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I chose the keyword No because it has long been a cornerstone of discourse surrounding sexual consent, and because it both subtly and directly highlights the difficulty of reading “The Waste Land” at a moment when sexual consent is at the forefront of our minds. Well before the current iteration of the #MeToo movement, the phrase “No means no” has been wielded as a battle cry and passed along as an educational tool for persons of all genders, either to learn how to articulate their rights or to learn how to recognize the articulations of others. It has even been used as a rejoinder in casual conversation. Situated at the uneasy intersection of the sloganeering associated with late capitalistic commerce (merchandise with the phrase is ubiquitous) and the tireless efforts of feminist discourse to popularize the apparently elusive concept of mutually consensual sexual activity, the phrase’s simplicity is both ironclad and generative. No means no: the word’s repetition signals a firm equation grounded in literal, syntactical fact. At the same time, efforts have been made to define “no” in a range of ways that extend beyond the literal and sometimes even, properly, the syntactical, to gestures, silences, hesitations, impairments, and more. The goal of the phrase is—to a politically beneficial end—to establish both a singular meaning and an expansive plurality of significations: no always means no, and no can be implied by a battalion of forms of rhetoric at various intersections of the linguistic and the embodied.

Screenshot of Google Image search results for the phrase “No means no.”
Fig. 1. Screenshot of Google Image search results for the phrase “No means no.”

Enter “The Waste Land.” The word no emerges twice in the infamous encounter in the “Fire Sermon” section regarding the “young man carbuncular” arriving at the residence of the “typist home at teatime.”[1] He, “A small house agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,” decides—or “guesses,” as Eliot’s text has it—that “[t]he time is now propitious” to “engage her in caresses” (line 235, 237). She doesn’t consent. His gestures “are unreproved,” but clearly “undesired”; Eliot describes his come-on as an assault: “Flushed and decided, he assaults at once; / Exploring hands encounter no defence; / His vanity requires no response” (line 238–241). Out of the typist’s alleged “indifference” the clerk “makes a welcome” (line 242). His final kiss is “patronising,” and on his way out, finding that the “unlit” stairs are as visually unyielding as the typist wishes to be sexually unyielding, even “gropes” her house, a parting gesture that hauntingly reminds us of the connection Freud once drew between home and vagina (line 247, 248).[2]

The section is narrated by Tiresias, which also dramatizes the challenges of witnessing and proof that are crucial not only to philosophies regarding ethics but also to contemporary discourse regarding sexual assault. Would scores of readers doubt the typist’s memory if her expert witness was not the most renowned seer in the Western canon, one who ensures that we know of his qualifications by stressing that he has “sat by Thebes below the wall / And walked among the lowest of the dead” (line 245–246)? And what if Tiresias were not a prophet, and therefore lacked the ability to have “foretold” whatever aspects of the narrative that he could not have “perceived” (line 229)? After all, we hear none of this in the typist’s “own” words; Tiresias only permits what he calls “one half-formed thought” of hers to intrude on his narration (line 251). What if she had no witness at all?

The episode ends. It never explicitly comes up again, like many of the scenes of “The Waste Land.” Yet—also like many such scenes—it ripples throughout the poem, and one of the ways it does so is through the word no itself, which, tinged by its use in the typist’s scene, trails, like a version of Philomela’s cries, throughout the other sections. The word comes back in the song of the Thames daughters—which, it has always seemed to me, hauntingly blurs with the record we know the typist plays from her gramophone after the clerk departs, in a moment Michelle Taylor describes in her essay here as indicative of the typist’s need to somehow carry on—in the eerily resonant lyrics “I made no comment. What should I resent?” (line 299). It dominates “What the Thunder Said,” where there “is no water but only rock / Rock and no water,” where “one,” like the typist in her own home, can “neither stand nor lie nor sit”—at least not comfortably (line 331–332, 340, emphasis added). Here, as in the typist’s home when the clerk intrudes, there is “not even silence” and “not even solitude”; there is also, eventually, “no rock,” and then, in the “empty chapel” in “this decayed hole,” “no windows” and “no one” (line 341, 343, 347, 389, 386, 390, 391).

Permeations and Foreclosures

Echoes of non-consensual encounters permeate “The Waste Land,” not only in references to the nightingale and other evocations of violence (many of which Nancy Gish beautifully explores in her piece here), but in subtler episodes of denial and submission. One of the final chords that the poem strikes is to evoke a “heart . . . beating obedient / To controlling hands” in the Damyata section of the penultimate stanza (line 421–423). Damyata, or self-control, is itself a fraught concept, particularly when paired with the assenting Da, and particularly when negotiated across traditions, from the referenced Upanishads to Eliot’s modernist contexts to present-day resonances in discourses on sex. Thus I want to flag the extent to which they invite us, situated in the broader rhetorical context of the poem, to hear domination not only as an intra-species ill, but as something that permeates cross-species and inanimate relations, from the thunder and on the waves of the ocean. Ria Banerjee’s description of her students’ empathy for the resonance between the chaos and trauma of “The Waste Land” and their own lived experience is telling here, for the permeation I describe both inflects the poem itself and inflects its generations of readers, including those in contemporary contexts whose standpoints may differ markedly from those in which the poem seems directly invested. There is, to borrow Eliot’s own words from the poem’s opening section, “no shelter” and “no relief” (line 23). And if we follow Timothy Bahti’s argument that poems have no ends, and instead constantly return us again to their many beginnings, we might then return again to the beginning of the poem, where we not only find ample negations, but also see that those negations take place within an overarching framework of negotiating and animating the demands of cruelty and fear.[3] Even the arrival of summer is an intrusion in the poem’s first stanza. Not unlike contemporary efforts to expand the connotations of the phrase “No means no,” the definition of “no” widens in “The Waste Land” to omissions, refusals, and hesitations, and seems to emanate from everywhere.

Yet Gayatri Spivak has taught us that in order for something to have been spoken, it has to have been heard.[4] Under this rubric, the speech act of an articulation is as contingent on speaker as it is on audience. The function of the contemporary phrase “No means no” is not simply to ensure that refusal is spoken, but also to ensure that it is comprehended—and, more still, respected and obeyed. To return to the scene with the typist and the clerk: the typist’s lack of consent is not heard by the clerk, and although Tiresias witnesses it well enough to convey it to us, he also swiftly makes the episode about the burdens it places on himself: “And I Tiresias have foresuffered all” (line 243). And while the poem’s movement away from the scene does inspire the affective permeation of fear and negation throughout the entire text in overwhelming ways, it also means that the scene itself is circumscribed. The typist, to put it crudely, will never have her day in court.

The Ethics of Ambiguity

I want to leave you with a dilemma. Ethics and lyric poetry are uneasy bedfellows. In part, this is due to the fact that on both the side of production and the side of reception and scholarship, canonical Western poetics has historically been dominated by a very closed circle of persons. In some cases, this has led to tellingly dominant conceptions of whose voice a text is thought to animate, as Janine Utell describes in her remarkable reading of the “hyacinth girl.” It is also due to our understandable desire to conceptualize ethics by means of people whom we deem ethical exemplars, a test that many canonical poets, Eliot included, rightfully fail. On the level of rhetoric, in which I am primarily interested, the main issue is that the ambiguity at which poetics excels is not often considered compatible with the clear articulations to which ethical discourse aspires, both in popular and philosophical contexts. “No means no”: we yearn for the “no,” however broadly defined, to be recognized and acted upon. Philosophically, too, since at least Emmanuel Levinas, contemporary ethics has taken the concept of recognition as a staple.[5] On the subject of sexual abuse (as well as other forms of violence perpetuated on persons in precarious or vulnerable subject positions), this yearning becomes all the more urgent: I often hear it reflected in my students’ investments in validating the affective rhetoric of the speakers of the texts they read, as well as their struggles with texts that reference, but do not unambiguously denounce, such sites of violence. The ambiguities of “The Waste Land”—not to mention the challenges it poses to interpretation, which make the text fruitful for literary scholars because very little within it can, exactly, be firmly “heard”—pose substantial difficulties within a rubric in which clear determination is heavily valued. To put it another way, the rhetorical simplicity of “No means no” seems rather far from the poem’s fragmentation, circumlocutions, and challenges to legibility.

From this dilemma I would like to suggest a provocation. It is my suspicion that this very tension can help us think through the limitations of the certainties on which ethical discourse seems to rely. No may mean no, for example, but as we know even in the present day, there remains a pernicious reluctance to receive and acknowledge that concept. The domain of the ambiguous has largely been granted to perpetrators: those who argue that “no” has not been said loudly enough or has been countered by implications of dress or mannerism, those whose lyrics are about blurred lines, those who seek to disprove and discredit. When perpetrators do invoke the phrase’s declarative certainty, they do so in order to exculpate themselves, as though to implicitly argue that it is their victims who are dealing in ambiguity and therefore lack credibility. Here, again, the ambiguous becomes a rhetorical weapon in the perpetrator’s arsenal. In response, I wonder whether the experience of grappling with texts like “The Waste Land” can equip us with a robust frame—one that is increasingly vitally important for us as readers, as teachers, as writers, and as, simply, people in relations—in which, through the perpetual labor of ethics, we can re-evaluate the ambiguous signifier, which itself has an equally strong history in continental philosophy and in poetics alike. I wonder whether, in other words, contending with “The Waste Land” can yield an ethical discourse that can thrive even when articulations that are in some way spoken are unheard: a sexual ethics and an ethics of reading that needs “no rock,” “no windows,” and “no one” to yet thrive.


[1] T. S. Eliot, The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose, ed. Lawrence Rainey (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), line 231, 222.

[2] On Freud, see “The Uncanny” (1919). “It often happens that neurotic men declare that they feel there is something uncanny about the female genital organs. This unheimlich place, however, is the entrance to the former Heim [home] of all human beings, the place where each of us lived once upon a time and in the beginning” (Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XVII, 1917–1919, trans. James Strachey [London: Hogarth Press, 1995], 245).

[3] See Timothy Bahti, Ends of the Lyric: Direction and Consequence in Western Poetry (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

[4] See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in, among other places, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg (Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1988), 271–313.

[5] Although the resonance of the concepts of response and of recognition in philosophical discourse would be too extensive to catalogue here, I want to flag how consistently intertwined it has been with the project of ethics, including and beyond contemporary ethics. It is found in thinkers as divergent as G. W. F. Hegel, Jacques Derrida, Levinas, Cynthia Willett, Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, Jane Bennett, Kelly Oliver, and many more, and is thought to be relevant to ethics regarding a number of domains of relationality, including ecology, race, gender, sexual politics, and more. Oliver, for example, stresses: “Ethics requires that we open up response and response ability”—or, as she often renders the word, “response-ability”—“in the face of our ignorance” (“Witnessing, Recognition, and Response Ethics,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 48, no. 4 [2015]: 473–93, 491).