Sarah Cain on T. S. Eliot

From Sarah Cain's lecture on The Waste Land, 11 June 2017.

In late 1921, Eliot wrote to his brother Henry: ‘The great thing I am trying to learn is how to use all my energy without waste, to be calm when there is nothing to be gained by worry, and to concentrate without effort […] I realise that our family was never taught mental, any more than physical hygiene, and as a result we are a seedy lot’. Four months earlier, in August 1921, Eliot had been signed off his work at Lloyds Bank – his sick card simply read ‘nervous breakdown’ – to take a rest-cure at Margate followed by a trip to Switzerland; it was during this trip that he completed the first full draft of the poem that would be published as The Waste Land in April 1922. Eliot’s own experiences of illness and nervous breakdown are, first of all, useful biographical contexts for his early poems, particularly The Waste Land; but they also connect to the broader ways the texts interrogate the relationship of world, body and mind, and engage intriguingly with the stresses of modernity. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, medicine, psychology and physiology were all intensely focused on the ‘nerves’ as mysterious sites of trouble and disruption. Modernity itself was thought to induce particular kinds of illness: it was thought that the very experience of living a modern life – from the constant encounter with technology to travel at ever-faster speeds, or the time pressures of living at a faster pace than ever – could bring on conditions such as hysteria, paranoia and insanity, or neurasthenia (also known as ‘nerve weakness’).

Eliot’s work consistently represents the force of modernity, and the violence it enacts upon the self, as a form of shock: an electrical confrontation that ruptures body, mind and world. This motif appears throughout the early poems leading up to The Waste Land, from the 1920 poem ‘The Hippopotamus’, in which the ‘flesh and blood’ of the hippopotamus is ‘susceptible to nervous shock’; to the hysteric ‘epileptic’ of ‘Sweeney Erect’ who seems to exist only in the contorted shapes of her body on the mattress. Eliot’s lyrics obsess over illness and health, and in the relationship between the self and its surroundings, activating these anxieties as part of wider relationships between urban experience, life and work: in section III of The Waste Land, for example, the automatic, mechanical bodies of the typist and the ‘young man carbuncular’ are juxtaposed with an image of the worker as a ‘human engine’, ‘a taxi throbbing waiting’ in the ‘violet’ London twilight, which ‘hums’ with nervous reverberations. In this respect, Eliot envisages the movement through the modern city in similar terms to Walter Benjamin, who argued that the mobile eye of the flâneur and the neurasthenic’s inability to deal effectively with the modern world link together in the experience of the modern city and its technological demands.

For futher discussion of Eliot and psychology, see Sarah Cain, 'Attention and Efficiency: The Experimental Psychology of Modernism', in Biological Discourses: The Language of Science and Literature around 1900 (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2017). More details here.

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