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“‘What is that noise?’ / The wind under the door”: The Waste Land, Repetition, and Feminist Pedagogy

You say I am repeating

Something I have said before. I shall say it again.

Shall I say it again?

                                               —T. S. Eliot, East Coker III[1]


The repetition is the scene of a feminist instruction

                                                —Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life[2]

“I did it again,” confesses Megan Quigley at the beginning of her introduction to “Reading The Waste Land with the #MeToo generation.” Teaching is, of course, an art of doing things again: we repeat assignments, advice, corrections; we repeat our own mistakes and the prejudices we’ve absorbed from our education; we reflect, revise, and begin again. Repetition is especially important for my students in terms of building familiarity, since English isn’t their first language and Anglophone poetry can seem doubly foreign. Once the poetry becomes familiar, the students start trusting their feelings of recognition and surprise, which is crucial to their understanding of literary history. Tropes and traditions exist not just because someone said so, but because the words and images keep coming back, and we are fascinated with the modes of their return. And so in poetry classes we do a lot of hearing, repeating, and questioning patterns. What does it mean to us when something comes back? What does it feel like to recognize an image, a phrase, or a rhythm? What is it like to see something we know being transformed, transfigured or disfigured in a new text? One of my sessions this year was built around the opening of The Waste Land, and the tradition of poems engaging with the return of spring. As I read through the different contributions to Quigley’s #MeToo cluster, I couldn’t help thinking: it’s easy enough to study meaningful repetition when it’s about the passage of seasons. It’s another story when what’s being repeated throughout the ages and the lines is the silencing of women and the violence of sexual assault; when what you feel in your stomach is the recognition of an all-too-familiar discomfort, or trauma, or simply, as Michelle Taylor puts it, “a sense of not belonging.” On the other hand, there is the risk that repetition makes this discomfort easier, too easy, to bear. And hence Quigley’s confession. She describes how teaching the #MeToo generation has helped her question her familiarity with “brutality against women” as “a given aspect” of modernism. “Assaults and harassment against women in literature: it’s just a notion I am used to,” she writes; “[e]ven as a feminist scholar, I fear I’ve become somewhat accustomed to [it].”

The Waste Land is obsessed with the reenactment of gendered and sexual violence. It features unhappy couples, unwanted pregnancies, abortion, hysteria, dissociation, and assault. There is an accumulative, totalizing effect to this repetition: if Tiresias is “the substance of the poem,” and “foresuffers” the rape of the typist, forever “Enacted on this same divan or bed” (lines 243–44), then sexual violence is one of the mythical structures that hold the poem together.[3] Sumita Chakraborty shows us how the typist’s assault “ripples throughout the poem” in “[e]choes of non-consensual encounters.” She notes that the “heart . . . beating obedient / To controlling hands” (lines 421–23), after the “exploring hands” (line 240) of the clerk, brings a definite false note into the poem’s yearning for surrender. Eliot criticism hasn’t always been attuned to such echoes. Paul Fussell, for instance, unambiguously associates the “controlling hands” with “the willed and thus total and effective gesture,” while the typist’s “automatic hand” is lumped together with “the instinctual clutchings of crabs.”[4] The disturbing reenactment of her rape in the idealized “controlling hands,” which yokes together two contrasting subtexts of horror and relief, seems not to have crossed Fussell’s mind.[5]

Last year, as I was working on the motif of touch in Eliot’s early poems, “Exploring hands encounter no defence” (line 240) started playing repeatedly inside my brain. The whole passage is terrifyingly iambic; it sticks. Even when I thought I’d finally got rid of the line, it would take me by surprise while reading other sections or texts. I’m prone to earworms in general, and I had assumed the persistence of this echo was mere idiosyncrasy. But reading The Waste Land in light of the cluster made me change my mind. The typist “puts a record on the gramophone” (line 256), and there is no indication that it stops turning; I was struck to re-discover in the very next line an aural experience similar to mine: “This music crept by me upon the waters” (line 257). The motif of creeping, after the clerk’s groping hands, endows the music with an eerily embodied, tactile quality; materialized echoes of the typist’s tune keep following the poetic “I.” Like an earworm, once they come into your realm of perception, you cannot get rid of them, they contaminate everything. And there are other earworms of feminine suffering in The Waste Land: first, the song of Philomel, “Twit twit twit / Jug jug jug jug jug jug” (lines 203–4), unheard by the world, because not listened to, but unending and “inviolable” (line 101) in the ears of the reader. Later, it colors our readings of the yearning for water, with the “Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop” (lines 336–7) of the thrush, before resurfacing in a final lyric address—“O swallow swallow” (line 429). And then there is the liquid wailing of the Thames-daughters,[6] “Weialala leia / Wallala leialala” (lines 277–78; 290–91), softly fading into “la la” (line 306). Two small notes lost in the white of the page.

“What is that noise?”

       The wind under the door.

“What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?”    (lines 116–19)

The Waste Land is full of inarticulate but persistent female voices, “voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells” (line 384), and though the ears may be dirty, the voices won’t go away. Do we listen to them? Or does the “murmur of maternal lamentation” (line 367) acquire the status of a background noise, easily discounted as “the wind under the door”? Is the suffering of women simply one more metaphor, one more layer of white noise in the cacophony of modern decadence?

#MeToo is an education in listening and repeating. As the hashtag started cropping up everywhere, it began to turn the litany of abuse into its own kind of earworm, one that was impossible to ignore. In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed frames feminist pedagogy as both a reaction to repetition and a form of repetition in its own right. On the one hand, when dealing with sexism, “familiarity and repetition are the source of difficulty; they are what need to be explained” (Ahmed, Living, 9). “Diversity work can be frustrating,” she adds, “as it takes the form of repeated encounters with what does not and will not move” (97). The music is familiar; everybody knows it well. To quote Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas: “Almost the same daughters ask almost the same brothers for almost the same privileges. Almost the same gentlemen intone almost the same refusals for almost the same reasons. It seems as if there were no progress in the human race, but only repetition.”[7] Woolf assimilates patriarchal repetition to the persistent tune of a nursery rhyme: “We can almost hear them, if we listen, singing the same old song, ‘Here we go round the mulberry tree, the mulberry tree, the mulberry tree’ and if we add, ‘of property, of property, of property,’ we shall fill in the rhyme without doing violence to the facts” (Three Guineas, 147). But for Ahmed, “[t]his replication is another form of pedagogy: we learn from how the same things keep coming up” (Ahmed, Living, 9). In this sense, “[t]he repetition is the scene of a feminist instruction” (12).

#MeToo gives the patriarchy a taste of its own recurrence; and it’s not simply about the reenactment of trauma. Hundreds of thousands of retellings of the same story, repeated, over and over and simultaneously, amplifying like a refrain. According to Gilles Deleuze, refrains are about territory: we hum repetitive tunes when we feel or want to feel at home.[8] The #MeToo refrains are saying, “this is our space too”; they reappropriate old territories (the mulberry tree, or in our case, the critical canon) and map out new ones. Repetition, here, provides both a sense of empathy and magnitude. Louder than the murmurs of whisper networks, the collective voices of #MeToo refuse to become background noise, just as the contributors’ students take them to task on the quality of their listening. Reading with the #MeToo generation, for Banerjee, is “an invitation to dwell on the possibilities of such acts of rethinking that are, to be precise, acts of re­hearing.” According to Ahmed, feminism is about “attending to the same words across different contexts, allowing them to create ripples or new patterns like texture on a ground;” this involves “repeating words, sometimes over and over again” (Living 12). In the wake of #MeToo, feminist repetition invites us to summon up new voices, new patterns, and bring the “half-heard” to the fore; reflect, revise, and begin again.[9]


[1] T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems (London: Faber & Faber, 1963), 188.

[2] Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 12.

[3] T. S. Eliot, Note to line 218, in Collected Poems (London: Faber & Faber, 1963), 72.

[4] Paul Fussell, “The Gestic Symbolism of T. S. Eliot,” ELH  22, no. 3 (Sept. 1955): 194–211, 209, 202.

[5] A technique that will be perfected in “Marina” (1930).

[6] T. S. Eliot, Note to line 266, in Collected Poems (London: Faber & Faber, 1963), 73.

[7] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 147.

[8] Gilles Deleuze, Abécédaire, produced by Pierre-André Boutang (1995).

[9] Janine Utell reads the hyacinth girl as a traumatized victim of assault, Nancy Gish refuses to interpret the nightingale’s song as a nostalgic yearning for the past; to Ria Banerjee’s students, “The Sibyl’s story [. . . is] a call to arms;” Michelle Taylor sees in “What shall we do tomorrow?” (line 133) a pressing question for contemporary teaching and scholarship.