Tim Dean: On "The Waste Land"

My account of impersonality shifts the critical debate away from closet logic toward a different way of conceptualizing sexuality’s impact on Eliot’s poetry. Sexuality in Eliot involves hiddenness not as a mode of concealment, but as an occult mode of access with erotic implications. His impersonalist theory of poetry compels Eliot—even in the face of his own conscious intentions—to embrace a passivity and openness that renders him vulnerable to what feels like bodily violation. Hence his propensity for embodying these qualities in women and sexually ambiguous youths, such as Saint Sebastian and Narcissus. Eliot imagines figures for the ideal impersonalist poet as eminently rapable, and he conceives this violation as the paradoxical precondition for that "inviolable voice," which, in The Waste Land, he attempts not merely to represent but actually to approximate. The raped and wounded figures in his poetry represent not abject bodies that Eliot repudiates as a means of shoring up his precarious masculine heterosexual identity, as recent critics have claimed. On the contrary, these violated figures represent Eliot’s poetic ideal. Rejecting the terms of revelation and concealment that have dominated Eliot criticism, I shall argue that from his impersonalist practice something fundamental remains to be learned about the relation between transhistorical conceptions of poetic utterance and modern forms of sexuality.


A rather different way of reading Eliot’s gestures of renunciation stems from recognizing in the modernist use of masks a technique of self-dispossession that entails a structural rather than a psychological form of masochism. By this I mean that impersonal masking—the speaking in a voice other than one’s own—involves the poet in a suspension or diminuition of self that tends to accompany the poetic medium itself, irrespective of his or her own preferences. While modernist impersonality is readily grasped as entailing the use of personae, we need not understand masking as solely or even primarily a technique of concealment. Persona originally referred to the mask worn by actors in Greek drama, but the word etymologically derives from the Latin phrase per sonare, meaning "to sound through." Rather than designating the visual form hiding the actor’s face, persona initially denoted the mask’s mouthpiece or a reed device inserted into it for amplifying the actor’s voice. Thus in the first place a persona was less a means of visual concealment than of vocal channeling; it entailed a form of speaking through rather than of speaking falsely. More than a mode of camouflage, impersonation may represent a way to inhabit other existences—a way to transform oneself by becoming possessed by others. This distinction furnishes us with a rationale for approaching modernist impersonality as a strategy not of dissimulation but of access to regions of voice beyond the self’s.


Eliot’s ideas about occult transmission are dramatized in The Waste Land. While Madame Sosostris stands as the poem’s best known medium, she is not the only figure associated with clairvoyance. Both the Sibyl, whose words compose the poem’s epigraph, and Tiresias, who supposedly unites the poem, are second-sighted. Given that Eliot derived Madame Sosostris’s name from a fortune-teller called Sesostris in Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow (a novel published only in November 1921), biographer Lyndall Gordon is justified in claiming that the Sosostris scene must have been a significant late addition to the poem; her pack of cards "is a unifying device," Gordon suggests, "a late attempt to draw the fragments together with a parade of the poem’s characters." Madame Sosostris is thus in one respect a modern incarnation of Tiresias, himself "the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest," according to Eliot’s note. It is not only as mediums but also as ostensibly unifying consciousnesses that Tiresias and Sosostris represent surrogates for the impersonalist poet.


Although associated with femininity and so-called passive homosexuality, the experience of self-dispossession cannot be understood as the prerogative of any psychological identity because it represents the loss of identity as such. Self-dispossession is rendered intelligible by psychoanalytic theories of masochism—or by cultural stereotypes about heterosexual women and effeminate homosexuals—but may in fact be a structural entailment of the poetic medium as much as a psychological impulse. "[T]he poet has . . . no identity . . . he has no self," argued Keats, in a formulation suggesting that the poet’s identity consists in the loss of identity or, as he put it in the same letter, in self-annihilation. In this transhistorical conception of poetic utterance, which stretches back to Plato’s Ion, the suspension of individual identity, by whatever means, is deemed necessary for poetic making. With Bersani’s account in mind, we could say that the "appeal of powerlessness" concerns aesthetic pleasure as much as it does eroticJouissance, because the medium requires a self-shattering or impersonalization that is synonymous with poetic practice itself.

From "T.S. Eliot, Famous Clairvoyant." In Laity, Cassandra and Nancy Gish (eds.) T.S. Eliot: Essays on Gender, Sexuality, Desire. Cambridge University Press, 2004.


Title Tim Dean: On "The Waste Land" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Tim Dean Criticism Target T. S. Eliot
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 03 Nov 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

Rate this Content

No Data
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Total votes: 0
Use the above slider to rate this item. You can only submit one rating per item, and your rating will be factored in to the item's popularity on our listings.

Share via Social Media