Lines 43-59 of “The Waste Land”—Madame Sosostris
First of all, I wanted to draw everyone’s attention to this excellent, interactive, online version of “The Wasteland”. It offers translations, notes on his many allusions, as well as an audio track for the whole poem. This awesome resource is provided by the T.S. Eliot Hypertext Project, which is relevant to our investigation of online archives.
Unfortunately, it looks like “The Waste Land” page is still in progress (or so the home page states), but I still think it provides an incredibly useful online tool for further investigation of the poem.
The section that I found to be the most interesting, and problematic, was the section with Madame Sosostris. In all the classes that I have read this poem, my curiosity was never fully satisfied.
So, directly from the Hypertext Project page:
“ Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring,
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.”
Important references include Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, the Major and Minor Arcana of Tarot, Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Virgin of the Rocks” also known as the “Madonna of the Rocks,” botany, religion, and classical figures/allusions.
Sosostris is meant to be a mock-Egyptian name, alluding to the common practice in mysticism of renaming oneself a “spiritual name.” Since Eliot proceeds to talk about how the “famous clairvoyante” had a bad cold, he seems to undercut this mysticism, drawing Madame Sosostris in pitiful and somewhat desperate lines. In fact, it appears that she fears her reception by the general public, telling the narrator (Marie?) to inform Mrs. Equitone that she brings her own horoscope to mystical meetings, because “One must be so careful these days.” Perhaps this refers to the complete saturation of the mysticism market during the first half of the 20th century, or perhaps this refers to the deterioration and crock-pottery of the trade in general, whereas Madame Sosostris considers herself authentic.
The pack of cards that she has is “wicked,” which, although I am inclined to say that it means “really cool,” retained a more sinister meaning in 1922 when this was published. According to the OED, it meant :
Bad in moral character, disposition, or conduct; inclined or addicted to wilful wrong-doing; practising or disposed to practise evil; morally depraved. (A term of wide application, but always of strong reprobation, implying a high degree of evil quality.)
In this way, it appears that the narrator believes the cards to be evil, or morally depraved. And yet, the narrator comes to Madame Sosostris to get a reading, implying that the narrator must be truly desperate to know his/her future.
Madame Sosostris uses a six-card reading. In order to understand the fullest extent of this reading, an understanding of the most popular six-card spread is useful: the Celtic Cross. Here I use a Tarot Teachings website, which, if you are interested, provides other six card spreads.
1. The Drowned Phoenician Sailor: the “You” Card. Indicates the person’s current situation. Phlebas the Phoenician and Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant are both possible candidates for this position. Whether the client is literally one of these figures, or whether the client is like one of these figures, is unsure.
2. Belladonna, or the Lady of the Rocks: the “crux” of the issue. The conflict. “Belladonna” means “beautiful lady” but it is also a poisonous plant. And the Lady of the Rocks is most probably the Virgin Mary—Belladonna or Madonna. Sweet poison or sanctified chastity. She is the “lady of situations” because she is the conflict, the decision to be made (line50).
3. The Man with Three Staves, or, the three of wands, or, according to Eliot, the Fisher King: the challenge. The Fisher King is a symbol of life, but is wounded, incapable of moving on his own. His weakness as king reduces his kingdom to…a Waste Land! The Three of Wands, however, symbolizes the beginning of an enterprise, looking forward to a journey or task. There is hope for the dead land, if only the Fisher King can be helped to heal. Perhaps the Fisher King is western culture?
4. The Wheel (probably the tarot Wheel of Fortune, but also the sign of man’s invention): Conscious—what you have control or awareness of. Really, this indicates that the client has control over the whole situation, as well as how she/he understands and acts upon the reading (of six cards, like the six spokes of the wheel). Additionally, the client (possibly Western Culture) has control over their own ingenuity (the object of the wheel-invention) and so, can use their skills to better the situation.
5. One-eyed merchant: the Unconscious/Subconscious. Our unknown, internal ally. While there are several possible interpretations of the one-eyed merchant (available here), I find Odin to be the most productive, meaningful explanation for this particular card. He is associated with fury, excitation, prophecy, magic, the hunt, the mind, and poetry—the working of the Cultural mind. We should listen to art, because it is the way out of the Waste Land and to cultural fertility.
6. Blank card: Outcome—ties up loose ends. It is appropriate that this be blank, but it is on the back of the subconscious, and relies on the work of the subconscious.
The fact that she does not find the Hanged Man, who to Eliot represents the self-sacrifice of a fertility god to bring the Waste Land back to life, possibly indicates that it will not be like the second coming of Christ—there is no one distinct savior. I am unsure as to what “fear death by water” means, but water without growth to feed becomes a killing rather than nourishing force (like a flash flood, in a sense). SO GROW! THINK! CREATE! The end is possibly positive. Sosostris sees people walking around in a circle—perhaps they ring around the maypole celebrating fertility and the coming spring.