The shade of Tiresias, consulted by Ulysses in the underworld
In English 101 we read T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. It seems an incredibly undisciplined poem, roaming all over the place as though Eliot could not rein in his love of words and how they sound, heaped upon each other, with allusions going in all directions. It is a veritable tour through mythology and imagery. Vegetation deities and the Paschal mystery, the two already hardly unacquainted, and the history of European literature all seem to bounce about. Well, as a lover of words and images and mythology I could only fall in love with it.
As Barbara Kaiser and I walked toward our English class with Dr. Barnes on the day this poem was to be discussed, we had a chat. I do not recall who initiated it but I do remember we always called each other Miss Kaiser and Mr. Strid, mimicking in reverse the way all professors at the school were addressed with no "Doctor" thrown in. Whichever of us began, it ran something like this:
Well, Miss Kaiser, what did you think of The Waste Land?
I hated it, Mr. Strid.
I couldn't understand a word of it. Could you?
No, but I loved it.
How can you love it if it makes no sense to you?
It doesn't have to. I just loved the words and the way they sound.
This may be a poor approximation of the words, but I assure you it was the content. I have read and reread the poem many times, savoring Eliot's notes. I loved that it incorporated fragments of so many other works (and in several languages). My polyglot mind must have danced. A couple classmates and I even recorded our own dramatic reading (reel-to-reel tape, children). Many years later I ran across Jessie Weston's From Romance to Ritual, which inspired the work, and read that plus rereading Eliot, with a deck of Tarot cards at hand as well. I have read it dozens of times, I suppose, and also came to love The Four Quartets by Eliot. But they were the subject of a series of musings on this blog some time back.
Some segments of The Waste Land delighted me with their wit and invention. Some amused me highly. The poet knows how to do the most literate snark. Some passages invite prolonged reflection. Occasionally I am overwhelmed by the imagery, just as one can be overwhelmed by the perfumes in section two on "A Game of Chess." Some phrases stir up some deep shit bred of memory and desire. And then there are scenes that touch some barely perceptible chord deep within, evoking a stirring, perhaps a touch of disquiet or tender sympathy. I believe disquiet and sympathy lie behind this post.
Here is the scene that triggers my musings:
It is a tawdry vignette of two people doing what lost and lonely people do. When I read it as a freshman I was, no doubt, initially tittered, then troubled, amused, and saddened. I find it disturbing, far more now than back when I was a frustrated virgin. Before I add my personal reactions I want toAt the violet hour, when the eyes and back215Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waitsLike a taxi throbbing waiting,I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can seeAt the violet hour, the evening hour that strives220Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,The typist home at tea-time, clears her breakfast, lightsHer stove, and lays out food in tins.Out of the window perilously spreadHer drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays,225On the divan are piled (at night her bed)Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugsPerceived the scene, and foretold the rest—I too awaited the expected guest.230He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,A small house-agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,One of the low on whom assurance sitsAs a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.The time is now propitious, as he guesses,235The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,Endeavours to engage her in caressesWhich still are unreproved, if undesired.Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;Exploring hands encounter no defence;240His vanity requires no response,And makes a welcome of indifference.(And I Tiresias have foresuffered allEnacted on this same divan or bed;I who have sat by Thebes below the wall245And walked among the lowest of the dead.)Bestows one final patronizing kiss,And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit…She turns and looks a moment in the glass,Hardly aware of her departed lover;250Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”When lovely woman stoops to folly andPaces about her room again, alone,She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,255And puts a record on the gramophone.
add what Eliot says in his notes to the poem:
Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a “character,” is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. Just as the one-eyed merchant, seller of currants, melts into the Phoenician Sailor, and the latter is not wholly distinct from Ferdinand Prince of Naples, so all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias. What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem.
Tiresias, the blind seer, is mentioned in Ovid's Metamorphoses as having struck two coupling snakes and been turned into a woman for seven years. When he sees coupling snakes again he strikes them and is turned back into a man. As one who has "seen both sides" he was called upon to settle a dispute between Jupiter and Juno over which sex gets the most pleasure out of lovemaking. That is background; you can read his verdict and its consequences on your own.
As a gay man I can experience the delights of both pitching and catching, so there is a certain identification with Tiresias, though I have never wanted to be anything but a male. Role confusion I may have known in a society of rigid expectations but never gender confusion. Still, I can identify with both the man and the woman in the scene cited above. Like any male I am patterned by biological evolution and societal encouragement to take advantage of opportunity where it presents itself. When I was young and pimply I could barely recognize opportunity when it came knocking and I was too terrified to take advantage of it (I believe there was one chance in high school that haunts me still) or, well, too icked out at the thought of doing anything beyond a hug with a female.
The woman here, however, captures a theme I have already raised in this extended biographical pondering. I have lived a life with weak, often non-existent, boundaries. I would give without even being asked. What I gave was my own selfhood. In order to survive I have always kept a core locked away and inviolable and if any reader has ever had trouble connecting with me, now you know why. Like the typist, I have endlessly been in situations where others and their ideas, intentions, and actions have been, by me, unreproved even when undesired. I have gone along, said "yes," felt used and resentful, violated, and almost never uttered a word of resistance or reproach. the most profound alienation existed between that with which I went along and what I felt inside.
Gradually, and very late in the game, I am getting better at (1) being myself, (2) standing up for myself, (3) speaking my truth, and (4) clarifying and defending my boundaries. This latter is quite different from the defenses of the past, the great walls and moats, deep dungeons bound with adamant and steel. Those preserved the endangered sparks of my threatened self, threatened because I had not learned to be strong in who I am. True, I have the stubbornness of a Taurus, and can dig in my heels when I feel manipulated but mostly I just practiced passive aggression. I could not be clear and communicate honestly; I simply refused to give others what they wanted. The mere fact that these current writings are posted publicly, where friends, family, and strangers may read, is an indication that the deep dungeon door, so long defended, has inched open.
Today I feel no need to rage about this. Well, not at the moment anyway. I have lots of grieving to do and anger still to process. But mostly it is sadness. I reread this passage from Eliot last night and tonight I want to weep because for me it captures so much waste, so much unhealthy relatedness, so many lost opportunities, so many moments of regret and the ensuing numbness to avoid facing what has happened. Hence the title of this post: numbness and regret.
Memory and desire. Numbness and regret. Living our lives as lies. Torpore e rimpianto.
If only to get this far, I think this literary revisitation is proving profitable.
My shrink is on retreat. When he returns we are going to have a lot to talk about.