TS Eliot - about 1

The Double Bride Icon in 'A Game of Chess' and 'The Fire Sermon'

by Nate Jarvis

The theme of sexuality in T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land is most explicitly dealt with in the second and third sections, "A Game of Chess" and "The Fire Sermon." From one to the next a progression takes place; men and women are initially viewed as equals (or if not, the woman as superior) in "A Game of Chess." Love is shown as a sort of competition between players of equal stature, each with his or her sixteen pieces, though each adopting a distinct and opposing color for those pieces. As in a game of any kind, loss is very much a possibility. In "The Fire Sermon" the sense of "equal footing" is destroyed by the abandoning nymphs, female beings of sexual desire. In their place come women indifferent to sex and love, women who, instead of giving themselves, allow themselves to be taken.

All women and all men are one in the central character of Tiresias, and are one in each of the others. In these two passages, however, sharp delineations are drawn between those male and those female. Male and female characters can still be thought of as members of the "female character" or "the male character"; doing so allows us to better understand the transformation of sexuality from the second section to the third.

"A Game of Chess" is written in five strophes. The first is the description of a woman on a throne, seated in a baroque room of relics and ornamentation. The second is a female voice's request that her male counterpart speak his mind to her. Then his initial answer, a couplet, in which he gives his initial response to her promptings. The fourth is a further dialogue between the two, expressing uncertainty and paranoia on the part of the female voice, and indifference bordering on annoyance on the part of the male. The fifth, and by far the longest, is a third person recounting of a woman's steady stream of abortions, the last of which was financed with money given her by her husband for a pair of dentures. The woman's name is Lil.

"Lil" is obviously a diminutive of a longer name, a term of endearment. Two longer names from which it could be derived come to my mind. The first, "Lily," ties her into the working theme of flowers, as first manifested in the second line with "Lilacs." The references made to her by diminutive could have been made to associate her with the opening lines. Or if she is thought to be a "Lily" with both that opening couplet and the recurrent theme of "death by water" (assuming a "lily" to be a "water lily") and deepening the reader's association between her and the hyacinth girl of section one.

The third possibility is that "Lil" is a diminutive of "Lilith," Adam's fabled first wife. The second and third sections can be read in this light as a single long movement in which Lilith is had, lost and ultimately replaced with a docile but unfeeling substitute, an "Eve," if you will. Lilith is present throughout section two, which ends with her leaving ("goodnight, ladies") in the form of the cockney gossips. "The Fire Sermon" begins shortly after, bemoaning the departure of "the nymphs," women capable of emitting sexual desire. Their absence is shown to be an absence of fertility and the life-giving spirit by a brief juxtaposition to the Fisher King ("the wounded man" also being a metaphor for Adam in his loss). Then the proposition of homosexual sex at the Metropole: this is the point at which Adam, in despair, beseeches God for a companion. Then the birth of Eve in a series of rapes, performed upon passive, indifferent women by unloving, unconscious men. I will deal with the final five lines of the section presently.

Lilith was a pagan spirit later absorbed by the Judaic faith. She began as a Sumerian wind spirit and vampire. (An early account of Gilgamesh places her in struggle against Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, in whose tree (intended by the goddess for a throne) she has built a house.) Later she developed into a night spirit and a demon, eventually reaching such heights of infamy as "mother of Ahriman" and "mother of all demons." In Hebrew tradition she became first wife of Adam, made from the same dust (though Ben Sira says she was made from "filth and sediment rather than pure dust") as him, and in all ways his equal. She was loathe to perform intercourse in the passive position, often demanding the active, until at last she abandoned him and wandered into the desert. There she was thought to have coupled with demons and produced thousands of offspring, hence the title "mother of all demons." Lilith was also said to bear an intense hatred for Eve and her human offspring, and plagued women in childbirth and newborns up to the day of circumcision. Amulets and incantations were designed to protect new mothers and their children from Lilith; a successful incantation of this sort was said to enrage her, at which she would substitute one of her demon children for the protected human. (Lacks 38-61)

The first strophe in "A Game of Chess" shows a woman unapproachable. The appearance of the throne icon could liken her to the Ishtar of Lilith's origins. Whether or not Eliot was aware of Lilith's Sumerian roots is questionable, though; it is safest to say she is a woman of pride and artifice incapable of being conquered. She is cold and unloving, but is described in a setting disgustingly beautiful; that is, a setting made of things to be recognized as beautiful, but which, in conjunction with one another and the woman in their midst, fail to convey a true sense of beauty. This woman is our first indication of the lack of love which characterizes both genders in this and the following section.

The first strophe also introduces the other motif which marks these sections: that of rape. The rape depicted is that of Philomel, a rape described with the words "so rudely forced" (words to be echoed, later on). The rape of Philomel is a transgression against her, from which she escapes by way of a drastic, cosmic change. Lilith is first seen here. The rape of Philomel is the rape of Lilith, "so rudely forced" into a subordinate position during the act of physical love. Lilith, too, initiates a cosmic change, and both escape to the desert. After the detailing of the rape the enthroned woman is shown again, now crying, now brushing her hair into "fiery points." A cognizance is gained, an awareness of the destructive nature of male domination. The woman responds with tears, then with the ambiguous act of brushing her hair. This act can be seen as a control of female identity, the woman putting her hair into a position pleasing to male eyes. Or it can be seen as the opposite. Lilith was well known for her "fiery hair," often the key to identifying her when represented artistically. In this case the woman is branding herself as an iconographic representation of Lilith, and in so doing likens herself to the iconographic ornamentation which surrounds her.

Next comes the dialogue between man and woman, in which she accuses him of never speaking, and confesses to "never know what [he is] thinking." The male, the Adam figure, attempts to keep his wife subordinate, a thing for sex (missionary, of course) and little more. She, a cognizant equal, wants to know her mate. Her statement "I never know what you are thinking" reveals both of them to be beings of intelligence: she for her capacity to "know," him for his capacity to "think." Though she does not know what he thinks, implying that this potential has never been fully realized; the two are still segregate no matter how much sex is had. His reply is not one of fertility and communion, or one which could lead to an emotional and/or spiritual bonding between the two. It communicates sterility and loss, ruin. That "the dead men" lose "their bones" is an image not only of death, but of a lack of proper memorialization. The dead are not even remembered, because they were never known by anyone other than themselves. Being known only by themselves all awareness of them as individuals dies with them, with the end of their awareness (which is life). The female, Lilith, would have a life beyond death in the memory of others, but he will have none of it. He would rather live in the world of rubble which pervades the poem.

The conversation turns to wind and nothingness, which can be viewed as passive and active forms of the air. Lilith was, in Sumer, a wind spirit, and her voice is the voice promoting the wind. This is her assertion of her right to equality, to the active role in intercourse. The male, who first identified the wind for her, returns with "Nothing." The identification of the wind is the act of assuming the active stance; the curt "nothing" his denying her it.

The act of consolation, of cold comfort, comes with "that Shakespeherian Rag." Bruce McElderry tells us "That Shakespearean Rag" was a popular, if tasteless, song of approximately 1912 (Martin 29-31). The woman takes her consolation in a gramophone, a mechanism of the modern world (this act is to be repeated by the typist in section three). The gramophone "talks," she is capable of knowing what it contains, but the potential for interaction is lost. This loss is tragic, Eliot subtly tells us with his choice of song (invoking Shakespeare), but also a bit fictional, something dramatic and even laughable in its futility. It is soon renounced, and the woman is left asking "What shall I do?" The question is answered as quickly as it is asked. "I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street/ With my hair down." There are echoes of Henryson's Cressida here, as well as yet another parallel to the Lilith myth. Both forsook their lovers, both ended vilified by society. In the case of the former "with my hair down" is a thing improper, illustrating both the urgency which with she leaves as well as the lack of refinement she projects. In the case of the latter it is a symbol of power, or identity, of rebellion. Lilith is recognized by her flaming hair. The juxtaposition of her multitude of affairs with demons to common street-walking is another example of the mythic being used to define the modern. At that point a rubicon has been crossed, the two have been forever separated. Despair surfaces with the lamenting "What shall we ever do?"

That declaration of dilemma sets the stage for the next, and longest, movement of "A Game of Chess." The woman Lil (the first to bear a name in the section, excluding Philomel) is at an impasse. She must choose between the false teeth her husband has instructed her to buy to make herself "a bit smart" and another in a long string of abortions, which have nearly killed her, and have wrecked her beauty. As applies to the Lilith myth, the abortions can be read in one of two ways. The first is that these are the demons Lilith bears. "And if you don't give it him, there's others will" foreshadows the coming of Eve, both Biblically and as the passive woman of section three. As Albert does not appear to be present we can infer that Lilith has left the garden, that the refusal to adjust her own self to conform to his wishes (by buying the teeth) is also a refusal to become subordinate to him (by bearing his children). The other interpretation is that Lilith is long gone, and since returned. The aborted children are the children she miscarries, those unprotected by the amulets, and that Lil's name is a small bit of sarcasm thrown in, as well as our entry point for the exploration of the Lilith-tangent. Alternately, the children could be thought to have been aborted only in theory. No children have yet been conceived, and the abortions are symbolic of her refusal to bear them ("What you get married for if you don't want children?"). This then becomes the moment just before the egression from Eden, which is detailed (perhaps more circumscribed than detailed) at the close, with the proprietor's "Ta ta. Goodnight . . . sweet ladies." The adjective becomes imperative: it is the "sweet" ladies put to rest. Those who bear emotion. Those who do not still exist, fully awake, as we see in section three.

"The Fire Sermon" opens with an image of seasonal death and the collapse of a covenant ("The river's tent is broken"). The leaves have fallen from the trees (the sundering of Eden) long ago, and the piles of humus are now beginning to grow fewer and fewer ("the last fingers"). Lilith has gone and is in the desert ("Crossing the brown land") before Adam is even aware she has left ("unheard"). With her is gone feminine love and the female's capacity to enjoy and/or resist sexual advances, depending on whether or not she finds them to her liking. To the new woman all sex is one and the same, to be neither relished nor avoided. The first model is the natural one, the healthy one. The use of the word "nymphs" implies that an environmental fertility lies in a woman's ability to bear feelings towards the act of copulation, "nymph" being the root of "nymphomania" but also the embodiment of river spirits. The nymphs gone, water becomes a thing to be feared, a source of death. Sex stripped of sexuality is a thing monstrous.

Eliot cuts to the Fisher King, the wounded ruler, fishing in a canal. The canal can be representative of man's attempt to control woman, in the form of the nymphs. The Fisher King attempts to make some harvest of this containment, to take that which he wants from that which he has imprisoned (an act which will be repented with the "dayadhvam" of section five). In so doing he tempts death "by water." The relegation of woman to object is an act of alienation and dissociation. It is a violent transgression still being enacted long after the sense of violence has faded, as evidenced by the now emotionless reprise of Philomel's song ("jug jug jug/ So rudely forc'd").

The next strophe represents a rebirth of desire, but a desire both more fruitless and more heartless than the previous forms. What once had the potential to be eternity (Adam and Lilith in Eden) has now been reduced to "a weekend at the Metropole." Eliot's voice in this passage does not seem to be one of a homosexual, but it does not seem to be shocked at the advance, either. In this passage man and man seem to be on equal footing, even though the question is one of sex, which before (and after) dictates one partner take up the role of dominator and that the other be dominated. This equality is possible because there is no chance of copulation (as sex always is in the poem) inadvertently becoming procreation (which, like April, can be held an undesirable and "cruel" thing). The sense of necessity is gone; sex becomes a thing of recreation, not re-creation.

That sense of necessity is very apparent in the next detailing of a man-woman union we receive. The invocation of Tiresias shows such a union of the sexes to be a disgusting thing, freakish as the hermaphrodite. Tiresias is the only tragic voice in the passage; the two "lovers" seem to be indifferent to any sort of tragic thought. Tiresias is Classical, whereas they are thoroughly modern. He is a clerk, she a typist. Neither one is in a job of real power of identity, though of the two his lends him the stronger voice. As a clerk he writes for himself; as a typist she takes a man's dictation and sets it into preconceived typography. She communicates what she is told to communicate. Their distinction in jobs immediately establishes him as the aggressive element and her as a passive receptacle for his aggression. This is the Eve taken from Adam's rib, docile and subservient, more content underneath him than on top, as the latter position requires an effort on her part, for something she does not hold worthwhile. Sex is now a thing of efficiency, not emotion. He simply takes her, then leaves.

She shows some signs, after the fact, of having been abject to the act ("I'm glad it's over"). At this point we receive the line most identifying her as Eve: "When lovely woman stoops to folly." The regained awareness of sex as non-neutral is "folly." Perhaps there is a slight recollection of what Lilith had been, and the scorn for the passive role has been passed on to Eve, as something innate to all women. She reacts to the separation in similar fashion, playing a record. But she finds condolence in the music, she has been made his possession, and more importantly, she has been made not to resist being cast in that role.

There are three consecutive accounts of similar "rapes" (a sexual taking against a woman's unvoiced will) just before the close of "The Fire Sermon." The first ends with "I raised my knees/ Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe." The woman is decidedly on her back, and though we know this to be a rape she seems to be cooperating by "raising her knees." Though the action is not so much to accommodate him as to make herself comfortable during the ordeal. The canoe places the incident upon the water, which as Eliot tells us so often, heralds death. This is the death of Lilith, the birth of Eve; the woman on her back raises her knees, ratifying the role of the man on her chest.

The second claims "her heart" to be "under her feet." The "new start" promised suggests movement away from the old; the woman walks on and past her heart, leaving her conception of love (and her love of conception, or potential to hold such love) a thing of the past. The "event" in question could be the Fall, Adam now leading Eve away towards the world of toil. "What should I resent?" she asks; the Fall was Eve's fault, the cause her attempt to gain knowledge. In light of the Lilith figure's questioning in "A Game of Chess" this could be interpreted as a Fall stemming from an attempt to fully merge with one's mate, in Eve's case to become again equal. Perhaps this is achieved through the Fall; afterwards, in the third recounting, "nothing" is "connected with nothing." If this is the same "nothing" the male voice in section two attributed to the wind then male and female have become equal. They have become equal in their mutual indifference, the indifference praised with the singsongy "la la" which concludes the rape triad and initiates the sermons of Buddha and St. Augustine.

The final five lines, built of quotations from fathers of Eastern and Western religious thought, maintains its religious connotations, but also exhibits an incredibly tongue-in-cheek sexual double entente. "To Carthage then I came" details the arrival of a man in a city of sin. But "came" can be read as "ejaculated," in which light Carthage becomes an object of worship (of sorts), a source of deeply rooted eroticism which the author makes no attempt to discredit or portray negatively. "Burning burning burning" is the inflammation of sexual desire, the man in Carthage being the proverbial kid-in-a-candy-shop, hence the repetition. "O Lord thou pluckest me out" is both the act of God pulling Eve from Adam's side, making her a creature of another's lust, as well as the individuation of the man (Augustine) in Carthage, now more aware of his own body and hence of his own oneness, knowing his self by knowing his flesh. Man becomes defined through sex and sexual desire; woman is irrelevant, a means for him to define himself by. The final "burning" is a statement of perpetuity concerning man's libido, but also of Eve's hurt after the so-called rape, the "burning" of lost maidenhead, which lasts with her. Which teaches her she is there for man's enjoyment, the lesson of the Fire Sermon as Eliot fashions it.


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