“We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass”
~ Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979), quoting T.S. Eliot.
The opening epigraph of T.S. Eliot’s monumental modernist musing “The Hollow Men”, cites the composer’s venerable contemporary – modernist Joseph Conrad and his seminal novel, Heart of Darkness. Eliot commemorates Conrad’s crestfallen Colonel: “Mistah Kurtz – he dead. / A penny for the Old Guy” (Eliot, HM, l. 1-2). ‘Mistah’ Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness, is a maddened and meditative military man. Eliot acknowledges him before the morbid, mordant “The Hollow Men” – an existential reaction to the dehumanized, war-torn modern world. Skeptic existentialism is par for the T.S. Eliot course, the T.S. Eliot world – a world emptied of morality by war and industrialization, a world that weighs heavily on the psyche of man, driving him to madness. Colonel Kurtz’s insanity, an insanity that has plagued his compound like the Fisher King myths Eliot’s “Wasteland” educes, serves as a suitable scene-setter. It’s characteristic of Eliot – an anachronistic archetype for postmodernity’s “pastiche” artist – to deploy allusions, nods, references like “The Hollow Men”’s epigraph. When Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now interpretation of Colonel Kurtz – transposed from Heart of Darkness onto the silver screen and into the Vietnam War – sermonizes Eliot’s opening “Hollow” stanza, an intertextual trajectory is formed: from Eliot’s World War I musings to Coppola’s Vietnamese madness in a matter of mentions. This socially induced, Kurtz-ian madness is among Eliot’s most consistent concerns through “The Hollow Men” and especially “The Wasteland”; the compromised sanity that accompanies sociocultural instability is revealed through the form, style, and imagery of both pieces. For Eliot, this social anxiety is also represented through his work’s stylistic and thematic deconstruction of gender – a socially imposed phenomenon that seems to serve as a psychological cipher for the instability – even madness – induced by Eliot’s perceived and depicted modern world.
Eliot, an exemplar of male modernist writers, saw his mission in masculinist terms; for many male modernists, the “restoration of virility to poetry” was among the movement’s main objectives (Lamas, 55). James Joyce, in his early 1920s notebooks, wrote that with “T.S. Eliot ends [the] idea of poetry for ladies” (quoted in Lamas, 55). Gender, though backgrounded and forgotten in the movement’s motives and materialization, often occupies a narrative positionality in modernist literature that is neither fixed nor necessarily definable. It is irrefutable that Eliot’s treatment of gender and sexuality is frequently regressive – his literature stands in stark comparison to, for instance, the subversive and constructive insights of the queer feminist writers of his time. In other ways, however, Eliot seems to poetically engage with gender in a careful and even sophisticated manner. Throughout the twentieth century, Eliot produced literature alongside such authors such as Woolf and Barnes, whose most prolific works feature a number of openly queer and gender-transgressive characters; perhaps it as a result of this that he, here and there, generates an examination of gender identity that is, if not progressive, at the very least nuanced and intentional. As Cassandra Laity asserts in Gender, Desire, and Sexuality in T.S. Eliot, “Eliot’s poems, plays, and critical essays are often blatantly misogynist and homophobic, but also contain intricate engagements with multiple forms and degrees of desire, contemporary feminism, the feminine, and homoeroticism” (Laity, 3).
One such instance of Eliot’s ‘engagement’ in exploring gender occurs in his “Wasteland” inclusion of Greek seer Tiresias – a fundamental character in the poem’s narrative – whose malleable gender and divinatory disposition represent “the connection between gender transformation and oracular knowledge” (Nelson, 462). The instability of Tiresias’s gender reflects the growing precariousness of masculine and feminine norms during the Modernist period, and is, perhaps, allegorical for gender-related uncertainty and its enigmatic manifestations. In the narrative realm, the joining of two genders within one identity permits Tiresias to navigate the chaos of ‘The Waste Land’ with relative impunity; amid the fragmented modern world and the seemingly insurmountable distance between the two genders, Tiresias’ bodily joining of the masculine and the feminine elicits a certain completeness – a completeness that coalesces the text’s disparate strands into a unified, yet polar consciousness.
Indeed, Eliot himself, in his footnotes for “The Wasteland”, cites Tiresias as “the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest,” while simultaneously deeming them “a mere spectator…not indeed a ‘character’” (Norton, 137). This comment signifies the thematically significant, paradoxical implications of Eliot’s inclusion and depiction of the bi-gendered character. It’s precisely the fact that Tiresias is neither gender – an “old man with wrinkled female breasts” – that allows them to be both genders: “throbbing between two lives”; “though blind,” they still “…perceive the scene, and foretold the rest”; and when they can see, it’s at the diametrically opposed “violet hour” where day turns to night; though a “mere spectator”, they are still the “most important personage in the poem” (Eliot, TWL, l. 218-229). Here, Eliot seems to characterize Tiresias as the poem’s omnipresent poet-speaker, riddled with contradictions – estimable for their ability to empathize and transmit from a distance, but nonetheless simultaneously exposed to the action, to the trauma, and affected by it. Eliot, discussing the poet’s creative spark, writes: “…he is going to all that trouble [to create] … to gain relief from acute discomfort”; he later elaborated in a lecture delivered at Harvard University in 1933: “… some forms of ill-health, debility or anemia, may … produce an efflux of poetry” (Gish, 24; Martin, 51). When considering this duo of Eliot’s artistic statements, Tiresias’ correlation with the poet-observer is now particularly salient. It’s already been established that they are the only “Wasteland” character who identifies themselves to the reader (“I Tiresias”), but Tiresias also speaks lines that correlate with Eliot’s definitions of poetic creation.
After first introducing himself in “The Wasteland”, Tiresias “perceive[s] the scene” – a scene of a domestic sexual encounter – unwanted by the female character, a typist, and enforced by her partner, a young “small house agent’s clerk”– and foretells, to the reader, “the rest” (Eliot, TWL, l. 222-232). As the typist waits in trepidation for her lover to return home, laying out her clothes, preparing her food, Tiresias relays that they “…too awaited the expected guest” (Eliot, TWL, l. 230). It’s here that Tiresias not only acknowledges his role as raconteur to the reader, but also implies empathy, and thus, fearful discomfort, with the narrative’s events that evokes Eliot’s musings on the poet’s storytelling as “relief from acute discomfort”. Additionally, its precisely Tiresias’ “ill-health” or “debility” – tragic visions and inflicted blindness, bestowed by Jupiter and Juno – that allows him to ‘see’, foretell, experience, and relay “The Wasteland” and its stories to the reader, or as Eliot puts it, to “produce an efflux of poetry”. In the aforementioned domestic assault, Tiresias speaks through a parenthetical aside to the reader: “And I Tiresias have foresuffered all / Enacted on this same divan or bed…” (Eliot, TWL, l. 243-4). The aside’s beginning confirms Tiresias’s oracular perception of “Wasteland”’s events, and also implies, through its usage of “foresuffered”, his empathetic relation to them; it then continues: “I who have sat by Thebes below the wall / And walked among the lowest of the dead” (Eliot, TWL, l. 245-6). This last portion, an allusion to Tiresias’ personal history as well as the greater historical Greek canon itself, seems to invoke Eliot and modernism’s creative process – specifically, the employment of what Eliot called the “mythical method”. Eliot was a deliberate, almost excessively meticulous poet, and his work on “The Wasteland” isn’t just seminal modernist poetry for its form, style, and content but also its arduous creative process – we know from his exchanges with Ezra Pound that Eliot’s original manuscript ran well over 400 lines over the published piece. For “The Wasteland”, he intentionally deploys the “mythical method”, what he called “a bringing together of new combinations of experience which may not be the poet’s at all…to know and to incorporate the past” – a method that seemingly perfectly allegorizes with Tiresias’ own perception of the world, his association with the polluted, myriad past in his parenthetical aside (Gish, 105). Their bi-gender experiences, whether conversing with the Gods or walking among the “lowest of the dead”, allow them to empathize and experience the “Wasteland” in all its dystopian power, a power particularly precipitated for the women of Eliot’s sprawling narrative.
Eliot describes the unified relationship of the Wasteland’s female characters in his footnote on Tiresias: “all the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias” (Eliot, TWL, fn. l. 218). What connects these women, more than Tiresias, is their representation of being caged or inhibited by the modern world – a facet which renders them ultimately dependent on the narrative’s deliberately under-represented male figures. This view is highlighted by Eliot’s original title of his second section: ‘In the Cage’ – a title he borrowed Henry James’s thematically similar short story. This discarded title also recalls the prophet Sybil, the caged woman whose prefatory epitaph undergirds “The Wasteland”; in fact, Sybil, as a thematic cipher for the rest of the women of “The Wasteland”, seems a spiritual reflection of Tiresias. In his book A Dancer to God, Ted Hughes suggests that Sibyl in The Waste Land functions as ‘the link between all the women whose voices we hear, and whose doings we hear about, through the poem’ (Hughes, 14). Her death-wish simultaneously implies divine truth’s own death, and, in its wake, the modern destruction feminine love and human existence.
This characterization of debauched love and life in the modern world is also carried by another of Eliot’s running motifs: water, drowning, and the “drowned Phoenician Sailor” (Eliot, TWL, l.47). Alluded to by the “hyacinth girl”, Madame Sosostris, and the man in A Game of Chess, the Phoenician sailor is introduced in the poem’s opening section, in tandem with an allusion to Shakespeare’s The Tempest – the Bard’s final work, which opens with a shipwreck. In The Tempest, the spirit Ariel – a gender-ambiguous mystic – sings of a Lord’s death: “…of his bones are coral made; / Those are pearls that were his eyes: / Nothing of him that doth fade, / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange” (Shakespeare, 1.2. 399-404). Ariel’s verse mirrors the short-stanza’d Death by Water section of “The Wasteland” – perhaps the shortest as a result of it being devoid of female characters, focusing instead on the Phoenician sailor’s death as worthy of attention. The passage is most significant in that its cited in nearly every other passage of the poem – the sailor’s death (the only concretely male passage of the text) is invoked by the Wasteland’s other characters as symbolic of the death of romance – their world, devoid of love, water, and life, is constantly aware of the once-pleasant past – one of water, of sailors, of men who did not harm, cage, or directly affect women as they were, indeed, at sea. The allusion to Ariel, however, is pertinent outside of this context; as a genderless, mystical spirit, they serve Shakespeare’s narrative as Tiresias serves Eliot’s – Ariel is often The Tempest’s catalyzer, enslaved by the islands patriarch, Prospero to start the shipwreck, move the characters, and sing empathetic songs. Thus, there is a connection between them, Tiresias, and the restricted female characters of The Wasteland. This concept of the composite character, functioning as a symbol of universal femininity, which links Sybil, Tiresias, and Ariel, entrenches them as important, gendered representations of Eliot’s decaying modern world – a facet of “The Wasteland” particularly relevant when analyzing the text’s other female characters.
Among Eliot’s myriad “Wasteland” women: the countess Marie, “famous clairvoyante” Madame Sosostris, Mrs. Equitone, Mrs. Porter, A Game of Chess’ Lil and May, and “the hyacinth girl”. Each and every one of these characters merits critical analysis – particularly given “The Wasteland’ and its focus on gender, but a particular pair, linked by more than just their narratively ‘unified’ gender, are of particular note for perhaps best characterizing Eliot’s romantically decrepit, patriarchal, Wasteland. The “hyacinth girl”, the typist, the woman (assumedly Lil) in A Game of Chess, and Eliot’s final female representation, an anonymous woman, are all characterized generally by their dissatisfaction and specifically, at some point, by their hair – a poetic trope, sure, but an inverted one in Eliot’s employment.
After the poem’s opening episode concludes with the first musing upon the Wasteland’s desolate and barren qualities, the hyacinth girl blooms into the narrative. Bookended by yet another allusion – this time to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, an opera tackling adultery and romantic loss – she starts to speak: “‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; / ‘They called me the hyacinth girl’” (Eliot, TWL, 35-6). The phallic hyacinth flower, pulled from the Greek myth of Hyacinthus, serves as a symbol of masculine fertility – the “giver” of the flowers to the hyacinth girl thus seemingly codes as male. While a common reading of this passage holds that the hyacinth girl continues her musing after the opening quotation – a reading that fits in with Eliot’s repeated characterization of and delving into the female psyche – it seems more likely that the speaker transitions from the hyacinth girl to her lover, musing upon the memories of “a year ago”. Given both line 35-6’s inclusion within quotation marks and the thematic resonance of the Wagnerian quotes with the male character, it seems salient that it is not, in fact, a continued monologue by the hyacinth girl, but her lover’s reminiscence. He remembers: “Yet when we came back, late, from the hyacinth garden,” before describing the hyacinth girl, “Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,” (Eliot, TWL, 37-40). At first, his recollection is sensual, sexually suggestive – the girl’s arms full of the fertile, sexually charged flowers, her hair wet with effervescent, vital rain. Framed by their exit from the hyacinth garden, colored by fertile imagery, the speaker’s resultant paralysis implies sexual impotence, or, at the very least a tainted, saddened recollection of potentially fruitful romance. Paired with the Wagnerian epitaph’s concluding partner, “Oed’ und leer das Meer” (“Desolate and empty the sea”), uttered by Wagner’s dying, drowning Tristan (an extended allusion in the narrative), mourning his “absent sweetheart”, the passage has an undeniably masculine charge (Eliot, TWL, l. 42, fn.42). Yet, this reading is complicated by poem’s ambiguously gendered characters and its bi-gender, unifying narrator Tiresias.
In her 1990 book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler writes, “…gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which “sexed nature” or “a natural sex” is produced and established as “prediscursive,” prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts” (Butler, 7). This notion of gender as a fluid and in some senses performative construct emerges repeatedly throughout “The Wasteland”. In his essay The Embodiment of Masculinity, Mark Mihskind identifies Western masculinity as being “defined in opposition to all things feminine” (Mihskind, 103); with this in mind, it is unsurprising that the social and literary feminist advancements of the Modernist era generated tremendous confusion for the corresponding standards of masculinity, and that in the works of Eliot, uncertainty surrounding gender identity is frequently associated with the cultural anxiety of emasculation, as it is in the aforementioned hyacinth passage – one that forms what is, perhaps, one of the only identifiably ‘masculine’ psyches represented in the whole of “The Wasteland”. Thus, Eliot introduces his motif of female hair – sexualized and full of life in this case – through the gaze of masculinized memory, explicitly adhering to its classic, tropic usage. Through the remembered courtship of the hyacinth couple, the gender of Eliot’s Wasteland is yet again intrinsic to understanding his modern world’s ruined rituals of romance, its seemingly shattered psyche.
Both feminine hair as a sexualized characteristic as well as connotations of gendered performance appear again in the Game of Chess exchange between an upper-class woman and her gender-nondescript partner. As in the Hyacinth girl passage, the woman is directly quoted, while the narrator, assumedly her partner, responds only in an interior monologue demarcated by dashes. The narrator is constructed as male, either as husband or boyfriend, by what he refuses or fails to perform – the woman asks that he “stay with” with her, a request possible only with intimacy, he offers no reply. Indeed, it is the absence of a response which precipitates the passage’s passive-aggressive violence, an aggression that, because of the passage’s context, codes masculine. Eliot tears through reams of opulent description, setting the scene amidst candelabras, jewels, and miasmic perfumes – an environment that, paired with the perfumes, firelight and the description of the woman’s hair, evokes sensuality and intimacy. As “footsteps” are heard shuffling “on the stair”, the imagery buttresses the sensuality of the “game”: “Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair / Spread out in fiery points / Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.” (Eliot, TWL, 108-10). Feminine hair is, again, eroticized here – but in a significantly less overt style than the hyacinth girl’s locks. Before she even speaks, her words “glow”, and are equated to her “fiery hair” – thus, her ensuing following dialogue dons an air of covert sexual promiscuity. Her “speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.” is colored by this imagery, and construed as more demanding and more dire, desperate for connection both erotic and emotional. But the man doesn’t fulfill this desire; he does not speak, forcing her to question: “What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? I never know what you are thinking. Think.” (Eliot, TWL, 112-4). Eliot, here, uses dialogic repetition to both establish her gender, and imply her partner’s, too. Butler, on gender, defines its performance as “not a singular act, but a repetition and ritual, which achieves its affects through its naturalization in the context of a body understood, in part, as a culturally sustained temporal duration” (Butler, 15). A Game of Chess renders the interaction between the woman and her partner as a ritualistic one, characteristic of their mundane day-to-day life, concluding with “Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door” – an endless, cyclical resolution. Cyrena Pomdrom points towards how this ritualistic repetition implies the gendered interaction between the two chess-players: through the woman’s language, repetition, and questioning of the man, “we recognize the repetitiveness by which modes of gender, of being men and women in the world, appear” (Pomdrom, 432). The sequence concludes with the women inquiring again: “What shall I do now? What shall I do? I sja;; rush out s I am, and walk the street / With my hair down, so,” – an inquiry that conflates, yet again, hair with femininity (Eliot, TWL, l.133). Yet, this time, the association is one of liberation – escape from the cyclical realm of her room, walking the streets with her hair down, free. Yet, in Eliot’s Wasteland, there is no escape – her inquiry turns, on a modernist dime, mid-line, back to the unresolvable dilemma before her: “What shall we do tomorrow? / What shall we ever do?” (Eliot, TWL, l. 133-4) – a refrain that comes as close to encapsulating the narrative as any.
Now, to turn again to the typist – perhaps the encapsulation of the Wasteland’s female maltreatment, where love and romance fail to the point of outright brutality. Narrated by Tiresias, in distant, but engaged voice, the passage tracks a female typist, “home at teatime”, awaiting – like the upper-class chess player – the return of her partner at workday’s end (Eliot, TWL, 222). The scene sketches a domestic space turned traumatic – her man returns home, eats the meal prepared for him, and then engages the woman in “caresses / Which still are unreproved, if undesired” (Eliot, TWL, 237-8). Linguistically and thematically, pieces of the sequence recall Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan”, the Irishman’s take on Zeus’ rape of Leda; Eliot’s words “exploring hands” and unreproved “caresses” evoke Yeats’ “vague fingers” and “thighs caressed” (Eliot, TWL, l. 237-40; Yeats, LS, l. 2-5). It is, perhaps a testament to Eliot’s unnerving presentation of the scene that his passage comes across as more disturbing than Yeats’ own depiction of unconsensual sex – perhaps due to Eliot’s removed, malaise-ridden, unadorned narration and the lack of perspective given to the female character. The moment is certainly unsettling, borderline alarming, and more than likely abusive. Eliot ends the dissatisfied – in the case of both parties – encounter with a haunting ellipsis – the only moment he chooses to deploy the poetic equivalent of film’s ‘fade out’ – before describing the women’s resulting behavior:
“She smooths her hair with automatic hand, / and puts a record on the gramophone” (Eliot, TWL, 255-6). It’s this line that finally empathizes with her experience, although it certainly does not dampen the crude unease of the scene. The assault itself contains very little identification, in terms of the female character, never giving her a name, action, or even a pronoun. When “She smooths her hair” back, the line begins with temporary respite from the trauma, finally giving “her” identification, perspective. Escapism in Eliot’s Wasteland, however, is always short-lived, and he’s quick to inform us that, if she’s smoothing, she’s doing so automatically. Here we see Eliot turn, yet again, to feminine hair imagery; this time taking up where A Game of Chess’ implementation of the motif left off – a form of temporary escapism. Only, this time, the woman succeeds in slicking her hair back – only to be cut off by the line 255’s conclusive cynicism. The ensuing line presents a similar structure to 255’s: the record on the gramophone should be soothing and relaxing escapism for the woman; instead, the unadorned action and blunt delivery ensure the reader, like the woman, finds very little relief through the music. Her brain, too, detracts from her agency – it has to “allow one half-formed thought to pass”, for she cannot do so herself. Again, gender, and its initial ambiguity, play an essential role in accessing Eliot’s presentation of his Wasteland’s hopelessness – more brutal and visceral than previous cases in the text.
Eliot concludes his feminine hair motif in the poem’s final section – the final mention of gender, specifically femininity, in the piece. At last, the poem’s previously unfulfilled female action on her hair is accomplished: “A woman drew her long black hair out tight / And fiddled whisper music on those strings / And bats with baby faces in the violet light / Whistled” (Eliot, TWL, 378-80). The woman is only referenced in this stanza – she’s given no name, or correlation to the others of “The Wasteland”. Yet, it seems fitting, given Eliot’s own description of his Wasteland’s female characters coalescing into one, composite woman that the final female depiction would be nameless, identity-less. Here, for what seems the first time, we not only see the woman exercise agency successfully – pulling her hair back when others in the narrative failed to – but she also plays music that, in turn, instigates whistling from “baby bats”, a casual chain of events that, given the bats’ descriptor as “baby”, perhaps serves to invert the infertility and barrenness of the Wasteland, instilling slight light in the otherwise arid darkness. Strangely, for such a drab, mournful text, the trajectory of this particular motif – of women, their hair, and their actions – develops positively from little to no agency and obscured, acted upon pronouns to active verbs, completed actions, and fuller lines. Perhaps this subtle motif – nearly lost in the shuffle of tarot cards and the tides of the Thames – is a strain of hope in an otherwise decrepit world. For the most part, however, Eliot deploys ambiguous gender – through Tiresias’ narration and alluding to The Tempest’s Ariel – to not only underscore the troubled, tumultuous Wasteland he’s created as allegorical for modernity, but also to present a world in which any person not strictly male faces strife – whether it’s a cage, a river, a fortune, a present partner or an absent one.
Eliot’s original “Wasteland” manuscript contained a different beginning, a different epigraph – removed at the suggestion of friend and contemporary poet Ezra Pound. Pulled from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it would have predated Eliot’s invocation of Darkness in his “The Hollow Men” epigraph by three years, but would similarly have alluded to Colonel Kurtz’s death as allegorical for the chaos and madness of modern times. Marlow, the narrator of Heart of Darkness, hears Kurtz’s last words, believing them to encapsulate the Colonel’s knowledgeable, wise, and experienced worldview: “[Kurt] cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath – “The horror! The horror!” (Conrad, 72). It is, to Marlow, the exploration of life’s deepest feelings and thoughts that make life such a horror to Kurtz – an exploration Eliot explicates through allusion, imagery, form, gender and its performative capacities, and the jaded, seemingly hopeless women that inhabit his Wasteland – a horror-ridden, madness-inducing place if there ever was one. Eliot’s “hollow men” die “not with a bang, but a whimper”; it seems that his Wasteland’s women barely even get that – for them, its not death, but horror that’s on the cards.
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