Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

The Problem of the Central Persona in Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

Posted in Articles by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 2 July 2010

I must admit that faced with the task of writing a short paper on “The Waste Land,” I agonized over the difficulty of pinpointing a topic—the poem seems bizarre, to say the least, and defies standard analytical thinking.  I was certainly glad that I did not have to study the poem in school; although my wife, who did, could not recall either a line or a theme from the work.  Perhaps, like esteemed critics of old, I too approached the poem “structurally looking for underlying mystic, symbolic, or formal coherence” (Davidson 6). Davidson notes, however, that this methodology is problematic:

Harriet Davidson, my casual friend, who knows me not,

And whom I too no longer know,

In words on par with those of “Waste Land” in the’r profound incomprehensibility,

Speaks of parataxis in the poem’s grammar, its structure, its allusions…

Indeed, I will agree with Davidson that my “first experience as reader of ‘The Waste Land’ is of the absence of expected connections and sources” (2).  Davidson goes on to argue what appears to be the formal and thematic centerpiece of her work—the absence of a persona in “The Waste Land.”

While others spent their years in the iv’ry tower,

Pursuing the elusive central consciousness

That lurks among the red rocks of “The Waste Land,”

Ms. Davidson was tantalized by the collect’ unconsciousness of Northern Jersey.

And fleeting consciousness of Jersey’s populous and politicians,

Their lack of logic, sense, and sensibility

Receded from esteemed professor’s lips as quickly as she bent her thirsty σμα

For a drink of dirty Tar’trus water.

Or, was it the commotion over Imus, whose audience does not include the

Rutgers’ Knights,

That pushed Ms. Davidson to reach for fruits of poetry above her head?

No use—they’re always out of reach!

But then the dark and gloomy spell of Πλούτων

Had lifted like the morning mist, revealing λύσια πεδία,

“Where soothing breezes off the Ocean

Breathe over the Isle of the Blessed:

All around flowers are blazing with a

Dazzling light:

Some springing from the shining trees,

Others nourished by the water from the sea:

With circlets and garlands of flowers they

Crown their hands,”

Oh, ερηκα!  Oh, gods of Archimedes!  I’ve found it!

“The many voices of the poem

Cannot be reconciled into anything

We know of as a single self [!]…

The poem simply does not have what we would ‘dentify as a controlling


At last!…

Framing her argument, Davidson states:

The terms absence and hermeneutic are central for my argument and will take some extensive discussion to define.  For now, let me specify that by absence I mean the absence of a transcendent foundation, center, origin—whether subjective or objective—for our being.  Because of this absence of transcendence, interpretation or hermeneutics, rather than empirical certainty or innate ideas, becomes the foundation for meaning in the world. (3)

In other words, Davidson asserts that in the absence of the persona in the poem, it is necessarily added to the reading (listening) experience by the reader (listener) him- or herself.

Of course, Davidson implicitly postulates that a central persona is necessary in a work of literature, or, perhaps, in all human creations.  Thus, in its apparent absence, it is created by the reader who cannot help but view the world through the lens of his or her own persona.  This postulate, while obvious to some, may, nonetheless, be scrutinized by hypothesizing that it may be possible to consciously abstain from looking through any lens or from interpreting a work.  The work, then, is allowed to speak for itself; and, in the absence of a persona—a necessary prerequisite for any locution or interlocution—communication between the work of literature and its reader simply does not take place.  Although not intentional, such was my first experience with “The Waste Land”—utter gibberish!

Developing the argument further, Davidson notes that “the difficulties of the poem stem from the merging of the poet with his landscape; there is no controlling voice of consciousness in the poem” (10).  And although Davidson acknowledges that the “poem speaks to us,” thus presumably presenting to us a per-sona[1] of its own, she argues that this speech comes from beyond our horizon, and that “’The Waste Land’ is particularly far afield when tied to the ideas of persona and dualist epistemology” (23).  According to Davidson (among others), “the poem presents a world defined by the absence of a central stabilizing force, whether God, logic, the self, or empirical centrality… [And] in the absence of essence, self and world define each other diacritically…” (102).

In the absence of recognizable contextual clues, I understand Davidson’s statement as an English major’s way of saying that despite the poet’s self merging with the landscape of his poem, the reader’s self is quite capable of being διακριτικός from it, thus able to give meaning to the same.  This seems to be the paradox of Davidson’s thesis: denying a hypostasis to the poem, she, nonetheless, is unable to avoid references to it when she speaks of “The Waste Land.”  Elsewhere in her work, for example, Davidson even comes very close to acknowledging the existence in the poem of “Eliot’s finite center or point of view—which is not,” she adds, “a coherent or controlling self” (107).  Isn’t this last assertion, however, a hermeneutical matter, or, to be plain, a matter of interpretation?

This inconsistency in Davidson’s argumentation is not at all surprising: it may be the case that the human mind is “hardwired” for a hypostatic way of thinking, while that which is not compatible with this way is not processed until it is “humanized” or transformed by an ρμηνεύς.  We find examples of this process as far back in history as pictographic records go, but the most stunning example of “humanizing” that which intentionally lacks a coherent and controlling persona, is the constant human urge to build elaborate hermeneutics on the otherwise purposefully randomized foundation of various fortune-telling paraphernalia: coffee grounds, tea leaves, small animal bones, dice, wrinkles on one’s hand, babbling of an intoxicated Pythia, etc.  The hermeneutic derived from these and other similar objects is then attributed to a persona other than that of the hermeneut.  An identical process can be observed in the hypostatic attribution of otherwise-perceived-as-random natural phenomena.

Whether one finds Darwinian, Jungian, or other possible explanations to our passion for humanizing randomness and giving meaning to that which has none, I shall argue that it is a fundamental human quality and thus is inseparable from a hermeneutical process.  Just as in her interpretation of Jacques Lacan’s analysis of the function of language in psychoanalysis, Davidson shows that “you must have two before you can have one, because there can be no sense of identity before there is difference to define that identity” (121), I shall further argue that there is always a persona in a work of art, including Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” so long as there is a hypostatic receptor of the work.  In the intentional absence of persona in an artwork, it is then created by the receptor, as any hypostatic act is creative.  Not to give Aquinas more credit that he deserves, but if persona est relatio, then, at least potentially, any relatio est persona.[2] In other words, a persona of a text is necessarily born out of the relationship between the text and the reader.

Moreover, I favor the idea that Eliot’s own is indeed the controlling self in the text.  It would be incomprehensible to think that all of the allusions, literary references, themes, and images made their way into the poem without Eliot’s control, just as it would be incomprehensible and indefensible to argue that the choice of “The Waste Land” for the title over the original “He do the Police in Different Voices” was in the absence of a “coherent and controlling self” of Eliot himself.  If the self can be found in the mechanics of the work: Eliot’s choice of title, subtitles, images, languages, etc., its imprint can arguably be seen in the intentionality of the poem’s grammatical, structural, and other parataxis.

Finally, the reason why this self is so elusive may simply be the strong possibility that Eliot’s self was in the state of a nervous breakdown as he wrote his poem.  The common reference term for the condition that Eliot indicated on his employment papers before he left for Switzerland may be somewhat misleading.  If we think of the condition not as a “breakdown” of self, but as a different, albeit often painful and antisocial, state of self, an altered state of self, then it becomes possible to look for a “crazy man” in the poem.  Eliot’s controlling self simply does not conform to an examination by English majors; rather, it resonates with the maleviches and late freuds of the world, with “crazy” artists, actors, musicians, and other artistes, prophets, and other outcasts among us.  The share of the rest is to remain captivated by the apparent randomness of the tea leaves, by the unpredictable roll of bones, seeking for meaning in the relatio between the lies of a fortuneteller and the hermeneutic of our ever-creating hypostasis.


Davidson, Harriet. T. S. Eliot and Hermeneutics. Absence and Interpretation in “The Waste Land.” Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.


[1] Here, from the Latin personare.

[2] I shall not defend my blatant logical flaw, since there is no need in this paper for regurgitating Aquinas, nor do I agree with his argument.


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