THE ROLE OF TIRESIAS IN T. S. ELIOT’S THE WASTE LAND
Stephanie Lynne Sergi
A thesis submitted to the Department of English, California State University Bakersfield
In partial Fulfillment for the Degree of Masters of Arts
Stephanie Lynne Sergi
To David – for laughter, love, and lyrics
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter 1 Introduction ...... 1-11
Chapter 2 Tiresias and Gender ...... 12-23
Chapter 3 Tiresias: Mythology and Prophecy...... 24-36
Chapter 4 Tiresias as Modernist Maypole ...... 37-44
“ὣς ἐφάμην, οἱ δ᾽ ὦκα ἐμοῖς ἐπέεσσι πίθοντο.
(Homer Odyssey 12.222; Murray 464)
In this thesis, I seek to resolve the debate over Tiresias’s ability to unify The Waste
Land by offering a new perspective—Tiresias as a Modernist Maypole. I propose that
Tiresias’s inability to perfectly coalesce the different voices and themes within the poem is not due to an authorial failing but is instead an imperfect unification that may suggest a modernist view of unity. In short, the thesis focuses Tiresias in regards gender, prophecy, and mythology. This thesis argues that Tiresias fails to completely unify The Waste Land; nevertheless, it also maintains that he can, in fact, fuse the poem’s fragments in an unusual way. Tiresias allows for a nuanced view of the poem’s structure by suggesting incomplete connections hidden in the numerous vignettes. An image of a maypole can illustrate this modernist view of unity. A traditional maypole consists of a fixed pole that has ribbons or streamers extending down from the top, and the end of each ribbon is held by a person.
Then, the people dance around the pole weaving the ribbons together. In contrast, a modernist maypole would lack some of these ribbons, and others may be frayed or torn. In
The Waste Land, Tiresias is the stationary maypole; however, some of the ribbons connecting him to the other characters in the poem are either torn or missing. In true modernist fashion, the maypole, Tiresias, unifies the work by suggesting what it might have been.
The debate over Tiresias’s function in the poem stems from an earlier one, which focuses on the literary validity of the notes that Eliot affixed to The Waste Land after its initial publication in The Criterion magazine. The notes to The Waste Land were first published in the 1922 book edition by Boni and Liveright, and their literary value has stirred
2 a controversy, which Eliot discusses in “Frontiers of Criticism” (1956). Within this essay, he discusses the trend of professors writing criticism as a positive development, but he cautions that not all criticism that is produced qualifies as literary criticism. Eliot differentiates between an examination of the literary work and an examination of its author or of extraneous material. For an example, Eliot discusses the impact the notes to The Waste Land have had on literary scholarship. He believes the notes have “stimulated the wrong kind of interest among the seekers of sources” and have resulted in a puzzle that has led critics to stray from the enjoyment and understanding of the poem (534).
One critic to whom Eliot may have been referring is George Williamson. In “The
Structure of The Waste Land” (1950), Williamson analyzes the structure of The Waste Land.
His analysis and evidence rely heavily on the Eliot’s notes, yet Williamson emphasizes that a careful reader should not need the notes to be properly affected by The Waste Land (193). In his analysis of the poem’s structure, Williamsons discusses what he sees as Eliot’s purpose for Tiresias. For Williamson, Tiresias “is not a character in the fortune; but he is the supreme metamorphosis that brings together all the metamorphic transformations and thus qualified to summarize their experience” (202). Regardless of the views of individual critics, discussions surrounding Tiresias spring from the discussion of the debatable relevance of the notes.
The value of the notes are further discussed in Jo Ellen Green Kaiser’s, “Disciplining
The Waste Land, or How to Lead Critics into Temptation” (1998), refers to the temptation felt by critics to use the notes to The Waste Land as an interpretive tool for understanding the poem. Kaiser firmly states that increasing pagination was not the catalyst for the notes. She believes they are a structural device that underscores the unity of the poem. In her inquiry,
Kaiser attempts to produce a timeline showing the decline in the notes’ effectiveness, and she 3 specifically points to T. S. Eliot’s comments in “Frontiers in Criticism” about the notes.
Kaiser forcefully disagrees with Eliot’s view that the notes are superfluous. She believes the notes display the poem’s unity and their inclusion reinforces the notion of a unified work.
“What interests me, however, is how, when, and why the notes stopped being so effective at convincing critics that the poem is unified” (Kaiser 83).
Not all scholars share Kaiser’s passionate belief in the value of the notes. As justification for his editorial contributions in the Norton Critical edition of T. S. Eliot’s The
Waste Land (2001), editor Michael North states that the “notorious notes appended to the first book publication by Boni and Liveright in the United States” are an obstacle to the understanding of the poem, and some of Eliot’s notes “are so blandly pointless as to suggest a hoax, and others particularly those citing classical quotations in the original languages, seem determined to establish mysteries rather than dispel them” (ix). After declaring that most of Eliot’s notes are pointless, North discusses the inclusion of supplementary criticism to his edition of the poem. He believes this supplementary material will clarify the ambiguities of the notes. In addition, North mentions that he has expanded Eliot’s notes in an effort to provide greater clarity to readers.
Another Eliot scholar who shares North’s view of the notes is Stanley Sultan. In
Eliot, Joyce and Company (1987), Sultan surmises that the notes to The Waste Land are not scholarship to be taken seriously. Instead, Sultan believes “it seems reasonable to dismiss the simplistic concept that the Notes are documentation, as well as to conclude that any narrow and solemn view of their possible function may be inadequate” (167). Sultan sees the notes not so much as material appended to a completed poem but more an additional allusive part of The Waste Land (173). Much of the disagreement about Tiresias’s role as a unifying 4 persona in the poem is, at least in part, a byproduct of the notes Eliot affixes to The Waste
Just as critics differ according to their interpretation of The Waste Land’s notes, contemporary scholarship displays vast differences of opinion as to how Tiresias either does or does not unify the poem. For Jewel Brooker Spears and Joseph Bentley (1990), the notes are an integral part of their evaluation of the poem. In Reading The Waste Land: Modernism and the Limits of Interpretation (1990), they state, “in the notes to The Waste Land, when
[Eliot] says that ‘what Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem,’ he is using words with technical precision” (10). They take this idea of precision and examine the poem—and its notes—emphasizing a literal interpretation. Of particular interest is the declaration
Brooker and Bentley give about the limitations of their analytical interpretation. They state,
“Our interpretation, of course, is one of many, and like all others, ours is limited” (181).
Within this interpretation they focus on Tiresias’s biologically-determined, sexual identity and use him as a linchpin to connect various named personae within the poem, such as Mr.
Eugenides and Madame Sosostris (180).
In contrast to this literal interpretation, Michael Hancher tries to find proof of Tiresias as a unifying device by providing material that he found outside of the poem and notes to supplement what Eliot wrote in note #218. In “The Adventures of Tiresias: France,
Gourmont, Eliot” (1978), Hancher suggests that the following quotation by Anatole France gives insight to Eliot’s intent when incorporating the character of Tiresias into The Waste
Land. France states, “We cannot, like Tiresias, be a man and have recollections of having been a woman. We are shut up in our own personality as if in a perpetual prison” (29).
Hancher clarifies that France is not mentioned in either the poem’s footnotes of endnotes. 5
However, Hancher believes that the link between France’s quote and Eliot’s use of Tiresias is certain because of the reference to a prison in the final section of the poem. In addition,
Hancher suggests that because of Tiresias’s sexual and psychological experiences he should be seen a representative figure within the poem.
The aspect of Tiresias’s sexuality is further explored by Cyrena N. Pondrom in ““T.
S. Eliot: The Performativity of Gender in The Waste Land” (2005). Pondrom relies heavily on the Butlerian theory of gender identity to examine the dramatic function of the multiple voices in The Waste Land. Pondrom posits that Eliot uses gender performance as a dramatic foil to convey his ideas of a decaying society, and she focuses not on the lack of fruitful sexual relationships but on the instability inflicted on society by the unbalanced nature of the gendered lives of the performers in the poem. The reduction of society to groupings of gendered lives gives the character of Tiresias a more intense role as the embodiment of both masculine and feminine. In fact, the gender of Tiresias is an important segue to Pondrom’s observation of the narrator: “We assume the narrator of this poem is male because he ‘acts male’” (429). Pondrom does not explicitly state that Tiresias is a unifier, but she alludes to this possibility by stating, “although his body bears the marks of his past, Tiresias is not androgynous, but alternatively male and female” (429). This remark could easily be a paraphrase of Eliot’s own words regarding Tiresias in note #218 of The Waste Land, where
Eliot discusses the blending of all men and women into the person of Tiresias.
Although Pondrom does not reference Marion Perret in her exploration of gender performance and identity in the poem, Perret also investigates the role of gender in The
Waste Land, and she gives insight into the concept of the all of the characters or voices of the poem melting into Tiresias. In “Eliot, the Naked Lady, and the Missing Link” (1974), Perret 6 relies heavily on Eliot’s notes to provide evidence for her argument that allusion in The
Waste Land provides both an artistic element and part of the poem’s structure. Perret traces the allusion of Actaeon and Diana through several of Eliot’s characters. Although she states,
“Actaeon contributes to the thematic unity of The Waste Land as an example of lack of control,” she also includes references to Tiresias as a possible unifier of the poem (294).
Perret extends the allusion of Actaeon to include Tiresias and states that in Tiresias
“symbolically [all of] the characters melt into one” (300).
Another critic, John T. Mayer, dismisses these obvious gender-based associations to
Tiresias but still suggests that he functions as a unifier by means of being a prophet. In T. S.
Eliot’s Silent Voices (1989), Mayer focuses on several of T. S. Eliot’s creative works, but he explores extensively the personal and impersonal voices in The Waste Land. For Mayer, personal voices occur in the first two sections of the poem, and impersonal voices occur in the remainder of the poem. For Mayer, a personal voice is characterized by Eliot’s “psychic monologue” (244). However, in this section Mayer argues that “Tiresias is no afterthought, but an indicator of Eliot’s profound intentions in the poem” (250). Mayer sees Tiresias as a prophet, who unifies all the other prophetic voices and references in the poem and ties them to Eliot, who he sees as the troubled persona behind all the other characters. In discussing the prophetic aspect of Tiresias, Mayer states, “Tiresias appears when he does because it is at this point in his experience that the protagonist takes on the Tiresias identity as the climax of his continuing discovery of his prophetic identity through the voices of the other prophets”
(250). To substantiate this claim, Mayer includes a list of six prophets, including Tiresias, who are mentioned either in the poem or the notes. 7
Needless to say, scholars do not always agree, and Martin Scofield, who explores
Tiresias as prophet, comes to a much different conclusion than Mayer. In T. S. Eliot: The
Poems (1988), Scofield provides a biographical snapshot of T. S. Eliot’s life and then explores some of his poetry. In his chapter about The Waste Land, he dismisses the idea that
Tiresias is a central consciousness, yet he does believe Tiresias holds a key to understanding the prophetic tone of the poem (133-134). In addition, Scofield continually stresses the personal nature of the poem and suggests that any central consciousness is a reflection of
Eliot and his own suffering during the writing of the poem. The main difference between
Mayer’s argument and Scofield’s argument is that the former sees Tiresias as an extension of
Eliot’s private voice within the poem. In contrast, Scofield does not feel it is necessary to link Eliot with Tiresias. Scofield also believes that “it is better to ignore the Notes and the source-hunters entirely than to lose sight of the poem beneath a mass of supposed scholarship” (128). However, he does not completely dismiss the notes; instead, he suggests that readers should focus on the important notes and that these can be found through trial and error, although this process makes interpreting the poem extremely subjective.
Scofield shares this refusal to see Tiresias as the unifying persona within the poem with another well known Eliot scholar, Calvin Bedient. Bedient’s He Do the Police in
Different Voices: The Wasteland and Its Protagonist (1986) argues for a singular protagonist who performs all of the voices in the poem. Just as Scofield suggests that the unifying component within the poem harkens back to the poet, Bedient also sees his protagonist as a representation of Eliot. Bedient states in his Preface, “As my title suggests, I argue for the view that all other voices in the poem are the performances of a single protagonist—not
Tiresias but a nameless stand-in for Eliot himself—performances, indeed, of a distinctly 8 theatrical kind, as I believe that Eliot’s working title for the poem, which mine echoes, pointedly indicates” (ix). This statement seems to hint at the growing sentiment among critics that if The Waste Land does have a unifier, then it is Tiresias. Bedient’s emphatic clarification is helpful because in his argument for a single protagonist he includes discussions of gender, sexuality, and psychological isolation. These are the same issues proposed by some of the critics who believe Tiresias is the unifying agent of the poem.
However, Bedient clarifies the main difference of his hermeneutic when he states, “The first poem registers a crisis of heteroglossia, and beyond that, a crisis of meaningless identity” (9).
Bedient specifically utilizes the theories of Derrida and Bahktin to support his argument for a single protagonist. Furthermore, he blames critics for exaggerating Tiresias’s importance in the poem (129).
Tiresias’s implied influence within the poem forces critics opposed to the view of him as a unifier to either dismiss the notes entirely or to consider the notes as ironic or satirical.
Robert H. Canary focuses on selections of Eliot criticism and examines what he sees as the strengths and weaknesses of the criticism in T. S. Eliot: The Poet and His Critics (1982).
Canary’s view of Tiresias evolves from an intriguing perspective of the notes. Within this book, Canary takes several pages to explore the debate surrounding Tiresias’s role in The
Waste Land and the note Eliot wrote about Tiresias (96-103). After classifying Eliot’s note
#218, which is the note dealing specifically with Tiresias’s function in the poem, as suspiciously ironic, Canary argues against the idea that Tiresias is more than one voice among many. He later refers to Tiresias as “the alleged presence of a unifying sensibility
(103). In Canary’s opinion, the notes are not meant to be taken seriously. 9
Harriet Davidson and Steven Helmling complicate the debate. In T. S. Eliot and
Hermeneutics: Absence and Interpretation in The Waste Land (1985), Davidson argues that
The Waste Land can be seen as a postmodern text. She states, “the poem simply does not have what we would identify as a controlling consciousness, and this absence is a powerful and disturbing one” (3). This absence is discussed in relation to Eliot’s notes on Tiresias, and Davidson dismisses his prophetic visions by bluntly stating, “Tiresias actually sees nothing,” except for the absence (106). Furthermore as support for her argument, Davidson stresses that the notes should be seen as nothing more than another fragment of the poem
(107). The other critic that further complicates the debate is Steven Helmling. In “The Grin of Tiresias: Humor in The Waste Land” (1990), Helmling also explores the character of
Tiresias and comes to the conclusion that he is an ironic figure, who brings humor or wit to the poem. Rather than seeing Tiresias as a unifying agent, he sees him as a faulty Christ figure. Whereas other critics have sought to claim either Tiresias or Eliot as the single protagonist of the poem, Helmling stresses that “Western Civilization [is] the protagonist” of
The Waste Land (139).
The debate over Tiresias rages on with more research to be done in the future. At the moment the issue is unresolved, but thanks to the research and analysis done by the critics mentioned above a resolution may be found. Within this thesis, I propose that the all or nothing attitude previously expressed by various critics overlooks a key component in this modernist poem. Although Harriet Davidson’s premise that The Waste Land is post- modernist in structure (and rhetorically, this may be so), the poem exemplifies modernism in its fragmentation. Modernism refutes Victorian ideas of structure and order, yet it incorporates patterns of symbols and myths. This shift in ideas needs more research, not to 10 find rabbit trails of unnoticed allusions, but to delve into the probability that Tiresias might unify and fail to unify simultaneously. I believe Tiresias should not be analyzed as if he was the hub of a wagon wheel with spokes extending to the other personas. This technique is easily defeated by the fragmentary structure of a poem. Instead, this thesis examines the components laid out by previous critics: gendered person, prophetic seer, harbinger of classical doom. I propose the roles of Tiresias should be explored as if he is the top of a modernist maypole—a maypole with ribbons, some torn and some missing, attempting to extend to each of the sections of the poem. This analogy can incorporate the various perspectives stated by critics and bring the discussion closer to a resolution.
By means of an inclusive close-reading of both the poem and the notes, I analyze
Eliot’s use of Tiresias in The Waste Land. I focus not only on the sections of the poem where
Tiresias is explicitly mentioned, but I also consider the possibility that aspects of Tiresias, such as his prophetic voice, fluid gender, and classical suffering, which may be implied in other portions of the poem. In addition, I utilize various secondary sources, including biographies, Eliot’s letters, his critical works, critical theory, and classical references, to explore Eliot’s statement about Tiresias, which is found in the poem’s notes. In particular, I plan to look at various ways Tiresias does or does not unify the poem.
I use Valerie Eliot’s The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original
Drafts, including the Annotations of Ezra Pound, which provides Eliot’s manuscript and his margin notes, because it offers a unique view of the poem and also of Tiresias. This facsimile allows for an examination of the deletions, which Eliot made before the poem was published. Evaluating what Eliot excised from the poem may provide clues to his concept for Tiresias. 11
I explore Eliot’s psychological condition during the writing of The Waste Land because some critics suggest that Tiresias is Eliot’s voice in the poem. To accomplish this, I include excerpts from Eliot’s letters, The Letters of T. S. Eliot. Volume 1, 1898-1922 (1988).
This volume is not exhaustive because some of Eliot’s letters are not yet available to the public. For example, the collection at Princeton University contains Eliot’s correspondence with Emily Hale. This correspondence is currently sealed within Princeton’s Fireside
Library and is inaccessible per Hale’s request until January 2020. I will, therefore, explore other available resources, such as various biographies, with the intention of uncovering whether or not a connection between Eliot and Tiresias can be substantiated. Although no authorized biography of T. S. Eliot exists, Lyndall Gordon has published three well-received biographies on Eliot: Eliot’s Early Year’s (1977), Eliot’s New Life (1988) and T. S. Eliot: An
Imperfect Life (1999). After reviewing the scholarship, I seek to show how Tiresias functions as a uniquely modernist device in The Waste Land.
TIRESIAS AND GENDER
T.S. Eliot states in his Notes to The Waste Land, “Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a ‘character,’ is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest.” This chapter will explore one way that Eliot employs Tiresias to hold the various sections of the poem together. Eliot quotes Ovid as the source for Tiresias, and I propose that the gender changes endured by Tiresias in Ovid’s Metamorphoses suggests an obvious way to gather together the various personas of the poem into the extremely broad category of humanity or even into a smaller (yet still cumbersome) grouping of Western Civilization of the 1920s. Furthermore, I propose Eliot’s modifications to the mythological Tiresias produces a framework that attempts to more effectively coalesce the numerous voices in The
Waste Land; however, even the more complex gender identity of Eliot’s Tiresias ultimately fails to pull all of the fragments together.
Although the remainder of this thesis uses an exegetical approach as the hermeneutic by which I will examine the various roles of Tiresias in The Waste Land, this chapter relies more heavily on various theoretical discussions out of necessity. The necessity arises because the preponderance of critical discussion surrounding Eliot’s use of Tiresias have as a stepping stone the theories of Judith Butler and, to a lesser extent, Michel Foucault, since they explore topics of gender, sexuality, and identity formation. Although I may disagree with some of the views of Butler and Foucault, I believe their theories offer some interesting tools for exploring the role that gender plays in Eliot’s use of Tiresias. However, I will show that neither of these theories, taken individually or in tandem, can adequately explain the way 13 in which Tiresias ties the multiple characters together. Regardless, an exploration of gender roles must be undertaken because Eliot’s statement that Tiresias unites “all the rest” compels one to look at all possible means by which he may tie together the fragments of this modernist poem.
Whereas Ovid’s Tiresias transforms and lives as a woman for seven years before changing back into a man, Eliot’s Tiresias possesses both masculine and feminine physical traits simultaneously. This is not to say he is androgynous. He is an “Old man with wrinkled female breasts”, and based on Ovid’s telling of the myth, the female breasts could be viewed as scars left over from the injury to Tiresias’s gender identity, yet Eliot may have given
Tiresias a woman’s breasts for another purpose (TWL 218). In “Apollinaire’s Male
Heroine” Albert Bermel discusses the French play Les Mamelles de Tiresias (The Breasts of
Tiresias). The play touches on topics of gender identity, a failure of both sexes coming together for the purpose of reproduction, and the ravages of war. Bernal describes
Apollinaire’s Tiresias as follows:
As a fictitious figure, a literary concept, Tiresias is all very well. As a human
being he would be insufferable, politically and morally neutral, so confident
of his foresight, so complacent about his superior function and other people’s
miseries that he would never stick his neck out. He is a preacher who has no
stake in the life around him, only a faith in the inexorability of fate. He has
belonged to both sexes; now he transcends sex, which is like saying that he
transcends living.” (Bermel 180-181).
With the release of her balloon-like breasts, Apollinaire’s heroine Thérèse changes into
Tiresias and becomes a man of action. Eliot’s Tiresias keeps his wrinkled breasts and shows 14 neither a preference for the feminine and masculine activities that Apollinaire bestowed on his Thérèse/Tiresias. Eliot’s modification of Tiresias allows him to be an everyman type of character that is more inclusive. In short, Tiresias may be Eliot’s everyman/everywoman persona in The Waste Land.
Through the blending of male and female physical characteristics, the mythical
Tiresias expands in such a way that he may better unify the other voices heard within The
Waste Land. Although Tiresias narrates only the episode of the typist and young man carbuncular, in the Notes to The Waste Land Eliot briefly describes the men of the poem melting into one another, and he follows this observation with “all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias” (148). Therefore, Eliot’s notes may suggest that by narrating the interchange between the typist and the young man carbuncular, Tiresias, who is blind, hears and represents the many voices of the individuals within the poem.
In “Outing T. S. Eliot”, Suzanne Churchill examines Tiresias’s purpose in The Waste
Land and proposes the following:
Tiresias represents . . . a sexual dualism that might better be described as a
chiasmus of heterosexuality. His hermaphroditic qualities—“Old man with
wrinkled female breasts”—also cross gender lines, collapsing the male and
female poles of heterosexuality (. . . ); in other words, Tiresias’s borderline
sexuality ‘transgenders’ rather than ‘homosexualizes’ the poem.” (Churchill
I find the idea of Tiresias as a transgender individual interesting because neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality allows Tiresias to represent both genders at the same time.
To avoid a possible misunderstanding, I am using the following definition of transgender 15 from The Oxford English Dictionary Online: “Of, relating to, or designating a person whose identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender, but combines or moves between these; transgendered.” Whereas in mythology, Tiresias did have sex with women when he was a man, and conversely, he/she had sex with men when she was a woman, there is no evidence in mythology to suggest that Tiresias, whatever biological representation of gender he or she possessed, ever acted as a homosexual. Within the passage from Metamorphoses that Eliot quotes in his notes, Tiresias is asked by Jove and
Juno to give his views on whether men or women receive the most pleasure from lovemaking. He is the perfect judge because “He knew both sides of love” (Ovid III.333).
The sexuality of Tiresias in The Waste Land, however, is far different from that of mythology because he is neither sexually active nor is he given the physical characteristics of only one gender at a time, and this change from the myth allows Eliot to expand Tiresias’s role.
Interestingly, when Eliot chooses to blur the lines of male/female, the meeting of the two sexes in Tiresias is similar to the dual genders of the hermaphrodite, for which Judith
Butler in her book Gender Trouble uses the term “intersex.” As an intersex individual,
Eliot’s Tiresias appears neither fully male nor female, but is a male with a physical reminder of his time as a woman. Therefore, there does exist within him a mingling of the two genders. Eliot’s Tiresias states, “I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives, / Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see / At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives /
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from the sea”, and what he sees specifically is the relationship between the typist and the young man carbuncular, but possibly also the failing relationships suffered by the other men and women in The Waste Land (TWL 218-221).
Since Eliot sees Tiresias as the meeting of both sexes, when Tiresias recounts his 16 experiences, the voices in The Waste Land chime in unison against the failures of human relationships as they melt together in Tiresias.
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
If Tiresias is meant to represent both genders, his suffering should be seen as universal.
Since Eliot states in his Notes that Tiresias is not to be considered a true character but
“a mere spectator” who “sees...the substance of the poem”, Tiresias—who watches without participating—represents the psychological isolation of all individuals, an isolation caused by culturally imposed gender identity (23). In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault examines possible causes for this distance. Foucault defines modern society as “not one of spectacle, but of surveillance; [where] it is not the beautiful totality of the individual is amputated, repressed, altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is fabricated in it” (217). Tiresias is the observer, the method of surveillance, but he is also a representation of the decaying society in which the gendered identities of the poem begin to meld together. Foucault believes society has the power to imprison individuals within their bodies. Furthermore, he believes society has the ability to control and punish through culturally acceptable norms, such as the norms of gender identity. Butler supports this view that culturally imposed gender identity possesses the ability to produce a detrimental influence on individuals. 17
Since categories of gender can both classify and restrict a person’s ability to function in a society, this limiting component of the binary aspects of gender identity coincides with the Foucauldian idea of docile bodies and means of correct training. Foucault defines a docile body as "A body ... that may be subjected, used, transformed and improved" (136), and Butler states “The category of sex is . . . inevitably regulative, and any analysis which makes that category presuppositional uncritically extends and further legitimates that regulative strategy as a power/knowledge regime (130). Therefore, the connection between gender identity and social regulation of power and the correlating aspect of knowledge are inseparable with gender classifications as another tool for establishing societal norms.
Within The Waste Land, Eliot classifies many of the speakers by gender. He makes ample use of specific names—Marie, Madame Sosostris, Mrs. Equitone, and Stetson, etc.—and gendered images—hyacinth girl, the Hanged Man, and Tiresias (whose gender is changeable)—, to display the aspects of gender identity and the assigned biological roles of male and female illustrative of the imprisonment of the individual Foucauldian “soul”.
Gender identity as it is classified by social norms creates a cultural prison, where everyone is under constant surveillance by other members of the society.
In reference to The Waste Land, the power of society to restrict and imprison persons within their own bodies previously has been suggested. In Michael Hancher’s “The
Adventures of Tiresias: France, Gourmont, Eliot”, Hancher suggests that the following quotation by Anatole France gives insight to Eliot’s intent when incorporating the character of Tiresias into The Waste Land. France states, “We cannot, like Tiresias, be a man and have recollections of having been a woman. We are shut up in our own personality as if in a perpetual prison” (29). Whether or not this quote affected Eliot in his choice to include 18
Tiresias in The Waste Land is open to speculation, since in the section of his notes dedicated to the allusion of Tiresias, Eliot cites only Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a reference. However,
Hancher posits that the link between France’s quote and Eliot’s use of Tiresias is certain because of the reference to a prison in the final section of the poem:
Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Although Hancher may be overstating the role France played in Eliot’s rendering of
Tiresias—believing that “The matter at issue here is a matter of influence, not of allusion or reference”—the illustration of personal prisons is evident within The Waste Land (31).
Regardless of any influence Anatole France may have had on Eliot, the character of Tiresias suggests the personal prisons created by society.
If all the voices in The Waste Land are allowed to melt into Tiresias, “an old man with wrinkled breasts”, gender identity and social constraints illustrate the alienation felt by each of the voices, for example, the pleading voice in the Game of Chess who asks, “What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?/ I never know what you are thinking. Think”
(TWL 113-114). This alienation is seen by Foucault as a result of the power of culture, where
“mechanisms of power [exist] that frame the everyday lives of individuals; and... places under surveillance their everyday behavior, their identity, their activity, and their apparently unimportant gestures” (77-78). Eliot’s use of multiple voices, either from a single protagonist/narrator or from multiple units of a Foucauldian society of restriction of 19 individuality, show the exclusionary dynamics that Foucault believes imprison every person within their own body. Again the Foucauldian idea of prisons of the body explains the isolation of the individual, and each person’s identification is nothing more than a social construction for control. “In cities, where the seasons’ impact is dulled, the rituals of fertility seem to lose their meaning, but they continue, processing like scenes in a play before
Tiresias, epitome of the sexual process, male and female trapped together, who has
“foresuffered all”. These modern performances interpret all earlier performances and interpretations, casting doubt on their total significance” (Crawford 144). Eliot’s use of
Tiresias makes isolation a universal concept because he embodies both male and female traits.
Each individual voice in The Waste Land suggests a fragment of a culture—a culture in which he or she may never psychically extend beyond the apparent limitations of the incarceration of the Foucauldian “soul” within the body. Foucault states, “The carceral texture of society assures both the real capture of the body and its perpetual observation; it is, by its very nature, the apparatus of punishment that conforms most completely to the new economy of power and the instrument for the formation of knowledge that this very economy needs. Its panoptic functioning enables it to play this double role” (304-305). Thus, the cultural matrix has the ability to control and punish through the normalization of the development of a culturally acceptable gender identity as well as the production of those gender identities, such as intersex, which are currently conceived as deviations from the norm of the binary male/female genders. This is why Tiresias “perceived the scene” (TWL
239) of what would transpire in the relationships within The Waste Land; his ability to “see”
(TWL 219) or understand the futility involved within each. 20
As Marion Perret succinctly put it in “Eliot, the Naked Lady, and the Missing Link”,
“Tiresias unifies The Waste Land for Eliot. In this poem of abrupt transitions character is juxtaposed with character structurally; symbolically, the characters melt into one another”
(300). By transforming between the male and female, Tiresias is proof of what Stephanie
Turner addresses in “Intersex Identities: Locating New Intersections of Sex and Gender” as a current problem for intersexual individuals: “Self-descriptive labels may always be problematic for identity groups, since by establishing a set criteria for membership, they invariable leave some people out” (474). This observation of exclusion poignantly stresses the fragmentary aspects of a culture on all individuals expected to live within culturally imposed norms, and it forces some to become the disenfranchised members of society that
Foucault shows as being the propellant for changes in power and knowledge. Tiresias, however, is interesting because the allusion to his dual genders equates him with intersex, and a hermaphrodite’s body is “totally gendered” (Turner 474). If this was Eliot’s intention for Tiresias, his ability to be included in both identities is ironic because as a fully gendered individual, he is still an outsider because of the normalizing aspects of a culture that prescribes to the notion that a person must be either male or female, or nothing at all.
The idea of being both male and female, as opposed to either one or the other, is irreconcilable and forces even Tiresias to be an example of the prison of the “soul.” In
Modernism, Memory and Desire: T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, Gabrielle McIntire discusses “gender slippages as part of the general unpredictability and even volatility of desire, which, it proclaims, never fully knows either its object or its subject. However,
‘Hysteria’ likewise represents the pervasive transgenderism of desire as part of the mutability, contagion, and collapsibility of gender difference” (57). Once again the lines 21
“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?/ I never know what you are thinking.
Think” are important because they show a woman’s response to her own isolation in society
(TWL 113-114). This example of female hysteria in The Waste Land relates to the fragmentation of an individual caused by a desire to completely understand the other fragments (individuals) of a society. The narrator’s response, “I think we are in rats’ alley /
Where the dead men lost their bones” (TWL 115-116). The narrator does not speak, but he gives an internal monologue, and the reader witnesses the very thoughts that the (assumed) wife demanded. What she desires is denied to her and gives rise to hysteria as the individuals realize they are trapped by a social constructed psychological prison, and the force with which it taxes the female causes her to state her “nerves are bad to-night” (TWL 111).
Tiresias as a woman, and as a man, felt this same anguish as he “foresuffered all” (TWL 243).
However, Tiresias’s connection to the other personas is limited. He is only identified within the poem during the typist’s episode. No other explicit mention of him exists until Eliot mentions him in the endnotes that were added as a means of lengthening the poem for publication after the initial printing of the poem in The Criterion magazine.
Unfortunately, even if Eliot wants the “two sexes to meet in Tiresias”, the genders blend like oil and water, with one rising above the other. In her article “T. S. Eliot: The
Performativity of Gender in The Waste Land”, Cyrena Pondrom states, “We assume the narrator of this poem is male because he ‘acts male’” (429). If an unnamed narrator triggers the formation of a specific gender in the mind of readers, it can be assumed that an old male
Tiresias cannot adequately represent the feminine gender identity. With only two culturally acceptable genders from which to choose, Eliot made Tiresias the “Old man with wrinkled female breasts” (TWL 218). Therefore, society’s control over gender identity inhibits Eliot’s 22 desire to have the two sexes meet in Tiresias. Based on Butler’s view of the construction of gender identity, society can accept fluctuations in gender identity only with the restriction that one gender remains dominant.
Tiresias’s representation of both masculine and feminine gender recalls Butler’s ideas of gendered lives as opposed to a person’s genetically determined sex, and the problematic aspects of a culturally imposed identity. This programming can be illustrated by the almost mechanical movements and actions of The Waste Land’s typist in lines 215-217 and lines 222-223: “At the violet hour, when the eyes and back / Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits / Like a taxi throbbing waiting,”, once home she “clears her breakfast, lights / Her stove, and lays out food in tins.” Butler stresses that gender is performed, and “from the point of view of gender as enacted, questions have emerged over the fixity of gender identity as in interior depth that is said to be externalized in various forms of ‘expression’” (202). These expressions are outward manifestations—physical and behavioral—of something already existing within the individual.
The modifications that Eliot imposed on Tiresias’s gender fail to tie together all of the strands of humanity within The Waste Land, but his gender is only one facet of the persona.
Although Tiresias is an observer with physical aspects of both genders, his role in Latin myths focuses more on his prophetic powers. The retention of his breasts invites a discussion of the feminine aspects of the prophecy in The Waste Land. The poem’s epigraph discusses the plight of the Sibyl of Cumae who Apollo grants a lifespan of one thousand years (Ovid
XIV. 124-154). Since she snubbed his advances he lets her body slowly disintegrate over the years. Romps with the Greek gods always seem to produce progeny, so the Sibyl’s refusal of
Apollo’s advances shows her unwillingness to perform the feminine role of child-bearing. 23
Her punishment results from her refusal to fulfill the procreative purpose of her gender. In the epigraph, she has been imprisoned in a jar for her own protection. At least the Sibyl didn’t have to suffer the fate of Priam’s daughter, Cassandra. The Sibyl’s prophetic visions were believed, but Cassandra’s accurate prophecies were disregarded because she turned down the sexual advances of the ever-randy sun god. For these prophets, prophecy is linked to their physical bodies. Prophecy is not a gift from Apollo. He offers it as a tit-for-tat— prophetic vision for sex. When they refuse to prostitute themselves, they are given prophecy but suffer for the remainder of their lives. Tiresias’s is different because for him punishment comes first and prophecy is a consolation. Since Eliot quotes in its entirety the specific section of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which discusses not only Tiresias sex changes but also his prophetic gift from Jove, any investigation into Tiresias’s role in The Waste Land cannot be complete without first examining the function that Tiresias performs as a mythological prophet in classical Latin literature.
TIRESIAS: MYTHOLOGY AND PROPHECY
My exploration of Tiresias relies heavily on Eliot’s notes. Eliot states in note 218 of
The Waste Land that Tiresias is “the most important personage of the poem, uniting all the rest.” The debate continues between critics who regard these notes as an important tool for understanding the poem and the critics who believe the notes are a farce designed to lengthen the poem to the amount of pages required for publication. Regardless of the disagreement between scholars over the seriousness of Eliot’s notes, I believe Tiresias’s role as a mythological prophet may suggest some connections between the other fragments of the poem and him.
In previous scholarship, which centers on prophecy within the poem, Tiresias is just one prophet among many, and his function varies. For instance, John T. Mayer states in T. S.
Eliot’s Silent Voices, “Tiresias appears when he does because it is at this point in his experience that the protagonist takes on the Tiresias identity as the climax of his continuing discovery of the prophetic identity of the other prophets, of Israel’s Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and the voice of Ecclesiastes, of John the Divine, and finally, of the Greek Tiresias” (250).
Mayer hints that the protagonist is Eliot and The Waste Land is a personal poem. Mayer also views Tiresias’s gender as an example of Eliot’s upsetting sexual experience during his marriage to Vivien (276). Although Mayer makes a compelling case for Eliot as the protagonist of The Waste Land, Mayer downplays the physical changes Eliot chose to make to Tiresias. Mayer promotes the idea that “what Tiresias sees is sex” (276) and by watching sex, Mayer’s protagonist “knows he is Tiresias” (276). In contrast to Mayer’s view on 25 prophecy in The Waste Land, I believe a study of Tiresias’s mythology and Eliot’s modification to his physical characteristics may offer one perspective of the poem that suggests a tenuous series of connections among the multiple fragments of The Waste Land.
The first connection that I see is an offshoot of how Tiresias obtains his prophetic ability. I believe the following excerpt from A. D. Melville’s translation of Ovid’s
Metamorphosis shows a possible connection between Tiresias and the destruction of regenerative norms found in The Waste Land:
For once in a green copse when two huge snakes
Were mating, he attacked them with his stick,
And was transformed (a miracle!) from man
To woman; and spent seven autumns so;
Till in the eight he saw the snakes once more
And said “If striking you has magic power
To change the striker to the other sex,
I’ll strike you now again.” He struck the snakes
And so regained the shape he had at birth.
The “miracle” is an alteration of not only gender but also nature. As a man Tiresias has a specific function in the continuation of his species. By striking the copulating snakes,
Tiresias not only disrupted their natural function to produce offspring, he also castrated himself. Although Tiresias does not have prophetic powers when he strikes the snakes, he receives an insult to his masculinity which may provide a link between Tiresias and the opening paragraph to Eliot’s notes for The Waste Land. 26
Functioning as a mythological prophet, the prospect that Tiresias might be able to unify the poem seems to be bolstered by this paragraph Eliot includes with the notes he affixes to The Waste Land:
Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of
the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie Weston’s book on the Grail legend:
From Ritual to Romance (Macmillan). Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss
Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my
notes can do and I recommend it (apart from the great interest of the book
itself) to any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble. To
another work of anthropology I am indebted in general, one which has
influenced our generation profoundly; I mean The Golden Bough; I have used
especially the two volumes Adonis, Attis, Osiris. Anyone who is acquainted
with these works will immediately recognize in the poem certain references to
vegetation ceremonies” (147).
I believe Tiresias loosely combines the concept of vegetation ceremonies and mythology in
The Waste Land. His own mythology shows a disruption in the natural order that seems similar to the perversion of the seasonal motif found in the first lines of The Waste Land:
“April is the cruellest month, breeding / lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain” (1-4). In this passage Eliot evokes the seasonal cycle and deconstructs it. In a similar way, Tiresias’s own personal cycle was radically altered when he struck the snakes. Unfortunately Eliot’s reference to Weston seems does not specifically mention Tiresias. Instead, Eliot suggests that Weston and Frazer show the difficulty of the poem and not a blueprint of any mythical structure. This paragraph has had 27 the power to send many critics on quests of their own in an attempt to produce scaffolding upon which The Waste Land can be neatly arranged. However, neither vegetation myths nor the Grail legend on their own seem able to provide a method for uncovering a perfect unifying mechanism in the poem. Eliot writes, “Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem” (147). Since articles are still written in an attempt to explain the poem, it appears readers are eager for the “elucidation” Eliot promises. Frazer’s and
Weston’s texts are interesting as supplementary material which shows the difficulty in finding exact meanings, but it does not appear that Eliot wishes them to be more than examples of the struggle to find one myth or legend which can be used as a means of connecting perfectly the various elements and themes in the poem.
Because of Eliot’s reference to Tiresias in the notes, Tiresias may seem more essential to the poem than the other prophets do. Another reason he seems more relevant to understanding The Waste Land comes from his boastfulness. As he narrates his section, he brandishes his name about as if it were on par with Caesar. As he describes the interchange between the typist and her lover, he continually flashes back to his glory days beginning each reminisce with “I Tiresias.” His tone alters dramatically between his chest thumping reassertions of his prophetic prowess and the mundane report of the uninspired rutting going on between the lovers. Notice the difference in tone in the following lines. The section where Tiresias first introduces himself as a narrator is followed by a report on the typist. I have italicized Tiresias introduction to more clearly delineate the segments. In addition, I have bolded the
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man, with wrinkled female breasts, can see 28
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings that sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Out of the window perilously spread
Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays.
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.
In this section, Eliot accomplishes three things. He describes Tiresias physically, alludes to his prophetic ability, and lessens the importance of the typist by focusing more on her surroundings. Each “I Tiresias” statement alternates with an extraordinarily boring discussion of two young people having sexual intercourse.
In addition to his bold proclamations about his past achievements, Tiresias is the most physically detailed character within poem. The importance of his visual description of himself cannot be overstated. For example, one of the most visually recognizable historic figures in the world seems less real and less important than him in the poem. History books and museums are filled with portraits of Queen Elizabeth I of England. But Eliot simply lists her and the Earl of Leicester as “Elizabeth and Leicester” and chooses instead to describe the boat and river (TWL 279). In Reading The Waste Land: Modernism and the Limits of
Interpretation, Jewel Spears Brooker and Joseph Bentley propose that Eliot creates a reversal in roles by making the mythical Tiresias more tangible than the more “real” characters (143).
Eliot does this by giving Tiresias the ability to describe scenes and people based on his own 29 experiences. The reader views the typist and her lover as they are filtered through Tiresias’s own experiences. In mythology Tiresias is always a foil for other more noble characters. He offers information grudgingly but once his prophecies are told he fades in importance. This is not the case in The Waste Land. The reality of the typist is seen through the myth of
Tiresias. In fact, Tiresias looks at the typist’s house and prophesizes the rest of the encounter. He “[p]erceived the scene, and foretold the rest” (TWL 229). The ennui of the various personae in The Waste Land makes them comparable to the shades in the
Underworld, and by working outward from “The Fire Sermon”, the connection between
Tiresias and them becomes more obvious.
I believe Tiresias as a mythological prophet has the potential to organize diverse allusions and seemingly fragmented voices within The Waste Land, specifically the prophetic allusions and personae. The most obvious connections seem to be between the various prophets in the poem. Eliot’s The Waste Land with all of its allusions is a veritable Who’s
Who? of notable prophets. The Sibyl of Cumae sits trapped in her jar waiting for the poem to begin. Then, a parade of fortune tellers, mystics, and prophets walk within the 433 lines of poetry. The first prophet mentioned is the sibyl. “Sibyl (Sibylla) was a general name given to various prophetesses, some of whose individual names have survived as well. Sibyls were present in various places. They prophesied in a state of ecstasy, possessed by a god (usually
Apollo)” (Adkins and Adkins, 337). This particular Sibyl’s youth is gone and with it her desire to live. Madame Sosostris is an updated equivalent of the Sibyl. She also suffers although she has just “a bad cold” (TWL 44). From here, the prophets become less physically tangible. Eliot writes in his notes that he references Ezekiel 2:1 for the phrase “Son of man.”
He has numerous visions in which Eliot reduces to “a heap of broken images” (TWL 23). 30
Likewise, the prophetic achievements of Isaiah are dismissed with a quick footnote by Eliot about his conversation with King Hezekiah in Isaiah 38:1. Another prophet is the hooded, unidentifiable Christ-like figure alluded to in the final section of the poem (TWL 359-366).
Of all of these prophets Tiresias is the only one who functions as a narrator.
Tiresias’s role as narrator is distinguishes him from the other prophets in The Waste
Land. Although he appears at first glance to do little more than report the scene between the young typist and her regrettably-labeled lover, the young man carbuncular, I believe he does more. His job as a prophet irrevocably ties him to the other prophets in the poem, but I think his specific mythology is used and expanded on by Eliot. Since Eliot states in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, "[W]e shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of [a poet's] work, may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously", I believe Eliot may have moved beyond the Ovidian discussion of Tiresias and multiplied his role in The Waste Land through an inferred reference to Tiresias’s mythology (1093).
The second connection that I see in Tiresias as a prophet is his role in Homer’s
Odyssey. In The Odyssey, Odysseus seeks out Tiresias in order to obtain information necessary for a safe voyage back to his home in Ithaca. Tiresias differs from the other mortal dead because he has prophetic powers. I choose to quote in its entirety several lines from
The Waste Land because I believe an understanding of these lines, which specifically relate to Tiresias, are foundational for the argument that follows. However, the lines of poetry are presented in such a way that the relationship between Tiresias and the other personae is delineated. This dissection of lines 218-248 provides the framework for an exegetical interpretation of Tiresias’s role through the use of the specific allusion to Homer’s The 31
Odyssey. The following excerpt contains only the lines that deal specifically with Tiresias.
Here Tiresias addresses someone, but Eliot leaves it unclear to whom Tiresias is speaking.
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea. (218-221).
I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—
I too awaited the expected guest. (228-230).
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.) (243-246).
The initial line, “I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,” may lead readers to some of the conclusions listed in the second chapter of this thesis, but I believe that such an interpretation, although correct, is too narrow. Tiresias’s physical attributes, which are described in the next line of poetry, reinforce the gender argument. However, Eliot’s allusive reference to the interaction between Tiresias and the sailor returning from sea should not be ignored. In note 221 of The Waste Land, Eliot states, “This may not appears as exact as
Sappho’s lines, but I had in mind the ‘longshore’ or ‘dory’ fisherman, who returns at nightfall.” This homecoming also mirrors the typist’s return from work. She like the returning sailor hopes to return to home and hearth after a long day, but the reference to a 32 sailor is a powerful one, conjuring images of those persons with whom Tiresias has crossed paths in Greek mythology.
Of these, the most notable homeward-bound sailor is Odysseus, who seeks out the
Theban prophet in the Underworld. Odysseus’s motivation for meeting with him is given in
Book 10 of The Odyssey. During a conversation between Odysseus and Circe, she states,
ὣς ἐφάμην, ἡ δ᾽ αὐτίκ᾽ ἀμείβετο δῖα θεάων:
‘διογενὲς Λαερτιάδη, πολυμήχαν᾽ Ὀδυσσεῦ,
μηκέτι νῦν ἀέκοντες ἐμῷ ἐνὶ μίμνετε οἴκῳ.
ἀλλ᾽ ἄλλην χρὴ πρῶτον ὁδὸν τελέσαι καὶ ἱκέσθαι
εἰς Ἀίδαο δόμους καὶ ἐπαινῆς Περσεφονείης,
ψυχῇ χρησομένους Θηβαίου Τειρεσίαο,
μάντηος ἀλαοῦ, τοῦ τε φρένες ἔμπεδοί εἰσι:
τῷ καὶ τεθνηῶτι νόον πόρε Περσεφόνεια,
οἴῳ πεπνῦσθαι, τοὶ δὲ σκιαὶ ἀίσσουσιν.’
So I spoke, and the beautiful goddess at once made answer: “Son of Laertes,
sprung from Zeus, Odysseus of many devices, remain now no longer in my
house against your will; but you must first complete another journey, and
come to the house of Hades and dread Persephone, to seek prophecy from the
ghost of Theban Teiresias, the blind seer, whose mind remains steadfast. To
him even in death Persephone has granted reason, that he alone should have
understanding, but the others flit about as shadows.
(10.487-495; Murray 393-395). 33
In the Underworld, Tiresias lives among the dead, but retains his ability as a seer. In Book
11 of The Odyssey, a sociable Tiresias walks over to Odysseus and politely asks why he has travelled to the Underworld, but before Odysseus can respond Tiresias states,
ἦλθε δ᾽ ἐπὶ ψυχὴ Θηβαίου Τειρεσίαο
χρύσεον σκῆπτρον ἔχων, ἐμὲ δ᾽ ἔγνω καὶ προσέειπεν:
‘διογενὲς Λαερτιάδη, πολυμήχαν᾽ Ὀδυσσεῦ,
τίπτ᾽ αὖτ᾽, ὦ δύστηνε, λιπὼν φάος ἠελίοιο
ἤλυθες, ὄφρα ἴδῃ νέκυας καὶ ἀτερπέα χῶρον;
ἀλλ᾽ ἀποχάζεο βόθρου, ἄπισχε δὲ φάσγανον ὀξύ,
αἵματος ὄφρα πίω καί τοι νημερτέα εἴπω.’
Then there came up the ghost of the Theban Teiresias, bearing his golden staff
in hand, and he knew me and spoke to me: “Son of Laertes, sprung from Zeus,
Odysseus of many devices, what now unlucky man? Why have you left the
light of the sun and come here to behold the dead and the place where there is
no joy? Draw back from the pit and take away your sharp sword, so that I may
drink of the blood and speak the truth to you.
(11.90-96; Murray 406-407)
Not only can the Tiresias identify Odysseus, he also knows the purpose of the visit and has foreknowledge of upcoming events. Since a blind man even a blind prophet cannot see with his eyes, it may be inferred that what Tiresias sees in lines 218-221 of The Waste Land is a memory of his vision of Odysseus. 34
If the first “I Tiresias” sentence contains an allusion to Tiresias’s meeting with
Odysseus in the realm of Hades, it is plausible that the allusion contains information for understanding the Tiresian section of “The Fire Sermon.” I believe this may be substantiated by these following lines: “I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs / Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest— / I too awaited the expected guest (TWL 228-230). This allusion is challenging, requiring one to identify the “expected guest” in order to understand the allusion
(TWL 230). I suspect it may be an extended allusion to Tiresias’s interaction with Odysseus in The Odyssey, but it lacks the more overt hints that exist in the first sentence. As a seer,
Tiresias would possess foreknowledge of all meetings he would have; therefore, an examination of the final “I Tiresias” statement must be done.
The final “I Tiresias” statement lacks the ambiguity of the previous statements, and here Tiresias’s connection with Odysseus and the “House of Death” is strengthened by three components: a shared bed, the wall at Thebes, and the reference to the dead (10.487-495;
Murray 393-395). The shared bed on which Tiresias “foresuffered all” not only ties him to his experiences as woman but also to his experiences as a vibrant mortal for just as Odysseus was once held captive by Circe’s charms, Tiresias once felt the same pull of sexual desire.
This contrasts sharply with the boredom he now exhibits; boredom he shares with the typist.
She feels nothing and later is “hardly aware of her departed lover” (TWL 250). Being able to see the future appears to have dulled the seer’s passion for life. Tiresias was a well-known seer who was sought by many for his pearls of wisdom, but the reference to the wall below
Thebes, while affirming his knowledge, leads to the summation that he ultimately walked among the dead. While the reference to the wall can be found in other Greek literature, such as Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, the aspect of waiting also loosely fits Tiresias’s role in Homer’s 35
The Odyssey. In all the other plays or poems, Tiresias is summoned to help, yet in The Waste
Land as in The Odyssey he trapped (enclosed) in Hades.
Just as he gives prophecies to heroes in mythology, Tiresias offers a prophecy in The
Waste Land. This prophecy is easy to miss. He foretells the lackluster sexual encounter between the typist and clerk. All the while he basically gives the reader his credentials. His somewhat pretentious style has a purpose. It gets the reader’s attention. The world around him is falling into destruction and his job is to communicate it to others. Unlike the other prophets, Tiresias is seems comparatively alive. He may deliver his prophecy in the same droning voice that Eliot used to record his reading of the poem, but he is completely involved in the narrating his specific part of the poem. His role in mythology is to warn heroes against coming doom. He never took Odysseus or Oedipus out for a beer and casual conversation.
He is portrayed as a loner and the last person to turn to when things go horribly wrong in the world. This suggests that there is something terrible wrong with the casual sex between the typist and clerk. However, the reader is never specifically told what is wrong about the situation. Is it the boredom with sex, the lack of marriage, or lack of reproduction? These questions remain unanswered as Tiresias’s narration appears to end. When the young man carbuncular leaves the indifferent typist, so does any clear indication that Tiresias is narrating. Following the ellipsis at the end of line 248, the reader can no longer be certain that Tiresias is still narrating the next 8 lines, the next 17 lines, or none of them (TWL). This ambiguous narration has the effect of confusing and distancing the reader from the typist.
The uncertainty causes the reader to blend his obvious lines of narration into the fragments that follow it possibly suggesting that his personae is not restricted by the organization of the 36 stanzas that Eliot has produced. This fluidity allows for an expansion of his role as a prophet and as a mythological person.
TIRESIAS AS MODERNIST MAYPOLE
Life sometimes does imitate art. T. S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land between the two
World Wars. The letters he wrote during this time seem to suggest the problems individuals faced after World War I. In a letter written to his mother on June 23rd, 1918, Eliot discussed
his grim view of the world:
We [Vivian and I] feel sometimes as if we are going to pieces and just being
patched up from time to time. The strain of life is very great and I fear it will
be for the rest of the lives of anyone now on earth. I am very pessimistic
about the world we are going to have to live in after the war.
(Eliot Letters 235)
The tone of this letter is similar to the tone in The Waste Land. In addition, I believe he writes the poem as if it too is “going to pieces and just being patched up from time to time”
(235). Furthermore, I believe Tiresias can be seen as a type of modernist maypole from which the fragments of The Waste Land imperfectly connect.
In the first chapter of this thesis, I proposed that Tiresias offers the reader a focal point connecting, sometimes tenuously, each of the characters or voices within the poem. In the subsequent chapters, I’ve explored the possibility of Tiresias as a structural mechanism through which the poem is ordered. But each of the major critical approaches to Tiresias and his role or roles in The Waste Land does not provide for a perfect cohesion between the many fragments within the poem. Rather than discard these carefully considered arguments, I propose the image of the modernist maypole. 38
The poem lacks a linear chronology, and I believe this absence amplifies the eternality of Tiresias’s experiences. As a seer his understanding of human history transcends the natural temporal boundaries of others. Tiresias watches. He is more a bored bystander than an active participant. The sexual encounter between the young typist and the young man carbuncular illicit nothing more from him than a recollection of his own misadventures.
The cacophony of human life is dull and repetitive to him. This is striking because the novelty of the poem’s fragmentation produced strong emotions, either positive or negative, within its first readers.
Equally strong views are held by gender theorists in regards to the poem, and their views of Tiresias vary considerably (See Chapter 2). It is my belief that gender identity is one way in which Tiresias imperfectly bridges the gaps between the fragments of the poem.
Since each of the characters has a gender and Eliot makes Tiresias an “Old man with wrinkled female breasts”, every character in the poem shares at least one commonality with him (TWL 219). Specifically named people and gendered images, such as the “hyacinth girl” can use gender as a structural mechanism to unite themselves with Tiresias (TWL 36).
Because of note 218, Tiresias may be seen as the central point where “the two sexes meet in
Tiresias”, so it can be argued that all of the male and female personae “meet in Tiresias”
Although gender identity may create a ribbon that extends outward from Tiresias to the other characters, it should be mentioned that some gender ambiguity exists in the poem.
For instance, it has been argued that the “hyacinth girl” may have phallic symbolism attached to her (Mayer 254-255). Some have taken this symbolism further: “G. Wilson Knight . . . point(ed) to evidence in The Waste Land manuscripts that the ‘hyacinth girl’ (‘the key to The 39
Waste Land) was not really female (Miller, Jr. Personal Waste Land 16). Another ambiguously gendered person is the hooded person in the fifth section of the poem. “There is always another one walking beside you / Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded / I do not know whether a man or a woman / —But who is that on the other side of you?” (TWL
362-365). In these examples, gender cannot neatly tie these personae to Tiresias. Although the hyacinth girl and the hooded person are more like Tiresias because their genders are unusual, they do not have the distinct genders that would allow them to be connected to the maypole with a complete ribbon. Therefore, I propose that they be connected with a tattered ribbon to illustrate their incongruities.
Gender is not the only structural device for connecting Tiresias to the other personae.
I believe the hooded person should possess a second ribbon connecting him to Tiresias because they both have ties to prophecy in literature. Furthermore, the copious notes to The
Waste Land may also be connected to Tiresias because of the plethora of literary allusions. I would give complete ribbons to the passages where Eliot quotes secondary sources in their entirety and tattered ribbons to the passages where quotations or allusions are either paraphrased or intentional altered.
In addition to gender, prophecy, and literary allusions, Tiresias may also link the fragments by showing their disintegration. Eliot created Tiresias with “wrinkled female breasts” (TWL 219). I suggest that the sad state of the breasts is mirrored in the disintegration of society in The Waste Land. The power society holds over the individual appears to cause clashes between individual identity and a superimposed cultural identity.
Within The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Žižek has created a venue where various 20th century theoretical viewpoints are seen as forming a matrix, and the resulting connections 40 and tensions within this matrix of philosophical discussions yield an innovative method to look at the role of identity in society as expressed in both the unnamed narrator and the various other voices in The Waste Land. I believe Tiresias forms a matrix in The Waste Land similar to Žižek’s because each allows for the capacity to change a perspective based on a particular focus. For example, if readers were to focus on the function of multiple voices and fragments of conversations in The Waste Land debates would arrive. These voices may be either the performances of characters or the performance of a single protagonist, and it is up to the reader to view the performance and extrapolate what it means. The reader may then look at the poem differently by examining other relationships in it. I believe this would produce another set of ribbons for the maypole. These ribbons could be used to represent how Tiresias, who fails to completely unify the various personae, may connect each of them by alluding to the unfulfilling and unproductive relationships. Modernism breaks with the earlier poetic traditions, and the ribbons in the proposed image can illustrate the emotional distress that Eliot experienced in Europe before World War I and put into The Waste Land.
Since Tiresias has “foresuffered all”, this persona, with his perfect insight and the experience of both a man and a woman, seems to be Eliot’s representative of humanity within The Waste Land. As an everyman character, I believe Tiresias has a flaw because his ability to connect most of the various fragments of the poem leaves little room for individuality. In a letter Eliot wrote to Mary Hutchinson in 1919, he states, “I think [Vivien and I] are both grateful to anyone who is intelligent enough to take us as two individuals— not as one, or the other, or as a neutral composition.” (Eliot Letters 315). In this letter Eliot suggests that it is common for people, specifically spouses, to be merged into a single entity in the minds of others. Eliot also expresses his gratitude when this blending does not occur. 41
Therefore, I propose that Tiresias as a modernist maypole may simultaneously express this common view about couples, while asserting the need for a person’s individual identity.
In addition, I believe an “either or” type of conversation does not need to be undertaken to extrapolate the meaning of The Waste Land. As the strong wooden pole of a modernist maypole, Tiresias can anchor the seemingly irreconcilable fragments of the various scenes, people, and voices in The Waste Land. Although I have focused specifically in this thesis on Tiresias’s gender, mythology, and prophecy, I do not assume that these are the only possible links between his character and the fragments in The Waste Land. The idea of Tiresias as a modernist maypole allows for paradoxes to be considered. I also believe the image of the maypole allows for reconciliation between many contradicting views of the poem. In He Do The Police in Different Voices: The Waste Land and its Protagonist, Calvin
Bedient posits that Tiresias is the protagonist of the poem. In T. S. Eliot’s Silent Voices, John
T. Mayer puts forth Eliot as the protagonist of The Waste Land. These contrasting views, which seem mutually exclusive, both have Tiresias as a central component. Since Tiresias is either Bedient’s protagonist or Mayer’s representation of Eliot, the image of the modernist maypole allows both views without creating a paradox.
Although Eliot’s note about Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance and Sir James
George Frazer’s The Golden Bough has failed to illicit an obvious structural overlay to The
Waste Land, it may find a connection through Tiresias. Eliot’s intention with Weston and
Frazer’s texts does not seem to be to prompt readers to search for the Holy Grail or to ruminate on the affect on the land by a lame Fisher King. I suspect (based on his own description of the usefulness of these texts and from the complication which surrounds discussion of Tiresias) that Eliot wanted to layer the fragments of the poem so that personas 42 became as intricately woven together as the mythological Attis and Adonis as well as the tangled Grail legend. The inadvertent misdirection of literary criticism away from the poem is addressed by C. K. Stead in The New Poetic: Yeats to Eliot. Stead writes, “One would not, of course, deny all validity to a discussion which draws attention to the anthropological and literary symbolism that has found its way into The Waste Land. But there is clearly a danger that such discussions will offer us Jessie Weston and an assortment of Elizabethan dramatists as a substitute for the poem which ought to be the object of our attention” (167). Taking heed of this cautionary note, I believe strongly that the myths of regeneration somehow suggested in the poem should by connected by ribbons to Tiresias.
Ironically, the connection to mythological rebirth and regeneration is absent from the wettest descriptions given in the poem. I believe the most difficult section of the poem to link to Tiresias is “Death by Water.” In a poem where the first three sections deal with dry, desolate landscapes, centering a section set in a sea of water would appear to bring relief.
However, Eliot uses the shortest section of the poem to show yet another wasteland. Rather than evoke images of rebirth or the baptismal concept of dying to self and being born again in Christ, Eliot chooses to extend his wasteland to pervert the symbol of life usually associates by water. Here water is to be feared for its capacity to kill. In “Death by Water,”
Eliot uses a scant seventy words to convey a depressingly nihilistic perspective. In the manuscript, Ezra Pound slashed through sections of verse which could have linked the Grail myth to Phlebas. Eliot had originally included the phrase “Kingfisher weather” (Eliot
Manuscript 63). In what is left of the section, I can only find two possible connections. The first is Tiresias dies immediately after drinking water from “the spring called Telphusa”
(Moreford and Lenardon 402). This connects him both with the Tarot card readings of 43
Madame Sosostris and with the entire fourth section of the poem, aptly titled “Death by
Water.” The second possible connection is solely based both gender and death. In the
Odyssey Tiresias is dead man. In the first lines of “Death by Water” Phlebas is described firstly as dead, and the third line identifies his gender with the pronoun “he” (TWL 312, 319).
Finding a connection between these lines and Tiresias seems dubious, but the visual of the modernist maypole allows the reader to work backwards to infer the connection through
Tiresias link to another section of the poem. In “The Burial of the Dead”, Madame Sosostris reads her Tarot cards and tells an unnamed person, “Here, said she, / Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor” (46-47) and continues with the warning “Fear death by water”
(55). Since I needed to trace this reference from Tiresias to Madame Sosostris before connecting it to Phlebas, I envision the ribbon that should connect Phlebas to Tiresias lying on the ground beside the maypole. I do not argue that these connections are all perfect.
What I argue is Eliot’s Tiresias is multifaceted making him the perfect modernist maypole. Through him Eliot can poetically express the frailty of humanity, the limitations of prophecy, and the imprisonment of the self. In closing I would like to propose that Tiresias has one other possible advantage when viewed as a modernist maypole. Since the image allows for paradoxes, Tiresias may be able to lay to rest some differences of opinion about his function in The Waste Land put forth by critics. If Tiresias anchors the arguments, each may become like a tattered ribbon unable to completely connect him to the purpose Eliot had in mind. I believe the image of the maypole helps clarify Tiresias’s structural importance in
The Waste Land, but it is up to the reader to sort through the messiness of the various connections. For me, Suzanne Churchill says it best, “If we as readers recognize our responsibilities as witnesses, then perhaps we will not be so quick to attribute the meaning of 44 a poem to its author’s secret life but will instead recognize the ways in which we ourselves participate in the work that is being done in the poem” (24). If Tiresias is a modernist maypole the reader has much work to do to work through the threads tangled around him.
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