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By 1900, there were noticeable signs in the intellectual life of Western Europe that a kind of physical, psychological and spiritual paralysis was setting in. Henry James, the American novelist who lived most of his literary life in Europe and England, remarked in 1896 that he felt a premonition of disaster and saw future life as "ferocious and sinister." It was only natural then that the central theme of modern literature would soon be the alienation of individuals in general (and artists, in particular) and the futile quest for meaningful relationships in a decadent moral and a chaotic social order.
At the start of the century, urbanization and industrialization of England (and many West European countries) was complete. Yet for all the spread of urban squalor and industrial misery, the Edwardian Age, in the years just before the Great War, retained the last vestiges of elegant opulence. But this age of contrasting splendor in the aristocracy and squalor, amid the working classes, crashed to its inglorious end with World War I. In fact, pre-War England would appear almost to be a pre-lapsarian Eden against the amalgam of cynicism, amorality, despair and frivolity that pervaded England in the decade after the War.
It was only natural, then, that in the early decades of the 20th
century, psycho analysts like Sigmund Freud and C. J. Jung
should probe the individual and collective human psyche to
uncover the unconscious dreams and fears of humans or the
primitive impulses of man. About four decades earlier, Charles
Darwinís theories of natural evolution (and survival of the fittest)
first challenged traditional religious views of human origins and
development Karl Markís theory of "dialectic" social change and
his view of history as secular and materialistic was also in direct
conflict with past religious beliefs. Besides, Frederick Nietzsche
shockingly proclaimed "God is Dead!" in his Also Sprach
All these novel ideas only reflect the fact that the dilemma of western civilization in the early 20th century was one of upholding traditional beliefs against the constant challenge of modern modes of thought and behavior. Increasingly, orthodox Christian belief and rigid class structure came under severe threat with the rampant advance of "mass" culture by the close of World War I, conventional social systems and traditional Christian or Puritanical moral codes fell apart with an abrupt and traumatic finality. In the Western World after 1918, moral codes, the unfair privileges of class or birth, the roles of the sexes all were challenged and shattered by newer modes of uninhibited vulgarity, cheap sensation seeking and iconoclastic behavior patterns.
Other events of these times are also reflected in The Waste Land. Eliot"s experiments with modernist verse and search for worthy models to create newer literary patterns, is part of the wider American and European movement called literary Modernism. Just as literary movements like Dadaism, surrealism etc. sought to overthrow all artistic conventions, exponents of modernist music, painting and architecture also challenged the very basis of conventional art. Pablo Picasso"s style of cubism used a form of abstract collage-angular shapes; harsh colors and geometric distortions - to convey the struggle between order and disorder that characterizes the present times. His controversial painting Les Demoiselles d"Avignon (1908) shows grotesquely distorted female nudes wearing what seems to be tribal masks suggesting that linked to the present is the mythic of primitive past.
Eliot had seen this style of Cubist painting and also witnessed the performance of Igor Stvavinskys path-breaking ballet: The Rites of Spring (1913). The music was harsh, strident and dissonant, often sounding even barbaric or jungle like. He was deeply moved also by Richard Wagner"s soul-stirring Operas such as Die Götterdamerung (The Twilight of the Gods), Dev Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) and Tristan und Isolde based on ancient Germanic myths and legends. In all these artistic experiments he recognized there was no real conflict between ancient myths or rituals and modern life but a sense of abiding continuity in manís relentless search for lifeís inner significance. Reared in a rather tradition-bound American family, his new interests and experiences in the Old World changed Eliot"s outlook drastically and made him search for novel modes of artistic expression, which he crystallized in The Waste Land.