How T.S. Eliot’s Therapeutic Practice Produced The Waste Land
David Barnes on a Poet, His Doctor, and the Making of a Literary Masterpiece
In late 1921, an exhausted T.S. Eliot dragged himself to the Albemarle Hotel in Margate, on the Kent coast. Signed off from his job at Lloyds Bank for three months complete rest, he spent a few weeks in the seaside town with his wife Vivien. Eliot was in recovery; from his stressful job, from his onerous editing and publishing responsibilities, and from the nervous strain these and other problems had placed on his already fragile mental health. As Eliot’s letters reveal, his marriage was strained, with neither of them in good mental health.
Those months of rest, first at Margate and then in Switzerland, were the conditions in which Eliot created the extraordinary poem The Waste Land, published 100 years ago, in October 1922. It is common to see The Waste Land’s cracked collage as his indictment of a world gone wrong: a world mechanized and isolated, adrift from its spiritual moorings. And in part that’s right: Eliot is lamenting what he calls in an essay the “futility and anarchy” of contemporary history.
But if I think back to my first reading of the poem, as a seventeen-year old, that’s not how I received it. Instead, I remember being excited by the strange cross-cutting, rhythmic repetition and echoing that the poem performed. These jumps and jolts were disorientating, yes, but also thrilling; they reminded me of sample culture and electronic music.
But the more I read of the scholarship around the making of the poem, the more it seems likely that its haunting symbols, sounds and visions may also have been the product of a therapy Eliot underwent in 1921-2. Under the tutelage of the Swiss doctor Roger Vittoz, Eliot would focus on specific objects, words, noises, images or ideas. In a method with striking parallels to contemporary mindfulness, Eliot would attempt to train his brain out of its habits of anxiety.Eliot would attempt to train his brain out of its habits of anxiety.
Just as Vivien Eliot was writing optimistically about how healthy Eliot was looking in the Margate air, Eliot was sounding out his friend Julian Huxley on the merits of this completely different cure. The treatment was revolutionary; a method of “brain control.” Patients would stay with Vittoz in his sanatorium near Lausanne, and follow his instructions. It was an immersive style of therapy for body and mind, consisting of simple physical movements, visualization exercises, and the development of a keen sensitivity to touch, sound and sight.
One of the things that appealed to Eliot, as the scholar Matthew K. Gold has explored, was the relative simplicity of what Vittoz offered. Unlike Freudian psychoanalysis, which had recently gained ground in Britain (Ernest Jones established the British Psychoanalytical Society in 1919), Vittoz’s method did not involve lengthy explorations of past traumas or hidden memories. It was based around repeating certain techniques and actions, and concentrating on single concepts.
What Vittoz was primarily concerned with treating was “neurasthenia,” a vague medical term that gained popularity in the nineteenth century. Nowadays, neurasthenic symptoms might variously be described as depression, anxiety, and stress; but Vittoz saw his patients’ primary problem as a loss of agency over the workings of their own minds. The patient, wrote Vittoz in his Treatment of Neurasthenia by Means of Brain Control (1911), is “not cognisant of… his ideas,” or “cannot define them clearly enough.” They become disturbed by “a feeling of ‘being only half awake,” stuck in a “half-dreamy state’ from which it is impossible to escape.
Left untreated, this vagueness descends into a whirlwind of confusing thoughts and impulses, pushing the sufferer further and further into the bewildering recesses of their own mind. The sufferer loses all interest in the outside world. It’s a fairly classic description of depression. Vittoz writes: ‘He has no feeling except for his own personality, which he often detests, but from which he cannot escape.”
I stopped when I read that line. It seems an extremely close echo of Eliot’s own words in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Poetry, wrote Eliot, was not to be a “turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion,” not “the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” Eliot seems to be, whether consciously or not, reflecting Vittoz’s argument in Treatment of Neurasthenia.
But the dates don’t match. “Tradition and the Individual Talent” was written in 1919, and Eliot doesn’t seem to have known about Vittoz until his correspondence with Huxley in 1921. Though Eliot hadn’t read Vittoz when he wrote those words about personality and the desire to escape from it, it would make sense if Eliot were drawn to a therapeutic method that seemed to validate all his own thinking, to confirm that he was indeed burdened by his own mind to the point of collapse. And that there was a way out.
In November 1921, Eliot travelled to Lausanne to begin his treatment. By December, he was writing to his brother that he “was very much better, and not miserable here.” As for Vittoz, Eliot wrote in another letter that he liked him “very much personally, and he inspires me with confidence.” But what was he actually doing with the doctor? As Adam Piette and other scholars have shown, Vittoz’s treatment involved the physician placing his hand on the patient’s head for a prolonged period. Eliot would have sat with Vittoz resting his hand on his temple every day of the treatment. In doing this, Vittoz believed, the physician could sense the ebb and flow of the “vibrations” of the brain—when they were rested, when they were agitated.Eliot is using the poem as a kind of therapy, a way of relieving the anxieties that dogged him so severely.
At the same time, Vittoz’s treatment involved a series of mental and physical exercises. Eliot might have been asked to concentrate on a symbol; the figure 8, for example, or the mathematical symbol of infinity:
If the patient was doing the exercise correctly, according to Vittoz, the physician ought to be able to feel the undulations of the double curve that they were picturing. If done incorrectly, attempts to visualize the shape would be constantly interrupted. This was not the only exercise that patients were given. Sometimes Vittoz asked them to listen carefully to the sound of a metronome ticking, or to touch something and retain the memory of the object in the hand.
Another exercise gets patients to place a series of objects on a piece of paper and then, one by one, to “efface” the memory of each. This, wrote Vittoz, was a useful lesson as it taught the patient the virtue of “elimination”—the ability to rid your mind of an unwanted thought. So Vittoz’s method was designed not only to better control the brain to focus on the tasks ahead; it helped the patient to expel intrusive thoughts.
Here, the origins of The Waste Land’s strange panorama become clearer. For this was the work Eliot could not start until he got to Lausanne, when he wrote to his brother that he was finally “well enough to be working on a poem!” In later years, Eliot described The Waste Land as “the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life,” a “piece of rhythmical grumbling.” If we focus only on the second part of Eliot’s statement, we might be led to think of the poem, as many have, as a complaint. But the word that stands out from the first part of what Eliot says is “relief.”
Eliot is using the poem as a kind of therapy, a way of relieving the anxieties that dogged him so severely. Readers have struggled to interpret the layers of allusion in the poem. Yet if you take its content, as Matthew K. Gold and Amanda Harris have done, as echoing the therapeutic process he was engaged in with Vittoz, then these echoes and visions are there also to anchor the wandering mind.
For example, birdsong in the poem (“twit twit jug jug,” “drip drop”) acts like the metronome that Vittoz told his patients to focus on. There are other sensory impressions too: in Part III, a rat drags “its slimy belly” on the bank of the canal. A snatch of ragtime melody interrupts the conversation of two speakers in Part II: “that Shakespeherian Rag.”
In Part III, the poem casts its eye over an odd miscellany of discarded waste bobbing in the Thames: “empty bottles, sandwich papers,/ Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes.” This attention to detail is reminiscent of the memory exercises Vittoz set his patients. The poem becomes cluttered, filled with objects, only to be emptied again: “By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept.” Lac Leman is the French name for Lake Geneva, on the shores of which Eliot was having his treatment with Vittoz.
In the final section, the poem is illuminated by thunderstorms, gusts of rain, flashes of lightning, a rooster crowing. There are voices crying out of wells, singing grass, bats crawling down walls, snatches of different European literary texts: Dante, Gerard de Nerval. Into this apparently chaotic jumble of sounds and visions comes a simple syllable, repeated three times: “Da.” “Da” stands for the Sanskrit “Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata,” which Eliot translates in his notes as “Give, Sympathise, Control.” They are words from the ancient Upanishads, foundational texts of Hinduism.
Given Vittoz’s focus on “control” of the mind in his work with Eliot, it’s interesting, to say the least, that the idea of control features prominently in the section. But Eliot also seems to be beating out time with the phrase, ordering this cacophony by focusing on one single sound, just as Vittoz had taught him. Then there is the poem’s ending, “shantih, shantih, shantih,” an allusion to a Sanskrit term roughly meaning “peace.”
Separated from the last stanza, and centre-justified, it seems to clear away the cacophony of images and voices in the preceding lines. It’s almost a poetic version of those Vittoz memory exercises, where each object is to be remembered and then forgotten, leaving the impression of nothing but the blank paper.
At the beginning of The Waste Land, the poem’s speaker sees only a “heap of broken images”—a pile of shattered objects which bear no connection to each other. By the end of the poem, the speaker writes: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” By now, the “fragments”—the different sounds, symbols and images of the poem—are not signs of “ruin,” but vital for preserving the speaker from ruin, from devastation. The poem’s visions and voices aren’t (or aren’t only) signs of collapse, or catastrophe. They may be focal points, on which the mind rests before moving on. In this reading, the poem isn’t the chronicle of Eliot’s breakdown, but the record of his journey out.