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Mixing Memory and Desire

 

LITERATURE AND SOCIETY dance a duet and take turns leading.  It isn’t always apparent that changes in Art are a response to changes in society and culture  or whether the order is reversed. Yet the very “ominous” poem, The Second Coming by Yeats was written just after WWI, the “war to end all wars” (https://www.moviesmarketsandmore.com/twilight-in-the-land-of-more/).

And Orwell’s dystopian 1984 (published 1949) was a response to totalitarianism before, during, and after WWII (https://www.moviesmarketsandmore.com/orwells-1984-is-the-book-of-our-time-a-canticle-for-eric-blair/ ). In the Roaring Twenties, the male and privileged romanticism of Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were the rage. By the end of the Depression, the mantle of social authority was transferred to the destitute masses in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or the more haunted existences of the Deep South revealed in the works of Faulkner.

In time, the Covid-19 Pandemic and the Trump Era will produce their own literature as well–unless you take the position that that at least some of those events were a response to changes in culture and Art.

On to the point…

Every spring, with the folding away of March and the tacit welcome of April, I think about T.S. Eliot’s tour de force, The Wasteland. With such a despairing title, it’s no surprise that it was written after the “Spanish Flu” pandemic of a century ago, with WWI as a backdrop.

Every spring, with the folding away of March and the tacit welcome of April, I think about T.S. Eliot’s tour de force, The Wasteland. With such a despairing title, it’s no surprise that it was written after the “Spanish Flu” pandemic of a century ago, with WWI as a backdrop.

It’s a very complex and esoteric work, changing structure and form and sprinkled with phrases in Latin, Greek, French, Italian or German.  It also makes references to classics like Dante’s Inferno or more obscure works regarding the Holy Grail. It is the kind of piece that–because it is not generally accessible to the average reader–might be dismissed as having been written “by a writer and scholar for other writers (and other scholars).” Nonetheless, in 1920, it challenged the conventions of poetry where rhyming and metered verse had dominated the form for centuries (possibly due to their use as lyrics).

But the opening lines left their mark on me. I never read it with the intended line breaks, but rather with the punctuation–almost as if it were spoken in conversation, wistfully and slightly theatrically. It seemed unfair at first to blame the herald month of the season of Hope, but as the same reader and writer who prefers September–the herald month of the season of decay, I left the poet to his sentiments. The line-three phrase, “mixing memory and desire,” explains much: autumn is about memory with desires unmet, while spring is about desire with memories yet unformed.

I wanted the whole poem to continue in the same style and didn’t understand why Eliot insisted on the constant and sudden shifts in form and context. It’s as if he were trying to cling to the old forms, yet sprint in fits to new ones, like an inconstant lover. It is as if he were mixing at once the memory of safe but constraining forms and the desire to break from them at the promise of new bliss.  Or perhaps he was lamenting some inevitable new change or growth: the pain of transformation and the renting of tired fabrics, the discarding of crutches that no longer serve to protect.

I still marvel at the power of the first lines.

 

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers. . .

 

WRH

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