Mixing Memory and Desire: Five
V. World War I and Modernism
World War I was a devastation unlike any ever visited on Europe since perhaps the Black Plague-37,508,686 casualties for all combatant nations. (Spartacus table 1). There's a good reason why they call it "the Lost Generation." Whereas the Black Plague only affected people, the countryside of Europe had also been ravaged. Thanks to the wonders of technology developed by the Industrial Revolution, soldiers no longer had to fight off swords and muskets; instead, they had machine guns, mustard gas, tanks, and planes dropping bombs.
In response to these horrors, a shell-shocked generation created a whole new literary movement called Modernism, typified by the use of myth, psychology, and stream of consciousness as a commentary on what they saw as a dying world. 1922 is easily the most significant year for Modernism, as it brought us its two greatest works-T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and James Joyce's Ulysses. Eliot's poem is a radical rewrite of the Grail legend, inspired by Jesse Weston's book From Ritual to Romance. Weston's book applied the theory of the sacrificial king in fertility religions, developed in James G. Frazier's groundbreaking The Golden Bough, to the Grail legend. Weston had decided that the Romances were half-remembered elements of a vegetative cult. Eliot read this, and applied the idea to his poem, emphasizing the barrenness of the land and applying it to the soul of modern Europe and America.
Eliot depicts post-war Europe as spiritually bankrupt and in need of the healing power of the Grail, though he never names the Grail directly. Instead, it is filled with references to Weston's book, Tarot cards, French poetry, and the operas of Wagner. Eliot never quotes Parsifal directly, though there is evidence that he was inspired by Wagner and modeled his Fisher King on Ludwig II of Bavaria, Wagner's patron (Knust 10-11).
To Eliot, nature has become pitiless, the opening lines beginning: "April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead earth, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain." There are references to the Sacrificial God of the vegetative cults, to the Perilous Chapel, and to the journey to Emmaus on Easter. "He chooses cities as his settings and walk through the sleazy streets of American slums... New technology appears without concern for traditional poetic beauty... Cigarette ends and sandwich papers float on the Thames. Smoke and cocktail smells fill the bars. ...When The Waste Land appeared in 1922, it was quickly felt to articulate a profound sense of the sterility, fragmentation, and disillusion of its time" (Gish 4). For Eliot, "the Grail story is one of several stories, along with the story of Christ and the story of a personal search for answers, that embody this pattern" (Gish 113). In the world of the Modernists, the Grail Legend was the symbol for that which had been destroyed by WWI, but which could also be rebuilt.
Mixing Memory and Desire: Six