Foucault and “Big Brother”

“Knowledge linked to power, not only assumes the authority of ‘the truth’ but has the power to make itself true.” Foucault, Discipline and Punish

Foucault is not merely a complicated thinker. Any attempt to understand his position is compounded by his extensive reliance on a seemingly familiar, but radically redefined, concept: power. Thus, it is best to start with what Foucault is not saying or doing. He is not writing about power in anything like the vocabulary of traditional political theory, precisely because these discourses treat power as exclusively oppressive, prohibitive, and negative. Consider for example that traditional conceptions of political theory—which once had a monopoly on such discussion—reduce power to something that sovereign rulers have, and that subjects must obey. Power in this view is almost a substance, a metaphysical property possessed by subjects and transferred entirely to governments for our own good (Hobbes) or transferred partly to governments and held in trust (Locke). In  liberal political theory power is exercised in terms of “right” and “law,” and premised on the existence of a rational, ahistorical subject. For Foucault modern political theory, and liberalism in particular, rests on a fantasy in which individuals stand outside of history and politics but nonetheless understand their interests, recognize they are being oppressed, and move to create a state capable of protecting rights. In this highly influential story power is something we have or lack, something that may or may not be limited, something that can be abused. For Foucault, this account does not simply perpetuate the myth of an autonomous human subject; it fails to understand that the essence of power is not prohibitive and repressive, but productive, creating “domains of objects and rituals of truth.” Even more, the very liberal discourse to which Foucault here objects is itself just such a practice.

Like Nietzsche before him, Foucault must move consideration of power outside the misleading and restrictive confines of political theory in order to show that life itself is utterly suffused with power. Only then can he hope to prove that power is not a property but a social process; not something that one side does to the other, but a field of contestation infiltrating all aspects of life. Foucault’s critique of society is thus focused on something that liberal political ideology is not able to see, and was not able to anticipate: the extent to which modern industrial societies create the very “subjects” once taken for granted, and “disciplines” them through the intersection of socially constructed  notions of normality produced and reinforced by the “expert” judgment of professionals in order to stabilize bourgeois society against its labouring classes. That this disciplinary function does not seem obvious is precisely Foucault’s point. Hobbes’s notion that “where the laws are silent, the subjects are at liberty” could not be less Foucauldian. Fair enough, for who in 1651 could know what surveillance capacities, disciplinary practices, and forms of knowledge slumbered in Leviathan? That the sovereign could inflct physical pain, privation, and death was enough to over-awe its subjects, and enough to satisfy a world in which power was limited to the fight between the state and citizens. In moving from public spectacle to an invisible disciplining of the “soul,” power revealed (or rather hid) itself as a sophisticated internalized coercion, represented starkly in the metaphor of the Panopticon.

It is important to remember that Foucault is not simply saying that knowledge is a form of power (many would agree with that) but claims that knowledge can be produced out of power, and observation is at the core of such production. The Pan (all) optikon (seeing) is both a figurative and literal representation of Foucault’s view that “knowledge, once used to regulate the conduct of others, entails constraint, regulation and the disciplining of practice.”  If power exists everywhere, so does resistance, and in its most extreme form power seeks to know all, to see all. That Jeremy Bentham’s model for prisons, asylums, hospitals, factories, schools etc. was never fully implemented is beside the point that it perfectly represents Foucault’s theory that power and knowledge derive from observing others. And if the advent of the NSA and CCTV cameras has made the prospects for total surveillance more feasible than ever, this is not necessary to ensure suitable behaviour. What matters for Foucault is that awareness of constant observation be internalized, in the way that drivers avoid running orange lights not because there may be cameras placed at the intersection but because their driving habits have become normalized by threats of discipline. In the final analysis Foucault’s attachment to the all-seeing Panopticon is a bit misleading, given its association with the state and his conviction that we should forget about “big brother” and concentrate on local struggles.

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Angela Carter

If you have questions or observations about the stories as a whole post them here using the comments feature.

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Girl, interrupted: Antigone’s unfinished revolution

UnknownThe title of this blog is derived from a movie that I have never seen and that may or may not have some resonance with Antigone. The film — “Girl, Interrupted” — centres around an 18 year old who is committed to a residential psychiatric facility after an apparent suicide attempt, and on the most cursory examination of an admitting physician. To what extent does this interruption parallel the situation of Antigone? Sophocles’ character is of an undetermined age but obviously young and abut to be married so, following the cultural norms of Athens in the 5th century BCE, likely somewhere between 15 and 18. She also appears to have a fondness for the idea of death and does eventually commit suicide, albeit after being entombed alive. And she is also declared more or less mad by other characters in the play, though mostly by the equally volatile Creon. Overall, the parallels are tenuous, but I like the title and chose it for an Arts One lecture before Bonnie Honig, a political theorist from Northwestern University, published her book Antigone Interrupted (2013).

 Antigone and Repetition Compulsion

Speaking of Honig’s book, it is one of the most powerful and original re-readings in what has been a long history of repeated translations, interpretations, and adaptations of Antigone. Honig even suggests that Antigone is the most commented upon play in the history of philosophy and political theory. In fact, the propensity to repeat Antigone has become as much an object of scholarly interest as the play itself. As George Steiner’s Antigones (1984) reveals, the story spans a wide spectrum of discourses, from politics to philosophy to psychoanalysis, critical studies, and various forms of feminism. The play continues to be performed all over the world and some of the most intriguing productions include: Ernest McIntyre’s Irangani, an exploration of the Sinhala youth uprising of 1980s Sri Lanka in which the title character’s brother has been killed, and the state prohibits the family from performing funeral ceremonies; Polly Findlay’s Antigone, where Thebes has become the hub of global power, and security experts gather round a screen in a situation room to watch and applaud the capture of a noted enemy of state and the defeated Polyneices constitutes a terrorist threat to be met with the inflexible authority of the modern security state, with the unbending Creon at its head; and Roy Williams’s adaptation where Creon become “Creo,” a modern British ganglord and his Antigone (“Tig”) plays up issues of generational defiance over traditional state-based models of authority.

In keeping with Shakespeare’s notion that the boundary between the “real world” and theatre can be paper thin — “all the world’s a stage” — Antigone can also help to frame several issues currently in the news. For example, in response to the reality that one of the perpetrators in the recent and horrific video-taped beheadings of hostages in ISIS controlled Iraq and Syria has an English accent, British Prime Minister David Cameron is scrambling to introduce legislation to ban British-born “jihadists” from returning to the UK. And an issue more directly germane to Antigone has arisen in the aftermath of the latest and worst outbreak of the Ebola virus in west Africa, where World Health Organization officials warn that traditional burial practices are among the greatest obstacles to controlling the calamity. In many of the countries most affected, the handling, washing, and even kissing of the body of a loved one is a core cultural value. While not a state with the power of Creon, the WTO is a major and powerful political actor that has sought to limit traditional burial rites, particularly in light of the revelation that the moment of death for an Ebola victim is the moment at which the disease is most infectious, and the viral load at its peak. The most powerful example of this Polyneices-effect occurred very recently in Guinea with the abduction and killing of 8 health workers, apparently in revenge for their “improper” treatment of Ebola victims.

In a world where the relevance of the general humanities is increasingly questioned, it’s heartening to witness the enduring power of a play written almost 2,500 years ago. It’s also important to try to understand why it speaks to us so directly across millennia, cultures, and disciplinary boundaries. The answer resides partly in the play’s second choral ode, where we are told “…no greatness creeps down into the life destined to death without bringing disaster” (p. 46, line 748). At its most general level, then, the play is about the human condition, and more particularly the well known dilemma that the higher we climb the harder we fall. The chorus would not be caught off guard by the crumbling of the tower of Babel, the sinking of the RMS Titanic, the collapse of a superpower, or the violent destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. To aspire to greatness, whether in the realm of architecture or politics, is to court disaster, a timeless enough insight to ensure the lasting relevance of what Matthew Arnold calls Sophocles’ “eternal note of sadness” (“Dover Beach, 1851).

But the play also poses a more specific and, if anything, increasingly relevant, question: what duties do citizens owe to the state and what duties do citizens owe to their own personal and/or family values? As a general rule, the chorus is not much use in trying to understand this central issue. But, in fairness, this is not a dilemma that Sophocles seems prepared to resolve. On the contrary, it arises from the general human condition he articulates through the chorus, and the play’s failure to decide the above question cements its enduring power. As G. W. F. Hegel observes, Creon and Antigone can be viewed as equally right, forever preserving the tragic inevitability of the conflict, and denying recourse to any final resolution. So, if you find yourself siding alternately with Antigone and Creon, or unable to decide where to finally place your sympathy, that is testament to the play’s ability to dramatize an important and perpetually relevant issue. To clearly resolve the conflict in favour of either party would ruin the story. It is a tribute to Sophocles that Antigone looks different in different contexts, and continues to thrive both in theatres around the world, and university course reading lists.

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Say it on Purpose: An overview of Arts One Writing

As you have already detected, I regard the formulaic approach to writing with deep suspicion and would invite you to break free of most of the constraining “dos and don’ts” you may have heard in the past. It’s simply not true that a thesis must appear at the end of the first paragraph, that a thesis is a single sentence, that an essay should have five paragraphs, that you can never use the first person pronoun, etc. University writing has some rules too of course, and I discuss these in due course. At this point, however, I will focus on observations designed to give you general parameters for effective, purposeful writing across the disciplines and not specific and inviolable codes.

There are many sorts of papers, and your life at UBC may require you to adjust to the demands of different subjects, courses, assignments, academic fields, and so forth. But for Arts One — and most writing across the faculty of Arts — you will need to hone the craft of the “argumentative” essay. This sort of paper advances a claim, or claims, about a given topic and employs evidence in the process. Whether you are offering a cause-and-effect statement, informed opinion, interpretation or critical evaluation, you are trying to convince the reader that your claim is persuasive. This can only be achieved with evidence, in the form of logic and textual support. The latter consists of making the reader believe that you are well acquainted with the textual material, and are able to identify and cite passages that support your statements (more on this below).

Every paper should quickly and clearly establish a sense of direction and purpose. Direction refers less to a specific argument than the overall coherence and structure of a paper. A paper does not typically announce its purpose in the opening sentence, so you need to catch the reader’s interest but also offer a clear pathway toward what you will argue. You may feel a need to “hook” the reader, but try to avoid dramatic or gratuitous statements. If you want to start with a reference to a song, movie or text other than what you have been asked to read, make sure that there is a genuine connection to your actual topic, and that your allusion points toward your ultimate purpose. The last thing you want to do is lose or confound the reader in the opening paragraph.

How to start?

Everybody has encountered and/or used the grand sweeping generalization. At its broadest, it looks like this: “from the dawn of time, humankind has struggled with the problem of war….” Maybe you are writing about war, and want to set the tone for the paper. But sentences of this sort are so all encompassing as to say nothing, and cannot function as an introduction to anything. Nor can the truthfulness of sentences of this sort be established. In this particular sentence, for instance, there is no way to know whether war is an innate, pre-societal feature of human life, or a product of historically peculiar and transient circumstances (as Marx believes). It is also not true that all societies view war a problem to be overcome. For example the Homeric warriors, as we just discovered, are by definition wholly and happily immersed in an ethos of war.

So how should I start that upcoming Plato essay on the problem of justice? Not like this:

“Since time immemorial the problem of justice has been an issue”

or this:

“The ancient Greeks were preoccupied with issues of justice, and the Republic of Plato reflected these concerns to a greater extent than any of his contemporaries.”

What’s wrong with this as an opening? It sounds fine, but reflects a very common tendency that promises to weaken the essay substantially. The focus of the paper is meant to be Plato, and more specifically my engagement with his ideas and, in this hypothetical topic, justice in particular. But notice how instead I have made the ancient Greeks my opening focus. Two questions arise here: 1. have I been asked to discuss Plato’s Republic or ancient Greeks? 2. what could I possibly say about ancient Greeks on the basis of Plato’s Republic? Simply put, avoid letting your perceived ignorance about what Plato is saying lead you to fall back on the illusory safety of generalizations about the world in which he lived. Arts One, and writing of the sort it demands, cries out for a focus on the text. If you found yourself talking about Mycenean civilization rather than what was going on in the Odyssey, on what basis were you doing so? We haven’t read about the Mycenean civilization, and thus an exposition of this sort would need to be based on something outside the text — and we aren’t asking for expository, noncritical essays in any case. This sort of writing can be very informative, and has its place, but that place is not Arts One. Put differently, in Arts One writing at least, there is nothing outside the text. The lectures and, to some extent, seminars are, of course, outside the text but are designed to open up the work in order for you to better understand and engage its possible meanings. While it is legitimate and useful to make occasional references to these resources in your essays, what can be gained by simply and extensively repeating what I or others have said? It’s ultimately what you think that matters, whether or not you use the first person pronoun.

What about purpose?

You might try to forget anything you have heard about a thesis in the past. For one thing, it is seldom if ever a one sentence phenomenon in university writing — imagine a 25 page essay on Canadian foreign policy with a one line “thesis”! Use the word if you must, but think in terms of purpose. What am I trying to achieve in this paper? To go back to my hypothetical justice in Plato paper, let’s look at a couple of topics and possible responses. If we have done our job as Arts One instructors, you should never see a topic like this:

Plato’s conception of justice in Republic marks him as an enemy of liberty and equality. Discuss.

In this topic, you are seemingly invited to repeat and reaffirm the wisdom of the premise — to tell someone what they want to hear. To what purpose? Are you a student or a parrot? What if we make this change:


Does Plato’s conception of justice in Republic mark him as an enemy of liberty and equality?

If you think this is a better formulation of the topic (and I think it’s dramatically better) ask yourself why. Hint: you can now think in terms of a purpose of your own, other than proving you can squawk like that parrot. So this new formulation will be my pretend question. How do I proceed to a purpose?

  1. I need to read the book… carefully…. the whole book (this seems self-evident but why not say it)
  2. I need to wrap my head around what Plato thinks “liberty” and “equality” are NOT what I think, or worse, “know” they are. This is hugely important. Start by recognizing that the point is to understand and engage a text on its own terms, not ours. Obviously, if Plato were alive today he probably wouldn’t be described as a liberal. Again, stick to the text.
  3. Try to find some sort of angle on the question and be sure to use the text to support/reinforce/supplement points you are making, and not as a substitute for your own independent argument.

Back to my pretend paper. The following is NOT a thesis or statement of purpose:

“This essay looks at whether Plato’s conception of justice in Republic mark him as an enemy of liberty and equality.”

Learn to recognize that restating the topic in your own words is not a statement of purpose. Many so called thesis statements are in fact statements of focus, not purpose. Consider, for example, how I could possibly call this a thesis: “this paper will look at Canadian foreign policy in the 1980s.” This is a statement of focus, nothing more. So a thesis would look something like this:

“This essay looks at whether Plato’s conception of justice in Republic mark him as an enemy of liberty and equality. It first examines Plato’s use of liberty, paying particular attention to his understanding of freedom and autonomy not from some external source — governments or societies for example — but from our own internal, non rational urges. The paper will show that these “appetites,” as Plato terms them, while endemic to all people, cannot be controlled, or even recognized, by any but the most philosophical souls. This suggests the existence of an inherent relationship between liberty and equality, and that Plato understands neither concept in what have become their normal, modern usage. As such, Plato cannot be seen as a enemy of these concepts. On the contrary, they are integral features of his argument….”

Notice how this is much more than a sentence. How could a genuine thesis be confined to a sentence, especially when we are dealing with a text like this? Avoid trying to reduce your purpose to a single statement, and get out of the habit of looking for such statements in the work of your peers. Do not think of yourself as answering a question, regardless of how the topic may be posed. Think, at all times, in terms of purposefulness: what am I trying to say and to what end? What am I trying to argue? And be aware that your argument may evolve and change as you write, and you might need to rework your statement of purpose to mirror what you have discussed in the paper.

There may be times when it sounds like you are being asked to describe something, but even here that is seldom the only thing your instructor will be asking you to do, regardless of course or subject. If you have been asked to “Describe and assess the key features of the United Nations Security Council,” it’s easy to fall into the trap of simple narration. But even in this instance you would or should want to offer some kind of original analysis. Words like “discuss,” “assess,” “explore,” and “compare” should all be read to mean: “say something interesting, original, and persuasive about x.” There are times when you will need to add descriptive aspects to the writing but keep these to a minimum, assume a knowledgable reader, and avoid lapsing into extended summaries of a text or its plot elements.

It is also important to avoid the trap of assuming that you have been given questions to which there are ideal responses. Essay topics are not exam questions; they are not designed to illicit ultimate truths. While it is important to be knowledgable about the text, it is neither possible nor necessary to be an expert on the author and his/her world in order to explore your ideas. And a well posed essay question should allow for several possible responses. Your job is to create a reading that is coherent and persuasive, not an argument that is true in any ultimate sense. Nor is it necessary to assume that every essay topic is pointing toward, or could even allow for, a predetermined and ideal interpretation. Remember, the very best essays tend to surprise the reader and/or challenge conventional readings.



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Arts One Exam prep: Some Thoughts

While the texts/authors in a given Arts One list are presented in a vertical column, the trick to getting the most out of the course (and preparing for its exam) is to think horizontally. A typical Arts One theme will be presented in the form of binary opposition (reason and passion, nature and nurture, individual and society–you get the idea) or will be pitched at a general enough level to invite binary analysis. For example: is Frankenstein’s creature a monster or a victim of a monstrous upbringing? Or, in the words of the infinitely quotable Morrissey, “is evil just something you are, or something you do?” Arts One is all about questions that have no obvious or easy resolution. It is important, therefore, to view any given theme (or the issues arising from within a theme) as continua along which range a host of essentially contested ideas.

As you prepare for the exam, individually or in groups, try to utilize what can be called a key-concept-comparison approach. Arrange our authors horizontally along a row:

e.g. Genesis, Medea… Plato… Hobbes… Rousseau… Defoe… Levi… Gilman… Moore etc.

Then construct a vertical column of concepts/themes etc. that strike you as relevant:

Genesis… Plato… Hobbes… Rousseau… Defoe… Gilman… Moore etc.

Human nature

Free will





(and so forth)

Be creative in your attempt to develop points of comparison. You are building a visual map that allows for instant comparison (similarities & differences) around key points. Ask yourself how and why a category applies, and be prepared to decide whether or not it is an especially useful way of looking at a work. You might decide, for example, that free will has no real place in Freudian analysis. And be prepared to expand your thinking. You might think, for example, that Plato has no real interest in liberty when it might be more accurate to say he has no sense of modern liberalism’s idea of freedom, but does have a conception of liberty that revolves around the notion of freedom from non-rational impulses like appetites and passions. You will also want to develop a sense of where a particular text tilts in terms of its view of human nature (positive/negative? fixed/changeable?) community (individual rights/communal values?) and so forth.

What you should be able to construct is a visual map for quick reference, and a reasonably in-depth sense of how these texts compare around key points.

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Echoes of Eliot and Conrad in Levi’s Hollow Men

“This is the way the world ends (x3)… not with a bang but a whimper.” There’s something     profoundly unsettling in the notion that something as dramatic as the end of the world could manifest as a fizzle. Some horrors are so inexplicable as to transcend experience and expression rendering them, perversely, almost anti-climactic. “This is hell,” writes Levi, “and we wait for something which will certainly be terrible, and nothing happens and nothing continues to happen” (p. 22). Eliot’s inspiration (if that’s the right way to describe his fixation with moral paralysis) is at least partly attributable to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, whose central character, Kurtz, appears in the opening line of “The Hollow Men,” and comes to symbolize a genocidal imperial policy in African. There are numerous common points between Conrad, Eliot, and Levi, and Dante’s Inferno is an explicit anchoring point for each text.

Conrad offers a template for the genre of genocide, conveying “the horror” of mass killing not in screaming indignation but in clinical, detached, almost banal observation. Despite the centrality of Kurtz (or rather the idea of Kurtz) the point is that there is no single or comprehensible cause for industrial-scale murder. Rather it is an army of book-keepers, accountants, steam-boat pilots, brick-makers, surveyors, pilgrims, rubber sellers, and so forth that spread the “germs of empire.” These hollow men… like the “papier-mache mephistopholes”… might be called genocidal nerds. For Levi these are the capos, the doctors, the camp administrators, or petty functionaries whose dedication to an unquestioned individual “duty” combines, with obscene banality, to create a holocaust. Like Conrad’s novella, the terror of Levi’s testament resides in its inability to name “the horror” — to identify the monster that haunts our imagination. If only something would go bump in the night… if only a monster would show its face and emerge from behind the barbed wire perimeter of the bizarrely ordinary world of industrial murder. The “Belgian Free State,” and “Arbeit Mach Frei,” resonate today as abominable lies uttered by and for “hollow men” and “sordid puppets.”


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Bugged by Kafka?

Morrissey once asked: “has the world changed or have I changed?” Were Gregor to pose this question, the answer would hardly keep us in suspense. And yet he barely notices his mutation, rather like the early scenes in Shawn of the Dead where pre-zombie life is almost indistinguishable from zombie “life.” What does it mean?

As Josella Tan points out, there’s an irony in the idea of metamorphosis — maybe it’s the world that changes after all. Gregor has literally crystallized into what he more or less always was: an insignificant insect. His greatest ambition, after all, is the “real, true, ordinary state of affairs” (p. 33). Here comes another irony: his family has been so parasitic on him that only his buggish immobilization shakes them into action, spurring father and mother back into the world of work, and his sister in pursuit of marriage. They have lost their livelihood, but now stand a chance at real life, something that Gregor first figuratively, than literally, loses.  I’m reminded of a slogan  I read once in an ad for IKEA office furniture: “when work is a pleasure, life is a joy.” Unhappily for Gregor the opposite is also true, and his mundane  job as a traveling salesman puts him into constant contact with humans, but not with humanity. As Gregor laments, it is a “human contact that is always changing, never lasting, never approaching warmth” (p. 28).

Because the story is so clearly allegorical there are multiple interpretations that are available. There is no easy or obvious meaning in his sudden status as a bug, so let’s just relax and examine the many possible themes it can generate.


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Mad women? from Attica to Attic

The title for this brief post is a bit cryptic and inspired by my reaction to Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and the way in which this story appears to continue a literary tradition of connecting strong females with madness, one of the earliest and most obvious examples being Medea. Gilman’s narrator is not, strictly speaking, confined to an Attic, a virtual convention of the gothic story. But her imprisonment in a upstairs Nursery establishes a strong connection to Rochester’s “mad” wife in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, itself a remote echo of Medea. What is one to do with a nonconforming woman? Send her into exile, or lock her up?

Medea kills her children, and Gilman’s narrator cannot establish a bond with her child. At first glance, the cliche of the unnatural, monstrous female seems safely established. Yet neither Euripides or Gilman conform to so much as challenge this stereotype. While the narrator and Medea are strong willed, nonconformist, socially isolated, and drift progressively deeper into seeming madness, is it these characters that are mad and monstrous, or the worlds they inhabit? John and Jason, it seems, have a lot in common.



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Unreal City: Is the Waste Land a place?

To what extent is the Waste Land spatial, historical, and real? London strikes me as an “Unreal City” in a couple of (possibly) useful ways for coming at the poem. The City of London is actually only slightly bigger than one square mile and refers to an originally Roman settlement that is now only a tiny core at the heart of a massive metropolis. It still remains an administrative and peculiar place, with a Lord Mayor of London who is NOT the mayor of London. Eliot’s London — and despite being an American he sees it at his London — is well established as the leading hub of global finance, a role it continues today. The “City” also functions as a metonym (thanks Kevin for defining this) for the UK’s financial district, a usage clearly employed by Eliot. Today, only about 7,000 people live in the City, but close to half a million people work there, swelling its population by day, streaming home to the suburbs by night. Eliot captures this phenomenon in the poem, likening the daily pilgrimage to work and back as a living death by connecting it to Dante’s Inferno: “I had not thought death had undone so many.” The litany of actual London locations, most of them in or near the City, places the poem, in one sense, in a real place. But Eliot is clearly trading on the non-spatial, unreal, surreal notion of the  City as well, a place “populated” by soul-less bankers in bowler hats, some of them “Bradford millionaires” — outsiders and upstarts.

London may also be unreal in the sense that it is destined to be only the latest in a series of fallen towers referenced, directly or obliquely, in the poem: Carthage, Babylon, Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, Vienna… all have had their day. Fleeting, ephemeral, “stony rubbish,” a “heap of broken images” — a fate that figuratively, even literally, await all great civilizations. But where is Rome it might be asked? I would suggest that London is Rome, or rather its “surviving” modern outpost, physically alive (“a human engine”) but spiritually dead…. “but there is no water.” “London bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down,” taking with it a sea of humanity. The waste land then is a place, in time and space, but also, and more importantly, a spiritual condition universalized by articulating it in the context of civilizations past, and the great City of London present, itself a collection of civilizational layers and fragments.

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The Waste Land

So why should April be the “cruellest month”? Anybody with a vaguely Christian background or knowledge will associate April with Easter… renewal, regeneration, rebirth, salvation, God, meaningfulness and certainty after a long frozen winter of doubt and dread. In places like Ontario (with real winters) the allusion to spring and the burial of the dead is clearer. You can’t did a grave in frozen ground. No wonder T. S. Eliot is an anagram of toilets: that’s where all hope stands ready to be flushed!

So what’s going on here? The mood of the poem is decidedly downbeat. Even if we don’t have a clue what Eliot’s trying to say, the disenchantment of the world is palpable. Blame it on Nietzsche? The “death of God” thing seems to have sent Eliot in a despairing direction. No God? No good then? No meaning? Just “fragments” of earlier illusory certainties… the false promises of the Torah’s commandments, Plato’s forms, or Hobbes’s natural laws. This at least is something says Eliot: fragments to be “shored against” his ruin. OK, well at least we still have sex! Not so fast… there’s nothing meaningful or fun going on there either. Consider the typist’s ho hum reaction to a lunch-time quickie with the “young man carbuncular.”

Begin by asking yourself why Eliot regards his world as a waste land when it contains so many of the features of our own. Or is ours a waste land too?



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