Friday, May 25, 2007

The Waste Land

I have been considering The Waste Land (1922) by T. S. Eliot (click here). The Wikipedia article (here) describes it as “a highly influential 434-line modernist poem” and you may be sure that this is an indication that it is going to be hard going. Why?

The Waste Land is certainly extremely referential. Some of the voices are taken from Dickens, whilst the title of the third section, “The Fire Sermon” relates to a famous oration of the Buddha. Classical Greek references abound, whilst it helps to know Italian, German and Sanskrit.

I sometimes think of The Waste Land as a spider which sits within a vast web of literature, spanning countries, cultures and historical time. Only if you are deeply familar with this web can you truly understand what Eliot is communicating. Another metaphor: the poem is a vast instrument, or machine. It can be used to ‘invoke culture’ through the act of reading and appreciating it, but it can only be used if you have already internalised the vast cultural resources to which it connects.

I think that any mature cultural accomplishment is like that; it leverages the insights, structure and complexity of what has gone before - truly the artist stands on the shoulders of giants. The consumer needs to stand there too: only in egalitarianism is there true communion - the artist prays for a sophisticated audience.

The Waste Land curiously reminded me of Category Theory: elegant, sparse, a new meta-paradigm straddling mathematics. How much mathematics does one need to know intimately to appreciate the true subtlety and power of the categorial approach?

Anything really good is inaccessable to the laity - there’s a frightening thought. I recall a long time ago reading about the history of any new art form. It starts out as the shockingly new; brave, iconoclastic, dangerous, rebellious but so appealing to sections of the jaded masses.

After a while all the obvious, fresh, in-your-face things have been done, and we enter the second generation, that of variation. Now we see what exalted forms we can wreak out of that raw material of the new. Vaulting towers and spans are created, still somewhat popular, but only to an educated sub-mass.

The third generation has nowhere to go but onward. Populist rules are broken and the art-form evolves to counter-intuitive esotericism. It takes an expert to appreciate what is going on here, but do even they really like it? The masses fall away, disenchanted, bored ... Somewhere, a young rebel is brooding, with an exciting new idea ...

The moral: if you want to produce work of astonishing creativity and power, yet at the same time be accessible to the masses, (unbounded esteem and royalties shall be yours), start something quite new which captures the Zeitgeist.

This works for music, literature, the arts in general. In the case of maths and science you can forget the royalties - it's all too far from mass culture to really catch on big-time any more. The big bucks are with the unregarded popularisers.