7. Desire in the Waste Land
Cleanth Brooks: Modern Poetry and the Tradition
In forming Daisy, who as an object of desire is the antithesis of the "natural woman," Fitzgerald sets himself the task of recovering a simulacrum of "the primary, the eternal, the maternal, the plant-like," from a Waste Land "that for almost a hundred years has simply not been static"--effecting this recovery, not through a "stubborn seeking for the static" ideal but "through [the] confusion and cynicism" of a dynamic symbolism. Although Fitzgerald is concerned with sexual rather than religious desire, his "theme," like T. S. Eliot's, is the "rehabilitation of a system of beliefs, known but now discredited":
Eliot's theme is the rehabilitation of a system of beliefs, known but now discredited. Dante did not have to "prove" his statement; he could assume it and move within it about the poet's business. [....]
We have been speaking as if the poet were a strategist trying to win acceptance from a hostile audience. But of course this is only true in a sense. The poet himself is audience as well as speaker; we state the problem more exactly if we state it in terms of the poet's integrity rather than in terms of his strategy. He is so much a man of his own age that he can indicate his attitude toward the Christian tradition without falsity only in terms of the difficulties of a rehabilitation; and he is so much a poet and so little a propagandist that he can be sincere only as he presents his theme concretely and dramatically.
Fitzgerald, in the 1920s, already understood as "strategy" what Cleanth Brooks, in 1939, would identify and then ignore, renaming it the "integrity" of T. S. Eliot's method. As a novelist, a practitioner of the historical genre and not a poet, Fitzgerald cannot permit himself the nostalgic tone that ultimately marks Eliot's Christian "attitude." He must figure a symbolic desire immersed in a changing American history: sexual desire must be "realized" within the history that produces the vision that "flowered once for Dutch sailor's eyes" as surely as it produces the "Jazz Baby" of the "late world-city." To capture Daisy, the flower becoming artificial, in a single "enchanted moment" of privileged vision Fitzgerald needs the complex temporal apparatus of Nick's narrative of Gatsby's life--Nick telling, from the "beginning" the story of a life whose "beginning" he only learns at the end. The result is a novel, and a history, whose meaning "flowers" for the reader who takes in the whole, not reading from first page to last but rereading from part to part, constructing the symbolic vision of the past in the future and the future in the past that is signaled at every point. The sexual "objective correlative" of this aesthetic desire--a symbolic rape as sure in its modern sophistication as that of the first discoverers of America was in its naivete--elicits a darker meaning from Cleanth Brooks' defense of the "integrity" of Eliot's symbolic method: "The method adopted in The Waste Land is thus violent and radical, but thoroughly necessary."
As aware as Fitzgerald of the tradition behind Spengler's "Feminine," Miller wrote to Anaïs Nin:
Here lies the root all that evil and destructive aspect of woman which man has created through his varying culture patterns--persistent ubiquitous, and ineradicable quality of his thought processes, directed not against woman per se but against the generative symbol which she expresses and which negates his cosmical view [fission, parturition] of life and birth, of creation and death. Marvelously clear to me. [....] Woman is, man becomes--I think that was one of Spengler's phrases. The becoming! That is pure ideology, an invention, an illusion that nourishes man.
Miller's recognition of this "pure ideology, an invention, an illusion that nourishes man," informs rather than mitigates the misogyny directed toward the desirable modern woman he creates of the equally "pure ideology" of deceitful beauties. "You come to me disguised as Venus, but you are Lilith, and I know it," writes Miller, addressing Mara as the rebellious "first wife" of Adam, the she-owl of the Biblical "waste" that was made of Babylon. Miller represents his prime sexual object as the artificial self-creation of a will he fears, celebrates, and damns: "There was no lie too monstrous for her to utter, for in her adopted role she was absolutely faithful to herself. She did not have to invent a past: she remembered the past which belonged to her." Speaking a language Fitzgerald would understand, Miller echoes Van Wyck Brooks' call for the invention of a "usable past," suggesting that women represent a monstrously creative American present--one male literary invention must undertake to master.