History as the Imagists’ Dream (or Cuisine of Spam)

Mailer’s World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead, reduces the experience of the war largely to petty slights and vendettas played out among individual men, as well as the goals and fears they cling to, sometimes irrationally, often for the sake of keeping some organizing force in their lives. The main drama of the second half underscores this experience of the personally minute amid the massively incomprehensible: a patrol undertakes a mission to prove the cleverness of a general, which also gives a sergeant a chance to prove his tenacity. The patrol needlessly loses several of its members as it scouts a way to surprise the enemy while the main Japanese line simply collapses from starvation.

In Sebald’s Austerlitz, a hideous library is built in Paris atop what was once the depot for goods expropriated from the city’s Jewish population in World War II. The library is ugly, but worse, it impedes people’s access to the books, as well as to the knowledge of what lay in them or below. The eponymous Austerlitz has to fight continually against losing his memory and identity.

I doubt, however, either of these visions of the war will persist, or if they do, they will need to be recuperated by a later era. After all, World War II has become the Last Good War, when Good and Evil were clearly demarcated, when Victory was obvious and American. We consume what reinforces that image more than what challenges it—these days, for most Americans that probably means The Diary of Anne Frank, Band of Brothers, and Saving Private Ryan. Catch-22 and a Randall Jarrell poem may make the list to add another dimension: bombing missions were harrowing (though not much is heard from those on the other end of the bombs.) World War I, meanwhile, has basically settled into a few Wilfred Owens poems in most anthologies and maybe mention of Im Westen Nichts Neues and rarely, and usually in disdainful contrast, In Stahlgewittern. Why these? Because we “all know” World War I was brutal, terrifying, and senseless, a case of alliances and hubris gone awry. History persists most often as metaphor, not fact, or in what Nietzsche called its monumental form.

Meanwhile, the decision to intervene or not in Syria invokes one of two precedents: the 2003 invasion of Iraq or the 1999 bombings of the disintegrated Yugoslavia. Both incidents lose all complexity to become metaphorical shorthand: either a bad intelligence failure/boldfaced lie that should restrain us now or a successful humanitarian intervention that should have happened in 1938 already and should encourage us now.

Yes, history supposedly proceeds from tragedy to farce, but as often, it proceeds from reality to pre-packaged analogy, a sort of intellectual Spam, ready to crack open when needed, the contents already known and not particularly complex, except, perhaps, in the effort to manufacture them.

Is there simply too much to know, so we have to draw a lesson and compress reality, or can we proceed another way?

“The Waste Land” as endless revision

And where they make a wasteland, they call it peace. — Tacitus, De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae

Why write about “The Waste Land” in 1991? Obviously, the world was falling apart then. Less obviously, the original working title for “The Waste Land” was “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” and the security state was about to get a make-over. Not just that the Stasi and KGB went away, but that the US military draw down abroad brought lots of new technology back home–think of the now ubiquitous SWAT team uniform. Finally, we have a chance, however, to keep revising.

TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land” attempts to salvage civilization even while recognizing that much of it was already shattered. Polyphonic and fragmented, the poem spans Greek myth to modern advertising. The poem acts as a revision of history, and is itself a product of revision.

The poem began as “He Do the Police in Different Voices” and initially used Conrad’s “The horror!” as its epigraph. The eventual epigraph (about a suicidal Sibyl) would extend the reach of the poem much further back in time (and language). Indeed, the horror inherent in ourselves had plagued humanity far longer than the 30 years from colonialism in the Congo to the end of World War I. Yet with the horror, we also harbored the hope for peace and wisdom that “passeth understanding.” The percipient human might obtain something beautiful from the personal and collective tragedy, the way a mosaic arises from shards. “The Waste Land” strives to be that mosaic; it seeks to reintegrate history in order to alter it.

Meanwhile, Eliot turned over his manuscript to Ezra Pound, who scrawled marginalia in multiple languages and pushed Eliot to cut many lines. The revised result was fewer words to cover more historical, cultural, and emotional terrain, making the poem into a flint arrowhead: the more that was chipped from it, the sharper it became, able to fly more swiftly to penetrate more deeply. Whenever it strikes us, we seem unsure what exactly hit us, even as we marvel at the shaft quivering in our chest. We explore the language as well as the many allusions in order to understand the poem, and we sense that some complete grasp is possible if difficult. Nonetheless, the poem leaves enough gaps that we can keep revising our interpretation.

Indeed, like many cultural artifacts,“The Waste Land,” emerged from collective effort, even if it is largely remembered as the work of an individual. Here, too, history revises. “The Waste Land” appears in print, pristine and final. The editorial assistance is hidden. Of course, the poem still needs a reader to mean anything. People don’t usually praise the reader but rather praise Eliot as the one person who could have made such a poem possible, although Eliot makes it clear in the poem that all of Western, and possibly global, history made the poem possible. Much later follow the facsimiles of the manuscript; the hands of many people become apparent again. The things we fashion, we fashion and re-fashion. The labor of the many and the individual alternate in coming to the fore. History repeats in a way, but each repetition is also a revision.

In WISECRACK, I wanted to revise and repeat “The Waste Land” once more. I’ll get into some of the reasons for this next time, June 25.  Until then, if you haven’t read “The Waste Land,” I recommend it–what are your experiences with it? What seems to keep repeating in your life? Are we in a worse waste land now?