notes on the Waste Land” to the phrase shows the hardly to catch purpose of meanings as the poet’s own way to connect personal experience and memory with literature. The protagonist’s experience with the hidden meanings of the Tarot cards cannot be dissolved for most of the recipients until Eliot explains them.



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Title: The Present of the Past - Drafts of Memory in T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" and Toni Morrison's "Beloved"