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Discomfort

T. S. Eliot and Vivienne Eliot, from Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Monk’s House albums, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Fig. 1. T. S. Eliot and Vivienne Eliot, from Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Monk’s House albums, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

If ambiguity is the bread and butter of academia, discomfort is probably its toaster, by which I mean that our profession loves and relies on discomfort. In the classroom, and even in reading, we take this discomfort to be productive, even therapeutic; we see it as an invitation to find in the text a space that will alleviate the feeling, or to make that space in the discourse that surrounds it. Transforming discomfort into opportunity—even producing discomfort for said purpose—is a trope so common in teaching narratives that it sometimes feels like a generic marker. Yet as the stories of #MeToo multiply, I’m beginning to question the function and fungibility of that feeling.

Because if the #MeToo movement has a defining affect, it’s probably also discomfort, and in a bad way. In every #MeToo narrative I’ve heard or read, from the most horrific to the most mundane, discomfort has been the activating element, the impetus behind the kinds of thought that prompt storytelling.  A co-worker tells a sexist joke, or asks if he might masturbate in front of you, and either incident could be, and probably has been, described as “uncomfortable.” It rarely resolves in triumph. The discomfort is where we start from, a physical and emotional sensation—when the skin crawls and the heart races—that alerts us to nothing but the fact that where or how we are is some way we’d rather not be.

How different is this from the discomfort of reading, from what we feel in front of our books or our peers or our pupils? I’ve felt that same sensation—different in intensity, rather than in kind—both in front of my students and as a student myself, and I’ve watched my students sense it, too, some text or subtext whispering (or screaming) you don’t belong here. You don’t belong here because: you’re a woman, of color, queer, disabled, transgender, non-binary, foreign, poor, under-educated; this isn’t your space, your experience, your history, your language. Modernist literature often excels at sending this message, at provoking this discomfort, and in this “The Waste Land” continues to operate as a paradigmatic modernist text.

“The Waste Land” might make readers uncomfortable—in its difficulty, for example, or its depictions of sexual violence—but I think it also grapples perceptively with the affect. In two of its most uncomfortable episodes (by which I mean episodes where felt discomfort is suggested)—in the story of the typist and the young man carbuncular, and in the description of the wanderer at the beginning of “What the Thunder Said”—“The Waste Land” defines discomfort not as the opposite of comfort, bur rather as the juncture between agency and inertia. In this sense, the feeling points to one’s being in what Sianne Ngai calls a “situation of passivity.”[1] As Ngai writes, such situations of “obstructed agency with respect to other human actors or to the social as such” are “uniquely disclosed and interpreted by ignoble feelings”—or, as she calls her suite of affects,  “ugly feelings” (Ugly Feelings, 3). Discomfort can characterize all of Ngai’s “ugly feelings”—anxiety, paranoia, irritation, and even “animatedness” and “stuplimity”—because it precedes them (as it also precedes fear, anger, and even arousal) (2, 3). The body, preverbal, uses “discomfort” as a placeholder: a way of not really addressing your problematic boss or your feelings of inferiority. #MeToo asks us to listen to the body’s urgent speech and to lend our words to it. But it is not always easy to hear what it might ask of us in speaking.

Ineluctable Modality of the Uncomfortable

Discomfort, then, describes a body waking to protest repetition, circularity, and stasis, while the mind remains uncomprehending or overwhelmed. We see this perhaps most clearly in the contrast between Tiresias, who is alert to discomfort, and the typist, who seems numb to it. While Tiresias (whom, following Carrie Preston and T. S. Eliot himself, I will not gender) becomes present (“on this same divan or bed”) through the registration of discomfort (i.e., “foresuffer[ing]”), the typist, in ignoring what Tiresias labels as suffering, effectively disappears: at the height of her assault, her body and its feelings are obscured or consumed by the body of her assailant.[2] The imagined or implied “no” that Sumita Chakraborty finds reverberating through the poem seems to turn back against the typist herself, as if she had swallowed the corrosive meant to protect her; her movement is the negation of gesture (“unreproved”), her affect the negation of feeling (“undesired”) (line 238). Throughout the assault, she is figured through absence, as “no defence,” “no response,” and “indifference,” while the man’s bodily and emotional presence are articulated as “exploring hands” and “vanity” (line 240, 241, 242, 240, 241). When the man “[b]estows one final patronizing kiss,” the verb takes no indirect object because the woman has disappeared (line 247). His is the only body that matters here; it makes its “welcome” in the erasure of its erotic object (line 242). (Even as the man leaves he continues to encounter the world through its absence, as he “gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit” [line 248].)

Discomfort, on the other hand, makes the body legible even as it is under assault. Tiresias enters the poem as fully embodied and uncomfortable with this embodiment; “blind” and “throbbing between two lives,” the prophet feels like a piece of flesh wounded, or perhaps aroused—in either case dissatisfied, unquiet, not whole (line 218). Interpreted generously, Tiresias’s assertions of empathy and sensation partially substitute for the young woman’s disturbing indifference to her own assault; in such a reading, Tiresias’s discomfort, tied to the prophet’s own throbbing, suggests the passive body that the young man has effaced. More uncomfortably, as Eliot’s notes assert, Tiresias’s body links the bodies of the young man and woman, and that same “throbbing” may point as much to anticipated pleasure as it does to pain.

Although discomfort arises, per Ngai’s rubric, from the frustration of human agency, I would argue that in this particular context it also constitutes the realization or at least the rediscovery of agency (without, crucially, the exercise of it). Chakraborty asks us to reclaim for ethics “the power of the ambiguous signifier,” and indeed the power of discomfort arises from its inherent ambiguity, the circumference of what it can describe and the breadth of what it can do. It is all potential: the rediscovery of the body (for example, the typist’s hands) enabled by discomfort opens onto the body’s capacity for action, as when at the beginning of “What the Thunder Said,” the wandering speaker’s discomfort—viscerally rendered as “Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand”—makes her long to stop, to “stand [or] lie [or] sit” (line 337, 340). (Like Chakraborty, I note here the speaker’s similarity to the pacing typist, who also “cannot stop or think,” and I wonder, inspired by Janine Utell’s reading of the “hyacinth girl” episode, how this episode might transform if we decide that a woman wanders this waste land: then the self-abnegating narrator, the dismembered bodies, the fragmentation of the self asked to give whole form to the contradictions of the past and future, and not the least the speaker’s struggle with infertility and shame—all of these make new sense as expressions of the modern female subject [line 336].) So the wanderer’s body also discovers in its discomfort a protest against motion, continuation, activity; her feet, deprived of moisture and irritated by the sand, lead the speaker to imagine a series of new actions—standing, lying, sitting.

Likewise, the typist almost realizes her embodiment as she “turns and looks a moment in the glass,” and is there not potential for cessation and choice in her deciding she’s “glad it’s over” (line 249, 252)? When she instead “smoothes her hair with automatic hand,” she erases the last trace of that discomfort in a gesture that links her body and its hands to the body and hands that just violated her (255). This gesture encapsulates her squandered potential for an agency not unlike the young man’s; it implicates the forces that drive her to accommodate her world, to quell her own unrest, and to convert agency into automatism. Like the record she puts on the gramophone, she commits herself to perpetual motion, to pacing, to the continuation of things as they have always been.

Handling It

The typist’s hands—like all the hands (exploring, smoothing, dirty, controlling) that flit across the pages of this poem—also point back to the movements of our own automatic hands, turning the pages of a book, guiding a pencil over paper, moving dexterously across a keyboard. Our hands, controlling the pages and controlled by them, mediate this uncomfortable relationship between our own agency and the text’s co-optation of it: to read, we must forget ourselves, and in forgetting ourselves we also exclude aspects of our world. This is all to say that reading in connection with the body can be uncomfortable because it reminds us that we, too, are inert, that we are always overwhelmed with stimuli, always deciding which feelings to name and which to ignore. In this sense uncomfortable readers become like Tiresias, “throbbing between two lives,” a site where two worlds, each equally demanding, meet—both the boundary and the juncture.

In “The Waste Land,” the most powerful form of resistance is sometimes the choice not to move, while the kinds of movement we might typically identify as taking action often constitute acquiescence, a failure to exert agency. When we last encounter the poem’s closest thing to a hero, the Fisher King, we find him exercising just this kind of agency: sitting, fishing, and questioning himself.[3] Is this not unlike reading and learning? And are these still, reflective spaces—in the desert, in front of the mirror, on the shore—not unlike a classroom? To see this connection is to acknowledge learning not as a space for discomfort, but a space that has been created or necessitated by discomfort, by the uncomfortable material realities of being and being embodied in the world. What might define this generation—my generation—is that when we enter the classroom we already feel this necessity, already know this discomfort; we do not bring it into our readings, because we recognize that it is already integral to them.

In the end, “The Waste Land” and the #MeToo movement don’t need to speak to each other, because they are already speaking together. They are asking us, as they ask themselves, the same uncomfortable question:

What shall we do tomorrow?

What shall we ever do? (line 133–134)


Notes

[1] Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 3.

[2] T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” in The Waste Land and Other Poems, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Penguin, 1998), line 243–244.

[3] See line 423–425.

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