From Whitman’s Celebration of Sex to its Degradation in The Waste Land

Oh Eliot, he is a masterful man!  A few semesters back, I formulated one of my favorite research papers around Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and the idea that the transition and degeneration of women in the poem, from Marie to the hyacinth girl to the typist, explains women’s sexual role in the creation of society as a waste land.  While rereading and reflecting on “The Waste Land” for class, I was stretching trying to come up with relations between it and Whitman (partly because, I’m sorry to say, I feel a much stronger connection to Eliot than Whitman).  However, as I thought back on this project I conducted I began to realize the association between Whitman’s overt and extreme celebration of sexuality and Eliot’s view of its degradation from that spiritual, emotional, and physical connection that drove Whitman to sex as either male force or female seduction thus reducing the modern world to the dry and distant monotony that Eliot sees.  Let’s look at the sexual encounter in “The Fire Sermon” between the young man carbuncular and the typist:

The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference. (Eliot  236-42)

How different is this mechanical and almost automatic act completely devoid of feeling from Whitman’s declaration that “there is something in staying close to men and women, and looking on them, and in the contact / and odor of them that pleases the soul well” (Whitman 50-2) from “I Sing the Body Electric”!  Perhaps Eliot’s world is the loss of Whitman’s world, Eliot is lamenting the loss of connection and human relationships and blames that loss on modernization.  The new world of method, efficiency, and go-go-go! leaves no room for the real purpose of life (the Whitmanian purpose of life) which is to experience and connect with fellow human beings, resulting in a waste land.

While I find the discovery of this new connection between Whitman and “The Waste Land” exciting and eye-opening, I do not wish to reduce the magnitude of Eliot’s oeuvre.  “The Waste Land”, along with many of Eliot’s works, is so fantastic and so variable because of the immense influences and references to history and literature.  For Eliot, one cannot create without being influenced by the past; the meaning of something new depends on everything that has been written before and thus everything before shifts in meaning because of new creations.  Therefore, we can see Whitman in “The Waste Land”, but Eliot also wants us to take “The Waste Land” with us in reading Whitman.

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2 Responses to From Whitman’s Celebration of Sex to its Degradation in The Waste Land

  1. AVZ says:

    Great point. I never want to reduce a poet to their echos of Whitman–though I must say, the lilacs, the cedars dusk and dim, the desiccated grass, the hermit thrush all point directly to him. That said, part of the pleasure of this course is precisely what Justine so eloquently recognizes: that each poet helps us find new energies in Whitman.

    Furthermore, it’s not a question of Whether a poem is Whitmanian or not, but how it seems at times to resist, at times to reject, at times to embrace, even in some shadowed form, Whitman’s influence. The Waste Land ends with a very quite, shadowed, dim, but persistent Whitmanian onward. Some faint hope of something. The dregs of some prophetic strain remains.

    This reminds me, did anyone else think that Tiresias is an oddly Whitmanian figure? He “sees all” and has this great androgyne about him. Anyway, just a thought.

    • Joshua Goddard says:

      Hmmm…that’s an interesting proposition. I’ll admit that the Tiresias-Whitman link seemed to be a bit of a stretch initially, but after I re-read this section of “The Fire Sermon” with Whitman in the foreground of my mind, there may be something to that connection. Sure, elements of androgyny and a sense of omnipotence are attached to Tiresias, but there is also something voyeuristic, introspective and remorseful about him in the “Fire Sermon.” With the exception of the allusion to androgyny, these particular qualities of Tiresias reminded me of Whitman’s “I Sit and Look Out,” although the androgynous nature of the prophet could certainly be a reference to Walt.

      In addition to the androgyny, there’s an added sense of sexual deviancy to Tiresias when he watches the couple in a private act. I may be reading too far into the precise nature of the act, but I think Eliot’s language connotes that the encounter may have borderlined rape, especially since the advances were “undesired” and that the man “assaults” the woman. From this perspective, the character of Tiresias becomes even more complicated, since he doesn’t intervene, even though he seems aware of what just happened since he’s our narrator at this point. These overtones of voyeurism, impotence of action, and a “welcome of indifference” are really what reminded me of Whitman’s “I Sit and Look Out.” So if Eliot meant for Tiresias to embody Whitman somehow, this would maybe add significance to Tiresias’s final lines, which are incidentally parenthetical (a Waltism?).

      I haven’t read Oedipus Rex in awhile, so I had a difficult time trying to relate how Jocasta and Oedipus fit in with what happened in this section of “The Fire Sermon,” especially since the Tiresias of the play couldn’t claim he was the one who “foresuffered all / Enacted on this same divan or bed.” Yet Walt probably could claim this, especially if the main theme of this particular episode is “indifference,” and given all the other similarities to the theme of “I Sit and Look Out.” It’s also entirely possible that I’m missing some sort of obscure mythological allusion that Eliot was making outside the bounds of Oedipus Rex; however, I prefer to view Tiresias as a pseudo-Whitman figure—it would certainly lend a sense of modern relevancy to The Wasteland. I think this sense would be lost if we merely viewed Tiresias as this 2000 year old mythological seer who peeked behind the closed doors of urbanity for a few lines and then disappeared without a trace from The Wasteland.

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