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Year : 2022  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 175-179

100 Years of Ulysses Journeying through The Waste Land. Masterpieces Mixing Memory, Milieu, and the Mind

1 Department of Psychiatry, Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh, India
2 Gupta Mind Healing and Counselling Centre, Chandigarh, India

Date of Submission17-Nov-2022
Date of Acceptance18-Nov-2022
Date of Web Publication21-Dec-2022

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Debasish Basu
Department of Psychiatry, Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh - 160 012
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/wsp.wsp_37_22

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How to cite this article:
Basu D, Gupta N. 100 Years of Ulysses Journeying through The Waste Land. Masterpieces Mixing Memory, Milieu, and the Mind. World Soc Psychiatry 2022;4:175-9

How to cite this URL:
Basu D, Gupta N. 100 Years of Ulysses Journeying through The Waste Land. Masterpieces Mixing Memory, Milieu, and the Mind. World Soc Psychiatry [serial online] 2022 [cited 2023 Feb 4];4:175-9. Available from: https://www.worldsocpsychiatry.org/text.asp?2022/4/3/175/364585

  1922: The Backdrop Top

The World War I (WWI) had been over just a few years earlier, leaving its huge debris of postwar ruins, economic toll, and human distress. Although essentially Eurocentric, the ripples of the devastation and its socioeconomic consequences had reached much farther. The world was grappling to make sense of the senseless violence and destruction.

There were other events too, unfolding in the index year 1922 or around. Post-WWI, the rise of Benito Mussolini as a fascist power in Italy, with a young Adolf Hitler watching him keenly, on the one hand, and the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the other (interestingly, both claimed that they were “socialistic”), demonstrated that the world was changing. For good or for bad would depend on the perspectives of the beholder.

In the domain of psychiatry or more broadly, mental health (though that phrase was not so much in vogue as it is now), several disparate changes were taking place. For example, while Emil Kraepelin had completed the final 8th edition of his famous “Psychiatrie. Ein Lehrbuch für Studierende und Ärzte” in 1914 when the WWI had already begun, Sigmund Freud had already established his major theories of psychoanalysis, had published his famous book “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” in 1920, and importantly, had published a somewhat less known but possibly more relevant book for our purpose in the index year of 1922, titled “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego,” where he extended his psychoanalytic principles from the individual to group (hence, social) processes, the example in that book being mob psychology.

Further down this extending spectrum of clinical psychiatry to psychoanalytic psychology was the domains of sociology, social psychology, and a nascent concept of mental health. Starting from the path-breaking “Le Suicide. Etude de Sociologie” by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim in 1897, who demonstrated the sociological phenomena of alienation and anomie driving individual suicide, two young graduate students from the University of Chicago, Robert Faris and Warren Dunham, started their query in the 1920s and published their epic book in 1939, where they showed, for the first time in history perhaps, “This study of 34,864 cases of mental disorder admitted to 4 state hospitals and 8 private sanitariums in Chicago during the period 1922–1934 by means of ecological mapping reveals a close relationship between insanity and the ecological structure of the city.”[1] A whole new stream of inquiry was opened thereby, later to be known as “social determinants of mental health.”

A final event in this gradual linking up of social milieu and mental illness was the publication of a book in 1908 by a person named Clifford Beers, titled “A Mind that found itself,” which is a seminal autobiographical account of psychiatric illness and its inhumane “treatment” in several mental asylums.[2] His 1907 meeting with Adolf Meyer, the towering neurologist–psychiatrist of the day (who Beers met to show his yet unpublished manuscript), resulted in their joint launching of the “mental hygiene movement,” with wide repercussions on both sides of the Atlantic. The concept of mental hygiene rested on the notion that both mental health and mental illness have to be understood as a “reaction” to the individuals' context at home, society, and broader culture. Thus, psychiatrists should work with community leaders and organizations to promote mental health.

Indeed, the current coinage of the term “social psychiatry” is indebted to the mental hygiene movement, at least in the USA, where E. E. Southard, Director of the Boston Psychopathic Hospital from 1912 to 1920 and founder of its pioneering outpatient clinic, first used the words “social psychiatry” In the first volume of Mental Hygiene published in 1918, which he believed to be a “new and promising” psychiatric specialty,[3] quoted in.[4]

Just to put the context back to Europe, where it started from, Edouard Toulouse, a French psychiatrist inspired by the mental hygiene movement, started “Comite d'hygiene mentale” (mental hygiene committee) in 1920, to seek the most effective medical and social means for treating mental illness. He took it one step further when he founded the Centre for Mental Disease Prevention.

The year was 1922. Exactly 100 years from now.

  1922: Two Literary Landmarks Top

This broad brush on the landscape of mental illness, mental health, and its rootedness in the historical, cultural, social, and ecological context was necessary to introduce two literary landmarks – one a long piece of poetry in five parts, and another a much longer piece of prose in 18 chapters (”episodes”) – both finally published in 1922.

The Waste Land. By Thomas Stearns Eliot.[5]

Ulysses. By James Joyce.[6]

Although different in many ways (starting from the authors – their roots, backgrounds, upbringing, life circumstances, choices, and literary styles), these two pieces of literature share some amazing commonalities.

Both heralded a new literary style called “modernism,” breaking away from the traditions of the past classical literary style, content organization, and format.

Both had their fair quota of accolades and brickbats – in almost equal measures. Ulysses was actually banned from publication in England and Europe due to allegations of profanity.

Despite the criticisms, however, both have survived, flourished, and given English and even the world literature a lasting legacy and transformed them. Both have been hailed as some of the most important literary phenomena of the 20th century English literature.

Both are extremely complex, in content, style, and format; at times making them impossible to fathom, or, more commonly, lending themselves to multiple interpretations.

Both have dark, very dark undertones.

Both reflect their times, their context, their surroundings but also their past, their heritage, their cultural background.

Both depict the yearnings, the frustrations, the anger, the despair, the meaninglessness, the alienation, the anomie, the “nothingness” of existence.

However, at the end, both also show – in their own ways – the possible ways out of the Waste Land and an end to the Odyssey.

Before trying to justify the title of this editorial, we will try to depict pencil sketches of the two masterpieces. Needless to say, these are grossly an oversimplification. There are hundreds of write-ups on various aspects of these two books and their authors. It would be futile to replicate these. Rather, after a super-short resume of both, we would try to highlight why and how these two masterpieces have implications for social psychiatry – then, now, and forever.

  A Super-Short Resume of The Waste Land Top

There are no identified protagonists, or “heroes,” in this long poem of 433 lines, which is divided into five parts (The “I” in the poem refers to Tiresias, a mythical Greek prophet, but he is a mere spectator/narrator rather than an active character, according to Eliot himself.)

Part I, titled “The Burial of the Dead,” starts with the famous lines:

”April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.”

It ends with a morbid paragraph where the unidentified protagonist addresses someone named Stetson and says:

”'That corpse you planted last year in your garden,

'Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?

'Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?

'Oh keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to men,

'Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!”

Part II, titled “A Game of Chess,” depicts the contrasting stories of two women and their husbands: the first one from an aristocratic upper class and the second one from the working class. Despite their class differences, both are isolated, alienated, bored, frustrated, and starved or desperate for human connection. An all-pervasive nothingness permeates the still air, whether in the aristocratic perfume-laden room of the rich female or the din of the about-to-close pub where the working-class woman is sitting with her friend.

”'What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?”

Nothing again nothing.


'You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember


I remember

Those are pearls that were his eyes.

'Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?' “

Part III, “The Fire Sermon,” again depicts a loveless, meaningless, and worthless existence of places and people, where Tiresias haplessly observes an “Unreal City” and two persons having quick, loveless sex after which the “small house agent's clerk” departs quickly after bestowing a “final patronizing kiss,” and the typist girl, “hardly aware of her departed lover,”

”Paces about her room again, alone,

She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,

And puts a record on the gramophone.”

The briefest Part IV, “Death by Water,” simply talks about the “Phlebas the Phoenician” dead by the water, his bones picked up by the underwater currents, and issues a caution to the reader:

”O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,

Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.”

The final, and the most poignant, Part V, refers to “What the Thunder Said,” Here, Eliot paints a sordid picture of the Waste Land, where:

”Here is no water but only rock

Rock and no water and the sandy road

The road winding above among the mountains

Which are mountains of rock without water

. Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit

Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit 340

There is not even silence in the mountains

But dry sterile thunder without rain

There is not even solitude in the mountains

But red sullen faces sneer and snarl

From doors of mudcracked houses”

But at the very end, Eliot draws from the Indian Holy scripture Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and provides some answer as the possible way out of the waste land, by citing three Sanskrit words, all starting with the phonetic “Da:Datta (giving); Dayadhvam (sympathizing); and Damyata (controlling oneself). Finally, the poem ends with thrice repeating the fourth Sanskrit word: Shantih (profound peace, i.e., everlasting and transcendent).

  A Super-Short Resume of Ulysses Top

This 735-page book (1305 pages in some printed versions), borrowing the name from the famous protagonist of Homer's epic Odyssey, cannot be summarized in any traditionally meaningful sense! Or, perhaps, it can be, in a single sentence, something like this:

This is the story of what transpired on one single day, i.e., June 16, 1904, in the life of certain characters based in Dublin, Ireland, the main characters being Leopold Bloom, a Jewish advertising canvasser, his wife Molly Bloom, a stage actress and Stephen Dedalus, a young poet.

The factitious simplicity of this statement gets undone with one look at the very last line of the printed book:

Trieste-Zurich-Paris 1914-1921

Why should the description of a single day's events in the lives of only a few characters need 7–8 years of writing, sprawled over three cities in three countries? Part of the answer lies in the instabilities in the life situation of James Joyce.

The storyline is nothing spectacular. It depicts a journey, but nowhere as dramatic and event-filled as Homer's Odyssey. Indeed, hardly anything of note happens throughout this large novel. Over 18 chapters, the characters indulge in routine activities, and there is nothing that one can recall as outstanding.

One of the strongest reviews of Ulysses (among many others, of course) was by none other than Carl Gustav Jung himself. He wrote:

Ulysses is a book which pours along for seven hundred and thirty-five pages, a stream of time of seven hundred and thirty-five days which all consist in one single and senseless every day of Everyman, the completely irrelevant 16th day of June 1904, in Dublin - a day on which, in all truth, nothing happens. The stream beings in the void and ends in the void. This thoroughly hopeless emptiness is the dominant note of the whole book. It not only begins and ends in nothingness, but it consists of nothing but nothingness. It is all infernally nugatory.”[7]

Interestingly, Jung also gave Joyce a back-handed compliment in a personal letter written to him:

”The 40 pages of nonstop run at the end is a string of veritable psychological peaches. I suppose the devil's grandmother knows so much about the real psychology of a woman, I didn't. At all events, you may gather from my article what Ulysses has done to a supposedly balanced psychologist.”[7]

The “40 pages of nonstop run at the end” refers to the famous last chapter, titled “Penelope,” where Molly Bloom engages in a “stream of consciousness” – free-flowing cognitive phenomena without the conscious punctuations (literally!), without the restraints of grammar or of civility/morality. Just a free association of thoughts, images, feelings, perceptions and fantasies, and memories. More than anything else, this last section has immortalized Ulysses more than anything else.

In essence, the plot of Ulysses (if there is a plot in the traditional sense) revolves around the mundane monotony, purposeless existence, nonexciting jobs, looking for hedonic or erotic pleasure in meaningless and temporary ways in the bars and brothels of Dublin. All the three characters wade through the novel, without a sense of attachment or cohesion.

In many ways, the journey of Ulysses is a journey through The Waste Land!

However, in the very end, Molly Bloom, despite streaming through her conscious memories of illicit relations and other things, finds her solution in love, while reliving the proposal by Leopold Bloom to her years ago. The long journey ends with a “yes” after those unforgettable lines, only partly quotable due to the seemingly interminable long sentence with poetic beauty:

”O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the fig trees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rose gardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

  The Mind Angle Top

In both of the books, there are shadows of the authors' own lives, which is not surprising. Eliot's first long-drawn marriage (if one can call that so) was extremely unfortunate. His wife Vivien suffered from prolonged mental illness and was hospitalized for many years till her death. Eliot himself suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in recovery homes, where he wrote parts of the poem. The place, Margate Sands, actually features briefly but poignantly in Part III of the poem:

”'On Margate Sands.

I can connect

Nothing with nothing.

The broken fingernails of dirty hands.

My people humble people who expect


Later, the poem was finally completed when Eliot was recuperating at a sanatorium in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Ulysses shows hints of many different types of mental health conditions in the main characters, including phobias and other anxiety disorders, alcoholism, sexual deviations, depression, and psychotic (hallucinatory) experiences. Some of these may have been inspired by similar conditions suffered by James Joyce himself and many members of his family.[8] Later, his daughter Lucia developed a serious psychiatric illness thought to be hebephrenic schizophrenia, and was partly treated by Carl Jung.

  The Milieu Angle Top

While there has been tremendous amount of discussion and critiques of the literary styles and contents, and ample discussion from psychology point of view, it is important to view the context in which both these works were created. The Waste Land portrays an “unreal city,” which actually refers to the social disintegration that has characterized some of the past civilizations resulting in their disappearance or decline, but pointedly, current cities such as Vienna and London, which too are perceived as decaying and disintegrating like “falling towers”, and hence part of the symbolic “waste land:”

”What is that sound high in the air

Murmur of maternal lamentation

Who are those hooded hordes swarming

Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth

Ringed by the flat horizon only

What is the city over the mountains

Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air

Falling towers

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria

Vienna London


It is to be noted that both Vienna and London played central roles in WWI. They were also heavily industrialized cities with urbanization.

Similarly, the milieu of the postwar Dublin shown in Ulysses, mainly through the eyes of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, is an impersonal, alienating, indifferent-to-hostile atmosphere, and there are instances of clear-cut anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination directed against Leopold, who is Jewish. Both Leopold and Stephen struggle in their own ways, in a system which is cold, isolating, and unhelpful. They cope and react in their own ways, which are not always helpful.

  Mixing Memories, Milieu, and the Mind Top

Both the memorable masterpieces adroitly mix the memories of the past, the milieu of the present, and their filtering through the mind of the authors as well as the readers.

In the end, both these landmark publications of 1922, a 100 years ago, provide “exceptional narratives of suffering in the light of a society which is perceived as hostile and deteriorated. In The Waste Land, the breakdown of an old social order after WWI and the emotional emptiness of human contacts can be interpreted to be T. S. Eliot's main concern.”[9] Ulysses focuses on the banality, barrenness, and boredom of a journey through life in a society which has lost its meaning and purpose, and the brusque and equally banal coping mechanisms to such banality and meaninglessness. The frustrations of life are socially mediated but of psychological nature. However, both the landmark creations also throw hints at possible solutions – again and importantly, socially or interpersonally mediated, which could help the individual.

Literature often holds up a mirror to the society, and to us. Timeless literature does it timelessly. It is instructive how the cultural memories mix with the current milieu to affect the mind. The memories and the milieu have been changing over the century, with major events shaking up the world and the society, casting their shadows on the mind meandering through the wastelands of an anomic society like Ulysses looking for returning to what he can call his home, to his Penelope, to his purpose and meaning in life. Stumbling on the long and winding journey, mentally bruised, but trying to find solutions in its own way. Principles of social psychiatry at work, recounting the themes emerging in the early 20th century mentioned in the beginning.

Thus, the journey continues through all these 100 years, and it is up to us to learn the lessons, if we may.

  References Top

Faris RE, Dunham HW. Mental Disorders in Urban areas: An Ecological Study of Schizophrenia and Other Psychoses. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press; 1939.  Back to cited text no. 1
Beers CW. A mind that found itself: An autobiography. 1908. Am J Public Health 2010;100:2354-6.  Back to cited text no. 2
Southard EE. Mental hygiene and Social Work: Notes on a course in social psychiatry for social workers. Ment Hyg 1918;2:388-406.  Back to cited text no. 3
Bell NW, Spiegel JP. Social psychiatry. Vagaries of a term. Arch Gen Psychiatry 1966;14:337-45.  Back to cited text no. 4
Eliot TS. The Waste Land. New York: Boni & Liveright; 1922.  Back to cited text no. 5
Joyce J. Ulysses. Paris: Shakespeare and Company; 1922.  Back to cited text no. 6
Popova M. Carl Jung's delightfully disgruntled review of Ulysses and his letter to James Joyce. Available from: https://www.themarginalian.org/2015/02/02/carl-jung-ulysses-james-joyce-review-letter/. [Last accessed on 2022 Nov 15].  Back to cited text no. 7
Duric S. Family medical history as inspiration for a masterpiece: James Joyce's Ulysses. Engrami 2018;40:20-7.  Back to cited text no. 8
Wigand ME, Wiegand HF, Rüsch N, Becker T. Personal suffering and social criticism in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land and A. Ginsberg's Howl: Implications for social psychiatry. Int J Soc Psychiatry 2016;62:672-8.  Back to cited text no. 9


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  In this article
1922: The Backdrop
1922: Two Litera...
A Super-Short Re...
A Super-Short Re...
The Mind Angle
The Milieu Angle
Mixing Memories,...

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