Sunday, March 23, 2008

My Attempts at Literary Criticism

T.S Eliot's Unreal City of God

Regarding deconstruction, The Waste Land manages to subvert the concept of a transcendental signified. The aim of this paper is to show through two sets of binary operations how the meanings of concepts shift causing a prevailing state of undecidability between signifier and signified. The first opposition I will analyze is between Real and Unreal, and here I will point out intertextual allusions to Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil and compare Eliot’s Unreal City to Baudelaire’s Paris, which is also an Unreal City. The second opposition, which is actually a subset of the first, will be Rational and Irrational. Here the intertextual allusion I will analyze will be to Saint Augustine’s Confessions and the story of his search for knowledge in the City of God. With this reading, I will show how the barriers within the oppositions are destabilized, ultimately leading to the breaking down of anything that could serve as a universal signified within the poem.

Starting with the counterpoised conceptualizations of Real and Unreal, it must be mentioned that Eliot’s use of the term “unreal” leads to a questioning of what constitutes “real” or what represents a real city to him. Upon a first reading, Unreal City is the signifier which refers to the city of London after World War I, but this concept also alludes to the dreamlike city of Baudelaire’s Paris (which affected Eliot so strongly that he included it in his poem). To expand on the origin of this Unreal City, Victor Brombert writes: “Indeed, the Paris of Baudelaire is a Waste Land, where love and especially sexuality are not only manifestations of sin, but the sign and the symbol of sterility.” Characteristic of both these cities are the dreams and nightmares, the secrets and mystery, and their foggy and gray colors, and what is most manifest is the incarnation of sin in a world that gives no spiritual nourishment. Examples of this destructive mechanization and corruption are given by Eliot in Part III, as he describes the waters of the Thames River contaminated with “empty bottles, “silk handkerchiefs,” “sandwich papers,” “cardboard boxes,” and “cigarette ends.”

A further examination of what would correspond to “Unreal” as signified brings us to understand the multiple interpretations of a word that becomes broad in meaning once it loses its prescribed relations. In other words, Eliot’s descriptions break down the expected one-to-one correspondence between signifier and signified, instead allowing multiple signifieds (ex. London and Paris) for one signifier. As another example of this deconstruction, in the poem London is crowded with ghostlike walkers who cross a bridge, and this image becomes a signifier itself as it corresponds to a purgatory. At the same time, the idea of purgatory signifies an in-between state of life and death, which is a main theme of the entire poem. Thus the signifier of the ghostlike figures corresponds to both purgatory and death as signifieds. The idea of a limbo includes the temptations found on earth which prevent the soul from achieving its maximum level of purity, leaving it at the midpoint between heaven and hell and preventing it from being a universal signified.
I have tried to show the discontinuous nature of Eliot’s objects and subjects. As Donoghue states, “Modern language presupposes a fragmented space made of objects solitary and terrible because the links between them are only potential.” So rather than seeing any one thing as clearly “meaning” or naturally implying something else – instead of signifiers being universally linked to particular corresponding signifieds – each signifier and signified stands solitary, capable of linking and re-linking ad infinitum.

Although the second set of binary oppositions between Rational and Irrational is linked to the first one, I find it important to examine them separately. What is significant to point out is that these two concepts rely on each other to find their meaning: to Denis Donghue, the rational imagination in the poem is represented by Shakespeare, Spencer, and St. Augustine and it is confronted with the irrational in many ways when these figures appear.

In Part III, Eliot makes an allusion to Augustine’s trip to Carthage found in his biography called Confessions, a memoir of Augustine’s path to conversion and Christian illumination: “ To Carthage then I came/ Burning burning burning burning/ O Lord Thou pluckest me out/ O Lord Thou pluckest/ burning.” This trip, taken before his conversion, was Augustine’s attempt to free himself from evil and the temptations of the world (like the evil found in Eliot’s Unreal City) and to reach ultimate enlightenment through faith in Christ. This faith comes aided by the hand of Reason understood in neo-platonic terms. In Confessions Augustine writes:
“By having read the books of Platonists, and having been thought by them to see in corporeal Truth, I understood how thy invisible things are understood through the things that are made. It still seemed what it was that the dullness of my soul allowed me to contemplate.”

This belief in Reason is further investigated in Augustine’s later years, when he wrote The City of God. This image of a heavenly land is important because it stands against Eliot’s Unreal City, and this is how both these concepts are created in the text, by robbing elements from one another and by standing against each other. The City of God, unlike the chaotic and human city of London, exists above Nature as it transcends the world, and according to Donoghue, “The contemplation of the City of God is also complete knowledge.” This idea is helpful in the process of understanding what is considered to be “real” in the poem, and how it stands against what is “unreal” as we come to the conclusion that the Rational and the Irrational do not contradict each other in the poem; rather, they remain together and coexist sharing various elements. For example, it could be argued that the guarantee of absolute knowledge has an evil aspect to it, and that the irrationality of Eliot’s London flourishes with a creative freedom that the City of God lacks, which is more special and less artificial than the one for which Augustine searches. In being conceptually supported by the Unreal City, the City of God, in the poem, loses any claim it might otherwise have to being a universal signified because it relies on the Unreal city to complete its meaning.

Another demonstration of how the link between The City of God and its signified, which represents absolute knowledge, is lost, can be found in the first draft of Waste Land. Before deciding to start out with the Sybil of Cummae quotation as the opener of the poem, Eliot had drafted his work with an introductory paragraph taken from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which he later decides not to use. In the epigraph, Marlow says to Kurtz:
“Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during the supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision-he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than breath-“The horror! the horror!”
Whereas Augustine envisioned complete knowledge as paradisiacal perfection, Marlow experienced it as hellish terror. The fact that Eliot considered opening the poem with Marlow’s statement, combined with allusions to Augustine in the poem, undeniably implies Eliot’s own dissatisfaction with Augustine’s conceptualization of complete knowledge. This deferral of terms (What if enlightenment isn’t all it’s assumed to be?) unveils the hidden characteristics of the City of God, because, like Marlow, we find that with absolute knowledge there is also absolute horror and the price to pay for a life of reason with a goal of complete knowledge could be tragic. Here is marked the failure of a permanent link between signifier and signified, because the signifier (complete knowledge) becomes itself a signified (horror) as it opens the door to other concepts ( for example the Unreal City and its temptation and sin) which represent it.

It is clear then that the poem’s inclusion of contrasting concepts nonetheless reliant upon each other, coupled with its conscious corrupting of Augustine’s City of God, serve to deconstruct any possible universal signified. But whereas any reader could potentially find contrasting elements in a poem and turn them upon each other so that they collapse, the real beauty in Waste Land is that this deconstruction is not merely a function of the reader but also an intentional function of the poem itself. Eliot, trained in philosophy, understood the deconstructive implications of submitting Augustine’s City of God to the corruption of the Unreal City, as is evidenced by his juxtaposing Augustine’s concept of complete knowledge as reason and paradise to Marlow’s experience of it as horror irrational. In examining these binaries we not only deconstruct but actually witness the path of Eliot’s deconstruction.


1) Augustine, Confessions, Electronic edition. 02/19/2008. Text and commentary copyright (c) 1992 James J. O'Donnell.

2) Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criticism. Third Edition, New Jersey.
Prentice Hall. 2003.

3) Brombert, Victor. Baudelaire: City Images and the “Dream of Stone” Yale French Studies, no.32, Paris in Literature (1964) pp.99-112.

4) Donoghue, Denis. _The Word within a Word_. Words Alone: the poet T.S
Eliot.. New Haven. Yale University Press. 2000.

5) Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land, Prufrock and other poems. New York.
Dover Publications Inc.1998.

6) Parker, Richard A. Exploring the Waste Land. 02/19/2008

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