- Interpretation and Reality:Anthropological Hauntings in The Waste Land
Ghostly beings steal through the fabric of The Waste Land, imbuing it with an abiding sense of mystery and intangibility. Tiresias haunts the streets of postwar London, turning it into a mythical hell: time becomes unreal and disembodied spectral voices unnerve the reader with cries of longing and despair.1 The ghosts that permeate the poem go far beyond metaphor or allusion and are a vital part of Eliot’s creation of a supernatural aesthetic. He redefines the traditional trope of the ghost, moving away from its traditional associations with fear, vengeance, and suspense.2 In that redefinition, Eliot fuses the literary supernatural with intellectual and philosophical concerns he had begun to explore during his time as a graduate student at Harvard University. Using the poet’s anthropology and philosophy papers and some remarkably detailed lecture notes on Buddhist philosophy, this article traces the evolution of the haunted landscape of The Waste Land and offers a new reading of the mythological seer Tiresias.
There are important connections between Eliot’s early academic work in anthropology and his spectral imagery in The Waste Land. Of particular note is a fourteen-page paper he presented to his graduate seminar in December 1913, “The Interpretation of Primitive Ritual,” which examines the study of so-called “primitive” societies by Western anthropologists.3 On the face of it, the paper’s arid tone and focus on anthropological and sociological methodology seem far removed from the question of spectrality in The Waste Land. Its central question, “On what terms is a science of religion possible?,” is couched in the [End Page 237] dry language of the seminar room, rather than the unreal, immaterial imagery of the poem (Eliot, 4b). However, the relevance of the paper becomes clear when its central question is viewed as an inquiry into the place of belief in the otherworldly within an enlightened and secular society. It turns out to offer a challenge to Western systems of knowledge based on rationality and their accompanying faith in the concept of a fixed and objective reality.
In addressing the central question of the possibility of a “science” of religion, Eliot asks whether we can truly understand other human beings who have alternative systems of thought. He challenges Western paradigms based on logic and reason and holds that the reality we, as readers, perceive as fixed is only an interpretation. He argues that it is therefore impossible to judge or assess primitive religions—which have concepts of reality different from our own—using our frame of reference. He asserts that any attempt to do so will necessarily be an interpretation rather than a fact:
What seemed to one generation fact is from the point of view of the next, a rejected interpretation. And an interpretation, as such, is neither true nor false; but truth and falsity are relative to a kind of interpretation.(Eliot, 4b)
Through an examination of early twentieth-century anthropology and its methodology, Eliot’s student paper presents an argument that both Western and alternative belief systems can only be a series of interpretations. This challenge to rationality and the notion of a stable reality finds affiliations with the instability of being later to be found in The Waste Land. Divisions between subject and object, real and unreal, are eroded, and from this uncertain space emerges a profusion of ghosts.
Eliot’s paper specifically addresses the issue of primitive ritual, but its real subject is the question of how one society understands the belief systems of another. This raises the fundamental problem of human subjectivity, of whether or not anyone can ever know the truth about another person, or another belief, or even his or her own beliefs, when truth is always interpreted via a particular intellectual prism. The question is never resolved in Eliot’s paper, but similar anthropological and philosophical concerns resurface in The Waste Land through the supernatural figure of Tiresias. Eliot attributes to him spectral qualities that enable him to move through individual human consciousnesses, superseding the problem of human perspective: in Tiresias, the traditional qualities of a literary ghost are combined with modern anthropological anxieties...