The Waste Land: The Necessary Evil of Sex
While it is well know that The Waste Land references many classic and sometimes obscure literary texts, Shakespeare makes one of several appearances in this poem through one of the primary themes. The juxoposition of love and lust in The Waste Land is also the principle subject discussed in Shakespeare's sonnet 129. Shakespeare describes lust as "Savage, extreme, rude, cruel" (4) and "Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight" (5). This condemnation of lust describes perfectly the sexual encounter of the typist and the clerk in The Fire Sermon.
The Cleanth Brooks article The Waste Land: An Analysis, paraphrases John Crowe Ransom's essay God Without Thunder which says, "Love is the aesthetic of sex; lust is the science. Love implies a deferring of the satisfaction of the desire; it implies even certain asceticism and a ritual. Lust drives forward urgently and scientifically to the immediate extirpation of the desire" (Brooks 193). It seemed strange that both Brooks and Ransom ignored Shakespeare's sonnet dealing with exactly this subject when writing their analysis.
Although the typist in The Waste Land is less than enthusiastic, the clerk needs no more than "indifference" from her to accomplish his goal. Immediately after they copulate he gives her "one final patronizing kiss/And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit" (247-48). The typist does not simply abandon the encounter like the clerk, who leaves and immediately occupies his mind with his escape down the poorly lit staircase. The typist spares a moment to consider the encounter and thinks "Well now that's done: and I'm glad it's over" (252). By despising the sexual encounter the typist falls neatly into Shakespeare’s formula for lust, but what does it mean that Eliot deviates from Shakespeare's formula in the case of the clerk? The clerk seems to regret nothing about the evening, but instead forgets it immediately. He shows no sign of guilt or shame when he kisses the typist and leaves her apartment.
This theme is also evident in A Game of Chess where the narrator pleads with Lil to have sex with her husband, a soldier. The narrator reminds her that if she chooses to refrain from sex with her husband, he might find sex elsewhere and asks her "What you get married for if you don't want children" (164)? Why should the narrator plead for Lil to have sex with her husband? How is it any of his business and why does it matter if Lil cares nothing for sex? Apparently, in some ways, sex is very important to Eliot.
This paradoxical element is explained in Cleanth Brooks essay when he quotes Eliot's essay Baudelaire. Eliot writes "So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing: at least, we exist" (186). Perhaps Eliot is attempting to say that Shakespeare got it a little wrong. While lust is "Savage, extreme, rude, cruel," (4) to perform the (deplorable) sex act is to live. This could also have a two-fold meaning. While to do evil (in the form of copulation) is to live, to copulate is also life-giving in a more literal sense. Without the necessary evil of lust, life would be impossible spiritually and physically.