Michael North: On "The Waste Land"

The typist who appears next in the passage is a worker named metonymically for the machine she tends, so merged with it, in fact, that she is called a "typist" even at home. In The Education, Henry Adams proclaims his astonishment at the denizens of the new American cities: "new types, -- or type-writers, -- telephone and telegraph-girls, shop-clerks, factory hands, running into millions on millions .... " Eliot's point here seems very close to Adams's. Eliot's woman is also a "type," identified with her type-writer so thoroughly she becomes it. She is a machine, acting as she does with "automatic hand." The typist is horrifying both because she is reduced by the conditions of labor to a mere part and because she is infinitely multiple. In fact, her very status as a "type" is dependent on a prior reduction from whole to part. She can become one member of Adams's faceless crowd only by being first reduced to a "hand."

The typist is the very type of metonymy, of the social system that accumulates its members by mere aggregation. Yet this "type" is linked syntactically to Tiresias as well. In fact, the sentence surrenders its nominal subject, Tiresias, in favor of her. The evening hour "strives / Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea, / The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights / Her stove, and lays out food in tins." The typist shifts in mid-line from object to subject, from passive to active. Does the evening hour clear her breakfast, or should the reader search even farther back for an appropriate subject, to Tiresias himself. Though this would hardly clarify the syntax, Tiresias could function logically as both subject and object, seen and seer, because, as the notes tell us, he is the typist: "All the women are one woman, and the two sexes meet in Tiresias." The confused syntax represents this process of identification, erasing ordinary boundaries between active and passive, subject and object.

On what basis can the typist merge with all other men and women to become part of Tiresias? In other words, what is the figurative relationship between the whole he represents and the part acted by the typist? The process of figurative identification seems similar to that in "Prufrock," where women are also represented as mere "arms" and where all women are also one woman. As in "Prufrock," the expansion to "all" depends on a prior reduction of individual human beings to standardized parts, just as Prufrock has "known them all already, known them all," Tiresias has "foresuffered all." His gift of prophecy, however, depends on the supposition that human behavior is repetitive, that "all" is in fact the mere repetition of a single act into infinity, enacted "on this same divan or bed." What, therefore, is the real difference between the industrial system, in which "all the women are one woman" and the identification represented by Tiresias? In which case is the typist less of a type?

The poem itself suggests that there may be no difference because Tiresias and the "human engine" are one and the same:

[North quotes from the line beginning "When the human engine" to the line ending "throbbing between two lives."]

By means of this intricate chiasmus, Eliot links the human engine that waits to Tiresias who throbs through the middle term of the taxi, which both waits and throbs. In so doing, Eliot suggests a link between the reduced conditions of the modern worker and the mythical hermaphrodite who includes all experience. The passage contains within itself a representation of this link in Tiresias's throbbing "between two lives." Tiresias appears here almost as a metaphor for metaphor, throbbing between two lives as the common term that joins them. But the activity of joining, the throbbing that seems to evoke human longing, is in fact the noise of the taxi engine, the drumming of its pistons a travesty of human sexual activity. In this way, the passage mocks its own insertion of Tiresias between two lives by positioning the taxi as the true medium between individual and race, present and eternity. Even stylistically, the passage undermines its own assertion of metaphorical identification by merely juxtaposing the two elements that both terms share: There is no "between" between throbbing and waiting, no comma or other punctuation, and yet this is where the all important connection between Tiresias and the modern worker is accomplished. Read in this, way, the passage suggests that the process by which Tiresias represents all men and women is no different from the process by which the modern industrial machine conglomerates them into one mass, that what looks like metaphorical representation is but the additive accumulation typical of industrialism.

The typist, that is to say, is just as much a type within the "inclusive human consciousness" represented by Tiresias as she is within the routines of her office. The same thing is true of the typist's lover. Tiresias is able to understand the young man carbuncular, "one of the low," because he has "walked among the lowest of the dead." He is able to understand human beings, in other words, only insofar as they are types. The uniformity of modern industrialized life is therefore but one instance of the uniformity of all human life. Adorno makes this point when he says of Kafka, "The absence of choice and of memory which characterizes the life of white collar workers in the huge cities of the twentieth century becomes, as later in Eliot's 'Waste Land', the image of an archaic past." That archaic past is not the one the Victorians fondly identified with Athens but one in which human beings are "driven together like animals." Adorno may well be thinking of Tiresias, in whom a sterile conglomeration of male and female represents an ancient situation still repeated in the modern city, inside, in the loveless sex of the typist and her young man, and outside, in the inorganic relationships of the crowd.

Tiresias was certainly at one point to have served the very function Eliot assigned to modern literature in his early essays. As an observing eye that is both of the crowd and outside it, he is to reconcile individual and community, part and whole, freedom and necessity. The directions Eliot included in his notes to the poem suggest that Eliot hoped even after the poem was written that Tiresias could fill this role. But the Tiresias he has actually portrayed in the poem itself is instead the incarnation of the failure of reconciliation, a mere juxtaposition of part and whole that dramatizes the gulf between them. As a dramatic figure, Tiresias demonstrates two equal but opposite fears that both gripped Eliot, a fear of fragmentation and loneliness and a fear of featureless uniformity. In the modern world, it seems, freedom cannot be had without fragmentation and loneliness, and community cannot be had without coercion and conformity.

From Michael North, The Political Aesthetic of Yeats, Eliot, and Pound. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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Criticism Overview
Title Michael North: On "The Waste Land" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Michael North Criticism Target T. S. Eliot
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 03 Nov 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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