Reading The Waste Land this time (full disclosure, only the second time I’ve read it), I was struck by Eliot’s positioning of female sexuality as a site of a crisis of modernity initiated by the influx of technology. Near the end of the second section, the bartender comments that the woman “ought to be ashamed…to look so antique” (166) to which she responds:
It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.
(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)
The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same.
You are a proper fool, [the bartender] said. (159-62, emphasis his)
This woman serves as an embodiment of the myriad depictions of nature as barren and decaying that permeate the entire piece. By implicitly referring to abortion-inducing medications and the scientist that prescribes them, Eliot traces this embodiment of natural decay directly to the rise of science in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This alignment of female sexuality and a crisis of modernity is echoed in the next section in the typist, who – after the invasive sexual encounter – “smoothes her hair with automatic hand, / And puts a record on the gramophone” (255-6). The woman’s despondence, both during and after the man’s forceful efforts, exemplify a rupture in the natural, regenerative act of sex. As with the woman in the bar, Eliot locates the problem in the media producing machines that surround the woman, to the point of defining her as she is only referred to as “the typist” (222). Just as the influence of pharmaceutical science has created a noticeable change in the woman at the bar, the omnipresence of machinery has created a cyborg/posthuman existence for the typist, wherein she exists in a state of complete “indifference” to herself and her surroundings (242).
While I had noticed both of these depictions of female sexuality individually, it was not until this time through that I have begun to attempt thinking about them together. At this point, I have no clear thesis or argument as to why Eliot chooses these women as corporeal representations of the decay brought on by technological innovation. I do, however, have some scattered thoughts on the matter. Firstly, the choice of female sexuality is interesting when thought of in relation to the depictions of decay in nature, as much discourse surrounding imperial expansion (I’m thinking particularly of American westward expansion) envisioned and discussed nature in terms of being feminine and offering resources that would allow the birth of a new civilization. There is also the misogynistic perversity of these two episodes, as each woman is clearly objectified in their lack of name, voice, or control of narrative; rather, these crises of modernity are projected upon them by men (complicated with the typist, as Tiresius is transgender). This act of projection could speak to the rising anxieties surrounding the rise of the New Woman, as the first woman embodies sexual freedom and the typist exemplifies economic freedom. Again, I’ve not yet come to any definitive conclusion about these episodes, but am merely putting forth my thoughts thus far.