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  • History and The Politics of Play in T. S. Eliot's "The Burial of The Dead" and Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons
  • Jerry Phillips (bio) and Ian Wojcik-Andrews (bio)

Adam Smith's contradictions are of significance because they contain problems which it is true he does not resolve, but which he reveals by contradicting himself.

(Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value )

"April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain" (lines 1-4).1 Ironically, verb predication in this quatrain plays off against the idea of lifelessness. "April is the cruellest month" because with "stirring" spring rain, it brings lilacs to life "out of the dead land," forcing them to confront "memory and desire"—the analogues of time past and time future respectively—which are sharply juxtaposed in an uncongenial present. The dead land equals an ideal site of escape in that the lilacs do not have to confront the nature of time while buried within it; their roots can remain dulled. Only the cruelty of April reveals to the lilacs that their site is less than ideal: in "The Waste Land" April can be cruel because fertility does not affirm life, fertility only confirms the desirability of death. Death equals the escape from consciousness. "Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow, feeding / A little life with dried tubers" (5-8). The "us" of this statement longingly recalls the time when they drew life from the season of death. The weight of consciousness is forgotten under the weight of snow. The "dried tubers" come to stand for the failure of the dead land to nourish "a little life," which is life without the recognition of consciousness. The poet then implies that the "us" is a particular social class: "Summer surprised us coming over the Starnbergersee / With a shower of rain, / And drank coffee, and talked for an hour. / Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch" (8-12). The life that these people lead is the desire for death as represented by the lilacs and dried tubers above. Surprised by "a shower of rain," a symbol of fertility, they take shelter, but eventually retire to the sunlit [End Page 53] Hofgarten for coffee and conversation. Denying that they are emigres from the Russian Revolution, these obviously wealthy people are exiles of another sort. They are exiles from contemporary history, exiled from themselves. Not for nothing, then, does the speaker resort to a conjunctive qualification—"And when we were children" (13)—to introduce the notion of an integrated self lost in her personal and social history in the wasteland. While the rest of the section is narrated by an anonymous impersonal voice, the childhood recollection is a significant moment of individuation. As the polished cultural references suggest, Marie's social class is committed to a world of leisure, so for Marie the perfect image of the past is child's play. "My cousin, he took me out on a sledge" (14). Sledging is an unpredictable, violent, and frightening adventure; but holding on tight makes the escapade tolerable and enjoyable. Just as the dead land provides a spiritual home for the lilacs, so the mountains serve Marie and the audience she assumes in her use of the second personal pronoun; mountains are the appropriate metaphor of their alienation. A landscape traditionally associated with ideas of retreat—"There you feel free" (17)—mountains are felt to be above quotidian society and impervious to time and history. The speaker reads "much of the night" (18), the implication being that she cannot sleep to escape the nightmare of her daily existence. The alienation is more extreme in winter, hence she goes south.

What is play? A theory of play contemporaneous with Eliot and Ransome holds that "Play is activity for its own sake, or more properly, it is purposeless activity, striving toward no goal" (MacDougall, quoted in Burghardt 19). For MacDougall, play is a nonutilitarian, nonteleological form of activity which is definable on its own terms. This idealization of play ignores the fact that play belongs to a context.2 Play is the construction of ideal worlds...


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pp. 53-69
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