Sexual Dissonance and Inviolable Voice in The Waste Land

The Waste Land  by T.S. Eliot operates on the logic of the inviolable voice. The inviolable voice is the voice that is untainted by personality and human whims—pure sound. The logic of this authoritative voice is invoked through the auditory imagination. Eliot defines auditory imagination in an essay on Matthew Arnold as “the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below conscious levels of thought and feeling[…]” . The presence of this voice overrides authorial intent. The  Elliot’s assertion that “Tiresias is the most important personage in the poem uniting all the rest…the two sexes meet in Tiresias” is thus complicated by the inviolable voice of the poem itself. The poem, according to its logic, cannot have a central figure. The inviolable voice is necessarily disembodied, free from the cruelty of April and from the half-confessions of a violated woman. The sexual dissonances provide a necessary condition for the inviolable voice’s existence as the text echoes violations of voice and body through history and literature. These violations resonate closely with one another, thereby creating a cacophony of wasted noise that is neither untrained or impersonal. The sexual motifs underlying these violations suggest human sexuality is just multiple voices having different conversations at the same time, a solitary act that ironically requires an arbitrary partnering.

If importance is defined by the ability to “unite all the rest”, then Tiresias’ inherent sexual dissonance is reason enough for disqualification. Elliot’s assertion that “the two sexes meet in Tiresias” is true in the superficial sense. There are markers of two sex characteristics “Old man with wrinkled female breasts”, notably abstaining from sexualizing the male body (219). Beyond this embodiment, however, there is nothing to unify the sexes in a more permanent way. The problem with this embodiment is that it is subject to the cruelty of April, as are all bodies. Therefore this unity is  more of a temporary convening of physicality rather than a meeting of gender identity. There is, however, an abbreviated moment when Tiresias interrupts the mechanical sexuality of the clerk and typist to parenthetically unite bodily experience “(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all/ Enacted on this same divan or bed” (243-244). The placement of this suffering on the “same divan” troubles the nature of this experience. In addition to being the place of mechanical sexuality, “On the divan are piled (at night her bed)/ stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays” (236-237). The presence  of these items of clothing, as well as the parenthetical changing identity of the piece of furniture they lay on, creates an association of Tiresias as a point of exchange instead of a meeting. Tiresias exchanges psychical sex characteristics from one lifetime to the next, like the “drying combinations” of clothing, he is contained in wrinkled combination of body parts that can be re-combined after the cruelty of April.

Tiresias’ dissonant identity is a vehicle for exchange. The poem introduces Tiresias with a language of stalled motion, “[…]when the human engine waits/like a taxi throbbing waiting,/ I Tiresias […]throbbing between two lives” (216-218). Immediately likened to a taxi, Tiresias is a vessel for an exchange so highly anticipated that the auditory imagination is evoked with “throbbing”. This actions doubles as a musical beat and bodily palpitation, synchronizing the anthropomorphic impatience for movement with Tiresias’ movement between genders. Both types of movement, though strongly anticipated, remain frozen. The obstacle lies in the “human engine”— the human element that is impeded by the passing of time and the decomposition that feeds growth in April.

In his exhaustive footnote concerning Tiresias, Eliot states that “all the women are one woman”. The text does seem to connect women through their voices, or lack thereof. For instance, when  physical and syntactically structures are inverted  in The Waste Land , “And upside down in air were towers” (383), the action takes place while song plays. The opening cords of this devastation come from the reverberations of feminine hair “A woman drew her long black hair out tight/And fiddled whisper music on those strings” (378-379). The description of this sound that accompanies the inversion of these symbols of masculinity as “whisper music” resonates with the violated voice of Philomela. Her voice is taken before she can completely name her violator, one letter separating “Tereu” and Tereus that results in a delayed revocation of power (206). However, to assimilate Philomela with the woman playing with her hair would be to mix nearly noiseless music with a deeply personal confession—a mixing that the logic of the poem would not allow.

Sexual dissonance, when voiced from a disembodied source, unites fragments of The Waste Land. For instance, the evolutionary role of sex, human reproduction, does not appear to be a driving force for partnership anymore, “What you get married for if you don’t want children?” (164). Marriage and children are fragmented concepts, united by sexual union. The question posed tests the strength of this connection, since it implies an exclusive relationship. Sex is implied in the binding of marriage, a folding of activity within a sociopolitical institution. The institution will implode when the product of this activity is divorced from the idea of marriage. In lieu of a direct answer, the following line of  “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME” echoes again (165). The repetition of the line here  seems to imply a second connection between the two fragments, a connection made through auditory imagination. Divorced of human peculiarities thought its lack of apparent speaker, this line is accordingly more universal. A general last call alerting persons inside and outside the text to an imminent deadline challenges the reader to search beyond the accepted form of question and answer in social speech to connect fragments.

When voiced by a female speaker, the “hyacinth girl” does not show signs of sexual dissonance. However, if the reader recognizes the allusion, the violation of voice is apparent. The myth of two male lovers is folded into a heteronormative, disconnected couple “‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago/ They called me the hyacinth girl.’” (35-36). The violence to voice is in the reassignment of gendered pronouns from the Greek myth to the modern day incommunicative couple. Elliot does not provide a footnote for this reference, and without it the reader would not know that the original tale bypassed the cruel mechanism of April’s renewal. In the wake of Hyacinth’s tragic death, Apollo turns his spilled blood into flowers thereafter named hyacinths (Bibliotheca). The same sex love in the Greek myth is powerful enough to oppose the slow process of vegetation and decay in order to bring forth an immediate, self propagating reminder of the fallen lover.  This voice, however, is altered from it’s origins through gendered pronouns. The result of this alteration is silence— the male lover cannot speak.

Ophelia’s last words, doubled as the last words of  “A Game of Chess”, function as a sound bite of a voice on the brink of violation. Her winding address echoes the finality of the state she is later found in “Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night” (172). Ophelia is found, after this scene in her origination text of Hamlet, to be drowned in a lake. The reader has at this point already been warned to “fear death by water” in The Waste Land, but unless the reader can recognize this line of unacknowledged speech, the citation is reduced to nonsense. Elliot does not provide a footnote to alert readers to this reference, so the voice of Ophelia is  left to speak on its own. It seems to require no answer and no prompting. The sexual dissonance, however, lies in the violation of heteronormativity. Here Ophelia is in a one-sided conversation with a group of women, with no mention of Hamlet. The love interest, divorced from her interest, is left dangling on the dead end of a section, her death by water imminent in a separate timeline and her goodbyes falling on unaware ears.

The Waste Land operates on the authority of sound as an intangible sonic correspondence that is free from the cruelty of April. By this definition, it must be disembodied, as anything with a body is subject to violation and decay. The multiplicity of voices in the poem makes it difficult for the reader to follow the truly authoritative voice, and Eliot’s own footnotes challenge this authority on the issue of Tiresias. However, the text makes associations between sound coming from embodied sources and violation in order to legitimate the unheard music of auditory imagination. Sexual dissonance is therefore a result of listening to the wrong voice—the voice of the body.


Works Cited
Eliot, T. S. “Mathew Arnold.” The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in England … Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1933. N. pag. Print.
Pseudo-Apollodorus. “Book 1 Section 3.” Bibliotheca.
Williams, Helen. T.S. Eliot: The Waste Land. London: Edward Arnold, 1968. Print.

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