You Know Only a Heap of Broken Images
***NOTE: Upon multiple attempts to post a screenshot of the referenced text and annotations, I was repeatedly denied the ability to do so, only having been told that the system was unable to process my request at this time. To reference the source, please visit https://archive.org/stream/ost-english-wasteland00elio/wasteland00elio#page/n11/mode/2up ***
As I rummaged through the vast expanses of the Internet Archives, I came across a copy of T. S. Eliot’s great epic The Waste Land. I love Eliot, and I have particular love for The Waste Land, and so I proceeded to open the file with great anticipation for what I might find scribbled in the margins.
The copy, according to the Archives, was published in 1930 and the property of the library at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. The yellowed pages revealed studious annotations and lines surrounding important excerpts, but what seemed most telling to me were the written notes, which referenced back to specific texts which Eliot had clearly drawn from in his work.
In the first reference which I could find, the reader bracketed off a section of the text, and beside it wrote “EZEK II:1”. I looked up Ezekiel 2:1, which reads according to the New International Version:
[God] said unto me, ‘Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.’
This, the reader had determined, was the literary seed for T. S. Eliot’s stanza
What are the roots that clutch, what
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of
You cannot say, or guess, for you know
A heap of broken images, where the sun
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the
cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
Within the context of this source, the reason for this immediate recognition was clear. Brigham Young University, from which the Internet Archives retrieved this specific copy of The Waste Land, is a religious institution owned and operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The biblical scholarship at such a school surely influenced the mind of the reader to associate his reading material with one of the core texts requisite to his institution and his faith.
There are two points which I aim to make surrounding this discovery. The first is that of the text from Ezekiel and the excerpt from The Waste Land, and how the two are connected. In the Book of Ezekiel, God speaks with the prophet to foretell of a savior who will ransom the Hebrews; the New Testament and Christianity interpret this prophecy as a reference to the coming of Christ.
Eliot’s reading is much darker, though. Instead of a divine liberator, Eliot speaks to one who has perhaps been placed in this state of crisis without the experience or the capacity to handle his vocation. He tells him, You cannot say, or guess, for you know only a heap of broken images.
This leads directly into my second and main point. When I read that selection of Eliot, and mused on it, I felt Eliot speaking directly to me and convicting me. You cannot say, or guess, for you know only a heap of broken images.
The reader who preceded me in reading this text, without the aid of the World Wide Web, recognized and made note of the reference made by Eliot. His scholarship far exceeds mine, as I would have only read over and made a superficial interpretation of Eliot’s message and intent.
It caused me to think to myself, how can I say anything knowledgeable or worthwhile about literature, poetry, modernism, or any other discipline if I leave myself to the devices of the broken images, soundbites, links, and video snippets offered in spades by the Internet? How can any of us make such claims without a serious and passionate devotion to the sources who first inspired giants like Eliot and his contemporaries?
Let me be clear: I am not condemning the Internet–I am a huge fan of the Internet. Without the Internet, there is no way I would have made this connection; we live in a society which is governed in large part by our knowledge of and discoveries made on the Web.
I will, however, assert that a responsible knowledge of the English language and its beautiful employment in culture and the progress of society must be based in its sources and its most accomplished adherents. If our scholarship of the English language ends with our competency in Google, Yahoo, and Bing, then we are charged with the question of whether we can call our practice a “scholarship” at all.