Milan: Modernism — the indiscernible giant that rose to the noise of the first machines — has had a slow evolution and has yet to reach its final form. Its most recent manifestations — digitisation and the metaverse — herald a new technological and cultural era.
Modernism, which rose out of the rebellious movements of the early 20th century, still impacts us today through continuous wars, worsening crises, widening gaps between rich and poor nations, terrifying climate crises, and population spikes.
The 20th century, as described by Welsh critic Raymond Williams, was characterised by a variety of persistent, emerging, and dominant phenomena that intersected and coexisted in unexpected ways. These phenomena have played a significant role in defining the entire century and should be continually reexamined and revisited as they are still considered the primary reference for the "modernism" of the 1920s.
The turn of the 20th century was marked by a longing for provocation and breaking away from the past. Modernism, in particular, sought to challenge and overthrow traditional systems and structures through the use of language that sought to undermine and contest traditional values.
Modernism — a historical period characterised by dynamism and ongoing progress and transformation — came to an end with the demise of colonialism and the rise of new media and communication. In contrast, postmodernism featured fragmentation and unregulated complexity, according to critics and researchers.
At a time when Europe is facing unprecedented crises and its Renaissance history and vitality are fading amid wars and economic and environmental crises, the world is celebrating the centenary of two cornerstones of literary modernism in the West: James Joyce’s Ulysses published in Paris in February 1922, and Thomas Eliot’s The Waste Land published in October 1922.
The publication of these masterpieces coincided with the rise of marginalised voices, particularly in gender and feminist literature, under the banner of modernisation. This marked the beginning of modernism, which encompassed these transformations and sought to lead the way toward the future rather than be confined to the present.
The first breaths of modernism came at the beginning of the industrial revolution in the mid-seventeenth century and went through multiple stages, in line with the rapid social and economic changes of that time.
The pre-modernism era lasted from 1890 to 1900, followed by early modernism from 1900 to 1920, then conventional modernism from 1920 to 1940. Modernism literature emerged between 1940 and 1960, signaling the end of history and the impossibility of creating anything truly new, thus leading to a revival of past styles.
To celebrate the centenary of The Waste Land, a ninth translation of the poem has been released in Italy by Sara Ventroni. This comes about a year after an earlier Italian translation was published by Carmen Gallo, titled La terra Devastata (the ravaged land), to connect the poem with the destruction and casualties of World War I in Europe.
Eliot had a penchant for traditionalism in literature. He declared himself to be a classicist in literature, insisting that he would never write prose. However, critics believe that The Waste Land and some of his later poems can be classified as abstract poems.
Rather than celebrating or striving for the integrity of meaning, Eliot’s work is drawn to the lack of meaning that characterises the modern and contemporary eras. He took inspiration from the void (binding nothing to nothing), as he wrote in his seminal essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, to partially triumph over tradition by creating space for his poetry. The lack of meaning allowed Eliot to create new meaning.
An unmatched translation
Critics agree that Ventroni's translation is comprehensive and unmatched in terms of language and depth compared to previous translations. Ventroni began translating The Waste Land in 1996 and only completed it a few months ago, then submitted the final version for publication in September of last year.
As one of the most prominent contemporary female poets, Ventroni succeeded in capturing both the literal and abstract aspects of poetic discourse to make her translation more or less understandable for first-time readers.
In her translation, Ventroni created a seamless flow of imagery from beginning to end, without attempting to explain every aspect fully, since partial understanding allows readers to discover new meanings upon each rereading.
Eliot wrote The Waste Land in London between 1921 and 1922. It first appeared in the October 1922 issue of his literary journal, The Criterion.
A second edition followed in the journal in the same year, then a paper edition was published in New York with additional notes pointing to other texts. The epic poem, which belongs to the first phase of Eliot's poetry, focused on the crisis of Western society, describing it as a "wasteland."
The Waste Land is divided into five sections; "The Burial of the Dead," "A Game of Chess," "The Fire Sermon," "Death by Water," and "What the Thunder Said," demonstrating the originality of Eliot’s writings.
Influenced by American poet Ezra Pound, to whom the poem was dedicated, Eliot incorporated implicit and explicit references to other texts and drew on various Western and Eastern myths.
A bleak worldview
The poem details Eliot’s bleak view of the world and depicts the rejection of all values that do not align with viable alternatives that are lacking in the contemporary man who continues to perpetuate a reality that is inevitably heading toward ruin.
Eliot was influenced by Elizabethan and metaphysical poets from the 17th century, as well as symbolist poetry. However, his use of symbolism differed from that of the 19th century, as he drew heavily on the Middle Ages and Dante's Divine Comedy, which he studied extensively in his critical works.
After World War I, Eliot viewed human history as a pile of rubble not worthy of victory — a history far removed from any sense of morality given the atrocities committed in the war. Rhetorically speaking, Eliot's poetry exhibits a fusion of emotion and thought.
In this context, the concept of "objective interdependence" emerged, emphasising the need to transform individual emotions into universal and objective images. Personal feelings and intuition are conveyed symbolically through a theme that encompasses both.