Three Stories

The story of Tiresias begins with an argument between Jupiter and Juno, whose playful discussion of sex turns heated when Jupiter speculates that women enjoy it more than men. To settle the score, the gods defer to the judgment of the prophet Tiresias, who, under miraculous circumstances, had lived for a spell as a woman. Tiresias sides with Jupiter in the debate, earning Juno’s ire. She curses him to live without sight, which Jupiter eventually subverts by granting him the ability of clairvoyance.

In the tale of Philomela, the King of Thrace, Tereus, lusts after the sister of his wife Procne, the titular Philomela. Convincing her father to let her return with him to Thrace, he rapes Philomela upon their arrival and cuts out her tongue so that she cannot report the crime. Philomela writes to her sister, who becomes frenzied when she discovers her captive sister. In a fit of rage and distress, Procne kills her own son Itys, cooking him into a soup that she later feeds to her husband. While in flight from the King, all three party members are transformed into different species of birds.

Weston chronicles the “Medicine Man,” an archetype found in Indian plays and Greek tragedies, responsible for the restoration of the ailing or the dead. The Grail Legend goes on to use some elements of the character, with Gawain taking the title of a healer in some versions of the tale (the protagonists invariably set out to restore the kingdom of the Fisher King, essentially a task of healing as well).

The Waste Land makes sly allusions to all three. I think the physical representation of Philomela in “A Game of Chess” works as a metaphor for European womanhood when conflated with the WL’s preceding passage, one concerned with the visage of a Cleopatra-type figure. The image of the ancient Egyptian queen, cloaked in fine fabrics and strongly perfumed, recalls Ovid’s earliest impressions of Philomela; her beauty is said to be that of “the Nymphs, the Naiads and Dryads.” Ln. 99, referring to “The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king…”, designates this woman’s fall from grace within the confines of British social structure; she formerly possesses legendary status and intoxicating beauty, but the image of Philomela alongside Cleopatra indicates that recent events (probably the war) have turned the system on its head and left her powerless (her own sort of “raped”). This corresponds with the burden placed upon the post-war woman, who are expected to comfort their men at any cost (cf. the bar scene in “A Game of Chess”), and with Eliot’s adaptation of the story of Tiresias. The blind prophet makes an appearance in “The Fires Sermon,” overseeing plain sex between a man and a woman somewhere in British lodgings. With the fertility act having been completed, the man motions to leave, and we see the woman behave strangely. Sex is no longer a conquest, but an attitude, and while the woman was not entirely complicit (she sighs with relief after the ritual reaches its end), she has not been violated in the same manner as Philomela. This destroys the classic notion that women enjoy sex more than men (@Jupiter), and seeing Tiresias arbitrate both discussions allows one narrative to flow into another.

Finally, I’d like to close on some thoughts regarding the Medicine Man. Healing is a prominent narrative in the Waste Land, as is restoration, but it is difficult to isolate a character within the poem that represents this characterization. If the grail legend resigns the “Healer” to a secondary or tertiary profession (behind Knight/Squire and Voyager/Quester), then I would say its pretty hard to define this concept in the same terms as the poem. All of those characters connected to the divine (Madame Sosotris and Tiresias, to name some) do not intervene on behalf of the shell-shocked Londoners. Instead, they oversee some of the natural processes and heavily influence the tone of the poem. They are there as these almost divine, natural forces, and when they do contribute, it is often silently (the voyeurism of Tiresias) or cryptically (Madame Sosostris’s tarot). Philomela, too, sits silently in the living room of Cleopatra, an envoy for those who have been too damaged (psychologically or physically) to contribute to the discussion. But they, like the Fisher King, await the return of some hero who will restore order to the ailing kingdom. But for the unfortunate cast of characters in the WL, I propose that help will actually never arrive; the men lost in the Great War will never return to revivify the spirit of their nation.

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