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T. S. Eliot of "The Waste Land" and Our Mid-Life Crisis (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) April 22, 2015: No doubt many American progressives and liberals today feel deep desolation about the rise and dominance of movement conservatism in American culture for about the last half century.

In the wake of World War I (1914-1918), T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) published his famous poem "The Waste Land" (1922). Basically, it expresses deep desolation.

In "The Waste Land," we are told that the "April is the cruelest month." But by the end of the poem, we readers are still in the waste land with Eliot as though we and he together are still awaiting April and its renewal.

It is fitting that Robert Crawford's new biography of Eliot came out in April: YOUNG ELIOT: FROM ST. LOUIS TO "THE WASTE LAND" (2015). No doubt Crawford's deeply researched biography of Eliot might renew interest in the poet's life. It might also renew interest in his most famous poem, because it provides us with perceptive new ways in which to understand how Eliot was expressing aspects of his personal life in his seemingly impersonal poem.

But the overall dominant theme of the poem is that Western culture is a waste land in need to renewal. Almost a full century has now passed since "The Waste Land" was published in 1922, and Western culture today is still a waste land in need of renewal, especially American culture.

Will Crawford's new biography of Eliot's life from his birth in 1888 up to and including the publication of "The Waste Land" in 1922 help engender renewal in American progressives and liberals today so that they might then lead the renewal of Western culture from its outpost in American culture?

If progressives and liberals today feel weighed down by the weight of the world, and especially by the dominance of movement conservatism in American culture for about half a century now, then they are in a position to identify with the Eliot. If they are able to identify with him as they read Crawford's stylishly written biography, then they might be able to experience the renewal that the arrival of April symbolizes.

In terminology that Eliot used, progressives and liberals who feel weighed down by the weight of the world today need an objective correlative. Eliot can serve as an objective correlative for progressives and liberals today who feel weighed down by the weight of the world, as Eliot himself did and he struggled mightily to express his own deepest feelings in "The Waste Land."

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You see, Eliot wrote the various drafts of what in time became "The Waste Land" as part of his mid-life crisis. It appears that everybody in Western culture undergoes a mid-life crisis.

In the Homeric epics, King Odysseus' mid-life crisis is initiated when he is summoned to join, with his men, the fleet of a thousand ships being organized to set sail for Troy.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) vividly commemorated his mid-life crisis in the DIVINE COMEDY.

St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) underwent his mid-life crisis after he was wounded in battle. The fruits of his spiritual journey in the course of his mid-life crisis are available to us in his short book of instructions for guided meditations titled the SPIRITUAL EXERCISES.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) underwent a mid-life crisis, during which he wrote THUS SPOKE ZARATHUSTRA.

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C. G. Jung, M.D. (1875-1961) underwent a mid-life crisis after his break with Freud, during which Jung experiment with what he came to refer to as active imagination. His processing of his self-experimentation with active imagination is now available to us in his posthumously published illustrated book THE RED BOOK: LIBER NOVUS (2009).

Thus Eliot is not the only exemplar available to us who can serve as an objective correlative for us for our own mid-life crisis.

Our mid-life crisis befalls us. It is something we undergo. It is a summons from our unconscious. In the life-cycle, our mid-life crisis represents in our personal lives what April symbolizes in Eliot's "The Waste Land." In the mid-life crisis, our task is to respond actively to what we are undergoing.

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www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell
Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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