“Drought, Human Stones, and the Arthropodocene: Reading T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in the Anthropocene” by Erik Fuhrer

The idea of the apocalypse has received new meaning and urgency in the 21st century due to an increasing scientific and cultural awareness of anthropogenic climate change that threatens a sixth extinction on Earth (Ceballos). The term Anthropocene, formally coined by Paul Crutzen and E.F. Stoermer in 2001, solidifies our current climate disaster as a new geological age, so drastic are the changes that humankind has made to the Earth over the last few centuries.  Ironically, mankind, having so deeply embedded itself into the planet to have earned itself its own geological age, may, due to its destructive lineage, not be around to name the next one. Recently there has been a slow but steady flow of artistic responses to these new scientific findings, including the cinematic spectacle, Mad Max: Fury Road.

Fury Road opens on Mad Max overlooking a scorched desert wasteland as a salamander scuttles across a rock. The last sight of this creature is of its body being sucked into Max’s mouth. In the next few minutes, Max is seized by a group of pale figures, who are no longer fully human but “half-life,” and strapped to their vehicle so they can harvest Max’s blood for sustenance. Through this process, Max himself is rendered a nonhuman object as expressed by the fact that the half-lives refer to him as a body bag. This is a world in which climate change can no longer be denied as a myth but has manifested itself physically in bodies that have degenerated from lack of earthly sustenance. Despite the poverty of natural resources, the world of Mad Max is awash in excess, full as it is of high-speed vehicle chases complete with a heavy metal guitar player strapped to a gigantic truck. 

The film is a parable for how the glut of man-made tools and umwelts have triggered and continue to accelerate the process of global warming and thereby rendered the world a giant desert. The movie, however, would be a more apt allegory for our bleak future if it did not end on a note of utopic redemption, in which the heroine, Furiosa, swiftly establishes matriarchal law and releases heretofore privatized natural resources to the parched public. When Furiosa orders the hoarded water tanks of the vanquished capitalist foe, Immortan Joe, to flow onto her new subjects, the romanticized swelling of the crowd’s spirits as they stand open-mouthed under the rush of water overshadows the waste of liquid staining the dust at their feet. Though it would take dozens of heavy rainfalls, a rarity in the desert, to replenish the water source, the practical fact of how they will replenish the water is never addressed. The film ultimately seems not to be as interested in forecasting or confronting the future of the Anthropocene as it is in rhapsodizing human benevolence and propagating a fantasy of a world where natural resources were still ubiquitous.

Myth has it that, when synchronized, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon functions as an alternative soundtrack to the Wizard of Oz that disturbs and refashions the beloved film. In this same remixed fashion, this paper will employ T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as a linguistic companion piece to the issues raised in the relatively wordless Fury Road. I am not arguing that The Waste Land and Fury Road synch up perfectly or that they should be simultaneously encountered but only that Eliot’s poem is a good text to think alongside contemporary ecological issues addressed by the film. In an essay on the temporal connections between sociology and time, Mark McGurl addresses the particular strength of The Waste Land as a critique of time periods beyond its contemporary present. McGurl holds up Eliot’s poem as a model for the sociological idea of reflexive modernity, which explores “a reflexive relation to their past and future—to the awful events they have already facilitated and to the palpable possibility of their equally if not more awful disintegration” (342). The Waste Land, insect-like in its very construction of linked sections, scatters its narration across landscapes, timescapes, and, I will tenuously argue, species. As it is so expansive in its scope, it is a helpful text to think with on contemporary issues.

Reading Eliot’s poem through a climate lens resists the easy romantic traps used in Fury Road, enabling a contemporary reader to glimpse the end of the human reign of excess and the advent of the nonhuman eras of what this essay will, admittedly clunkily, term the Arthropodocene and, following the poem, rat’s alley.  If read this way, these nonhuman futures forecast a radical multispecies becoming: insects and rats commune with humans, some of whom have arguably evolved into nonhuman forms themselves. This essay will suggest that some human figures in The Waste Land occupy a liminal space akin to Mad Max’s pale half-life figures and that other bodies may have transformed completely to stone. 

Of canonical modernist works, those penned by Woolf, rather than Eliot, have received 

the most thorough ecological analysis from leading ecocritics and literary critics such as Tim Morton and Derek Ryan. Surprisingly, considering the rich ecological landscape Gabrielle McIntire surveys in her recent contribution to her edited edition of the 2015 Cambridge Companion to The Waste Land, there is little currently written on Eliot’s ecopoetics, and McIntire’s dearth of a critical biography on the topic demonstrates that much work is still to be done. McIntire’s chapter convincing argues that Eliot deeply engages with environmental issues in his poems and can therefore be read as an ecological poet. This essay aims to continue McIntire’s work by making some speculative leaps that offer ways in which The Waste Land might be utilized as a companion text in our troubled times. 

No Water. Dull Roots.

The initial section of The Waste Land, “The Burial of the Dead,” features the first glimpse of a ravaged, apocalyptic world that seems straight from Mad Max: Fury Road. The second stanza depicts a dystopic ruin in which sacred Western narratives no longer animate the world and thereby cannot alone, if at all, offer redemption:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow 

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only 

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, 

And the dry stone no sound of water. (1.29-24)

Eliot’s notes designate the “son of man” as Ezekiel who, in The Bible, is commanded to prophesy that a collection of bones reassemble into their former human shapes. In Eliot’s poem, Ezekiel is seemingly questioned about the possibility for growth among rubbish due to his expertise in resurrection. Incidentally, Christ, another famous biblical resurrector, also dons the name “son of man” in The Bible and therefore functions as a second possible addressee. The poem suggests that Eliot’s wasteland is such a fractured chaos that both mythical figures would be perplexed by the world’s current geological state and would not be able to provide any hermeneutical insight. Following this interpretation, the image of the world they once witnessed has been shattered and the images they perceive are already broken, heaped like the “rubbish” in this desolate world where the only permanent substance is waste. In contrast to biblical rocks, which produce a stream of water at Moses’ pious touch and slake the thirst of holy wanderers, these are apparently the geological rocks of ages, solid to the core (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Numbers. 1-7). There is little room for miracles in Eliot’s twentieth-century wasteland. Whatever these roots and branches are that will grow from this rubbish, they do not seem to be amenable to human thought or bodies.

    The imagery of this stanza stands in stark opposition to that of the previous and initial stanza in which April, cruel as it is, engenders growth, by

[…] breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing 

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain. (1.1-4)

This stanza is hopeful, promising the flowering of spring, which will recycle the detritus of winter into life. Both this description and that of the devastated landscape of the second stanza are written in present tense, suggesting that the dire waste land of the second stanza does not exist in isolation and that there are still spaces of possible production in the world. Though in this springtime world the land is dead, the presence of lilacs and stirring roots affirms that there is potential for life to blossom. The opening image of cruel April simply seems to be a cynical description of the changing of seasons that laments the transitional period and looks forward with hope to the reanimation of life.  However, in no way is this re-emergence a complete guarantee for the future, for, as noted, the second stanza confirms that some landscapes can indeed be too dead, too littered with waste, too unforgiving for anything intelligible to bloom. It is impossible to know whether Eliot intended for these two scenes to exist at different geographical locales, in which the second stanza represents a normative desert and the first a temperate climate more amenable to life and growth, or whether they represent alternative universes that risk collapsing into one another in the heap of history. 

In “Climate Change and the Individual Talent: Eliotic Ecopoetics.” Matthew Griffiths notes that “cruel April reminds us that nature cannot be so easily managed as wartime endeavors attempted” (93). It also reminds contemporary readers that April is a human construction that is no longer viable in a wasted world. After all, in our current 21st-century climate of global warming, it is hard to know for how much longer April will signify anything significant and not just a large indiscernible group of days. Perhaps it is the cruelest month because it expresses a liminal space between extremes that are currently thinning, painfully reminding us of a time that used to be more fruitful. Eliot’s tight focus on the seasons can be read as an elegy, even a eulogy for seasons past. If so, it is a memory of winter and summer, whereas autumn seems to have already fallen away and April is possibly the only month of spring left since we get no other depiction of this transitional season. Such a world is not recognizable or conducive to human life.

Under the Shadows of Rocks. Warning: Not intended for Humans

Directly after describing the wasteland of waterless rocks and a dearth of redeemers, the second stanza of Eliot’s poem focuses on a voice emanating from beneath the rock that beckons the listener to join it so that it may illuminate the secrets of dust:

There is shadow under this red rock.

(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),

And I will show you something different from either 

Your shadow at morning striding behind you

Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; 

I will show you fear in a handful of dust. (1.25-30)

A slightly varied version of these lines appears in an earlier poem titled “The Death of Saint Narcissus”:

        Come under the shadow of this gray rock—

        Come in under the shadow of this gray rock,

        And I will show you something different from either

        Your shadow sprawling over the sand at daybreak, or

Your shadow leaping behind the fire against the red rock:

I will show you his bloody cloth and limbs

And the gray shadow on his lips. (1-7)

In this previous poem, the speaker of these lines beckons the reader to come beneath the rock to hear the story of the title saint, who, the poem describes, believed himself to have been a shapeshifter, having presumably embodied the form of a tree, a fish, and a girl who had been raped.  Eliot makes it very clear in the first line of The Waste Land stanza quoted above that the shadow the speaker is enticing us to gather under is literally “beneath” a rock, whereas, the shadow in Saint Narcissus is merely produced by the rock but not necessarily beneath it. The Waste Land, therefore, suggests that the rock the speaker is enticing the reader to join them under may be the same place the Saint once occupied. The rock appears to have been a space of refuge from the human for Saint Narcissus, which enabled him, in Eliot’s earlier poem, to experience the lives of, mostly nonhuman, others. Following this reading, the speaker in the “Death of Saint Narcissus” is merely asking the reader to listen to a message whereas The Waste Land is asking us to inhabit the subject position of Saint Narcissus, and perhaps those of others whom the Saint embodied, from the early poem.  

The identity of the speaker in this section of The Waste Land has thwarted Eliot scholars over the years. Attempting to determine the identity of the speaker, Eve Sorum traces the textual history of Eliot’s poems and determines that 

The St. Sebastian of the early poem is resurrected in the death of Saint Narcissus,    who in turn reappears in the unmoored speaking voice of The Waste Land”: “Indeed, even in that final stanza, in which Saint Narcissus seems to have finally returned to his own body, a further metamorphosis occurs – this one on the textual level. We see Saint Narcissus pierced by arrows, but this image is drawn from the life of a different saint, St. Sebastian, about whom Eliot had written an earlier poem, ‘The Love Song of St. Sebastian,’ in 1914. (168) 

While the textual genealogy of Sorum’s hypothesis is sound, it still leaves the speaker bodiless. I believe one of the main reasons that the request from the speaker is seen as distinctly separate from the voice of the main narration is the presence of parenthesis around the solicitation to come under the rock. The parenthesis seems to denote a separate register, one that likely leads McIntyre to refer to this speaker as “an Other lyric ‘I’” (184). The use of a capital O for the “Other” clearly denotes not just a new “I” but a distinctly different, unfamiliar “I,” presumably since the speaker does not seem to have a clear physical referent. 

In The Ecological Thought, Morton explains why he feels that Woolf’s work is so amenable to an ecological reading: “Virginia Woolf’s narratives are ecological because, unlike Joyce or Lawrence, who also developed ‘stream of consciousness’ techniques, Woolf lets consciousness slide into each other: this includes human as well as nonhuman consciousnesses” (107). Yet perhaps Woolf was not alone in this unique use of stream of consciousness. If the parenthesis does denote a shift in register it could possibly denote a shift in scale as well, opening up the possibility for a physical referent that might be tinier and more nonhuman than one might at first expect. The fact that there is an earlier textual referent for Eliotic explorations of other lives in the figure of Saint Narcissus, whom Sorum correctly sees as “a figure who seems to embody an absolute rescinding of the self in order to know the horror attendant on other forms of life,” makes it possible to at least suggest the possibility of an other than human speaker in this specific section of The Waste Land (168).

A potential candidate for this speaker may be a creature mentioned just lines before: the cricket who “give[s] no relief” to humankind in this desert. A cricket’s umwelt is radically different from those of a humans’ and therefore, even if only momentarily, would force the reader to consider a subjectivity different from their own. Eliot’s note to the line in which the cricket appears cites Ecclesiastes 12.5 as a reference, which seems to underscore the possibility of a nonhuman voice as it prophesizes of a time when “grasshoppers shall be a burden” and “man goeth to his long home.” The biblical lines tell of a time when nature is no longer amenable to humankind, which leads to human demise and a subsequent journey to another realm. Ostensibly the lines are referencing a heavenward journey but in Eliot’s hands, the lines may take a more ecological turn that envisions an apocalyptic world in which the Earth can no longer sustain man and therefore allows for the possibility that this voice, as it is speaking from this devastating image of the Earth, is not human.

It’s impossible to know for sure who or what this voice is but I think it is interesting that, despite the shadow of “Saint Narcissus” and its mention of other than human embodiments, no one has yet to suggest that this voice, or any other, may have a nonhuman source. Especially if we are to conceive of The Waste Land as an ecopoem, we should at least entertain the fact that Eliot is exploring the world beyond the human in his narration, or at the very least that it can be read as such. In his book, Insect Media, Jussi Parikka focuses on the uniquely affective spaces of insect worlds that resist prescriptive systems of human knowledge and reveals that “nineteenth-century entomology, and various other cultural discourses and practices since then, have hailed the powers of insects as media in themselves, capable of weird affective worlds, strange sensations, and uncanny potentials that cannot immediately be pinpointed in terms of a register of known possibilities” (xii). Parikka thereby effectively establishes that Eliot would have had resources from which to develop his human decentering insect discourse. 

Readers of Eliot are not the only ones that may have not given a second thought to the cricket. Whether the hypothesis that the cricket is speaking is viable or not is secondary to the fact that the cricket is a distinct figure in this stanza and deserves the reader’s attention. Paying attention to insects and those that inhabit radically nonhuman spaces and subjectivities has ecological and social consequences. In “The Bee and the Sovereign? Political Entomology and the Problem of Scale,” Joseph Campana aptly diagnoses the tendency for critical readings including those animated by posthumanist theories to overlook literary insects as a problem of scale and suggests that critics should pay more attention to bridging the gaps between both scale and species in these theories: “Rather than dismiss attention to bees as merely metaphorical, we might realize that there are things to be learned in the strange proximity between human and nonhuman forms of life, especially when that felt-proximity must bridge the massive difference in size and scale, style and forms of life” (107). As Campana asserts, insects may have a lot to teach humans, if only in the sense that humans will be forced out of their spatial comfort zones and therefore be in a position to better understand critical nonhuman perspectives. Doing so will enable humans to live more consciously as what, in When Species Meet, Haraway insists we always and already are, “queer messmates,” who are physically networked together with other beings in the world. Paying attention to others might have the possible result of manifesting this era as the Chthulucene, a new term coined by Haraway in Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene for our current age that practices the ethics of becoming with others in a messy, entangled, productive way that resists hierarchies and embraces fluidity so that we learn to adapt with one another and therefore possibly avoid the ecological catastrophe we are currently pummeling toward.

Ragged Clawed Red Rock Crabs?

I acknowledge that even if my conjecture that the cricket is speaking is plausible, that this voice, since it uses human language, is still a human voice, which anthropomorphizes this cricket and evacuates, to a certain extent, its cricketness. Though Eliot does not fully inhabit insectness here, the possibility of doing so is relatively impossible through speech. Even the “jug, jug” from Philomena’s nightingale mouth is human in its reliance on attempted phonetic accuracy. Nonhumans likely don’t truck in phonetics but relate to the world extralinguistically. This, however, does not mean that Eliot is not possibly trying to attempt to give agency to nonhumans here, despite his particular failure in these instances. After all, Woolf, held up as a paradigm of ecological thought by Morton for inhabiting nonhumans, is also guilty of using human speech to do so. 

     I admit I have also heretofore ignored an obvious possibility of the above scene from The Waste Land: that Eliot is talking about the red rocks of the American southwest, which are immense, and, as I can attest, can fit many humans beneath their hanging cliffsides. I don’t deny that there is a very human, conventional way to read this section and this poem but only want to suggest that reading it otherwise might offer us possibilities for thinking through a nonhuman future, a possibility that is getting closer each day in our current era of the Anthropocene. I want to therefore put pressure on the term “red rock,” which, if we accept that this section may feature an attempt to represent the nonhuman, could also refer to “red rock” crabs, which can be found in the Northern Pacific region of the United States. Crabs and crickets are related beyond their alliteration as they are both Arthropods, so there is at least a tenuous connection between the two creatures. The claim that Eliot is referencing red rock crabs definitely relies on some free association, but such leaps are not rare in Eliot’s poems. Again, there are earlier textual referents in Eliot’s oeuvre that make this conjecture if not plausible than at least possible, namely the “ragged claws” in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

 It is hard to think of a poem that more squarely interrogates mundane human anxieties than “Prufrock.” That said, there is also a very nonhuman fantasy present at the very end of the poem when Prufrock laments that he 

should have been a pair of ragged claws

scuttling across the floors of silent seas. (73-74) 

There are many clawed crustaceans under the sea that Eliot could be referring to and the red rock crab is one of them. These lines, however, represent a different ecological reality than that of the cricket in The Waste Land. Firstly, the cricket presumably is whole, whereas this creature is reported as being solely a pair of claws, without any attached body mentioned. Secondly, the specific use of the word “silent” to describe the sea stresses that this sea is particularly soundless as compared to typical seas. This emphasis suggests that these claws are the only objects creating movement and therefore alone. Though the Waste Land’s landscape is dire, particularly in the cricket passage, this image from Prufrock is a more radically post-apocalyptic image: a sea drained of life except for a pair of claws that horrifically keep moving. These lines represent an imagined alternative reality designated by the word “should.” The claws and the seas they inhabit in these lines are thus speculative possibilities of what could or should have been otherwise or perhaps what might soon be. 

    “Prufrock” demonstrates that Eliot may very well have had rock crabs on his mind but it also evokes a very real ecological phenomenon: that of a dried-up sea. The specific use of the word “silent” to describe the sea stresses that this sea is particularly soundless as compared to typical seas and a truly silent sea would not only be bereft of life but of currents as well. This description seems therefore not to be of a legible sea but one that is no longer a sea at all but a bed of salt. In our contemporary environment of climate catastrophe, the evaporation of lakes and seas may be becoming commonplace, with, as Mark Synnott claims, the Eastern basin of the Aral Sea just recently yielding its wateriness to the elements of the Earth in 2014, partially due to the anthropogenic creation of irrigation canals constructed for growing cotton. Prufrock’s alternate reality of disembodied claws can be read thus not only a fantasy but a prophecy for a future world. Eliot after all, as McIntire demonstrates in her analysis of The Waste Land, “may have been anticipating one of the great symptoms of the environmental crisis of our time where the current and projected scarcity of freshwater is heralded by many as the single most important global environmental threat. He writes, after all, of “voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells” (186). Incidentally, the line McIntire quotes to establish her point again features voices from an ambiguous physical source, and is preceded by an image of the nonhuman:

 A woman drew her long black hair out tight

And fiddled whisper music on those strings

And bats with baby faces in the violet light

Whistled, and beat their wings

And crawled head downward down a blackened wall

And upside down in air were towers

Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours

And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells. (5. 378-385)

The woman is plucking tunes on her strands of hair but it is the bats who are using their mouths to create the music. It is not necessarily clear that it is the bats who are singing lines later but it is also very unlikely that this song is human, as humans are not normally found at the bottoms of cisterns and wells outside of fairy tales or folklore and Eliot does not provide a reference for any myth that could provide insight into an intended source. It thus is again possible to conceive that this music is being produced by a nonhuman figure, bat or otherwise.

    If the claws of “Prufrock” has any affinity with The Waste Land through their shared Arthropod imagery and the poems’ tenuous red rock connection, then perhaps the dust evoked in the cricket passage of The Waste Land, when the speaker threatens to show the reader “fear in a handful of dust,” can be thought of in connection with, following my above reading, the salt of Prufrock’s dried up sea. The Waste Land, therefore, can be read as a deeper meditation on the alternate reality that Prufrock imagines when he thinks about inhabiting a pair of claws. The idea of Arthropods surviving the apocalypse, even if perhaps in only partial form, is a major trope of apocalyptic narratives such as 1971s fictional documentary The Hellstrom Chronicle, which combines documentary style, horror, and science fiction to present the hypothesis that insect bodies are particularly equipped for increased temperatures and inhuman conditions. This film emphasizes the radical inhumanness of insects to forecast a new world and geological era that will reign beyond the human, one that may aptly be termed The Arthropodocene. Eliot, similarly, might be providing a glimpse, in both “Prufrock” and The Waste Land, of the Anthropocene, in which human lives are no longer central, no longer thriving, and crickets and red rock crabs persist and offer no human relief. 

Arthropods Beneath the Surface, or, The Undead

Though “Prufrock” is a helpful companion text to that of the rock dweller in “Burial of the Dead,” The Waste Land itself contains even more Arthropods in its fractured history. For example, a fragment titled “Elegy” from a draft of the poem includes the figure of a scorpion hissing around the head of a young woman, Aspatia, who has apparently drowned:

That hand prophetical and slow

(Once warm, once lovely, often kissed) 

Tore the disordered cerements,

Around that head the scorpions hissed! (The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Draft, 13-16)

Here is a more direct image of arthropods surviving the human, who is proclaimed dead in the poem. The relationship between the scorpions and Aspatia is unclear. It is not revealed whether the scorpions function as her guardians, with the hiss therefore protective, or as scavengers who are preparing for a meal, with the hiss, therefore, communicating their hunger. This image, however, is distinctly different from that of the Prufrockian fantasy of ragged claws, in that the human is not entirely absent from the narrative, and not even truly dead. Strangely, though pronounced dead, Aspatia’s hand begins to tear the funeral cloth from the body methodically. The only thing that seems clear is that, whatever her impending fate, she has been altered so that her arm is no longer warm and lovely. She is the figure of the undead.

Burton Blisten interprets Aspatia as a companion to the hyacinth girl from “The Burial of the Dead” in that both characters are associated with flowers and abandoned by their lovers. Incidentally, the speaker from this latter scene of romance, complete with flowers and pet names, can also, upon closer inspection, be read as undead:

 “You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; 

“They called me the hyacinth girl.”

–Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden, 

Your arms were full, and your hair wet, I could not

Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither 

Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, 

Looking into the heart of light, the silence. Oed’ und leer das Meer. (1.35-42)

Once the couple returns from the hyacinth garden, life is inexplicably evacuated from the poem and its characters. Like the sea in “Prufrock,” the sea in this poem is apparently barren, so much so that not even the remnants of bodies, or pairs of claws, are present. Instead, the Hyacinth girl’s partner is “neither living or dead,” seemingly degenerated, like the pale, chapped lipped figures of Fury Road, into half-life. Ostensibly, the hyacinth girl’s hair is wet because of rain and her hands are full of flowers. However, perhaps she is also the undead Aspatia, drowned and come back to life, with arms full of funeral wrapping. Aspatia, the ghost of a past draft, is also a remnant from a time when the sea was liquid enough to fill the lungs and deep enough to submerge a body. If Aspatia has been resurrected in The Waste Land, this interpretation forces the speaker to consider that the world they had known is gone and that this new world is full of empty seas and disembodied claws. Eliot here may be anticipating Tim Morton’s argument that we are living in the dawn of a new world; the old world having been destroyed by our destructive actions:

The end of the world has already happened. We sprayed the DDT. We exploded the nuclear bombs. We changed the climate. This is what it looks like after the end of the world. Today is not the end of history. We’re living at the beginning of history. The ecological thought thinks forward. It knows that we have only just begun, like someone waking up from a dream. (98)

The speaker in the hyacinth girl passage is seemingly destabilized by this new ecological reality of the sea, the devastation of which they have not been able to fully witness until, following this particular eco-reading, confronted with the watery remnants of a dead world: both the figure of Eliot’s draft and the ecological past it imagines. The speaker possibly realizes that if the world has ended, then their life in the world has ended too. Paradoxically, the speaker is not dead. Instead, they are caught in between both states of being. As Robert Langbaum notes, the speaker is not alone in their liminality: “the characters in The Waste Land, however, are nameless, faceless, isolated, and have no clear idea of themselves” (231).  One of the only impressions of an actual face that we do receive an image of, other than those printed on the tarot cards, is Lil’s absence of teeth in “A Game of Chess,” though we receive the description indirectly:

He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you 

To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.

You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set, 

He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you. 2.11-147

All we know of Lil’s physicality is an absence, a gap, and, somewhere, the small stones that once were her teeth. All the characters in The Waste Land may be read as waste lands themselves.

Not Dead, Just Stone

The lines following those that describe the story of the hyacinth girl continue to plumb the depths of a bygone ocean by focusing on the tarot card of the drowned “Phoenician Sailor” whose eyes have since fossilized:

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, 

Had a bad cold, nevertheless

Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe, 

With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she, 

Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor, 

(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!). (1.43-48)

Madame Sosostris shows the narrator the past rather than the future, constructing an elegy of sorts. Sandra Gilbert expands on John Peter’s original conviction that Eliot’s poem is indeed an elegy animated by grief over a lost friend, by arguing that the man is Gene Verdenal, who died in the war. Gilbert suggests that “here, haunted not so much by the ghost as by the literal body of a dead comrade (‘Those are the pearls that were his eyes’) whose blutbruderschaft had in a sense guaranteed his own identity, Eliot/Tiresias becomes himself an impassioned witness to the woes of a world shattered by (and for) the war’s shattered armies of the night” (194). Yet, as much as she stresses the materiality of this body, this undoubtedly is no longer a human body but merely what’s left of the eyes after they have left the body. 

 Jeffrey Jerome Cohen puts the Anthropocene into historical perspective by underscoring that humans are made from stone and therefore are all part of a much more ancient geological age, the Lithocene:

Monstrous child of the meeting of incompatible scales, queer progeny of impossible taxonomic breach, geophilia is the lithic in the creaturely and the lively in the stone. Humans walk upright over the earth because the mineral long ago infiltrated animal life to become a partner in mobility. Vertebra bone is the architect of motion, the stone around which the flesh arranges itself to slither, run, swim, fly. Had the organic not craved durable calcium as a shield and conveyer, numerous types of sedimentary rock would never have arrived. (20)

According to Cohen, we who read this essay, the human narrator of The Waste Land, Gene Verdenal, all of us, have always been part stone. What happens, however, when these stones are removed from their human context and become part of the world? In her analysis of a museum collection of body stones, artist Ilana Halperin makes the following distinction: “In the body, each stone is a biological entity: once out of the body, it belongs to the realm of geology” (84). If the tarot card of the Phoenician Sailor does refer to Gene Verdenal, then, following Cohen and Halperin, his body exists as pearls in the ocean: he is now geology.

 It is therefore further possible to read The Waste Land as an elegy for the nonhuman and a eulogy for the human. After all, most of the humans in the poem have either returned to the shape of their ancestral stone, become undead half-life slinking toward death, or are 

in rats’ alley

where the dead men lost their bones. (2.115-116)

Wherever rat’s alley is located, it is not our land. The rats are sovereign here, in this land where human 

bones [are] cast in a little low dry garret,

Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year after year. (3. 194-195) 

This portion of the poem, from “The Fire Sermon,” features an echo of lines from Andrew Marvell’s, “To His Coy Mistress.” In Eliot’s poem, Marvell’s lines of seduction, 

But at my back I always hear

Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near

become a dark desire to become stone: 

But at the back in a cold blast I hear

The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear. 3.196-197

The speaker seemingly knows that rats are coming for him and “chuckles,” delighting in the hope of returning from where he, and we all, came. Rats’ alley is thus another potential geological successor to the Anthropocene, one in which rats step over the remains of a species that once shaped the very Earth that destroyed it. 

 The final lines of the poem, “Shantih Shantih Shantih” can be translated as a triple enunciation of “the peace which passeth all understanding” (5.433). This can be read as evoking a peace beyond cognition and therefore a peace beyond the human realm of thought. The end of the poem can this be conceived of as a mantra that lulls the reader into a new state of consciousness- that neither alive nor dead- that of stone.


This essay may make Eliot’s poem seem dire, and it is. This is what happens when one travels into the imagination of wastelands. Yet rather than merely be seduced by the peace expressed by Eliot at the end of the poem, we should instead be called to action. If read in the way I propose, Eliot’s poem actually offers ways of escaping our fate as a species: we must pay more attention to others on the Earth, including the Earth itself. Perhaps Eliot’s St. Narcissus, who thought himself into the lives of trees, fish, and little girls in order to, as Sorum insists, to “empathize” with these others, is the model that we need in this current geological age of the Anthropocene. This is why Haraway prefers the term Chthulucene over the Anthropocene since it calls for a deep, constant, entanglement with others that completely rids itself of the species hierarchies that are still problematically contained in the term Anthropocene. Such a networked practice will ensure that we don’t fully dispense with the human. We need to have a will to survive but also need to make sure that this will ensure the survival of others as well.

    In an episode of The X-Files titled “War of the Coprophages,” David Duchovny’s Agent Mulder finds himself in a town at the mercy of another Arthropod, the cockroach. The episode opens with the voice of an exterminator extolling the wonders of the cockroach, calling them “flawless creatures” but insisting that “compared to the roach we are Gods and must therefore act accordingly.” He then exterminates a roach only to be killed himself hardly a minute later by a swarm of cockroaches. It soon becomes clear that the cockroaches are being framed as the real Gods in the episode, articulating something close to the Arthropodocene. The episode soon gets muddy as Mulder suspects the cockroaches to be robots, which some apparently are, and then an alien race. This muddiness is precisely what makes this episode and the series, like Eliot’s poems, so interesting and good to think with. Mulder and Scully are consistently trying to better understand the world around us, not content with the human-centered answers they are given by bureaucratic, human forces. There is always something greater than humanity at stake. The series slogan, “I want to believe,” is a perfect imperative for the Chthulucene and Eliot’s poems. Eliot’s St. Narcissus believed he could embody and thereby empathize with a tree. We must believe we can think and live with others, even though we don’t have a normative map for doing so. The map, like The Waste Land, is an insect-like, chaotic, fractured mess of a narrative with its own internal logic. We must follow that logic.  We must believe. 

Works Cited

Blistein, Burton. The Design of “The Waste Land. Maryland: University Press of America, 2008.

Campana, Joseph. “The Bee and the Sovereign? Political Entomology and the Problem of Scale.”

Shakespeare Studies 41 (2013): 94- 113.

Cebellos, Gerardo and Paul R, Ehrlich. “The Misunderstood Sixth Mass Extinction.  Science 

360.6393 (2018): 1080-1081.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Stone: An Ecology of the Nonhuman. Minneapolis: University of 

Minnesota Press, 2015. 

Crutzen, Paul and Eugene F. Stoermer. “The Anthropocene.” IGBP Newsletter 41 (2000): 17-18.

Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In T.S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and Plays: 

1909-1950, 3-8. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1962.

    . The Waste Land, In T.S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950, 3-8. New 

York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1962

    . The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the

Annotations of Ezra Pound, edited by Valerie Eliot. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1971. 

Floyd, Pink. The Dark Side of the Moon. Harvest Records, 1973.

Gilbert, Sandra. “Rats’ Alley’: The great War, Modernism and the (Anti) Pastoral Elegy.” New 

Literary History 30, no 1 (1999): 179-201. 

Griffiths, Matthew. “Climate Change and the Individual Talent: Eliotic Ecopoetics.” Symploke 

21, nos 1-2 (2013): 83-95. 

Halperin, Ilana. “Physical Geology/ The Library.” Art in the Anthropocene, edited by Heather 

Davis and Etienne Turpin, 79-84. London: Open Humanities Press, 2015.

Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

    . When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Hellstrom Chronicles. Wolper Pictures, 1971.

Langbaum, Robert. The Mysteries of Identity: A Theme ill Modem Literature. New York: 

Oxford University Press (1977): 91-97. 

Mad Max: Fury Road. Warner Brothers, 2015. 

Marvell, Andrew. “To His Coy Mistress.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Seventh 

Edition. Volume 2,” edited by M.H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt, 1691-1692. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000.

Mcintire, Gabrielle. “The Waste Land as Ecocritique.” The Cambridge Companion to The Waste 

Land, edited by Gabrielle Mcintire, 178-193. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

McGurl, Mark. Ordinary Doom: Literary Studies in the Waste Land of the Present. New Literary    History 41.2 (2010): 329-349.

Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2012.

“Numbers 1-7.” The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/deuterocanonical Books, 

edited by Bernhard Anderson, Bruce Metzger, and Roland Murphy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. 

Parikka, Jussi. Insect Media: An Archeology of Animals and Technology. Minneapolis: 

Minnesota University Press, 2010. 

Peter, John. “A New Interpretation of the Waste Land,” Essays in Criticism, 2 (1952): 242-266.

Sorum, Eve. “Psychology, Psychoanalysis, and New Subjectivities.” The Cambridge Companion 

to The Waste Land, edited by Gabrielle Mcintire, 162-177. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Synnott, Mark, “Sins of the  Aral Sea,” National Geographic, June 2015, 1 May 2016, 

“War of the Coprophages.” The X-Files: The Complete Third Season, written by Chris Carter 

and Darin Morgan, directed by Kim Manners, FOX, 1996. 

The Wizard of Oz. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1939.

Erik Fuhrer (he/they) is the author of 4 books of poetry, including not human enough for the census (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press). His 5th book of poetry, in which I take myself hostage, is forthcoming from Spuyten Duyvil Press. His writing explores ecology, mental illness, apocalyptic landscapes, and hybrid form. His partner, Kim, is his steadfast collaborator and provided the artwork for the above-mentioned titles. @erikfuhrer (Twitter) and www.erik-fuhrer.com. Their book, not human enough for the census, is out now.

%d bloggers like this: