“Between Two Lives: Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ and the Problem of Sex”

by Sam Buntz

T.S. Eliot once said that all of the female and male characters in The Wasteland were, in fact, but two characters—the woman, and the man.  The Greek hermaphrodite-seer, Tiresias, witnesses the perverse relations that play out between these two archetypal figures, and forms a third term in which the other two terms—male and female—are joined. In a footnote, Eliot says that Tiresias is “the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest.”  One also senses that Eliot is Tiresias, since (quoting further from the footnote) “what Tiresias sees…is the substance of the poem.”  In other words, he is, like Eliot, not a person who exists unconsciously within The Wasteland, but the person who experiences The Wasteland as a vision, as a way of mapping out the psychic cartography of the modern world.  Yet Tiresias himself is blind—what he sees is not a series of external events, but is internal, granted to him by the power of the prophetic, inner vision that Zeus bestowed on him, after Zeus’s wife, Juno, took his eyesight away as punishment for ruling against her in a dispute.

The nature of that dispute is crucial to understanding The Wasteland’s depiction of sexuality and fertility: Zeus and Juno were arguing about whether women or men received more pleasure from sexual intercourse—Zeus insisted that women must, which provoked Juno.  Since Tiresias had, for a period in the past, been changed from a man into a woman, he was called into judge, and (as mentioned) sided with Zeus.  In this dispute about sex between the two gods—between two “giant forms” of masculine and feminine nature—we see an example of the sterilizing conflict that creates the wasteland described in Eliot’s poem and which, itself, animates that poem, providing, as Eliot notes, its “substance.”  Yet Tiresias, himself, appears, by name, as a character in only one section, “The Fire Sermon” (a section named after a speech by the Buddha, warning his disciples against the fire of craving, with which the world is set ablaze):  “At the violet hour, when the eyes and back / Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits / Like a taxi throbbing waiting, / I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives, / Old Man with wrinkled female breasts, can see…” But what can he see?

He sees a “small house agent’s clerk” meet with a young lady typist for a tryst—yet this tryst, if we are to trust Eliot, contains the “substance” of The Wasteland—that is, the substance of what is, without question, the most important and most influential 20th Century poem.  When the young man, described as “one of the low on whom assurance sits / As a silk hat on a Bradford Millionaire” (a “Bradford Millionaire” was a war profitteer) actually “makes love” (to put it rather inaccurately) to the typist, “His vanity requires no response / And makes a welcome of indifference.”  Consider that a wasteland is, metaphorically, engendered by the sky’s failure to make love to the earth (as depicted in the poem’s conclusion), which is also something like the high god’s failure to inspire the earth to fructification (and, hence, the earth’s failure to be inspired), the failure to call up a response from it, to call forth literal and figurative vegetation.  This sterility, resulting from the breakdown in male-female relations, is, Eliot insists, not a phenomenon occurring solely among the mythological deities who should be fertilizing the world, but one occurring in the individual instance, as well—the entire poem is extremely successful at manipulating the relationship between the particular and the universal, between Zeus and Juno, a clerk and a typist.

Just as the earth—which is always depicted as being feminine (“Mother Earth”)—has grown so tired of the human scrabble taking place on top of her, so have all the women in the poem.  The typist’s reaction to her “lover’s” departure is, “Well, now that’s done and I’m glad its over.”  And in the second section, we encounter a cockney woman who, after trying to perform an abortion on herself with black-market chemicals, has lost all of her teeth, leading her husband—a soldier returning from World War I—to lose all interest in her (an instance of disinterest running in the opposite direction—a man disinterested in his mate).  But Eliot sees that things could have gone differently:  he (briefly) depicts the possibility of Nature being successfully and not brutally controlled by the human beings living within it, which also provides an image of perfected sexual love, where the two lovers are actually really interested in and in love with one another, willing to totally and mutually surrender their being — by contrast, the encounter between the clerk and the typist essentially amounts to a method of masturbating with another’s body (to put it grotesquely).  This image of potential bliss is found in “What the Thunder Said,” (the final section), in which the thunder, signaling the rain that must refresh the wasteland, speaks of the changes that need to take place in the psychic relations between and within human beings, if any true fertility will develop: “The boat responded / Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar / The sea was calm, your heart would’ve responded / Gaily, when invited, beating obedient / To controlling hands.”

One could weakly misread this as saying that women need to re-submit themselves to male authority, but the “you” of “your heart” whom Eliot addresses in this passage is clearly himself—which is interesting because he addresses himself in what we would tend to think of as feminine terms, as a woman waiting for the man who will overwhelm her with the true force and attention of a real personality.  Some personal detail might shed a little light on this: Eliot’s first marriage was a disaster and, evidently, those “controlling hands” could never have belonged to Vivien Eliot (who was eventually consigned to a mental hospital.)  We will not speculate, as some have, as to whether they could have belonged to Eliot’s deceased friend, the soldier, Jean Verdenal, who “was mixed with the Dardanelle mud” in 1915, and to whom Eliot dedicated his first book of poems—although Verdenal is clearly referenced in The Wasteland (Eliot quotes a marching song sung by Australian soldiers in the Dardanelles campaign, indicating that the elegiac tone of The Wasteland is meant, in part, to ring out a lamentation for the death of Verdenal).

But Eliot finally did find the personality who could instigate a response from him in two people: firstly, in God—Who dominated Eliot’s intellectual and emotional life until the end of his tenure on planet earth—and in his second wife, Valerie Fletcher (Eliot had taken a vow of celibacy after his first wife was committed, and waited until she had died to remarry).  Such “controlling hands” could also possibly have belonged to the young Emily Hale, a friend of Eliot’s throughout his life, and the object of some romantic interest when he was young (of significance in the masterly Four Quartets).   All of this biographical detail is proffered only to suggest that Eliot is like Tiresias, in the sense that he unites the two sexes—he is both the broken, impotent Fisher King, presiding over the wasteland, and the wasteland itself, the ground that had failed to be fertilized by some greater power.  That is why Tiresias is “the most important personage in the poem”—he embodies a crisis of imagination “throbbing between two lives,” unable to engage in a real creative union with himself, one that will allow him to create and be of service to the intellectual and spiritual life of the human race.

Like Whitman in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”—with which, as scholars have noted, The Wasteland shares many features and images—Eliot is lamenting a barrenness that he senses encroaching within himself—the external barrenness conditioned by his first marriage and the death of Verdenal are secondary, almost incidental.  Ultimately, it is Eliot’s turn to the mystical and contemplative life in his later, explicitly Christian works, that seeks to remedy this barrenness, this pervasive sense of spiritual dryness — it serves to revive his poetic power too.  Although he intended his depiction of this degraded and sterile state to be only personally descriptive, he ended up describing our own spiritual condition, as it has persisted for the almost ninety years since Eliot wrote The Wasteland: Tiresias’ vision of sexual dysfunction is ultimately a vision of the confusion persisting in most of our own minds.  But, ultimately, since The Wasteland is a great poem, it is a testament not to endless emptiness and confusion, but to the power that art and spirituality offer us over the “vast panorama of anarchy and futility” comprising the modern world.  As soon as we see the dysfunction clearly, we remove its power, and reign over it.  We become like Eliot, at the end of his poem, fishing in a mysterious water source…with the wasteland behind us.


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