We’ve recently had a flurry of attention to the centenary of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, perhaps the most consequential poem of the twentieth century. It was reviewed in the first issue of Time magazine under the headline, “Has the Reader Any Rights before the Bar of Literature?” As the anonymous author concluded the short appraisal: “It is rumored that The Waste Land was written as a hoax.”
As the reception of many modern artworks reveals, artistic innovation often meets with suspicion that there’s more—or less—than meets the eye. “Is that a real poem, or did you make it up yourself?” This curiously phrased question was put to Robert Creeley some fifty years after The Waste Land was published. It seems to assume that real poems exist in eternity. They’ve all been written down and spoken for. So how can a living person claim to have added another to the stockpile? Creeley’s questioner didn’t use the word hoax, but it hangs in the air, sniffing for a way to distinguish real poems from something merely “made up.”
In 1922, when Time floated the suspicion of a hoax behind The Waste Land, there was in fact some precedent. During the Great War, a group of exiled artists convened in Zurich, launching a movement called Dada, a name they chose because it didn’t mean anything. They produced poems and artworks, but they also played pranks, leaking fraudulent press releases to a gullible public. When Dada reached Berlin, during the armed conflicts that broke out as the Reich collapsed at the end of the war in 1918, Dadaists published a report that a Berlin suburb was about to be assaulted by Dada troops. Civic authorities called out the militia, but there were no armed Dada militants, let alone an organized force. What might seem a hoax was in fact a timely revelation of the precariousness of any authority as Wilhelmine Germany melted away and the Weimar Republic had not yet filled the void. In another prank, this time in Paris, Dadaists announced Charlie Chaplin had joined the movement and would be making a public appearance with them. This hoax-like bit of fan fiction turned out a big crowd for the Dadaists, with “Charlot” as he was known in France nowhere to be seen.
The Waste Land was not a Dada stunt. Nor was it the hoax Time’s reviewer supposed. Late in life, Eliot called it “a piece of rhythmical grumbling,” evidence of a miserable marriage and workplace drudgery. By then, his poem had assumed a place in the front ranks of anthologies and school curricula. Its standing was secured beyond any taint of alleged misbehavior. But the shadow cast by the very wordhoax has longer legs than a poem can supply.
A recent Politico report on a rape trial looming for Donald Trump documented the former president’s penchant for applying his favorite word to just about anything. The rape charge, he dismissively said, was a hoax. In a deposition he also stated that mail-in ballots and climate change were hoaxes. In a Washington Post article from November 2, 2021, Philip Bump pointed out that in 2013 the then tv star had wondered if global warming is real, why do we still have winter? Just asking the question exposed the hoax underlying climate change. During Trump’s presidency we learned to expect that anything he opposed or disapproved of would be branded a hoax. He even dangled a numerical ranking when he called global warming the “7th biggest hoax in America” (though as Bump observes, 1 to 6 went unnamed). Notwithstanding the fact that scientific data on climate change is not a national enterprise, calling it an American hoax positioned Trump to zero down on a long list of American ailments that, in his words, only he could fix.
Frequent and casual charges of hoax suggest either an indifference to vocabulary or, more intriguingly, a sleight of hand. In an opinion piece published in The New York Times (Sept. 22, 2022), Carlos Lozada pondered “The Inside Joke That Became Trump’s Big Lie.” “The big lie depends on the big joke” that preceded it—that is, “the idea that American politics is, in essence, a joke, and that it can be treated as such without consequence.” This “long-running gag,” Lozada calls it, is the operative protocol of political haymaking, an inside joke, a way of handling the discrepancy between sound bites and considered opinion, career opportunities and personal convictions. Those like Lindsay Graham who pivoted from Trump-deniers to sycophants are the public faces of the big joke. In Lozada’s summary insight: “The big lie thrives on LOL Nothing Matters.”
How did this attitude—this predicament—come about? What none of the political commentators I’m aware of seem to have noticed is a certain generational experience that undergirds the “LOL” meme: video gaming. As with most games, the stakes are absolute, yet eerily inconsequential. You can always die to live another day. Wins and losses even out in the end. The pixel dragon is vanquished while, meanwhile, Arctic ice sheets melt away. The big joke, in ecological terms, is that climate change born of human technologies is real but if we say (like Marjorie Taylor Greene) the climate has always changed, we can press the LOL button and zoom off to the local grievance patch, a kind of community garden in which, rather than broccoli and tomatoes, a border wall and the Christian nation are rallying cries.
In recent years there’s been much hand wringing about the deflation of truth as a social value. This is especially the case for news organizations, for which fact checking is a professional virtue. But as facts dissolve in the slurry of taunts and innuendo delivered on media platforms in a pepper spray of sound bites, the lure of the hoax comes to the fore. A hoax is relatively rare, when you think about it. People lie, cheat, and steal, but you wouldn’t associate such behavior with a hoax. Is a ponzi scheme a hoax? It’s a menacing deception, for sure, but where’s the hoax?
The Waste Land was no hoax, but there was precedent in the poetry world. In 1916 two American poets invented a movement called Spectra in response to recent trends like Imagism. But—here’s the hoax—they attributed Spectra to poets that they themselves invented, and whose verses they wrote. Spectra was meant to deceive, and for a year or so it did just that. The case of Spectra reveals a distinction between the perpetration of a hoax and calling something a hoax. The perpetrators of Spectra did not become social pariahs when the hoax was revealed. If anything, their ingenuity in pulling it off was admired. The hoax raised a critical eyebrow on “advanced” trends in poetry, rendering a mild mannered public service. The opposite is the case with political charges of hoax. Trump’s penchant for calling something a hoax is a way of saying it doesn’t count, it doesn’t matter, don’t pay attention. “LOL. Nothing Matters.” The Time reviewer of The Waste Land in 1923 was laying the groundwork for such dismissals, but also likely knew that calling the poem a hoax would send a lot of curious readers hunting it down. Thinking it may be good for a laugh, what awaited them was as ominous as the climate crisis that looms ahead for us now. Squeaky cries of “hoax” diminish in the distance like the sound of gulls along the shores of rising seas.