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  • The Expert Hand and the Obedient Heart: Dr. Vittoz, T.S. Eliot, and the Therapeutic Possibilities of The Waste Land
  • Matthew K. Gold (bio)

It seems appropriate that The Waste Land, a text which ushered in a new modern literature characterized by disjointed narration, fragmented identities, and splintered religious faith, was written by a man in the midst of a nervous breakdown. 1 Having felt “very shaky” for months, 2 T.S. Eliot composed most of the poem while under the care of Dr. Roger Vittoz at a Lausanne, Switzerland, sanitarium in late 1921. 3 Dr. Vittoz’ role in the composition history of the text has been studied only vaguely, yet it is comparable to Ezra Pound’s famous “caesarean Operation.” 4 If Pound was the midwife of the poem, as Wayne Koestenbaum and others (including Pound himself) have claimed, then Dr. Vittoz was the anesthesiologist on call during the delivery, guiding Eliot through the birthing process and slipping him an epidural when the pain became too great. Vittoz’ therapeutic program re-educated Eliot’s broken will and enabled him to complete his work. The Waste Land stands as a record of Eliot’s sickness and his cure.

Although scholars of Modernism have gone to great lengths to make connections between the life and work of writers such as Pound and Hemingway, relatively few critics have examined and interpreted the circumstances surrounding Eliot’s stay in Lausanne, as well as their relation to the poem which he took with him when he left. This unusual critical neglect [End Page 519] might be due to Eliot’s famous doctrine of “impersonality”—his belief that “poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” 5 Some negligence is no doubt due to the influence of Eliot’s academic champions, the New Critics, who preferred close readings of texts to biographical examinations of the authors of those texts. Yet, as Lyndall Gordon notes, the more we know of Eliot’s life, “the clearer it seems that the ‘impersonal’ façade of his poetry—the multiple faces and voices—masks an often quite literal reworking of personal experience.” 6 The personal in Eliot tends to emerge in unexpected ways; even though his theory of “impersonality” is often quoted, for example, the naked confession that follows the theory is sometimes overlooked: “But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” 7

Since the publication of Eliot’s original drafts of The Waste Land manuscript in 1971 and The Letters of T.S. Eliot in 1988, scholars of Eliot’s work have paid increasing attention to the relationship among Dr. Vittoz, Eliot, and The Waste Land. The first work done on this subject was by the psychiatrist Harry Trosman, who in 1974 published “T.S. Eliot and The Waste Land” in Archives of General Psychiatry. 8 After Trosman’s article appeared, biographical studies such as Peter Ackroyd’s T.S. Eliot: A Life (1984) and Ronald Bush’s T.S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style (1984) began to discuss Vittoz. 9 Wayne Koestenbaum took up the issue in his 1989 study of the erotics of male literary collaboration. 10 In 1995, Adam Piette corrected some of the inaccuracies in Ackroyd’s descriptions of Vittoz’ treatment and further explored his connection to Eliot. 11 Many of these studies have taken into account the effect of Vittoz’ therapy on Eliot, but none of them interrogates Vittoz’ book, Traitment des psychonéuroses par la rééducation du contrôle cérébral (The Treatment of Neurasthenia By Means of Brain Control), or uses a close reading of Vittoz’ text as an interpretive tool for understanding The Waste Land. Eliot scholars have long traced the literary sources of his poems, on the reasonable grounds that if he read or wrote about a given book, it might have influenced his thought. Vittoz’ text is no different—Eliot read and marked the copy that he owned—and one may make a strong case for it as an influence on Eliot. For Vittoz...

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pp. 519-533
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