In part, the wasteland of The Waste Land is high culture. It’s the sprawling tradition of genius texts that have been shredded and strewn about by an increasingly shallow popular culture. T.S. Eliot would have hated video games.
In the wake of the Great War and a Spanish flu epidemic, T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land with considerable help from his friend and mentor, Ezra Pound. Ostensibly, The Waste Land is a shell-shocked reaction to the spreading wars and disease that would define much of the twentieth century. But beyond that, The Waste Land is also a poem about poetry. Along with the literal ruins left by the First World War, Eliot and many other high modernists felt that culture itself was in ruins—that art, thought, and history were being destroyed.
Nearly every line in The Waste Land is a reference to a classical text from the European, the Indian, the Chinese, Biblical, or the ancient Roman heritage. The poem switches perspectives and languages frequently and without warning, and Eliot’s footnotes are a separate, parallel poem that is often intentionally misleading. The Waste Land is a logistical nightmare, spiraling through numerous histories, miming and parodying lines and legends that frequently disorient and frustrate its reader. Combing through the lines of The Waste Land is combing through the wreckage of a thousand years of writing, uprooted and discarded in a way that must mean something.