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Page 47


I’m reminded here of a poem by Louise Gluck, “March,” in which she describes a woman who

experiencing one of the first thaws of spring and tries to wrest from April the title of “the cruelest

month.” In her poem, “Everything’s still very bare—nevertheless, something’s different today

from yesterday” as the sun melts the snow on the tops of the mountain and the women’s dog

sniffs at dead flowers. “The season of discoveries is beginning” the narrator tells us

monotonously, “Always the same discoveries, but to the dog / intoxicating and new, not

duplicitous.” In the end, the woman wishes she lived near the sea, because “The sea doesn’t

change as the earth changes; / it doesn’t lie.” It is a similar tone of frustrated, deadened hope that

begins The Waste Land: Spring is cruel because it stirs the earth from a warm, “forgetful snow.”

Such stirring should indicate complete change, but Spring is but one of four cyclical seasons:

their repetition is nothing new. Similarly, the mixing of memory and desire that the breeding of

Lilacs brings about is cruel because it drags up human desires for intimacy that such a world

cannot sustain or even offer.

One of the most central and prime examples of this human desire for an intimacy that

doesn’t seem to exist and that is instead doomed to a cycle of disappointment is that of the typist

scene, which remarkably is narrated by the Ovidian, metamorphic figure of Tiresias. As Eliot

famously and puzzlingly indicates in his notes, “What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of

the poem.” Ostensibly, it seems that all Tiresias sees is a base and unfulfilling sexual encounter

between a typist and her co-worker, a “young man carbuncular.” Eliot, however, does not want

us to discount this encounter, and he instead draws even more attention to it by assigning a great

deal of importance to the literary history of Tiresias, citing in full the story of Tiresias’

metamorphosis, and calling attention to the Ovidian myth as one “of great anthropological

interest” (Eliot 23). In Ovid’s version, Tiresias is turned into a woman after he unwittingly parts

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two copulating snakes. Eventually he is able to reverse his metamorphosis, but his experience as

both a man and a woman makes him the prime witness Juno and Jupiter call forth to settle their

dispute about who derives greater satisfaction from intercourse. When Tiresias admits that

women do, Juno is furious and blinds Tiresias as punishment, while Jupiter, vindicated in his

views, rewards Tiresias with the gift of prophecy. Eliot’s decision to use the figure of Tiresias

as the narrator adds a curious weight to this sexual encounter, where it seems instead that the

woman is “bored and tired” during the act, glad when it is over. Tiresias’ very overviewing

presence in seeing what no one can possibly to blind to—that in this experience, no one seems to

enjoy the loveless coupling—makes the scene even more seedy and unbearably common. Unlike

his position in Ovid, where he exists in the poem either as a man or as a woman, Tiresias in The

Waste Land lives at once as both man and woman: “I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between

two lives, / Old man with wrinkled female breasts.” It is this ability to “throb,” to oscillate

between two lives that gives Tiresias the power “to perceive[] the scene, and fore[tell] the rest.”

Tiresias knows from experience that this kind of episode happens all the time. He remains,

especially in Eliot’s version of him, a strangely condemned and punished character: doomed to

the repetition of both gender roles and experiential knowledge at once. Because of that, he is able

to foretell all the rest without hope of rejuvenation. He doesn’t escape the typist’s fate: “I too

awaited the expected guest,” he says, and “have foresuffered all / Enacted on this same divan or

bed.” Because Tiresias has seen it all before, the repugnant typist scene is made all the more

horrific and repugnant because of his narration of it. He is stuck; his status as a metamorphic

figure keeps him from a satisfying path to liberation. Metamorphosis doesn’t renovate but seems

to condemn to repetition instead.

The typist on her own serves as a figure of repetition. As Rainey points out,

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