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OBSCURANTISM, CONSERVATISM, ELITISM
on September 2, 2003
The Wastleland epitomizes the elitist and reactionary undertones prevalent in much of early modernism--by which I am referring to that vague (retrospectively designated) "school" of modernism orginating in or drawing its adherents from the British Isles. Of course, Eliot was born in America, a geographic misfortune for which this certified Anglophile would repent, however implicitly, during much of his life.
In The Wasteland, Eliot is nostalgic for classicist or, at least, early Enlightenment values, which he contrasts with the decaying values and moral degradation of modern society. As might be expected, his viewpoint was informed by the era of the so-called Great War, the war--it would have seemed--to end all wars. But Eliot naively fails to address the reiteration of moral crises, destructiveness, and war throughout human history and the definitively human propensity to glorify the past, out of proportion with its more prosaic realities, and to assign past works with nearly religious devotion. The works to which Eliot tirelessly alludes throughout The Wasteland--and the poem, it should be noted, is comprised of a great deal of often-obscure allusions--are not inherently better than, say, the works of the subsequent and more forward-looking American modernist "movement" (consisting of Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, et.al.).
The Wasteland gives voice to the myth that tradition is validated by virtue of the fact merely that it is tradition. This is the conservative viewpoint par excellence. But the past is inherently undesirable simply because it is the past, and life and art are "progressive" ventures. Derrida and other desconstructionists would certainly have problems with the use of the descriptor "progressive" (in this, an endlessly derivative and deferential society), but by progression all that is suggested is not an aversion to the past, but an aversion only to duplicating the past and its traditions verbatim because tradition has seemingly legitimized itself.
The world Eliot seeks, however implicitly, is the representation of the Old World in which--accurately or not--obscurant, elitist, and sedentary intellectualism prevails, while revolution and populism, in all of its genres, is stifled. Or perhaps that isn't the intention at all. Perhaps more privately, Eliot preferred a continuance of "vulgar" modernity in which reactionary elites (Joyce, Yeats, and Pound, for example) might feel themselves exceptional and the most insightful diangosticians of social ills--imagining they have, to whatever extent, evaded them.