- Purchase/rental options available:
ELH 68.2 (2001) 501-527
[Access article in PDF]
Dada Da Da: Sounding the Jew in Modernism
Daniel T. McGee
Few would describe The Waste Land as easy to read. And indeed, most critics would agree that noone should find it easy, since, as Ian Hamilton remarked in 1970, "Eliot wanted the poem to be difficult and no doubt conceived of its difficulty as an important aspect of its total meaning." 1 Where the New Critics had admired such high-modernist obscurity, Hamilton criticized the "difficulty of the poem's wealth of cultural allusion" for its "aristocratic aloofness, a determination to keep up the barriers" of class. 2 More recently still, the sense of the poem's intentional difficulty has been identified as the mark not only of a self-consciously high modernism, but of a specifically white modernism, so Eliot's hermeneutic "barriers" are understood to be not just a class issue, as Hamilton thought, but a racial problem. Houston Baker, Jr.'s Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance thus argues that Eliot's difficulty functioned as a form of literary segregation, delimiting "the tradition" as a white enclave. As Baker puts it, "the 'tongue'" of Eliot's "collaged allusiveness" was "unknown" to the Harlem audiences of The New Negro writers. 3 Baker's general claim, that African-American modernism had "little in common with the Joycean or Eliotic projects," hinges on his understanding of European avant-garde writing not as a purely formal project, nor simply as a consolidation of what Hamilton calls cultural wealth, but as the invention of an alternative language. 4 What separates Eliot's modernism from the Harlem Renaissance is that Eliot wrote in a "tongue" that was "unknown" in Harlem.
But Eliot's language would not have presented problems only to readers of The New Negro, for The Waste Land speaks in six tongues that were unknown not only in Harlem but in London, plus one that had never been spoken anywhere in all of Europe (Sanskrit). The poem foregrounds a proliferation of languages that was clearly crucial to the modernity of Eliot, Pound, Hemingway, and Joyce; but the production of many languages in a single text also turns out to be surprisingly relevant to the Harlem Renaissance. For example, the project of Langston Hughes's early work--inventing a poetic form that would be neither white nor simply a reversion to minstrel stereotypes-culminates [End Page 501] in the effort to imagine jazz as a language that transcends not only the opposition of standard and dialect, but all linguistic differences. Thus, "Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret" (1925) exclaims, "Play it, jazz band! / You've got seven languages to speak in / And then some," imagining jazz as a multilinguistic medium of communication that the poem embodies in the punning of, "May I? / Mais oui. / Mein Gott!" 5 Far from separating Joyce and Eliot from the Harlem poets, as Baker would have it, the interest in linguistic multiplicity and the idea of poetic language it implied constitute a basic structural connection between these two modernisms.
But what is the meaning of the widespread modernist interest in not just language, but languages? In The Dialect of Modernism, Michael North argues that writers like Eliot and Pound reduced all languages to a pluralism of dialects, undermining the standard and marking the emergence of a "cultural and linguistic relativism" that "would demolish the authority of the European languages." 6 That revisionist view is corroborated by Jeffrey Perl and Andrew Tuck's assertion that "a reader used to thinking of Eliot as an absolutist Anglo-Catholic may be interested to know that 'relativist' was the only label that Eliot was willing to accept during [graduate school]." 7 The idea that relativism could be the relevant model for understanding Eliot might seem to gain additional plausibility in light of The Waste Land's profusion of foreign languages, which seem even more radically different than dialects from standard English. And Eliot himself, in his 1929 essay on Dante, had asserted that "you must be struck by national or racial differences of thought" in "modern languages...