Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920) comments that in the Thirteenth-Century Quest of the Holy Grail, the wasteland motif has largely contracted into the figure of the maimed king. The wasteland motif is, despite Weston’s assertion, present in that text. In a “Waste Forest,” for example, Lancelot and Perceval seek refuge in a chapel, “abandoned and ruinous,” near “a stone cross which stood on a lonely heath at the parting of two ways.” (Matarasso’s translation) A wounded knight, whom the Quest author identifies as the “Fisher King,” comes carried in a litter to the shrine. He prays God before the cross, “shall my suffering never be abated”; inquires after the “Holy Vessel” that will alleviate his agony; and passes inside through the chapel door. Later, Lancelot witnesses the healing apparition of the Grail before the stricken man. Later still, resuming the saddle, he overhears an indicting voice. It invokes his adultery with Queen Guinevere and orders him, “Get thee hence, for the stench of thy presence fouls this place.” In one of the adventures involving Perceval’s sister, she willingly, but fatally, gives her blood to cure a noble lady who has fallen victim to leprosy and whose restoration signifies the restored integrity of her realm. The images intercommunicate. The maimed king received his wound because he once sinned in ritual discourtesy to the Grail. Lancelot’s wound, while not physical, nevertheless festers obnoxiously and makes him persona non grata in sacred places. Before he may properly seek the Grail, he must undertake to purify his tainted soul. The cause of the noble lady’s disfigurement goes unrevealed, but the cure, the sister’s Christ-like act of self-sacrifice, gives back to the people the undisfigured figure of their sovereignty. The characters in the Quest differ from those in Geoffrey’s History in that they have risen to self-awareness. They understand vae desolatione as not exclusively a worldly but more so as a spiritual problem.
III. Weston reminds her readers that the wasteland motif has prototypes in one of the earliest canons of Indo-European literature, the hymns of the Rig-Veda. Weston prefaces her quotations from that canon with the premise that “a very considerable number of the Rig-Veda hymns depend for their initial inspiration on the actual bodily needs and requirements of a mainly agricultural population, i.e., of a people… to whom the regular and ordered sequence of the processes of Nature was a vital necessity.” This premise belongs in turn to Weston’s major thesis that the generic Grail Romance originates in the fertility rites of the various Indo-European corn deities, male and female. In the Hindu verses that interest Weston, the cultists of Indra beseech from him, as she puts it, “the much desired boon of rain and abundant water.” Weston draws on H. H. Wilson’s translation from the Sanskrit: “Thou, Indra, hast slain Vritra [a dragon] by thy vigour; thou hast set free the rivers.” This “Freeing of the Waters” occurs, rather obscurely, in Wauchier de Denain’s Thirteenth-Century story of Gawain. In Weston’s unattributed translation, “For so soon as Sir Gawain asked of the Lance… the waters flowed again thro’ their channel, and all the woods were turned to verdure.” The withering drought and the “Freeing of the Waters,” as such, have disappeared from the later literature, but the releasing of the blood as antidote to disease in the Quest echoes the primeval phases of sécheresse et reconstitution.
In the decades-long composition of his Idylls of the King (final version, 1885), Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892), anticipated Weston by undertaking a comprehensive review of the Arthurian literature and its primary symbols. Gildas and Geoffrey attribute the wasting of the land to sacrilege, political betrayal, trespass, and foreign usurpation. The wave of aliens overwhelms the day-to-day orderliness of life and forces the folk from its glebe. The natives commemorate their link to Romanitas, that is, to civilization, which they have ever honored. They would preserve that dignity but from it they feel disinherited. The invaders import pre-Christian cults that center on beastly rites including human sacrifice. In Chrétien’s Perceval and in the anonymous Quest, a mostly unexplained scourge suddenly befalls town and field, impressing the milieu with the characteristics of a zone: The land returns to wilderness, the paths wander, evildoers exercise their concupiscence freely, and civilized people retreat into castellated isolation under perpetual siege. The cause – related to that in the earlier writers but less direct – lies in a recurrence of the Fall. When men of office, like Lancelot, relax their morals, their sinfulness afflicts the realm, poisoning everything to the root. As for Tennyson’s blighted society, it comes to the fore in the segment of the Idylls entitled “The Holy Grail.” In it, with much subtlety, Tennyson proposes a novel explanation of the wasteland. Whereas in the medieval literature the Grail Quest responds to the disaster, aiming to reverse it, in the Idylls the Grail Quest is the disaster. The Quest itself brings about the wasting of the land.
An elderly Percivale, long a monk, narrates “The Holy Grail” as a monologue in retrospect, with a few interjections by his fellow cleric Ambrosius, at whose request he reminisces. The Table Round had fought twelve battles victoriously under Arthur but has for some time idled, feasting and tilting rather than campaigning. The physical combat of the joust has meanwhile metamorphosed into a wave of imitative piety mounting swiftly to a brazen and selfish competition for the badges of sanctity. Percivale’s sister, a nun, and Galahad, the chaste knight, have glimpsed the Arimathean talisman, marking them out as supremely spiritual from the viewpoint, as it seems, of Providence. Percivale has eyed the beam of light that portends the Grail, but not the object itself. The same goes for the other knights – and they feel cheated. In a mood of contention “every knight beheld his fellow’s face.” The cascade of oaths commences. That Gawain, the last to enlist, swore “louder than the rest” establishes the underlying destructive rivalry. Arthur, who missed the half-epiphany, turns prophet. He asks: “What are ye? Galahads?” In deserting Camelot, he pronounces, the knights alienate themselves from duties closer to hand, from answer to “the cries of all my realm.” The king foresees that in scattering themselves, the deluded seekers will “follow wandering fires / Lost in the quagmire,” and that most shall “return no more.” (Only a “tithe” of them returns; and only two of those have caught sight of the quarry.) The next day the gaggle disperses. Queen Guinevere, “who rode by Lancelot,” bewails how, “This madness has come on us for our sins.” Percivale exempts not himself in recounting his memoir. Although an internal voice twice warned that “this Quest is not for thee,” he too abandoned Arthur’s sway to pursue a will-o’-the-wisp.
Criticism looks to medieval lore, to Classical myth, and to Weston’s exegeses in its discussion of Eliot’s Waste Land, Eliot having invited commentators to do so via the erudite “Notes” that follow his poem. Tennyson’s powerful imagery in “The Holy Grail” seems, however, to have imprinted itself on Eliot’s figural language, especially in The Waste Land’s final section, “What the Thunder Said,” a link that scholarship typically ignores – no doubt out of prejudice against Tennyson. Desiccation haunts Eliot’s verses: “Here is no water but only rock / Rock and no water and the sandy road… If only there were water amongst the rock.” The poem’s pilgrim limps, thirst-driven, through a nightmare-landscape of “falling towers” and “fragments.” He sees, distantly, “hooded hordes swarming / Over endless plains, stumbling in the cracked earth.” For Percivale’s damnèd pilgrimage, Tennyson furnishes geography strikingly anticipatory of Eliot’s, but informed, of course, by the wasteland imagery from Gildas to Sir Thomas Malory. “And I was thirsty even unto death,” Percivale tells Ambrosius; and indeed, “I thought my thirst would slay me.” Mirages beckon him, of cool water and tasty fruit, of beautiful women who offer succor, but in every case, “these things at once / Fell into dust, and I was left alone, / And thirsting, in a land of sand and thorns.” When Percivale shambles back to Camelot, he finds, despite having glimpsed the fetish as it vanished from this Earth, only the wasteland: “We reached / The city, our horses stumbling as they trode / On heaps of ruin.” He saw the carven splendor all decayed; the palace in dilapidation, and Arthur doleful in confirmation of his sooth.
If in The Waste Land Eliot carried out his critique of the modern condition, Tennyson in “The Holy Grail” and in the whole of the Idylls would have done no less. The dolorous trends of modernity, presenting themselves to Eliot in their full obscenity after the War to End Wars, already presented themselves to Tennyson in the mid-Nineteenth Century. The common motif of thirst in Eliot’s and Tennyson’s poems points to a shared elegiac quality. Thirst refers to a lack, elegy to death, which creates another lack, and death, stemming from betrayal, also present in both poems, to an essential characteristic of modernity. The phrase “essential characteristic” requires qualification. A characteristic must be there, but a lack, being purely negative, can lay claim to no thereness or isness. The wasteland motif appealed to Tennyson and Eliot because they opined of modernity that it consisted in a betrayal of tradition, which gave rise to spreading vulgarity and destructiveness. Tennyson adhered to Victorian liberalism, but, in Eliot’s words from “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1917), he remained “the saddest of all English poets.” Whence his sadness? The answer comes from a recursion to the medieval material on which the poet drew. The Quest author, for example, explains the Table Round as fulfilling a cosmic symbolism by reflecting in its design the Great Chain of Being. When Tennyson’s knights scorn higher principle, as embodied in the tradition of their order, and for the sake solely of private ambition, they reproduce Vortigern’s epochal betrayal of his people and they bring disaster upon their world.
The early Twentieth-Century critique of modernity, in which Eliot participated, not only in The Waste Land, but also in his prose excursions on cultural matters, depicts its object as ruination in a hellish tract and traces its genesis to a perversion of the intellectual and spiritual faculties. This self-diminution of mentality began, at the latest, with the Eighteenth Century’s so-called Enlightenment. Consider that seminal work, The Crisis of the Modern World (1927) by René Guénon (1886 – 1951). Modernity foists over fecund reality, in Guénon’s view, an emptiness of sterile abstraction, exemplified in the drylands of Cartesian Space, which destroys thereness and isness for the sake of arbitrary location. “There was no rationalism before Descartes,” Guénon declares; “for rationalism is a specifically modern phenomenon, one that is closely connected with individualism, being nothing other than a negation of any faculty of a supra-individual order.” (Pallas-Osborne-Nicholson’s translation) Guénon uses his terms – rationalism and individualism – pejoratively. He means rationalism as restricted to syllogistic idiocy and individualism as restricted to a shrunken ego. In a world thus de-constituted, the aggregate of atomized subjects interacts with itself in a purely mechanistic way. According to Guénon, Descartes codified “the negation of intellectual intuition and the consequent raising of reason above all else, this purely human and relative faculty being treated as the highest part of intelligence.” The medieval Grail Romance dots the wasteland with fastnesses where fully capable people endure the siege of barbarity and hope one day to redeem the land from barbarity’s effects. That is dire enough. The Cartesian anti-cosmos ups the ante by scattering through the meaninglessness of its coordinate spatiality a multitude of isolated entities whose sole capacity is dumb ratiocination. That is dire to the nth degree. The coordinate spatiality, meanwhile, offers nothing to redeem.
The description of “mass man” in The Revolt of the Masses (1932) by José Ortega y Gasset (1883 – 1956) likewise incorporates elements of wasteland imagery, particularly the motifs of anarchy – the opposite of hierarchy – and trespass and dispossession. Ortega invokes the principle of hierarchy early on. “Human society is always,” he writes, “whether it will or no, aristocratic by its very essence, to the extreme that it is a society in the measure that it is aristocratic, and ceases to be such when it ceases to be aristocratic.” The rise of the masses therefore carries with it “the element of terror.” Ortega attributes to the degraded will of the mass, with its “violent moral upheaval,” a quality of the “treacherous.” Mass man sees himself as “exempt from restrictions.” Like Homer’s Antinous, he acts impulsively out of “his radical ingratitude towards all that has made possible the ease of his existence.” Mass man’s supposed notions merely disguise “appetites in words.” Indeed, mass man resembles a “giant,” flinging himself about with indocility. Those who resist the vulgar homogenization of hoi polloi now find themselves strangers in their native places. “The traveler who arrives in a barbarous country,” Ortega observes, “knows that in that territory there are no ruling principles to which it is possible to appeal.” The obtrusion everywhere of the throng thus results paradoxically in “dis-association” and “human scattering.” Transient groups form and dissolve, always “pullulating,” always “separate from and hostile to one another.” Eliot’s phrase, already quoted, might inveigle itself without interrupting Ortega’s exposition, as when Percivale catches sight, on a darkling plain, of “hooded hordes swarming.”
IV. The Tennysonian and Eliotic lament concerning thirst finds its echoes – or in Eliot’s case its pre-echoes – in the authorship of that namesake of the preeminent Grail Knight, that scion of Boston Brahminhood, the anthropologist and astronomer Percival Lawrence Lowell (1855 – 1916). Less known as a student of Japanese and Korean shamanism (his first gig) than as the chief promulgator, although not the originator, of the “Canals of Mars” theory, Lowell lived his life as a seeker and visionary, over whom parched environments exerted a strong pull. His ethnological fieldwork concerning shamanism often entailed a hike to the summit of a remote mountain or the rim of an extinct volcano, for the spirits of the ancestors came to the solitary ascetics whom he wished to observe only in such desolate altitudes. When Lowell switched from the science of Asian mysticism to the science of telescopic Areology, his taste in locale hardly altered. He built an observatory in the desert-mountains of Flagstaff, Arizona. Lowell, like Tennyson, Eliot, Guénon, and Ortega, harbored suspicions regarding the modern world, from which stemmed his proclivity to self-isolate. Lowell drew deeply on the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in whose thought figured prominently the thesis that modernity had disastrously severed its ties to ancient wisdom, falling into a condition of banality and uncreativeness thereby. Lowell’s exposition offers an extraordinary transfiguration of the wasteland myth, placing the anhydrous blight not in a retreating past, nor in a deficient present, but in an encroaching future.
The coinage “desertism” first appears in Lowell’s Mars and its Canals (1906). It refers therein to planetary inevitability – that in the course of its evolution any world must lose its water through the processes of evaporation and absorption (and by the latter Lowell means the disappearance of water into crustal fissures so that it becomes unavailable to the surface environment). On Mars, an older planet than Earth, these processes began aeons ago and have progressed to their final stages. The canals, in Lowell’s claim, represent the response of the utopian Martians to the desertification of their world. The planet-wide hydraulic system brings melt-water from the poles to the arable regions on either side of the equator. The canals thus figure in Lowell’s interpretation as evidence for an immense collaborative effort undertaken by an entire planetary people to postpone its death by dehydration. In the chapter on “The Husbanding of Water,” Lowell writes of the “dearth of water,” of water’s “scarcity,” and of the fact that beyond the polar thaw, of water on Mars “there is none.” The geometrical and logistical design of the canal system betokens the “increasing common sense” and “sagacious state” of the Martians. “When a planet has attained to its age of advancing decrepitude,” Lowell writes, “and the remnant of its water supply resides simply in its polar caps, these can only be effectively tapped for the benefit of the inhabitants when arctic and equatorial peoples are at one.” A conflict of policies or enmity would lead to “nothing short of death.” In his final book, The Evolution of Worlds (1916), Lowell returns to his theme of desertism. Invoking Mars as prognosticative of Earth, Lowell remarks the “spread of [earthly] deserts even within historic times.” That deserts once flourished, Lowell affirms: “The great deserts of New Mexico and Arizona,” for example, “show castellated structures far beyond the means of the present Indian population to inhabit.” The image of those far-flung, lonely strongholds in the medieval Waste Forest haunts Lowell’s picture of abandoned adobe citadels standing scattered among the dunes.
Eliot’s Four Quartets (1936 – 1942) make oblique allusion to Lowell. The second section of the Quartets, “The Dry Salvages” (pronounced so as to rhyme with assuages), emphasizes the spiritual desertification of modernity and the concomitant spiritual thirst of the often confused modern mentality: “To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits, / To report the behavior of the sea monster, / Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry…” – these things “are usual / Pastimes and drugs,” where “there is distress of nations and perplexity” (Section V). The toponym “Dry Salvages” refers to an offshore landmark near Cape Ann, Massachusetts, three monoliths jutting from the sea, and derives, as Eliot explains in a note, from the French phrase les trois sauvages. Eliot wrote “The Dry Salvages” in London during the Blitz, Hitler’s aerial preparation for a new Sachsenanschlacht of the British Isles. Oceanic imagery pervades “The Dry Salvages,” but the poem’s marine coloring never prevents the reappearance of desert-themes from The Waste Land. The two parts of the title, for example, suggest drought and savagery – but also, in the case of the second part, salvation. “There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing, / No end to the withering of withered flowers, / To the movement of pain that is painless and motionless, / To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage.” Given the historical context of “The Dry Salvages” one might even postulate a similitude, however distant, of the ancient Vortigern-betrayal as one proximate cause of Eliot’s sea-strewn “wreckage,” that sign of pitiless U-boat warfare: The Munich Agreement, namely, as waved before British newsreel cameras and microphones by then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on his return from Germany, at the sacrificial expense of the Czechoslovak Republic.
Betrayal of the people by those to whom the people have entrusted the commonwealth resides in the black heart of the wasteland. Had the late Fifth Century known newsreel cameras and microphones, a record might exist of Vortigern making a speech to the British people, as Chamberlain did on 30 September 1938: This morning I had another talk with the Saxon princes Hengist and Horsa, and here is the paper which bears their names as well as mine. Some of you, perhaps, have already heard what it contains but I would just like to read it to you: “We regard the agreement signed last night and the British-Saxon Naval Agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.” Vortigern acted like a blackguard when he made his compact with Hengist and Horsa, but, according to Geoffrey’s History, he dissembled his intention in terms that anticipate Chamberlain’s “Peace for our Time.” Chamberlain followed the path of calamitous naivety with every good intention, but he betrayed his people even so. A Fifth-Century British patriot might have replied to Vortigern’s swindle as Winston Churchill replied to Chamberlain’s ingenuousness in Parliament on 5 October 1938: We are in the presence of a disaster of the first magnitude. We have sustained a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road. This is only the first step, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.
The betrayal of the people is not solely a political event. It implies things that transcend polity, and from which polity derives legitimacy. “The people,” for instance, constitute more than the Domesday Book of the currently living. “The people” extends from those currently living to the ancestors and to the progeny not yet born. Those currently living owe more to the ancestors and to the progeny not yet born than they owe to themselves. Interruption of genealogical continuity means not only that the progeny shall not come to life but that in their absence the ancestors shall vanish beyond recollection. A discrete populus sustains its character by temporal endurance, becoming who it is through interaction with the landscape in which it dwells and then, by the practice of ritual, steadfastly conserves who it is. The modern mentality, steeped in a narrow presentism, will find great difficulty in comprehending the catastrophe of the maimed king, but for a traditional community the maimed king portends the radical genealogical break inherent in any transgression of its sovereignty. A traditional community lives precisely in a terrain, a particular landscape, whereas the modern mentality merely locates itself in Cartesian Space. It never visits the weekly market, but “orders” what it “needs” via the Internet. It has no steadfastness. Neither, thus, has it any link with the cosmos, to whose rhythms and melodies it has come unattuned. The description of the Table Round in the prose Quest takes on relevancy in this context: “For in its name it mirrors the roundness of the earth, the concentric spheres of the planets and of the elements in the firmament; and in these heavenly spheres we see the stars and many other things besides.” The Table Round “is the true epitome of the universe.” The hierarchy of society, as microcosm, accords itself to its higher, macrocosmic counterpart. An offense against the society offends against the universal Logos and unbalances the world.
Homer sends Athena to Ithaca (Odyssey, Book I) to pass heavenly judgment on the trespasses of the suitors. The suitors trespass in the narrow sense, entering Odysseus’ household without invitation, but their trespass in a larger sense includes a threat to genealogical continuity. Assuming Odysseus dead they plot to murder Telemachus. They cavort with the disloyal maids. They have plans for Penelope. When Athena learns that in the twenty-year absence of Odysseus, the Assembly of Ithaca has never convened, she urges Telemachus to call it into session. Part of what makes the manor-kingdom of Ithaca a land laid waste is that lassitude has interrupted its ritual awareness of itself and therefore its continuity. Ithaca succumbs to unconsciousness in the degree that it possesses no communal alarm in respect of the suitors, whose rent-seeking exploitation of the king’s larder qualifies metaphorically as cannibalism. The suitors, offending against the Law of Zeus, have rendered themselves godless. The remark of Gildas in the Excidio deserves repetition: “For what can there be, or be committed, more disgraceful or more unrighteous in human affairs, than to refuse to show fear to God or affection to one’s own countrymen, and… to cast off all regard to reason, human and divine, and in contempt of heaven and earth to be guided by one’s own sensual inventions?” The rapacious giant in Geoffrey’s History is also guided by his own sensual inventions. He indulges in forbidden meat in every way. These anti-qualities of godlessness, betrayal, and perverse instinct belong to the anti-constitution of the wasteland. The wasteland truly lacks constitution – it is the un-isolatable zone of violent incoherence that constantly spills over its non-borders to contaminate adjacency. The wasteland seeks to annihilate adjacency.
Resemblances and analogies that assimilate the Twenty-First Century crisis of sovereignty to the literary succession of wasteland images, the exposition has mainly avoided, not out of tact, but because of their obviousness and to let the reader do his work. Remember, however, that the literary succession of wasteland images derives from historical experience, from the actual destinies of peoples, from actual indignity, suffering, dispossession, rape, and murder. No establishment spokesman employs the word wasteland in reference to the banlieux of Paris or of the other cities of France and Europe. No establishment spokesman employs the word wasteland in reference to the burnt-out neighborhoods of Baltimore, Ferguson, or Minneapolis; nor to the homicidal zip-codes of Chicago, Detroit, or East St. Louis. The establishment spokesman nevertheless invokes the euphemism zone – as in crime zone or enterprise zone. No-Go Zones dot the cityscape in Paris and Malmö, London and Cologne, Oakland and Toronto, whether explicitly acknowledged or merely observed by way of common caution. Institutions have deteriorated into zones. Colleges and universities, with their safe zones, government bureaucracies at every level from those of the Federal Government down to those of the untold broken localities, and even whole denominations of so-called Christianity have betrayed their inherited mission. Hatred of country and countryman supplies them with their motive. The Cartesian Space of the hand-held screen is a zone. Self-righteousness and grievance are zones. The wasteland spreads everywhere, toxic and noisome. The few parties who speak to its obnoxiousness, as the voice spoke to Lancelot of his sin, risk banishment into oblivion.