“I Tiresias”


The figure of Tiresias, the blind seer from Greek mythology, has always appealed a great variety of authors both ancient and modern. In particular T.S. Eliot gives him (according to his own notes) a key role in The Waste Land. The question for readers is this: what features of Tiresias are functional to Eliot’s masterpiece? Who is Tiresias?

ti7The myths about Tiresias are many. One of the most common refers that, one day walking on Mount Cyllene, he saw two copulating snakes and he killed the female because that scene bothered him, a male chauvinist choice, actually. The goddess Hera was not pleased, and she punished Tiresias by transforming him into a woman. As a woman, Tiresias became a priestess of Hera. She married and had children and one of them, Manto, also possessed the gift of prophecy. She lived in this state for seven years trying all the pleasures that a woman could try, till once again she found herself facing the same scene of the snakes. Depending on the myth, it seems that this time the Tiresias cleverly resolved upon either leaving the snakes alone or trampling on them. Whatever her choice was, it worked, as Tiresias was allowed to regain his masculinity.

ti2One day Zeus and Hera found themselves divided by a dispute about who could have more pleasure in sex: a man or a woman. Failing to come to a conclusion, because Zeus claimed it was the woman, while Hera asserted that it was the man, the quarrelsome couple agreed to summon Tiresias, as he was very likely the only one that could resolve that argument, because of his transgender experience. Once in front of the gods, he said that sexual pleasure is composed of ten parts and “of ten parts a man enjoys one only” and  a woman nine. The goddess Hera was furious because Tiresias had revealed such a secret and instantly struck him blind. Zeus, who could do nothing to stop or reverse her curse, as Greek gods cannot change what others have decided, gave him the power to predict the future and the lifespan of seven lives as recompense. In other versions of the myth  Tiresias was blinded by Athena after he had seen her bathing naked. His mother, Chariclo, a nymph of Athena, begged Athena to undo her curse, but the goddess could not; instead, she cleaned his ears, giving him the ability to understand birdsong and the gift of divination.

ti3There are diverging myths on his death as well. During the attack of Epigoni against Thebes, Tiresias fled the city along with the Thebans and died after drinking water from the tainted spring Tilphussa, where he was struck by an arrow of Apollo. In another version the soothsayer and his daughter Manto were taken prisoner in Thebes and sent to Delphi, where they would have been consecrated to the god Apollo. Tiresias died of fatigue during the journey. The soul of Tiresias, after entering into Hades, retained the powers of divination, as narrated by Homer in the Odyssey.

ti5Going back to the initial question, therefore,Tiresias embodies exactly what Eliot was looking for: his having been both man and woman makes him a unifying figure in The Waste Land, thus linking the ancient and modern worlds and giving unity to that “heap of broken images” which is the present world. Furthemore Tiresias, in the desolation and despair of The Waste Land,  reactivates his ancient role – that of a prophet. In this mythological context, Eliot seems to indicate that the state of the waste land will not always be perpetual as long as Tiresias directs us.




The Oyster dilemma

mala7Stephen Daedalus, James Joyce‘s alter ego, knew exactly what he wanted to be: an artist. He also knew that Dublin restricted society was not the most fertile soil where his artistic vein might attain and blossom. Differently from Eveline, he was determined enough to turn his back to a present made of family expectations and people who loved and knew him in order “to live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life” and explore “all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!”(A Portrait of the Artist as a Young man). He was the Daedalus, after all, he who could flee from that labyrinth represented by Dublin. Had he stayed, he would not have been able to express his talent, thus becoming the martyr of art, as his first name seems to predict, as St. Stephen was the first martyr of Christianity.  But martyrdom was not in his fate, hence, once put on his wax wings, he quitted as soon as possible with not so many regrets.

mala9What would the right decision be, then? Did Joyce’s choice to go into self-exile assured him that happiness that apparently Eveline was denied by remaining at home or not? Not exactly. Freedom does not necessarily mean happiness. For example, once in Argentina, Eveline might have found out  that Frank was already married with children or that there was no trace of that home she had so longed for, but she had to live with her sick mother in law and look after her, while Frank was somewhere around the world on a ship. Hence, alone with no family and friends in such a foreign, distant land, who might have helped her?

mala10The Italian writer Giovanni Verga, would have certainly supported Eveline’s choice to stay.  Verga was convinced that all men were subjected to a merciless and cruel fate that condemn them not only to unhappiness and pain, but to a condition of immobility. Those who try to escape from the condition in which destiny has placed them cannot find the happiness dreamed, but undergo more suffering. Particularly those who belong to the group of the weak, and Eveline was one of them, need more protection and must stay connected to those family values they have grown with as an oyster clutched to a rock, in order to survive and avoid that the world, like a big powerful fish, may devour them.

mala12 Verga developed the so-called “ideal of the oyster” in his novel: I Malavoglia (1881). There is little house by a medlar tree in the picturesque little village of Aci Trezza in the Province of Catania (Sicily).  The Toscanos, a numerous family of fishermen live there. Although they are extremely hardworking, they have been nicknamed  the Malavoglia (The Reluctant Ones). The head of the family is Padron Ntoni, a widower, who lives with his son Bastian and the wife of the latter called Maria and their five children. Their main source of income is la Provvidenza (the Providence), a small fishing boat. But when Ntoni, the eldest of the children, leaves for the military service, Padron Ntoni attempts a new business and buys a large amount of lupins, in order to try and make up for the loss of income which the  absence of his nephew will cause.

mala 15Rocks are harsh and sharp, but as long as you are clutched to one them, you are safe. Starting a new business, Padron Ntoni attempts to leave his rock to swim in a new sea, hoping to find maybe a better one, but his choice will eventually lead his family to a disaster that will mine their unity. Bastian and the merchandise are tragically lost during a storm, furthermore there is the debt caused by the lupins which were bought on credit and the boat mean to repair. As this were not just enough, a long series of misfortunes will follow till the beloved house near the medlar tree, symbol of the unity of the family, has to be sold in order to repay the debt. In the end, only Alessi, the youngest of the brothers, the only one who had remained a fisherman, manages with his hard work to rebuild the family fortunes to the point at which they can repurchase the house by the medlar tree.  Padron Ntoni, who is now old and sick at the hospital, is informed of the good news. It is the last moment of happiness for the old man, who dies on the day he was to return. His last wish to die in his old house, on that harsh and sharp rock will never be granted.