Why Eliot’s The Waste Land and Joyce’s Ulysses have stood the test of time

As both masterpieces recently celebrated their 100-year anniversary, Al Majalla dissects these literary works, demonstrating their fundamental uniqueness and transcending messages

As both masterpieces recently celebrated their 100-year anniversary, Al Majalla dissects these literary works, demonstrating their fundamental uniqueness.
Nicola Ferrarese
As both masterpieces recently celebrated their 100-year anniversary, Al Majalla dissects these literary works, demonstrating their fundamental uniqueness.
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Why Eliot’s The Waste Land and Joyce’s Ulysses have stood the test of time

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.

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Sgt. Norwood Dorman, Benson, N.C., stops to rest at the memorial to the Italian soldier of World War I. Brolo, Sicily. August 14, 1943.

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.

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

Diverse cultural references

The Waste Land is known for its diverse array of cultural references. In "What the Thunder Said", Eliot begins with a desolate depiction of the desert:

"There is not even silence in the mountains

But dry sterile thunder without rain

There is not even solitude in the mountains

But red sullen faces sneer and snarl 

From doors of mud cracked houses."

In this stanza, Eliot continues his technique of overlapping cultural references, skillfully incorporating a variety of sources including Dante, the Gospel of Luke, and various myths. Additionally, Eliot conveys a sense of restlessness and insomnia through dreamlike language, creating a nightmarish atmosphere.

In the second stanza, he aligns the human mood with the barrenness of the landscape (lack of water equating to lack of life) and emphasises the dryness of the scene through repetitive language that creates a frenzied musical effect.

Eliot also presents a new birth, symbolised by the rooster's joyful crow signaling a new day and the damp gust bringing rain. With the end of the ruin, the thunder speaks and delivers its message of salvation to merge the fundamental values of past civilisations, namely altruism, mercy, and self-control, which will serve as the foundation for a new civilisation.

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The Irish writer James JOYCE with the American Sylvia BEACH, owner of the Paris bookstore SHAKESPEARE AND COMPANY, in March 1930. Sylvia BEACH was the first one to publish ULYSSES, in 1922.

Significant changes

Ezra Pound made significant changes to The Waste Land between its initial publication in The Criterion in 1922 and its final version in the "Poems" collection in London in 1925. Pound removed about half of the lines written by his friend and improved the flow of the five-section poem:

"Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers."

The roots of this literary masterpiece, according to Italian critic Emanuele Trevi, can be identified one by one, as well as its main axes, taking into account what Eliot himself intended. British researcher Jesse L. Weston, an expert in mythology and anthropology, analysed a large corpus of data in 1920 and found that medieval Holy Grail legends were influenced by ancient fertility rituals that revolved around two interconnected themes: drought and the barrenness of lands, and a wounded king with a barren kingdom.

Experts have heavily criticised certain conclusions made by Weston, but the ideas presented in From Ritual to Romance are still considered to be valid. In this historical journey from rituals to fiction, the most obscure symbols have a way of surviving through the ages, even after they have lost all meaning and writers use them superficially.

Eliot, who was over 30 years old when he wrote The Waste Land, was able to draw a significant amount of inspiration from these few allusions in his search for a central idea to shape his understanding of modern humanity's life, destiny, and unrealistic cities.

Eliot, who was over 30 years old when he wrote The Waste Land, was able to draw a significant amount of inspiration from these few allusions in his search for a central idea to shape his understanding of modern humanity's life, destiny, and unrealistic cities

A guardian of literary tradition

Eliot is remembered not only as an exceptional poet but also as a guardian of literary tradition, particularly through his articles.

He strongly believed — even more so than Pound and Joyce — that this tradition had been damaged by industrialisation, the mechanical reproduction of images, and urban alienation.

The true meaning of The Waste Land is not the reproduction of Holy Grail legends, but rather the loss of unity in any myth or wisdom inherited by modern humanity. In contrast to our ancestors, we seem to exist within a vicious cycle of rubble and shattered images, from which no true meaning can be derived due to their complexity and ambiguity.

Weston's project has an unprecedented approach, but if we interpret The Waste Land in the opposite direction of the title of her book — from literature to the possibility of new rituals — we could potentially breathe life into this world devoid of meaning. This may have been Eliot's intention in the fifth and final section of the epic, "What the Thunder Said:"

"After the torchlight red on sweaty faces

After the frosty silence in the gardens

After the agony in stony places

The shouting and the crying

Prison and palace and reverberation

Of thunder of spring over distant mountains

He who was living is now dead

We who were living are now dying

With a little patience."

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James Joyce, Irish author, 20th century.

Recognition of worth

Eliot recognised the true worth of Joyce's Ulysses early on, calling it "the most important expression of our age." This novel takes place in Dublin and plays out entirely in one day, 16 June 1904 (the date James Joyce met Nora, the woman who was to become his wife). Ulysses chronicles the Odyssey-like appointments and encounters of advertising agent Leopold Bloom, his wife Molly, and Stephen Dedalus, in the course of one ordinary day.

The main character in Ulysses is Leopold Bloom, an ordinary man and advertising agent who wanders the streets of Dublin, corresponding to Odysseus in Homer's epic who wandered the Mediterranean and encounters the destitute young writer Stephen Dedalus (Joyce's alter-ego).

The two characters meet about halfway through the novel by coincidence, having encountered each other on previous occasions without knowing it at a brothel where they get drunk, feel depressed, and reflect on their personal troubles.

Bloom is upset by his wife's infidelities, frustration at work, and the memory of his deceased son whom he had hoped would bring him salvation, while Stephen is haunted by guilt for not fulfilling Catholic duties for his dying mother, and troubled by his father's flawed character.

Bloom rescues Stephen from a brawl and hosts him in his home. Stephen temporarily becomes Bloom's adopted son — the ordinary degenerate man rescues the degenerate artist and takes him home.

The last chapter focuses on Molly, Bloom's wife, a nymphomaniac singer. After Stephen leaves and Bloom falls to sleep, Molly engages in an internal monologue in which she reflects on her relationship with her husband and fantasises about an afternoon with her music teacher. The end of the novel remains open to interpretation.

The last chapter focuses on Molly, Bloom's wife, a nymphomaniac singer. After Stephen leaves and Bloom falls to sleep, Molly engages in an internal monologue in which she reflects on her relationship with her husband and fantasises about an afternoon with her music teacher. The end of the novel remains open to interpretation

The Odyssey connection

There is a clear connection between Ulysses and Homer's Odyssey. Joyce uses Odyssey as a framework for his book, structuring its characters and events in a similar manner. Joyce describes his work as the "modern Odyssey" and "the epic of the human body." To fully understand Ulysses, one must know both Homer's work and the ancient myth.

Nicola Ferrarese

Joyce writes modern epic prose with a penchant for anti-heroes transforming into invincible characters. Homer's hero Ulysses embodies the virtues of ancient Greek civilisation, while Joyce's Ulysses represents the modern, ordinary man serving as the modern hero — a mediocre anti-hero who reveals his fears, weaknesses, and unresolved contradictions.

'Stream of consciousness'                                

On the other hand, Joyce breaks with classic storytelling that follows a logical sequence and a chronology of events that rely on typical causal and temporal connections, opting instead for the "stream of consciousness" style which involves the immediate transmission of the deepest thoughts and feelings of the ego and the irrational actions of the unconscious.

He also combines this flow-of-consciousness technique with various methods of presenting a wide range of situations, such as cinematography, flashbacks, silence, and collage.

Additionally, Joyce employs the internal monologue and two levels of narration: objective narration, where the narrator is an observer, and omniscient narration, which flows freely and uninterruptedly with the thoughts of every character.

The language used is rich in imagery, contradictions, paradoxes, symbols, and revelations. Joyce also uses slang, epithets, foreign words, neologisms, literary quotations, and references to other texts.

Unlike the so-called conservatives, with their unsuccessful attempts to recover a lost past, the geniuses, Joyce and Eliot, accepted to live in a world that is forever desolate and irreparably destroyed.

For this reason, their insights still resonate with readers today. Joyce and Eliot were fully aware that human civilisation did not emerge from a specific period of time, and that human instincts cannot be refined overnight.

It is, therefore, crucial to continue translating their work with each new generation to see how interpretations evolve.

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