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THE WASTE LAND and “Funes el memorioso”: Resurrection in Rainstorms and Reflection

Anisha Hegde

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Anisha Hegde

The University of Georgia


The Waste Land and “Funes el memorioso”:

Resurrection in Rainstorms and Reflection


Eliot’s The Waste Land and Borges’s “Funes el memorioso” are texts in which futility plays a leading role: the licentiousness of modern society in the former and the wasted genius of a teenager in the latter. This paper suggests an alternative interpretation for both texts, suggesting that Eliot and Borges go beyond judgments of futility to draw up roadmaps for renewal amidst the futility. This alternative interpretation is implied in the contrasts between synthetic and primordial elements in The Waste Land and between the namesake and narrator of “Funes el memorioso.” Ultimately both works argue for the utility, rather than the futility, of communication.


The modern landscape and mindscape are both devoid of hope, or so a solitary reader strolling through T.S. Eliot’s waste land and the cavernous mind of Jorge Luis Borges’s Ireneo Funes for the first time might say. Borges’s “Funes el memoriso” can be seen as a microcosm within Eliot’s macrocosm of The Waste Land, as the former channels the earthly and societal aridity described by Eliot into the persona of Funes. Eliot’s poem surveys post-World War I society and proclaims that it reeks of barrenness. Borges’s story unearths futility as it manifests in a physically more contained entity: the depths of the teenager Ireneo Funes, whose prodigious memory renders him incapable of synthesizing and communicating his remembrances. An alternate reading of the texts, however, suggests that their primary purpose goes beyond dreary declarations to explore dearth in society and in the individual and to propose solutions to this dearth. The superimposition of Borges’ microcosm onto Eliot’s macrocosm births an exemplary roadmap for renewal: an action, centered on the wielding of language, that both authors argue is essential for the fruition of the contemporary ideals of continual progress and improvement upon past conditions.

            In The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot utilizes a myriad of thwarted expectations to underscore the independent and dependent variables of the earth’s dereliction. The work opens with April, generally a month of new life, painfully growing flowers out of the parched land, and the first speaker running from rain, a fertilizing force, and into a manmade edifice. Subsequent speakers embody an even dimmer outlook on propagation: a girl is assigned the adjective “hyacinth,” a masculine flower; fertile biblical imagery of fruit-filled vines is placed in a synthetic scene overwhelmed by manufactured compounds and scents; and sex is corrupted by a merchant’s homoeroticism, a pair’s detachment and the all-permeating materialistic culture—none of which encourage reproduction (line 36). Regarding this sterility, Eliot writes, “Gentile or Jew/ O you who turn the wheel and look to windward/ Consider Phlebas, who was one handsome and tall as you” (lines 319-21). Humanity, obsessed with the accelerating thrust but with little else of more substance, is told to contemplate its correlation to the Phoenician that once thrived, exclusively in the past tense, and the land is stripped of renewal and littered with “stony rubbish” from which nothing grows (line 321). The text suggests that the chief corrupting and repressing agent hindering intentional, flourishing life is the use of language, or its lack thereof. The Waste Land features a cacophony of speakers. In this cacophony, “Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled, / And each man fixed his eyes before his feet” (lines 64-65). The absence of honest interpersonal contact, an elementary act of intimacy, thereby renders impossible reproduction, the highest act of intimacy and connection, and resurrection of humanity. Ultimately, a speaker says, “I can connect/ nothing with nothing” (lines 301-02). Thus, The Waste Land depicts a populace undone by a living death: a culture simultaneously obsessed with and disillusioned by acquiring and modernizing but lacking intentionality of action to sustain human connection and fruitfulness.

            Complementing Eliot’s vast surveillance and expansive commentary, Jorge Luis Borges in “Funes el memorioso” explores the ineffectuality plaguing Ireneo Funes. A horseback riding accident cripples Funes, and after the accident, Funes is able to perceive every minute occurrence in detail and remember each of these perceptions. The narrative does not specify that Funes’s de novo ability stems from physiological impacts of the accident, and a close reading hints that the ability is likely the over-activity of the autistic characteristics he has displayed since birth, such as social challenges and a savant-like gift for accurately telling the time. Funes’s physical isolation after the accident, in addition to the social isolation of living on the margins as the son of a Uruguayan mother and an absent English father, could plausibly lead to the increased sensitivity of his high-functioning behavior. This isolation provides a physical counterpart to that experienced by the creations of Eliot’s waste land. Just as The Waste Land showcases isolation as a symptom of muddied communication, precluding greater acts of intimacy and cursing the land with impotency, Borges establishes Funes’s prodigious, non-reflexive memory as a severe handicap:


[Funes] pensó que en la hora de la muerte no habría acabado aún de clasificar todos los recuerdos de la niñez.

[Funes] había aprendido sin esfuerzo el inglés, el francés, el portugués, el latín. Sospecho, sin embargo, que no era muy capaz de pensar. Pensar es olvidar diferencias, es generalizar, abstraer. En el abarrotado mundo de Funes no había detalles, casi inmediatos. (115; [Funes] knew that at the hour of his death he would scarcely have finished classifying even all the memories of his childhood… without effort, he had learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details.”)


The passage illustrates the curse of an unalterable memory. Funes perceives each occurrence in immaculate detail and retains each of these perceptions. His approach to the world purports that a satisfying fullness can be achieved in an unreduced, precisely sorted progression of details.  Futility in this paper, however, has been ascribed to Eliot’s waste land, which is replete with elements that fail to contribute to society in a positive manner—that is, in a manner that ushers in the present upon the correction of past mistakes. Along this same line, the purported fullness of Funes’s memory proves more futile than fulfilling. Funes, overwhelmed by the increasing fullness of his memory, spends his days classifying observations that inevitably fall into a sterile sequence rather than a series in which each term has relation and meaning in the context of the others—and of the origin. Funes, incapable “de pensar,” is unable to reassess and convey the meaning behind each memorial building block. This incapacity prevents any fruit from growing out of a tremendous memory—fruit for personal understanding or for dialectical edification—and torments Funes to the extent that he must reject the world altogether, finding solace only in the homogenous darkness of sleep. The prodigious boy is powerless to express his insights, and the legacy he leaves behind can be summed up in one line and is no different than that of most men: “Ireneo Funes murió en 1889, de una congestión pulmonar” (115; “Ireneo Funes died in 1889, of congestion of the lungs.”).

            The Waste Land highlights the futility of a society superficially marching forward without embracing the tools of communication, and “Funes el memorioso” magnifies the complicit role of each individual in this society unable to communicate his or her respective genius. Funes could very well be a speaker in The Waste Land: one of many, from the woman reminiscing about her youth to the dead sailor, with putatively vibrant inner lives that amount to nothing more. Both works, however, also propose a roadmap for rejuvenating language and communication and begetting potential potency. Eliot sprinkles The Waste Land with many tongues that initially confound the lay reader, but the poem’s speakers invoke a prophetic tone through phrases such as “Son of man, / You cannot say, or guess” and “with a little patience,” indicating an event yet to come (lines 20-21; 330). Indeed, in the final section of the poem, patience proves fruitful. Romance and Germanic languages vanish, and the speaker deems hackneyed the void rituals and comforts of recent memory: “There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home” (line 389). Once the speaker clears the land of memorial clutter, “dry sterile thunder” finally brings about “a flash of lightning” and life giving rain (lines 342, 393). This time, the speaker does not run under colonnades like the poem’s first speaker; instead, he listens. He listens to the primordial voice of nature, resounding lucidly now that the misplaced desire of spring begotten from the desensitizing snow of winter has been dissolved and the true void in its place, wrought by the surprise of summer, reflected upon. The primordial voice is a return to the beginning: rain promised by dry thunder. The voice questions (“what have we given?”), criticizes (“Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison”) and commands (“Datta…Dayadhyvam…Damyata”) (lines 401, 411, 416, 418). For the first time in 433 lines, the speaker understands; “These fragments I have shored against my ruin,” and this understanding, watered by the commands of giving, sympathizing and controlling, has potential to spur growth (line 430).

            Though “Funes el memorioso” in its textual progression laments the hyperencyclopedic, useless yet metastasizing microcosm contained within Ireneo Funes, the structure of the short story offers a solution to this very lamentation—a solution similar to that purported by The Waste Land. Funes’s condition incapacitates him from thinking productively for himself and communicating with others, but Borges, in crafting this account, achieves the exact opposite. Borges, the assumed narrator, writes that his testimony of Funes will likely be poor, impartial and unescapably biased. Rather, in execution, Borges’s frank admission that he will not try to reproduce Funes’s words frees him to imbue details with meaning (i.e. associating an infallible memory with a uselessness, a connection which Funes cannot make as he continues to prize his memory) and to fashion a short story that successfully conveys his intent: to relay an account of one extraordinary being. Thus, the structure of the narrative acknowledges the essentiality of forgetting—of the ability to return to the origin, the moment when Borges suddenly heard Funes’s voice in darkness and proceeded to converse with him, and to shape effective advancement outward from that moment. In the text, advancement forgoes Funes’s catalogue of acute images for a series of the narrator’s “lo recuerdo” (106; “I remember”) statements, carefully handpicked for literary impact. Borges positions himself as an inferior countercharacter to Funes by opening the story with multiple comparisons between his forgetfulness and Funes’s likeness to a savant, but Borges emerges more effective thanks to his embracement of his imperfections, succeeding in his mission to pass on impressions of Funes. “...tal vez todos sabemos profundamente que somos inmortales y que tarde o temprano, todo hombre hará todas las cosas y sabrá todo” (113; “perhaps we all know deep down that we are immortal and that sooner or later all men will do and know all things”), but until then, employing intentional forgetfulness in order to anchor to the origin and from there to understand and move forward provides a brighter outlook than ceaseless yet fruitless propagation.

            Moreover, as citizens of the world increasingly take initiative to contemplate their situations and communicate their inferences, humanity narrows in on a fuller truth. Borges writes, “Me parece muy feliz el proyecto de que todos aquellos que lo trataron escriban sobre él” (107; “I find it very satisfactory that all those who knew him should write about him…”) and Eliot writes the following:


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 (lines 111-114).


Both of these quotes echo Erich Auerbach’s argument in “Philology and Weltliterateur” and make room for this paper’s revisionist argument. In his essay, Auerbach encourages the individual scholar to combine close reading and obvious connections produced in an increasingly globalized and connected world in order to develop his own body of writing and contribute compellingly to the existing dialogue. Auerbach writes, “The difficulty [in achieving synthesis] lies…in the…traditional divisions of the material, chronological, geographical or typological” (134). The argument devised in this paper seeks to obliterate these divisions, producing an energetic, unified thesis enveloping typological as well as chronological elements of The Waste Land and textual as well as structural elements of “Funes el memorioso.” Auerbach continues, order to accomplish a major work of synthesis it is imperative to locate a point of departure, a handle, as it were, by which the subject can be seized. The point of departure must be the election of a firmly circumscribed, easily seen, set of phenomena whose interpretation is a radiation out from them and which orders and interprets a greater region that they themselves occupy (135).


In dissolving traditional divisions amongst narrative elements, this essay simultaneously seeks to anchor to the frank point of degeneration in The Waste Land and “Funes el memorioso” and carefully radiate outward to examine how hints of renewal, too often relegated to the periphery, reflect upon this point. Auerbach’s argument clears room for additive interpretations of texts as the points are many and the outward radiations overlap. In other words, as implied by the Borges and Eliot quotes, it is a “feliz” (happy) thought that a democratizing literary methodology, which does not require mastering of “the copiousness of the material that is scarcely within the grasp of a single individual,” could encourage people to "stay," "think" and "speak," approaching a fullness richer than that of Funes's meaningless sequences and The Waste Land dwellers' corrupted lifestyles (134). Thus, the door is opened wide for this paper’s very argument, suggesting a reassessment of The Waste Land and “Funes el memorioso” as primarily blueprints for rejuvenation.  

            The Waste Land and “Funes el memorioso” are exemplars of a theme—the disconnect between the wielding of language and the desired impacts of this brandishing—that reverberates through centuries of literary dialogue, from the Bible to Hofmannsthal to Coetzee, and even permeates other artistic genres, as seen in the discrepancy between the life conditions and lyrics crooned by the namesake of Inside Llewyn Davis. Eliot and Borges mangle the modern condition (“A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many,” line 62) and ideals (i.e. the progression toward a feigned achievable totality, as portrayed in Ireneo Funes) until they have meaning, until they breathe life. Their texts painstakingly expose modern-day dearth but go two steps further to attribute the dearth to the absence of fruitful communication and to propose a first step to recovering from this absence that lies in recognition of the dearth and intentional inching forward. The waste land is dry and Funes is a wasted intellect, but these two barren conditions serve to heavily underscore that the final speaker of The Waste Land is the first to take a moment to contemplate his reactions and his reality in the relentless rain and that, while Funes fails to tell his story, the narrator of “Funes el memorioso” succeeds through a combination of inevitable amnesia and subsequent and purposeful restructuring. The texts thereby challenge the notion that they are primarily about dearth. Destroying a contemporaneous prideful, horizontally advancing Tower of Babel—more pointedly a Tunnel of Babel, Eliot and Borges expose the tunnel’s residents: the speakers in The Waste Land, whose futility is exemplified in Ireneo Funes. Their essence is one of barrenness and aridity, but just as the God of the Bible simultaneously scatters and sows, the creators of these texts sow opportunities for recognition even in seemingly vacuous prospects. This recognition on the part of the speakers of The Waste Land and the narrator of “Funes el memorioso” necessitates a reflection upon the void and cries to the heavens: “O Lord Thou pluckest me out”—bringing seekers back to the start (line 309). The biblical God commands his subjects to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth; likewise, the primordial recognition to give, sympathize and control—datta, dayadhvam, damyata—and the recognition of manmade constructs to forget differences, generalize and abstract. The earth is a waste land, not a wasteland. The judgment of “waste” is a current descriptor, not a permanent condition. The scattered people need only meditate on their original purpose and then proceed to heed the thunder’s command or purposefully arrange their thoughts; they need only leave their enclosures and interact with their surroundings. In interaction lie resurrection, reproduction and salvation. The gods, after scattering the seeds, have created a spark, a potential, out of nothingness. Now it is up to their creations, “[capaces] de pensar” (“capable of thought”) to reflect and act in “la recelosa claridad de la madrugada” (“the wary light of dawn”).



Auerbach, Erich. “Philology and Weltliterateur.” The Princeton Sourcebook in Comparative Literature. Eds. David Damrosch, Natalie melas and Mbongiseni Buthelezi. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. Print.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Ficciones (English Translation). Grove Press, 1994. Print.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Ficciones (Spanish Edition). Alianza Editorial, 1997. Print.

Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land (Norton Critical Editions). W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. Print. 



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