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Asceticism and Desire in The Wasteland

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Many critics see Eliot’s “Wasteland” as a form of social criticism, exposing the alternating boredom and terror inherent in modern life. While these themes do recur throughout the poem, a greater subtlety of meaning arises with Eliot’s juxtaposition of classic religious texts against the modern landscape. Eliot’s characters can, in some cases, be seen as failed heroes, striving for an asceticism which their society no longer validates. Although detachment from the physical world would, in past eras, have been idealized, it is now debased in a society where such detachment is associated with machines. Through exploration of the female typist character in The Wasteland’s “Fire Sermon”, the desire for and debasement of the ascetic ideal become apparent. Borrowings from Augustine’s Confessions and the Buddhist Fire Sermon text reveal the typist to be not a dull form of mechanized life, but rather, a kind of ascetic “disciple” whose progress is thwarted at every turn.

Though it is not a simple project to find this sort of transcendence in modern life, the typist seems to try. She comes home at a time described as a “violet hour”; significantly, it is also when the “eyes and back/ turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits/ Like a taxi”. This passage is often read as an indictment of the mechanization of man; it can equally be seen as a plea for the divine. The disembodied features turn “upward”, as if hoping to find some sort of transcendence in the blank ceiling, waiting for a passenger from above to arrive.

When the typist comes home, she “clears her breakfast, lights/ Her stove, and lays out food in tins”. Again, there seem to be two valid readings of this passage: one, that she is continuing the rote behavior she began on the job; but also, that she is preparing herself, in a veiled way, to make a sacrifice. The lit stove, in this context, can be seen as a kind of small altar, the food an offering for a god or gods. Far from being a dull routine, her actions have become ritualized, a kind of performance in themselves. Even her clothes become involved in this sense; like a person praying, they are “touched by the sun’s last rays”. On the Augustinian model, a sacrifice is a means to asceticism: “Yet if they make this sacrifice to you, O God, you are the consuming fire that can burn away their love for these things” (Confessions 93).

Interpreted this way, the woman’s behavior can be seen as an expression of the will to believe: in a divine being, perhaps, or perhaps simply a measure of transcendence which life does not currently offer her. It seems, in some sense, a modern prayer: in fact, the raising of “the eyes and back” recalls a passage from Augustine’s Confessions which Eliot later quotes: “I raise my invisible eyes to thee, that thou wouldst be pleased to ‘pluck my feet out of the net.’ Thou dost continually pluck them out, for they are easily snared” (Augustine, Ch. VIII). The fact that, in the same “Fire Sermon” section, Eliot appropriates the phrase “O Lord Thou pluckest me out”(l. 309) suggests that the author’s mind was indeed on this model of asceticism.

As Eliot depicts her, the woman’s sexuality is played down. Her divan, for instance, is “at night her bed” (226) on which “are piled…/ Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays” (226-7). This suggests that there is not such a great deal of separation between her actions during the day and at night. However, this continuity is disturbed by the moment of sexual encounter in the poem: the “expected guest” (230), a young man, arrives. Here Eliot gives perhaps his most scathing indictment of a character yet: the man is “carbuncular”, or acne-ridden, with “one bold stare”, “One of the low on whom assurance sits/ As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire” (231-4). Though he is only a small, acne-ridden clerk, he is confident with himself and self-absorbed. This seems to be the opposite of the pious, ascetic ideal: one who feels he needs no God because he is good enough, for whom the modern age means loss of even the impulse to spirituality. The scene between him and the young woman dramatizes this conflict of belief:

The time is now propitious, as he guesses, The meal is ended, she is bored and tired, Endeavors to engage her in caresses Which still are unreproved, if undesired. Flushed and decided, he assaults at once; Exploring hands encounter no defence; His vanity requires no response, And makes a welcome of indifference. (236-42)

The young man sees the uninterested typist as “bored and tired”, mistaking her desire for religiosity for ennui at the end of a long day. Significantly, he believes the time to be “propitious”, as if he were interpreting a sign from above. Because he has no connection to the divine, however, his signs arise from simple bodily lust. His interpretation of the situation turns out to be entirely wrong. Even if his seduction is “undesired”, it is at least “unreproved” the woman, engaged in another sphere of thought entirely, does not want to take the time even to discourage her suitor. The man, however, is so absorbed in his intentions that the simple absence of discouragement is enough.

To argue that “His vanity requires no response,/ And makes a welcome of indifference” is to show how far the situation has fallen. While the female desires transcendence, or at least some response from the divine, the male does not even desire response from his human counterpart. He is already indifferent to the spiritual aspects of modern life, and is now shown to be indifferent to the emotional aspects as well. Because he has no understanding of spirituality, he cannot understand the woman’s ideals, mistaking the absence of “defence” for actual desire. With this reading, Eliot’s line “To Carthage then I came”(306), recalling Augustine’s “I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust” (Confessions 95), can be seen as indicative of the woman’s situation. If she, like Augustine, is seeking some way out of a degraded sensuality, then her encounter with the young man is a roadblock, a “cauldron of lust”. Her ideal of the ascetic life, and of spirituality in general, is entirely counter to the young man’s aims.

Eliot’s depiction of the woman afterwards enforces the idea of her ideals and her fallenness from them. She has “stoop[ed] to folly”, (253), allowing herself to go along with a relationship she does not desire. Significantly, it seems she is trying to regain the detachment she felt before:

She turns and looks a moment in the glass, Hardly aware of her departed lover; Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass: Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’ (249-52)

Though she allows herself “a moment” of self-reflection, she tries to convince herself that nothing has happened, “hardly aware” that anything has changed. She tries to forget the incident, her one “half-formed thought” being only relief that the situation is through.

Instead of reveling in past sensuality or feeling sorrow about the occurrence, the typist attempts to remove herself entirely from the degraded sexual act. Though the idea that “She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,/ And puts a record on the gramophone” (255-6) may be simply mechanistic, it seems more likely that it is a representation of asceticism through the only means the modern world knows. A sharply objectified, mechanical world may not be a spiritual ideal; however, it is at least a removal from the “cauldron of lust” which emotional life currently represents. Reverting to the metaphor of the “human engine” (216) is a stripping-away of degraded desire. If nothing spiritual arises to fill the void, at least the degradation will be gone.

With this interpretation in place, it is now possible to understand the end of “The Fire Sermon” in the context of ascetic ideals. The lines of interest are as follows:

To Carthage then I came Burning burning burning burning O Lord Thou pluckest me out O Lord Thou pluckest burning (307-11) The first, third, and fourth lines, as has been noted, are taken from Augustine’s Confessions, the spiritual autobiography of a saint.

They can be seen, in some sense, as having come from the woman’s voice, paralleling her experience of lust and her will to be removed from desire. The lines with which they are juxtaposed, though, come from an entirely different text: the Buddhist Fire Sermon (per Eliot’s notes), written as a teaching for priests wishing to attain nirvana. In this text, translated from Pali, the Buddha engages in dialogue with the priests:

All things, O priests, are on fire. The eye, O priests, is on fire;forms are on fire; eye-consciousness is on fire.

And with what are these on fire?

With the fire of passion, say I, with the fire of hatred, with the fire of infatuation… (Buddhism 352)

This seems to be the “burning” which of Eliot speaks in “The Fire Sermon” the unholy lust and passion which the young man feels and the which the typist struggles against. It is the sort of sensuality and emotion devoid of spiritual ground, the time that is “propitious” only because of desire.

The text goes on, however, to posit a solution for this dilemma, to show the means by which a person can rise above it:

Perceiving this [the fact that all things are on fire], O priests, the learned and noble disciple conceives an aversion for the eye, conceives an aversion for forms…And in conceiving this aversion, he becomes divested of passion, and by the absence of passion he becomes free. (Buddhism 352-3)

This is, in fact, exactly the path which the female typist is shown to pursue. Though she realizes she will be tempted, and awaits “the expected guest”, she prepares herself by “conceiv[ing] an aversion” to all that is sensual and degraded. Her ideal of asceticism, shown by her preparation of a pseudo-sacrifice and veiled religious desire, allows her to “divest” herself of the passion she might otherwise feel. Because the young man does not understand her asceticism, and interprets it as boredom or lack of sleep, her actions stand out as all the more admirable, thrown into contrast by his unfeeling acts. Her aversion manifests itself as “indifference” and non-response; however, conceiving dislike in any other way would be almost impossible in her modern society.

The woman, in fact, represents the Buddhist ideal of inaction, refusing to defend herself against the harmful lusts of her time. She is, as Eliot conceives her, a “lovely woman stoop[ed] to folly” (253), the unwilling inhabitant of a degraded world. Though she desires to be transformed into an ascetic, she must be content with whatever spiritual victory she can gain on her own. Her ideals, like the final lines of “The Fire Sermon”, stand in sharp juxtaposition to the “burning” of the world. When her absence of passion is seen in contrast with the young man’s lust and desire, it becomes apparent that she is a disciple of her own time, seeking a passionless existence in order to become free.

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