This post is part of a series that takes a closer look at the scholarship behind IU Press Journals. Primarily written by journal editors and contributors, posts may respond to articles, provide background, document the development process, or explain why scholars are excited about the journal, theme, or article.
Matthew Scully’s article, “Plasticity at the Violet Hour: Tiresias, The Waste Land, and Poetic Form,” from the Journal of Modern Literature’s newest issue, is now available on JSTOR & Project MUSE. Below, Matthew elaborates on modernist anxieties, order, and a claim that Eliot’s poem contains its own critique.
A letter exchange between T.S. Eliot and Otto Heller about The Waste Land characterized the poem as a site of “a struggle” between order and disorder (242). The poem would require some kind of balance between the two poles in order to qualify as a successful poem. But because it strives for “orderly” balance, the relation between the two terms is loaded, asymmetric, and thus privileges order. Both Eliot and Heller seem to evince some anxiety about order. Transposing this anxiety to my discussion of The Waste Land, I would say that Eliot’s anxieties regarding the poem, that are evident in the role accorded to Tiresias, are less about the threat of a lost ordering principle than they are about the presence of real disorder. Tiresias is indeed, as I argue, a central figure of the poem, but rather than merely order the poem’s fragments into a meaningful whole, he embodies their persistent dispersal. Tiresias figures a bodily excess at the heart of The Waste Land and the presence of unprincipled disorder. He functions both as the poem’s structuring principle and as its structural antagonist.
Using Catherine Malabou’s theories of plasticity, I draw out this disordering force of Tiresias. As a “plastic” figure of erotic potential and embodied materiality, Tiresias exceeds the strictly linguistic register. At The Waste Land’s center, he points to the “rhythm” of eroticism and sexual violence throughout the poem (Malabou 49). Following some of the movements of this rhythm, my essay shows that The Waste Land engages in both the sensible and the insensible experiences of materiality. By focusing on such materiality, the language of the poem disseminates at the same time it figures its own dissemination. Although Eliot was always interested in order, as in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in which “[t]he existing monuments [of art] form an ideal order among themselves” (38), he shows himself in The Waste Land to be an exemplary thinker of the disorder structuring and de-structuring order.
In this reading, the essay has—perhaps as its unconscious—a claim that Eliot’s exemplary modernist poem contains within itself its own critique and potential undoing. While I do not want to get too entangled in debates on the meanings of modernism, modernity, and postmodernism, Jean-François Lyotard’s “simplified” definition of the postmodern “as incredulity toward metanarratives” (xxiv) proves instructive here. In contrast to postmodern “incredulity,” modernism might be understood as a desire for metanarratives, that is, for some governing structure of meaning and order. Postmodernism names, in contrast, the suspicion of this desire and, potentially, its critique. Tiresias should be the figure who can offer a metanarrative for the poem in whose construction he participates. And yet the poem repeatedly and insistently disturbs this possibility. Tiresias’s material and figural excess overwhelms the various ordering schemas offered. In this way, The Waste Land can be read both as a modernist poem, in its jarring confrontation between order and disorder that remains governed by its desire for a formal order, and as a postmodernist critique of this desire, since it also undermines ordering principles with a disordering drive. Rather than as merely period concepts, I therefore understand modernist and postmodernist as names for the structural antagonism inherent in The Waste Land.
This essay grew out of my own ongoing interest in modernist anxieties toward ordering logics, as evident in Ezra Pound’s Cantos, Wallace Stevens’s Ideas of Order, Mina Loy’s Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose, and Louis Zukofsky’s “A”, to name only a few examples. Eliot’s The Waste Land is an exemplary text to engage this interest and these anxieties, and Malabou’s work on plasticity offers a way to read the poem against Eliot’s desire for order. However, this reading is at the same time grounded in Eliot’s own writing and thinking. Locating a pervasive plasticity in The Waste Land allows for a renewed mode of experience of this metamorphic poem in the wake of its own deconstruction.
Eliot, T.S. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, 1923-1925. Vol. 2. Eds. Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton. Gen. Ed. John Haffenden. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011.
---. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot. Ed. Frank Kermode. London: Faber and Faber, 1975. 37-44.
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.
Malabou, Catherine. Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: Dialectic, Destruction, Deconstruction. Trans. Carolyn Shread. New York: Columbia UP, 2010.
Matthew Scully teaches literature and literary theory as an affiliated faculty member at Emerson College.
Marianne Moore's Cabinets of Curiosity
Lola Ridge, American Modernism's Forgotten Radical
Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet by Terese Svoboda
Review by: Joshua Logan Wall
“The Secrets of Blood and Seed”: Primo Levi's Poetic Emergence
Barbara L. Estrin
The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley by Robert Creeley, Rod Smith, Peter Baker, Kaplan Harris
Review by: Rachel Blau DuPlessis
Trailing through the Thicket
Intricate Thicket: Reading Late Modernist Poetries by Mark Scroggins
Review by: Zhaohui Liu
The First Book: Twentieth-Century Poetic Careers in America by Jesse Zuba
Review by: Mike Chasar
A Book of Readings on Anne Carson
Anne Carson: Ecstatic Lyre by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
Review by: Calista McRae
“The Eliot we have is the Eliot we make”: A Review of The New Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot
The New Cambridge Companion to T.S. Eliot by Jason Harding
Review by: Chen Lin
• READ FOR FREE •
Plasticity at the Violet Hour: Tiresias, The Waste Land, and Poetic Form
A Myriad of Critical Lenses on The Waste Land
The Cambridge Companion to The Waste Land by Gabrielle McIntire
Review by: Ping Song