Eulogy for Western Culture
World War I brought about the most profound and impactful paradigm shift in Western culture since the Enlightenment, and Western culture still feels the ripples of its impact a century later. World War I was the deadliest war of its time in terms of both the number of casualties and the destruction of European cities and countryside. If the fatalities from the Spanish Flu, wh ich spread so widely as a direct result of the war, are included, WWI is the deadliest war the world has ever seen. Yet, o ut of this staggering loss came some hope. World War I accelerated the process of globalization that began in the 18 th Century , and this triggered an economic boom . However, t his new globalization , along with political mishaps at Versailles , set up the world for the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. World War I sent the West into a new and chaotic world. Some found it exciting, while others found it horrifying. Many lauded the e conomic and cultural boom of this post-war world; however , others mourned the straying from old traditions and values and felt that this cultural shift was a simple decline in morals. T.S. Eliot doubtlessly held the second opinion . In his 1922 poem The Waste L and , Eliot laments the decline of Western culture and intelligence and assigns the blame to people straying from tradition and religion to instead busy themselves with immoral activities, especially sex. However, Eliot also advises that there is hope for change if people will rectify their values. This essay will examine how Eliot uses The Waste Land to express both his disappointment and advice for Westerners after World War I by dissecting the symbolism infused in the poem .
The Waste L and reflects the destruction and desolation of post-war Europe, both physically and culturally. In the poem, the waste land is physically desolate. Before one even begins reading, the title itself conjures an image of a broken land much like Europe's post-war landscape marred by trenches, bombs, and death. A lthough the physical devastation of Europe was staggering, the physical state waste land primarily serves as a metaphor for the state of Western culture : an intellectual and moral waste land. The primary features of the waste land are its dryness and pollution , and these represent the intellectual and moral decay of the West.
The pollution of the waste land represents the disrespect that people were showing for their culture . T he land is filthy, and the nouveau-riche litter their houses with gaudy decor. The setting for part of the poem is London, and "brown fog," or smog from industrial waste, covers the city (70). Smog is a particularly apt symbol because it is completely encompassing. It hangs over a n entire city, or an entire cu lture. Wherever one looks, there is smog; wherever Eliot looks, there are magazines, dime novels, and movies. Similarly, light does not penetra te smog that is so thick that it appears to be brown. Refined culture and entertainment -like literature, plays, and symphonies—cannot penetrate the ‘smog' of pop culture. The famous Thames River that runs through London is also in a sorry state. It is so extraordinary for the Thames to be clean that it must be pointed out that "no empty bottles, sandwich papers, / [s]ilk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, [or ] cigarette ends" run float in it (175-176). Nevertheless, rats infest its bank s . Bodies of water are integral parts to civilization. Just as the Nile is synonymous with Egypt, the Thames is a symbol of London. If the Thames is polluted, London is polluted. Further, while yes, London is polluted with industrial emissions and litter, the grime primarily serves as a symbol for the pop culture that is polluting Western culture . This pollution is not necessarily ugly. The mansion in "A Game of Chess" is quite beautiful . A "candelabra," "jewels," "ivory," "marble," and "satin" decorate the interior ( 78-86) . However, the decor is ostentatious. It shows that the mansion's owners, the ‘new wealth' of the West, do not have good taste.