When I teach T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, I often start out playing this video that dismantles a track from Girl Talk, highlighting all of the secondary texts that the artist combines to create something “new.” My point is that Eliot’s 1922 masterpiece, just as postmodern as it is modern, is a mashup itself. Both Eliot and Gregg Michael Gillis (Girl Talk) are, as Roland Barthes would tell us, forming something supposedly “original” from “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” In The Waste Land, an anti-epic poem if there ever was one, the heaps of fragments indicate that in a world where “God is dead”, a world devastated by the nonsensical cruelty of war, there is no meaning or even ability to communicate. Eliot continually emphasizes human isolation, that the inhabitants of The Waste Land are “each in his own prison.”
A large part of the disorientation one experiences when reading The Waste Land comes from Eliot’s intentional failure to translate foreign languages or cite his sources. The definitive sacred and secular texts of powerful Western and Eastern civilizations are decontextualized and remixed, pointing to the meaninglessness of life without any defining narrative, a life in which the Author God is dead.
But anyone who takes the tedious trouble to really spend thoughtful time in The Waste Land will track down Eliot’s sources, read them in context, and finally see that Eliot’s poem has complex meaning via the connectedness of the themes in these carefully selected fragments; in a sense, the poem betrays itself. In tracking down sources, we begin to get a sense of the whole, we long more and more for connectivity.
But in the age of google, my students and I have all of these secondary sources at our fingertips; there is not much hard work required as we can even find hyperlink versions of the poem that instantly translate the texts for us and briefly summarize the entire plot of the multiple narratives alluded to in the poem. The internet allows us to move from the poem’s decontextualized fragments to disembodied, virtual explanations of fragments. Rather than going to the library (a communal experience), we can sit in our pajamas and google it all. What would Eliot think of this isolating, perhaps “unreal” (in his eyes) research? He has removed “original” ideas from their contexts, yet we depend on an invisible network of replicated images to give us knowledge, almost always out of context.
At the beginning of the poem, Eliot envisions one of Dante’s circles of hell as a picture of living but dead (“unreal”) Londoners walking home from work over London bridge: “Each man fixed his eyes before his feet…”. I often ask my students what they think Eliot would say today if he went to London bridge, rode on the tube, or sat in a restaurant and saw our eyes not “on our own feet” but on our iPhones. Would he say we have we created a rich new access to knowledge and community, or would he conclude we have simply mastered the art of distraction and isolation? Or would he say we have somehow accomplished both?