The theme of alienation and estrangement have been present in Western literature from its very beginnings. The oldest occurrence of the theme I can remember lies in the roots of Western culture, in Greek drama, two thousand and four hundred years ago, in Sophocles`s `Oedipus Tyrannus`.
“He’s thought to be a stranger,
but it will turn out that he’s native-born.
He won’t be happy about that. Once he could see,
but now he’ll be blind; once rich, now poor.
He’ll tap his way with a stick, a stranger in a strange land.”
Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus
We are told explicitly what Oedipus feels, his estrangement is not cryptic in any way. A spectator of the play should have clearly understood what fate befell Oedipus. He should have understood why as well; Oedipus becomes an outcast and a stranger as a punishment. The estrangement is a consequence. There is no questioning of what being a stranger is for it must have been clear to everyone what it meant. It meant insecurity and incertitude resulting in suffering, pain and fear. Therefore it was a punishment the fate prepared for Oedipus, who had been so wrongly sure of his deeds, thoughts and being. While at the time of Sophocles the circumstances of being uprooted, isolated and alienated need not have been examined, the modern times required it.
By the modern times I mean the period in which the Western culture had the need to thoroughly question its values and confront them with its present reality. Such questioning began at the Continent in the latter half of the 19th century when the old world order was being contested. Absolute monarchies could not last, nor could the vast Habsburg dominion. The ticking bombs of nationalism Napoleon Bonaparte lay down all over Europe as his greatest legacy were being set off throughout the 19th century. Revolts were numerous and regimes were installed as quickly as they had been blown up.
From these tumults, the "poètes maudits" arose in France as the founding fathers of modern poetry, and alienation was amongst their themes. They wanted to run from the reality into the shelters of symbolism, but there are examples of a direct cry for an escape from human society:
"I can no more, bathed in your langours, O waves,
Sail in the wake of the carriers of cottons,
Nor undergo the pride of the flags and pennants,
Nor pull past the horrible eyes of the hulks."
A.Rimbaud, Drunken Boat
What else is this than an exclamation of inevitability of estrangement from the society? The poet was sailing as a boat through magnificent images ("incredible Floridas / Where mingle with flowers the eyes of panthers / In human skins! Rainbows stretched like bridles / Under the seas' horizon, to glaucous herds!") and now, in the end, he "can no more" cruise among the creations of man. The end reveals him to be a stranger alienated from the society.
Britain, however, rather gained from this storm of nationalism as it had been a mostly intact nation state, separated by the sea and by the overwhelming naval power. Over the Channel the adoption of new artistic impetuses was thus rather slow, and in Britain a movement to address the theme of estrangement was evolving in literature only from the verge of the 20th century. The emergence of English Modernism movement was obviously not fuelled by the same political problems that were rampant on the Continent. The 19th century Britain had its own problems, and they were socioeconomic. It was not by chance that Karl Marx elaborated his theories on the alienation and exploitation of workers in London. The inhumane conditions of living in cities of the era was well described by Charles Dickens. The country was not experiencing major tumults comparable to the rest of the Western world, but a sense of tension was present, slowly being built up and occasionally slightly calmed down by a governmental appeasement. British literature was thus only waiting for one last strong impulse to which to respond. While British Modernism can be traced further back, for example to the establishment of the Bloomsbury Group around 1905, it finally gained momentum with the disillusion of the devastating Great War. The world as it had been known was undone and gone. Nothing was certain anymore. And it was this feeling of uncertainty in the fairly stable British society that made the seminal work of the time possible.
`The Waste Land` by T.S. Eliot comes from the new experience of the Western world not being clear and safe anymore. The sequence of estrangement is overturned; whereby in the Ancient Greece the estrangement was forced to cause incertitude and fear, in Eliot`s times it is the other way round, the estrangement stems from the fear and incertitude. Nothing can be taken for granted, especially not what had been taken so in the 19th century culture - history, tradition and nationality. By usage of manifold languages and nationalities a vision of a new tower of Babel is instigated. The absurdity, credibility and truth of just one single sentence strikes with a power of estrangement unseen before: "Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch." But it is not only the clash of languages and nationalities, those common indicators of strangers, it is the mere structure of the poem that is not "what we are used to". We are thrown into a never-ending overlapping change of rhythm and style. From a pompous and detached seventeen-line sentence of latinate vocabulary, to an unloved lover`s talk (""My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me. / Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak. / What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? / I never know what you are thinking. Think.""), through to desperate unanswered questions (""What shall I do now? What shall I do?" / I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street / "With my hair down, so. What shall we do to-morrow? / "What shall we ever do?""). It is not anymore a personal confession like Rimbaud`s; the many characters of the poem rather resemble dramatis personae, but still convey the message of estrangement in a lyrical and poetical manner.
It is the melange of history, myth and urgency, by which Eliot recreates the feeling of despair upon the world, upon the society. The He is "mixing / Memory and desire" which is never to be fulfilled. The quest for the Holy Grail will not be fulfilled, the Fisher King will never be healed, and the land will forever be barren. Both the land and the man will ever be dying, the man unable to save the land will become a stranger to it; this final stroke of banishment and estrangement resembles Oedipus`s fate. The weak question "Who are those hooded hordes swarming / Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth / Ringed by the flat horizon only" is answered by a hopeless vision of the "Unreal City", the symbol of destruction of the natural land and of infertility:
"What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Mankind`s estrangement at the time of Modernism is demonstrated for Eliot by the "Unreal City" where everybody is a stranger.
We have clearly seen an evolution in the use of the theme of estrangement in the Western literary tradition. The beginnings are marked by a definitely established, generally understood concept of `a stranger`. Sophocles exploits the common contemporary understanding of alienation as an ailment and of banishment as a punishment to motivate the characters and propel the story. Rimbaud treats alienation as an inevitability and identifies with it personally. Finally Eliot chose estrangement and alienation as his prime themes, as the issues to address. While stylistically matching the qualities of both Rimbaud`s lyrical attitude and Sophocles`s theatrical universal application of the themes, he could effectively convey the feelings of the Modernist movement, the feelings of a stranger in the changing world.