Into the Waste Land
"April is the cruellest month..." begins the first line of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. The poem is thought to be a portrayal of universal despair, where we lie in wait between the unrelenting force of spring and the dead contrast of winter, and the casualty of the warring seasons is eventually hope. In the bold display of life's unending, futile circles, one can be left to wonder at the point of it all. Does everything simply fade into a waste land? Is death the last, desperate word? Perhaps it was somewhere between the war of winter and spring when the prophet reeled over life's abrupt and senseless end. "In the prime of my life must I go through the gates of death and be robbed of the rest of my years? For the grave cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise. The living, the living—they praise you as I am doing today."(1)
Though differing in degree and conclusions, literature is unapologetically full of a sense of this deep irony, at times expressing itself in futility. Euripides, writing in the fifth century, remarks:
"...and so we are sick for life, and cling
On earth to this nameless and shining thing.
For other life is a fountain sealed,
And the deeps below us are unrevealed
And we drift on legends for ever."(2)
Shakespeare, on the lips of Macbeth, is struck by the monotonous beat of time and the futile story it adds up to tell:
"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Nietzsche further determines that there is nothing distinct about life at all. "Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species."(4) And in the face of this certain futility, Bertrand Russell explains that we must somehow build our lives boldly upon this "firm foundation of unyielding despair."(5)
Is this the only fitting response to such a familiar anguish? Must the human lament over fears of death and the uncertainty of life go unanswered—with only our brave, but futile, attempts to face them?
During the Second World War in the midst of her own unyielding despair, Edith Sitwell wrote of a very different foundation. Hers was not a simple-minded declaration of a better place, a billowy picture of a heavenly home and an escape vehicle to get there; nor was it a picture of a particularly powerful Christendom, hope built up by the armor of control and certainty. Her foundation was not the sands of wishful thinking, a psychological hope made into a practical or power-wielding crutch. It was, on the contrary, a picture entirely unpractical, a weak and beaten man, a defeated God crying with her. She wrote:
Still falls the Rain—
Dark as the world of man, black as our loss—
Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails
Upon the Cross.
Still falls the Rain—
Still falls the Blood from the Starved Man's wounded Side:
He bears in His Heart all wounds, —those of the light that died,
The last faint spark
In the self-murdered heart, the wounds of the sad uncomprehending dark
The cross reminds us that it is permissible—in fact, deeply human—to speak the words at the very depths of our own questioning souls. We are at times overwhelmed by abrupt glimpses of life's finitude, the darkness of suffering, the cruelty of April or October and the pained limbo of waiting for something different. We are at times devastatingly aware that we are human, that we are dust, and we are easily overwhelmed, assailed by fear and death and uncertainty with what is beyond. On these days it is not Christendom that can console, not an image of God in the highest, but an image of Christ in the lowest. In the midst of human despair, God gives us paradoxically a cross to cling to, the picture of Jesus in his own unyielding, human despair, suffering both with us and on our behalves. If we choose to follow him as savior, this is precisely where we must follow him. This is where we find, in his life cut short, hope for our own wounds and our own brief lifetimes, life where death stings and tears flow.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Isaiah 38:10, 18-19b.
(2) Euripides, Hippolytus, Lines 195-199.
(3) Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, scene 5, 19–28.
(4) Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, A Nietzsche Reader (New York: Penguin, 1977), 201.
(5) Bertrand Russell, "A Free Man's Worship" Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays (New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1918), 46.