11 May 2010

Unreal City

I'M NOT EXACTLY SURE WHY, as I've not read T.S. Eliot's Waste Land with an eye on analysis (even though I've read it many times), but the following few lines have haunted me for years (ll. 60–63):

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
The modern "city," with all its complex features as a topos (a standardized setting, an archetypal place), figures prominently in modernist literature. It appears that upon further inspection, what has struck me about these four lines lies somewhat close to the poet's intention. The city is an empty shill, symbolizing all that modernity has driven us toward—isolation, disconnection, sterility, devoid of the divine, and thus the breakdown of reality. The passage over London Bridge becomes a snippet of that meaningless half-life, the kind that simply goes through the motions. How could it be otherwise in such an aseptic, tedious, and monotonous state?

Nothing much happens in this city. There's motion but no dynamism; dialogue but no real communication; sex but not love. Reduced to unreality, the city itself devolves into a blooming corpse (see ll. 69–75). Death has undone so many (Dante saw this years ago). Under the incessant rambling of industrialization comes the polluting smog on a short winter day. Desolate and disrespectful of nature, the city whored itself out to the commercialization of its very soul.

Is this not why, dear reader (or should I say, as Eliot does in l. 76, "You! Hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblablemon frère!), we look forward to that other city? Or are you content to aim simply for what's on offer under that "brown fog of a winter dawn"?

For those interested, one can listen to Eliot himself read the entire poem. He sounds a bit unnatural, stilted, but given the poem's content, I suppose it matches. Notice too how his tone changes when he starts reading the strophe that begins with the above four lines. Eery and prophetic.


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