Are T. S. Eliot’s notes on The Waste Land a scholarly resource or a literary hoax? This oft-repeated question gets to the heart of the poem, which thrives on its allusions, whether seriously or cynically. However, scholars have largely passed over the notes’ (and the poem’s) numberings, despite their complexity and superabundance—a panoply of quantitative relations running alongside the qualitative references. These numberings, with startling frequency, do not compute, which poses a philosophical dilemma greater than arithmetical errors would seem to imply. As a graduate student at Harvard, Eliot took course notes on mathematical logic and number theory that show him grappling again and again with a concept of numerical irrationality, a dilemma that, for him, seems to threaten the coherence of the world itself, the failures of enumeration auguring broader pandemonium. Under the tutelage of Bertrand Russell, Eliot turns to logic in an attempt to discern a coherent system for numbers (and therefore life), but he grows disenchanted with how logic’s paradoxes of self-reference undermines that very possibility. In turn, these paradoxes inform The Waste Land as an irrational subtext, as small miscalculations in the poem and the notes herald impending physical disasters, psychological hazards, and metaphysical perils. In the end, how we count its numbers turns out to have important implications for how we account for The Waste Land’s puzzling and even deadly subjects.
Setting The Waste Land in Order
Jeffrey Blevins works on modernist literature and questions of form. He is currently at work on a book about lying as a literary trope. His work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Poetics Today, Journal of Modern Literature, English Literary History, and Victorian Poetry.
Jeffrey Blevins; Setting The Waste Land in Order. Twentieth-Century Literature 1 December 2021; 67 (4): 431–454. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0041462X-9528829
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