“The Objective Correlative” and T.S. Eliot’s Combined Personae as Tiresias-Narcissus in The Waste Land

Emily Bilman

T.S. Eliot conceived the concept of “the objective correlative” in order to emphasize the importance of representing human emotions on stage more effectively. Eliot aimed to have the right emotion for the right purpose in life represented by the stage. If Eliot’s entire literary achievement is considered against the background of his psychobiography, then one can argue that his major life-crisis which occurred during the composition of The Waste Land and caused the fragmentation of his personality was the result of mixed emotions which he could not master. The purpose of this essay is to demonstate the influence that the objective correlative had in shaping Eliot’s combined personae in The Waste Land in his attempt to clarify his strong mixed emotions.

According to Dr. Trosman’s article on Eliot’s childhood called, “T.S. Eliot and The Waste Land : Psychopathological Antecedents and Transformations” (1974), Eliot’s wish to write a long poem which was going to become The Waste Land corresponds to the sublimation of his unconscious need to appease (his) sexually aggressive father. Eliot lost his father in January 1919, and the future text, in its fragments, symbolizes the patriarchal logos handed down to him by his father and his Puritan forefathers. In this way, Eliot wanted to prove to his father that he had, indeed, not wasted his life. In his paper, Dr. Trosman derives the following conclusions:

The Waste Land is a classic example in modern literature of a work that owes its composition to the reintegrative process following a psychological decompensation. […] (After his mother’s visit in 1921), he sought help for his “emotional derangement”. It is likely that Eliot’s expectations for maternal support were high, and he was bitterly disappointed by his mother’s critical attitude towards Vivienne and himself. The departure of his mother and resultant sense of estrangement and alienation was probably the significant precipitant for the subsequent decompensation.

From a psychological point of view, Eliot’s achievement lay in utilizing the content of his narcissistic regression for creative purposes. Having experienced a failure in response from need-satisfying and narcissistically cathected self-objects, he found himself empty, fragmented, and lacking in a sense of self-cohesion. As he began to reintegrate, he turned his previous adversity to poetic advantage. […] he made narcissistic fragmentation a basis for poetic form and alienation of self, legitimate poetic content. […] it is possible that the working out of the poem with the reactivation of experiences from the past, the mixing of memory and desire, and the unification of isolated and fragmented parts of the self may have been a form of partial selfanalytic work. When Eliot wrote toward the end of the poem, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” (line 430), he described a process of partial integration that brough a relief from his personal grouse against life.1

The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate the manner in which Eliot turned to poetry and literature as he tried to resolve the regression into which he was passively plunged during his major life-crisis. In contradiction with the aims of the “objective correlative” and, like Hamlet, who is trapped by his unresolved Oedipus complex, the characters of the waste land are the victims of intricate and obscure emotions that exist in inextricable knots.

When we analyse the events in Eliot’s life between 1918 and 1921, his marital problems with his wife who suffered from constant psycho-somatic illnesses and the psychological traumatism caused by the discovery of his wife’s affair with his close friend, Bertrand Russell, we can understand how Eliot’s apathy and his incapacity to connect anything with anything during his major life-crisis in 1921, influenced the grim melancholy of The Waste Land.

Eliot’s essay, Hamlet, written in 1919, and included in his Selected Essays (1932), in which he speaks of the difficulty of representing emotion in drama, can be a preliminary and visionary step in defining his concept of the “objective correlative” and its relation to his psycho-biography and the composition of The Waste Land. 1919 was the year that Eliot’s father died. In the essay, he refers to the inadequacy of Hamlet’s emotions, which exceed the plot’s texture, and the difficulty of representing this deficiency on stage. He criticizes Shakespeare’s characterization of Hamlet, saying that Hamlet’s excessive emotions surpass the factual fabric of the play, namely Gertrude’s hasty marriage to his uncle, who murdered his father to succeed him. For Eliot, the most effective way of representing emotion in drama is by using the ‘objective correlative’:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; […] a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. […] The artistic ‘inevitability’ lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion, which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear. […] Hamlet’s bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem. Hamlet’s […] disgust is occasioned by his mother, but […] his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her. It is thus a feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action.2

Like Hamlet who is amazed by the complexity of his emotions as he faces his mother’s violation, Shakespeare was confronted with the difficulty of representing the intensity of his character’s emotions on stage. Although he is aware of the gravity of his situation, Hamlet’s disgust is due to the entanglement of his contradictory emotions which victimize him, paralyzing him against taking action. The negative insignificance of Gertrude’s character is another factor that prompts Hamlet’s disgust of his mother. Eliot thinks that since Gertrude is such a negative character, she is incapable of conveying the disgust she evokes in Hamlet on stage as dramatically as she should.

Eliot’s concept aims at the objectification of emotions so that complex affects can be rendered comprehensible both by the person experiencing them and the reader or the audience. This process enables the reader to better understand himself and, eventually, to transcend complex ambiguous affects which might endanger his mental health. The application of the objective correlative in writing or on stage heightens one’s identification hence, allowing the appropriate representation of emotional states on stage and suscitating similar emotions in the audience for catharsis through which both readers and the audience transcend and purify their emotions. According to the Formalists, creating an emotion through external factors which defines the objective correlative, enables the author to be detached from the depicted character and transfer the emotion to the literary work as Eliot did in The Waste Land.

Paradoxically, Eliot’s concept of the ‘objective correlative’ is, antithetical with the waste landers’ ambivalence in The Waste Land. In ‘The Fire Sermon’, the typist considers her lover as someone to be gotten rid of at the end of the shunned sexual act which she hates. Like the couple in the pub, their foil, who pervert love’s meaning by an abortion, the neurotic couple in ‘A Game of Chess’ love and hate each other simultaneously, showing more negative dependence on each other than love. Unable to know and objectify their feelings which contradict the way they feel in reality, the minds of the waste landers are cleft from their emotions.

In Life Narcissism, Death Narcissism, André Green refers to Freud’s conclusion of 1926 that narcissistic trauma is linked to object-cathexis, our relations with and our affective investments on others, and adds: “the object-cathexis of psychical pain can only logically be the cathexis of a narcissistic object.”3 Green suggests that paradoxically, modern man finds increased satisfaction in the non-satisfaction of his desire, a state which he terms negative narcissism. Concerning negation, Green says: “Negation raises the issue of what I call negative investments. […] I mean investing a satisfaction that is absent or denied, by creating a state of quietude (negating dissatisfaction) just as if the satisfaction had, in fact, occurred. This is the function that I assign to negative primary narcissism.”4 Like the characters in The Waste Land, man is too wounded to have any desire for a relation with anyone, including himself.

In psychoanalytic terms, the poet’s unresolved Oedipal conflict is transposed into the love scene between the typist and the real-estate agent who represent Oedipal love-objects or parental imagos in “The Fire Sermon” :

The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
Bestows one patronising kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit . . .

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.’
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smooths her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.
‘This music crept by me upon the waters’5 (The Waste Land, ll. 223-257).

Through Tiresias, Eliot witnesses the symbolic primal scene enacted by the typist and the house agent. The poet is utterly self-conscious as he looks on, so that like Saint Narcissus, he is also looking at himself as he perceives the enactment of the primal scene. The parantheses demonstrate the poet’s shifting combined persona(e) and his self-conscious dédoublement in the act of writing the poem. In “The Death of Saint Narcissus” written in 1912, Eliot describes the hermit-saint as being utterly conscious of his own body into which he delves narcissistically while walking in Nature. He becomes extremely aware of his own body to the point of selfless disembodiment and becomes a mystic and a hermit, “a dancer to God” who, in his self-abnegation, identifies both with the animate and the inanimate worlds. Eliot, the poet, like the Saint Narcissus with whom he identifies, is endowed with an impersonal protean self which can take myriad shapes and wear multiple masks made up of multiple persona(e).

His eyes were aware of the pointed corners of his eyes
And his hands aware of the tips of his fingers.

Struck down by such knowledge
He could not live mens’ ways, but became a dancer before God6

(The Death of Saint Narcissus, 11. 15-19)

In his identity quest, Saint Narcissus with whom Eliot identifies, tries to shed the strata of his selfhood. The resolution of opposites is clearly voiced in the poet’s metamorphoses after the saint is transformed into a tree and a fish:

Then he had been a young girl

Caught in the woods by a drunken old man
Knowing at the end the taste of her own whiteness
The horror of her own smootheness,
And he felt drunken and old.

(The Death of Saint Narcissus, ll. 30-34)

In his violation, the poet, like Saint Narcissus, becomes both the young rapevictim and the violator, the drunken old man; hence, paradoxically, assuming a neutral self beyond all distinctions, individuality, contradictions, and violations. “The shadow in his mouth” symbolizes the introjection of his neutrality, a state of death-in-life and life-in-death, beyond all contradiction:

So he became a dancer to God.
Because his flesh was in love with the burning arrows
He danced on the hot sand
Until the arrows came.
As he embraced them his white skin surrendered
     itself to the redness of blood, and satisfied him.
Now he is green, dry and stained
With the shadow in his mouth.

(The Death of Saint Narcissus, ll. 35-42)

At this point in the poem, Narcissus becomes not only a saint but, through an identification with Christ on the cross, a martyred saint who rejoices in the sight of his own stigmata and blood. Psychoanalytically, “The (unpublished) Death of Saint Narcissus” symbolises Eliot’s identification with Saint Narcissus and his attempts at effacing his own personality in the process of writing. Eliot, hence, attained the poet’s impersonality and the poem itself became self-referential, written in a self-reflexive meta-language, mirroring Narcissus. The poet, then, summons the reader to enter the poem from a gray tomb to witness a shadow different from his, the shadow in Saint Narcissus’ mouth, the symbolic introjection of the poet’s own martyrdom and neutrality:

I will show you his bloody cloth and limbs
And the gray shadow on his lips.

(The Death of Saint Narcissus, ll. 6-7)

In Life Narcissism, Death Narcissism, André Green considers mysticism and asceticism to be forms of moral narcissism based on self-idealisation and the negation of the other’s existence.

The ultimate aim of narcissism is the obliteration of the trace of the Other in one’s desire, therefore the abolition of the primary difference, the difference between One and the Other. But what is the meaning of […] the return to the maternal breast? The aim of moral narcissism in this reduction of tension to the level zero is either death or immortality, which is the same thing. […] It is basically the same thing to say that desire must be reduced to the level zero and to say that one must do without the object which is the object of lack – the object becoming a sign that one is limited, unachieved and incomplete. […] Narcissistic wholeness is not a sign of health but rather a mirage of death. Moral narcissism is […] positive in its concentration of energy upon a fragile and threatened ego; negative because it gives value to […] privation. Self-privation becomes the best bulwark against castration.7

Like the mystic, the moral narcissist tries to strengthen his ego yet, paradoxically, deprives himself of the object of his desire by denying it. With his death-drive, he defends himself against castration, and, in the process, becomes ambivalent. Poems are what André Green calls trans-narcissistic objects with which poets identify and upon which they project their feelings and ideas. The creative space is the space where culture takes place. “[Poetry] is a primary form of sublimated creativity; sublimation and creation constituting trans-narcissistic objects."8

After Green, I suggest that poets write poetry to fight against their death drive yet, paradoxically, are victims of the death drive in their quest for perfection when they re-write their poems in the process of elaboration. I think that poets sublimate their negative narcissism to write about it positively and suggest that the poet is placed in a constant tension between his moral narcissism and libidinal creativity. Poetry results from the tension between the poet’s negativity and the creative energy that shapes the poem through the trans-narcisistic play with language.

Eliot needed the neutrality of the Tiresias-Narcissus mask to delve into the impotent neurosis of the waste-landers. Like an archaic tragic poet, he, thus, assumed the combined masks of the wrinkled, transvestite, half-human, halfanimal Tiresias and Saint Narcissus’ paradoxically selfless, martyr-mask that enabled him to witness the typist’s disgust with the brutality of the symbolic primal scene enacted in The Waste Land. Eliot identified with Tiresias as a reflection of the polymorphous, polyvalent, and protean figure of the poet, who is endowed with the gift of prophecy, and, in whose mythical figure, the two genders meet.

The poet’s genderless ambivalence is a defense against his impersonality which I term the poet’s “virtuality”. The poet’s “virtuality” enables him to objectify his feelings and write about transgression with a neutral persona as Eliot did in The Waste Land. The poet, who enters the privacy of the primal scene by repressing his Oedipal nightmares symbolically, warns the reader that this violation is a transgression which he can only perceive through the combined transvestite mask of Tiresias-Narcissus. By writing about his phantasized transgression through identification, the poet creates the poem’s self-referentiality, in which the enacted primal scene is, at the same time, being witnessed by the poet.

To understand Eliot’s combined personae in The Waste Land, we must turn to Melanie Klein who described the pre-oedipalized child’s phantasies of the combined parent figure whose attributes depend on the outcome of the Oedipus conflict, in Envy and Gratitude (1957):

Among the features of the earliest stage of the Oedipus complex are the phantasies of the mother’s breast and the mother containing the penis of the father, or the father containing the mother. This is the basis of the combined parent figure […] The influence of the combined parent figure on the infant’s ability to differentiate between the parents, and to establish good relations with each of them, is affected by the strength of envy and the intensity of his Oedipus jealousy. For the suspicion that the parents are always getting sexual gratification from one another reinforces the phantasy […] that they are always combined. (In severe cases, the incapacity to disentangle the relation to the father from the one to the mother gives rise to states of confusion). […] When jealousy is experienced (in the Oedipal situation) […] hostile feelings are directed not so much against the primal object but rather against the rivals – father or siblings – […]9

The force of the combined parent figure is so strong that the child, and, later, the neurotic adult, can have difficulty in separating the parents unless he overcomes the Oedipus conflict effectively. According to Klein, the Oedipal conflict begins in the early oral sadistic phase, during the second year of the child’s life, when the child wants to destroy the contents of the mother’s body. In his earliest phantasies of parental coitus, the child imagines the father’s penis incorporated in the mother, so that his sadistic attacks are against both the mother and the father or the combined parent figure that induces fear and anxiety on the child. Later, the envy experienced against the parent of the same sex by the male child, during the Oedipus conflict, is transferred on the siblings and the father, thus causing tension in their relations.

Although the writing of the poem resolved the poet’s intrapersonal conflicts, only partially, through the poem’s textual composition and elaboration, the primal Oedipal situation which Eliot tries to resolve remains unresolved within the larger and more realistic context of The Waste Land. If the text is considered symbolically as a meta-text, then the poet’s implication is that the resolution of the Oedipal conflict is likely to remain unresolved in real life, too.

Tiresias can be considered to be Eliot’s conscious choice for an overt persona while Narcissus is his covert poetic persona remaining on the level of an unconscious allusion. The voyeuristic Narcissus observes himself whereas Tiresias watches at the exhibitionist couple enacting the primal scene.

In “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes”(1915), Freud describes the successive stages of scopophilia or voyeurism, as looking at an external object, and exhibitionism, as being looked at, and displaying oneself to be looked at by another. At first, the scopophilic instinct is narcissistic and auto-erotic : its object is part of one’s own body. Then, this instinct substitutes this object for an analogous part of another person’s body and becomes voyeuristic.10

Analogically, in poetic terms, the subject’s own body represents the poem that, in the manner of Baudelaire’s ‘hypocrite lecteurs’, the voyeur-readers look into while reading. Poets actively display their poetry which represents their body or parts of their body which arouse the audience’s interest. The domineering masculine act of looking, in both cases, would precede the passivity of being looked at. In a chapter entitled “One, Other, Neuter: Narcissistic Values of Sameness”, André Green, after Freud, thinks that the activity of looking is a mirror in itself.

A two-sided mirror […] forming its surface out of bodily sensations and, at the same time, creating its image; but only under the auspices of looking, which enables it to see the form of the similar object. This necessarily introduces the concept of identification, the first form of which is narcissistic. […] The narcissistic organisation was described by Freud in ‘Instincts and their Vicissitudes’ (1915a). It was assumed to intervene before repression, and was defined by two instinctual vicissitudes : the turning round of the instinct on the subject’s own ego and its reversal into its opposite, the combination of which produces a model of double reversal. Identification […] favours desexualisation, bringing about the transformation of object-libido into narcissistic libido in order to save narcissistic integrity threatened by castration anxiety.11

An example of the ironic double reversal that the characters undergo in the poem is the case of Lil, in “A Game of Chess”, who defies love by an abortion, and then, in her depression, turns against herself by neglecting to fix her broken teeth. “It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said. / (She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.) / The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same.” (The Waste Land, ll. 159-161).

Peter Ackroyd thinks that Eliot’s ambivalent relation with Vivienne who accompanied him to Margate and commented on sections of The Waste Land there, is likely to influence our reading of “A Game of Chess”. He suggests that “[…] since the element of artifice and fictional creation must play a large part in the creation of the anxious, harried woman in that section – “What shall I do?” […] both (Eliot and Vivien) possessed a strong theatrical streak and the element of willed drama in their relationship was not entirely negligible.”12 Although they tried to preserve it during Eliot’s major life-crisis in 1921, their marital relation suffered a self-destructive double reversal that Eliot, unconsciusly, transcribed to The Waste Land.

Most of the situations alluded to in The Waste Land are characterised by Green’s double reversal whereby the characters are desexualised; yet, invested with a narcissistic libido seeking immediate satisfaction and aiming to annihilate their spare desire. According to Freud and Green, their motivation is to save their narcissistic integrity, threatened by castration anxiety, from which both the poet and his characters suffer. After Freud, Green states that although the psychological aim is self-preservation, this, ironically, turns against itself in a double reversal and traumatises the ego by fragmenting it.

Eliot transformed his negative narcissism by transposing it to The Waste Land, in which the negative connotations of the poetic text are set against classical allusions that emphasise their ironic discrepancies and represent the double reversals. For instance, the disturbing oedipal character of one of his allusions is clarified through the reference to Shakespeare’s The Tempest with the line, ‘This music crept by me upon the waters’ (l. 257). Here, Eliot not only refers to Ferdinand who is thinking of Alonso, his father, the King of Naples, and his death which did not occur, but to his own father’s death which, in fact, occurred in January 1919:

On a winter evening round behind the gashouse
Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck
And on the king my father’s death before him.     (The Waste Land, ll. 190-193)

Eliot shifts the allusion out of its original context and transposes it to a new context in which it acquires a stronger negative connotation. Through this literary technique of ironic reversal, Eliot accentuates his feelings by juxtaposing two events, the latter personal emotional event carrying the affective weight which the former event from The Tempest lacks. Eliot’s ambiguity in his use of ironic reversal reflects his ambivalence towards an old world order, juxtaposed against his deep-seated guilt feelings, and his own ambivalence against which he defended himself, either by denying his ambivalence through the impersonality of his writing, or by referring, ambiguously, to his literary forefathers who, I suggest, were the symbolic substitutes of his Puritan forefathers. After Freud, who considered castration and mourning as the principal narcissistic wounds, I suggest that Eliot voiced, his narcissistic injuries and his unconscious paternal mourning, through ironic allusions.

Eliot’s psychological instability during the composition of his long poem urged him to revert to literary allusions of his predecessors to clarify, and objectify his feelings during his breakdown. Symbolically, Eliot used his sources in The Waste Land, “in loco parentis”, or in substitution of his good introjected parent(s). The ironic discrepancy between the traditional contents of his sources and those of his poem; the gap between the introjection of his good parents; and the poet’s personal suffering during the poem’s composition, widen the abyss between the Kleinian good and bad breast. As a consequence of his life-crisis, which corresponded to the writing of The Waste Land, and on the bases of his biographical information, we can hypothesize that Eliot split his introjected parents and his ego and projected them into the fragments of the text to defend himself against his fragmentation.

The poem stresses the importance of memory linked with desire, emphasizing the poet’s attempt at affective recollection. The poet qualifies April as “the cruellest month” and associates it with “the lilacs bred out of the dead land” which is, then, transposed into the image of “the dull roots that are stirred with spring rain” in an hypallage.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.     (The Waste Land, ll. 1-4)

Eliot’s association of memory with desire which interconnects myriad memories without any temporal and spatial separations, symbolically stirring dull old roots with the spring rain of renewal, is what Freud, in an article dated 1899, called “Screen Memories”. Freud saw screen memories as transformations of childhood fantasies which can be condensed or projected into other memories or, linked symbolically with future memories as in dream work. A screen memory is made up of what the memory contains and what has been screened off, the latter representing the symbolic content of repressed childhood desires.13

From Freud’s essay one can conclude that poets have strong memories which can interconnect childhood memories and adult memories, and/or recollections, transposed to mental images which they can express with poetic tropes. Poems, thus, can be considered to be the fragmentary transposition of the poet’s uncoonscious screen memories. The “screen memory” would, then, be a “virtual memory” that protects the dangerous eruption of repressed and screened-off memories by making residual positive links and avoiding the negative ones.

[…] the notion of a screen memory (is) one that owes its value as a memory not to its intrinsic content, but to the relation […] between this content and some other, which has been suppressed. […] their main characteristic (is) a high degree of memorability together with a wholly banal content […]Depending on which of these chronological relations holds between the screen and what it screens off, a screen memory can be described as either retrogressive or anticipatory. From another point of view we can distinguish between positive and negative screen memories (or refractory memories), whose content stands in a contrary relation to the suppressed content.14

Our memory functions in interactive hierarchical loops that store information as mental images. Freud calls the child’s screen memories memory images. Screen memories are expressed in poetic images, similes and metaphors in poetry. In T.S. Eliot : A Memoir, Robert Sencourt recounts one of Eliot’s earliest screen memories which might have caused him to feel both his identification with, and his alienation from, his siblings because of the great age difference between them, causing his feelings of sexual ambivalence in his adolescence.

There was a yard which opened on to the girls’ school beside his home and which he found a chance to look round after the girls had gone away. He seemed the only boy who ever invaded these precincts: when he came back as an elderly man, he told them with a laugh that for this reason he was the school’s only alumnus.15

Eliot’s concept of the ‘objective correlative’ has similarities with Freud’s concept of ‘screen memories’. In both concepts, when the external facts which were the stimuli of the subject’s immediate or past perceptual experience are presented, the emotions associated with the experience are evoked. In The Waste Land, Eliot chose the works of his literary predecessors as ‘objective correlatives’ upon which he built the poem’s structure and unity. Eliot had internalized his predecessors’ works to such an extent that, as his concept of the ‘objective correlative’ contends, his own personal emotional perceptions and experiences were evoked by the circumstances described in their works which was a way of maintaining his memory during his life-crisis. One can conclude that poets are able to externalize their emotions by writing about dramatic or poetic situations related to their personal experiences and feelings through ‘objective correlatives’.

As Dr. Trosman stated earlier, poetry can provide a partial resolution to personal narcissistic injury and a partial re-integration of a fragmented self although this does not imply the resolution of the Oedipal conflict in real life. By writing The Waste Land, Eliot transformed his narcissistic injury into a poetic work with unity. This achievement provided him with the partial re-integration of his personality and enabled him to create a new poetry describing man’s depair and the destitution of the modern world through ironic allusions.

In this respect, it is significant that, according to Dr. Trosman, his mother to whom he was very attached

worked with young delinquents, trying to improve the juvenile court system in St. Louis, and she was instrumental in instituting the position of probation officer for dealing with young offenders.

Her main love, however, was writing poetry, and she occasionally published in religious journals of a Unitarian persuasion. At the time of Eliot’s birth, his mother was writing the biography of his paternal grandfather. When it was published in 1904 the dedication read, ‘written for my children “Lest they forget.”’ Indeed, throughout his youth the boy continued to feel the presence of this dead grandfather (a prominent minister who served as the president of Washington University for 15 years) whose rules of conduct were the precepts of the household.16

The psychoanalytical implications of his mother’s activity as a probation officer foreshadow her own son as a symbolic future delinquent, feeling unconsciously guilty for having rebelled against the Puritan code of conduct when he abandoned his family and his future role as a professor of philosophy at Harvard. The gravity of Eliot’s broken memories which were caused by his breakdown and, later, transposed into the fragmentation of The Waste Land, is given a psychiatric explanantion by Dr. Trosman :

As a child, he was deprived and distanced from parents who were preoccupied and older siblings who had little to give. He felt isolated and uncomfortable in his ill-fitting masculinity. […] It is likely that during periods of regressive isolation, unacceptable homosexual object interests were activated. Such longings to which he responded with horror and panic, were transformed into aesthetic sublimations or dandyism. […] Eliot’s tolerance for and complicity in Vivienne’s affair with Russell suggested an unresolved oedipal tie and a need to placate a sexually aggressive father surrogate. Vivienne’s incipient psychosis aggravated fears of narcissistic omnipotence and destructiveness.17

Dr. Trosman states that by the end of December 1918, doctors had diagnosed him with stress due to overwork in the foreign sector of Lloyds Bank and his literary activity after his job, and asked him not to write for six months. Yet, his father’s death, in January 1919, reinforced his plans to write a long poem which was to become The Waste Land to prove to himself that he had not wasted his life as his father thought he had. On December 18, 1919, he mentioned his New Year’s resolution in a letter to his mother : “to write a long poem I have had on my mind for a long time and to prepare a small prose book from my lecture on poetry."18

The future book which became The Waste Land symbolised the patriarchal logos handed down to him by his father and his Puritan forefathers and represented the poet’s sublimation of his unconscious need to appease his domineering father. The re-activation of Eliot’s regressive latent homosexuality, to which he unconsciously reverted when he felt emotionally aggressed, was unconsciously due to his growing isolation, the deterioration of his marital relation, to Russell’s betrayal with his wife, and to the underlying invasive guilt caused by these factors.

In a chapter called “A New England Student”, Lyndall Gordon quotes Henry Ware Sr.’s citation from an autographed letter to Thomas Lamb Eliot, T.S. Eliot’s uncle, dated March 7, 1914, tracing back Eliot’s early inhibition to

[…] possibly his father’s view of sex as ‘nastiness’. Henry Ware Sr. considered public instruction tantamount to giving children a letter of introduction to the Devil. Syphilis was God’s punishment and he hoped a cure would never be found. Otherwise, he said, it might be necessary ‘to emasculate our children to keep them clean.'19

Eliot was castrated by his father’s strict puritanism at a very early stage of his childhood that gave him a deep castration complex, psychologically based on the young boy’s femininity complex. In her paper called “The Early Stages of the Oedipus Conflict” (1928), Melanie Klein traces the boy’s castration complex to his femininity complex and his later ambivalence to the internalized combined parent figure. Eliot’s nervous breakdown in 1921 was due to the re-activation of these repressed childhood conflicts.

As in the castration complex of girls, so in the femininity complex of the male, there is at bottom the frustrated desire for a special organ. The tendencies to […] destroy are concerned with (the mother’s sexual organs) […] The boy fears punishment for his destruction of his mother’s body […] He fears that his body will be mutilated and dismembered, and this dread also means castration. Here we have a direct contribution to the castration complex. In this early period of development, the mother who takes away the child’s faeces signifies also a mother who dismembers and castrates him. […] The destructive tendencies whose object is the womb are also directed with their full oral and anal-sadistic intensity against the father’s penis, which is supposed to be located there (and which gives rise to the internalized image of the combined parent). It is upon the penis that the dread of castration by the father is focused in this phase. […] In the boy’s development the femininity phase is succeeded by a prolonged struggle between the pregenital and the genital positions of the libido. When at its height, in the third to the fifth year of life, this struggle is plainly recognizable as the Oedipus conflict. The anxiety associated with the femininity phase drives the boy back to identification with the father; […] the dread of castration by the father strengthens the fixation to the anal-sadistic levels. […] Thus the attainment of complete potency and reaching the genital position will in part depend upon the favourable issue of the femininity phase.20

Eliot’s nervous breakdown in 1921 was partially due to the re-activation of his repressed childhood conflicts which was further aggravated by his melancholia after his father’s death in 1919. According to Dr. Trosman, “the death left him overwhelmed with guilt over his ambivalence”21 and after the visits of his mother (aged 77 at the time), his brother and sister from America in 1921, Eliot entered a deep depression until he had to undergo a rest-cure in Margate and then psychotherapy with Dr. Roger Vittoz in Lausanne in the same year. Eliot’s depression was described as aboulie or mental lethargy and lack of volition by Dr. Vittoz whose treatment consisted in “cerebral reeducation” of his patients by asking them to perform simple tasks, like visualisations of geometric figures or images, and/or simple mathematical problems, which became more complex until the patient could master his mental functions and reintegrate his ego.

Psychoanalytically, Eliot’s choice of a poetic career, much to the despair of his father, can be interpreted as his wish to follow in his mother’s footsteps to compensate in his own life for what she had not been able to attain in hers. Through his vision of poetry writing as an expiation and a purification of the soul, especially during his life-crises, in which, in his self-fragmentation, he projected the split-off, introjected parts of his personality upon the world, Eliot, like all poets, partially restituted his m(other) and father.

In a letter written to his brother, Henry Eliot, on February 27, 1919, on the news of his father’s death, Eliot voices his father’s idea of success as a “domestic citizenship” rather than the literary success that Eliot was aiming at: “Now, I find that I think more of his own youthful possibilities that never came to anything: and yet with a great deal of satisfaction; his old-fashioned scholarship! His flute-playing, his drawing. Two of the Cats that I have seem to me quite remarkable. I feel that both he and mother in spite of the strength of their affection were lonely people, and that he was the more lonely of the two, that he hardly knew himself what he was like. In my experience everyone except the fools seem to me warped or stunted.”22

The unconscious manner in which the parents influence their children was studied clinically by the Genevan psychoanalysts, Juan Manzano, F. Palacio Espasa, and Nathalie Zilkha in Les scénarios narcissiques de la parentalité, (1999). They formulated their concept of “narcissistic parental scenarios” after Freud’s concept of narcissism (1914) according to which the child becomes the recipient of his parent’s infantile narcissism which the parent had renounced for himself. Manzano, Espasa, and Zilkha’s concept is based on parental projections and identifications as parents and adolescents interact in a clinical situation during a brief period of time.

For Freud, the love of the parents for their children is only their newly born narcissism, or the love for themselves. Later, he specifies this notion in terms of the ego-ideal: the parents would place upon their child their proper ego-ideal (what they would have wanted to be) with which the child would identify, making it, in turn, his own ideal which, as an adult, he would project upon his own child; […] [these unconscious scenarios] can take many forms and we can find them […] in the situation of the father who sees in his son, the image of the all-powerful ideal child he wanted to be, identifying with him and with the ideal father he would have equally wanted. […] More precisely, parental projection on the child is a projective identification. In fact, it is the parent’s self-representation which is projected on the child, and, hence, invested with a narcissistic libido; this self-representation is either projected directly […] – like the ideal child the father wanted him to be […] or through the internalized image of someone as in the example of the image of the mother’s deceased father […] (with whom she had identified). Due to this fact, even if the projection on the child corresponds to an objectal image, it, necessarily, entails a selfrepresentation, and, hence, is of narcissistic nature. […] (Those) who consult us (are those who do not want to be) the “shadow of their parents or of their internalized objects”, for their accommodation to parental projections poses developmental problems and their adaptation to the external world.[…]23

In the conflicts aroused by the narcissistic injuries caused by the parents, poetry can provide a partial resolution for the personal injury and a partial reintegration of a fragmented self. One can, therefore, deduce, that poetry can symbolise states of deep conflict and offer a partial resolution to self-fragmentation without resolving entirely the Oedipal conflict in and through the poetic text.

In “The Three Voices of Poetry” (1953), Eliot stated that poetry, for him, was the exorcism of the soul. In the following passage of this essay, he says that if one interprets a poem through bibliographical or psychological data, the result of the interpretation will be something new altogether. Thus, a poem’s psychoanalytical interpretation allows the critic to delve more into the making of the poem and, as a result, enables him to discover a new interpretation which also adds depth understanding of the poem:

You can read the essays of Paul Valéry, who studied the workings of his own mind in the composition of a poem more perseveringly than any other has done. But if, either on the basis of what poets try to tell you, or by biographical research, with or without the tools of the psychologist, you attempt to explain a poem, you will probably be getting further and further away from the poem without arriving at any other destination. […] What I am maintaining is, that the first effort of the poet should be to achieve clarity for himself, to assure himself that the poem is the right outcome of the process that has taken place. The most bungling form of obscurity is that of the poet who has not been able to express himself to himself; the shoddiest form is found when the poet is trying to persuade himself that he has something to say when he hasn’t.24

The psychoanalytical interpretation allows us to understand how a poet explains himself to himself. Eliot associates the clarity that the poet achieves for himself with the poet’s acknowledgement that his poem is not only the result but the right result of the creative process that the poet has gone through. One of Eliot’s lifelong concerns has been to attain the right feeling in life’s trials and finding the right words for the right feeling in his poetry.25

In the process of writing a poem, Eliot thinks that the poet clarifies his “obscure impulse” for himself. The psychoanalytical interpretations which I have chosen to highlight in The Waste Land relate the poet’s “obscure impulse” to his childhood and to his life experience in order to see how he has created a poem to “exorcise his demons”. And, as Eliot states, the result of this interrelation and interpretation generated a poetic innovation as in The Waste Land.

Thus, both Dr. Trosman and T.S. Eliot thought that the sublimation of mental conflict and anxiety could produce poetry. In his conclusion to The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1934), written on March 31st 1933, T.S. Eliot wrote about the interconnectedness between illness and poetry writing:

That there is an analogy between mystical experience and some of the ways in which poetry is written I do not deny; […] some forms of ill-health, debility or anaemia, may (if other circumstances are favourable) produce an efflux of poetry in a way approaching the condition of automatic writing – though, in contrast to the claims sometimes made for the latter, the material has obviously been incubating with the poet, and cannot be suspected of being a present from a friendly or impertinent demon. What one writes in this way may succeed in standing the examination of a more normal state of mind; it gives me the impression, […] of having undergone a long incubation, though we do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on. To me it seems that these moments, which are characterised by the sudden lifting of the burden of anxiety and fear which presses upon our daily life so steadily that we are unaware of it, what happens is something negative: that is of strong habitual barriers – which tend to re-form very quickly. Some obstruction is momentarily whisked away. The accompanying feeling is less like what we know as positive pleasure, than a sudden relief from an intolerable burden. […] (Mystical experience) is a vision which may be accompanied by the realisation that you will not be able to recall it to yourself; (poetry) is not a vision but a motion terminating in an arrangement of words on paper.26

In the essay, Eliot, like Green and the mystics, associates poetry writing with a symbolic death, involving a process of self-negation. He uses the metaphor of the incubation of a mysterious egg by the poet’s mind to describe poetic creation. This process can be interpreted as the repressed anxiety and fear which the poet’s mind sublimates and ‘re-creates’ into poetry after having lifted his unconscious defences to establish a direct contact with his unconscious which can be elaborated, into poetry and its symbolism, through the preconcious faculties. For Eliot, writing poetry, after experiencing anxiety, was like the lifting of a burden that relieved his tormented soul. His sublimation enabled him to write with a neutral persona, which I call the poetic “virtuality” or impersonality. I suggest that “Virtuality” is a defense against narcissistic trauma and the ambivalence springing from it and is manifested by the poets’ shifting and combined personae in poetry.

Yet, Eliot also emphasises the importance of conscious elaboration in poetry writing. As he sublimated his narcissistic trauma, Eliot’s virtuality changed as did his internalisation processes. Eliot’s incapacity to objectify his emotions during his major life-crises drove him to gradually shed his personal defenses, in a morbid process, as he describes it, until he reached a neutrality of the self through which he could write about the taboos and trespasses of the human soul with an acquired objectivity as if he were living vicariously the experience himself while maintaining the right distance from it.

Eliot’s psychobiographers, Dr. Trosman and L. Gordon, suggest that he had inhibitions in his childhood which he, later, developed into successful sublimations. Klein concludes that successful repression and sublimation are the result of the investment of the ego instincts, such as self-preservation and the need for love, with libidinal energy accompanied by inhibitive self-control. After Klein, I concluded that the Oedipal conflict can be transformed into creativity if the child avoids the negative inhibitions of the castration complex, such as the treatment of pavor nocturnus, that is a manifestation of Oedipal castration and fear.

Through her case studies such as that of thirteen year old Felix, in “Early Analysis”, included in Love, Guilt, and Reparation, Klein concluded that the treatment of the child’s primal scene phantasies and his criticism of the parental genital activities were essential for the development of his talents. After treatment, Felix became a member of an orchestra and a composer on the basis of what he witnessed and the sounds he heard in the primal scene. He became his own good parent.

Another significant conclusion of this paper is that poetry can evoke and can be based on our original fears and traumatic experiences, activated by screen memories, that are, in turn, re-activated by real life-experiences. Accordingly, the taboo of witnessing parental coitus deflects the the child’s voyeuristic instinct which is, then, transformed into the desire for knowledge, for exploration, and symbolisation which are essential for sublimation. After Freud and Klein, I emphasize the creative child’s close attachment to his mother, his consciousness of the Oedipal taboo, and his capacity for sublimation and reparation as significant characteristics of creativity.

My general conclusions are based on the following interrelated premisses that refer to the unconscious primary processes that I relate with creativity:

  1. After Green, the poets’ sublimated negative primary narcissism is a deathdrive against which poets defend themselves by writing with an impersonal persona which I term “virtuality”.
  2. I term the poets’ impersonality “virtuality”. It arises from their narcissistic trauma and is a defence against their ambivalence through their shifting, albeit combined personae. The poets’ virtuality undergoes changes in relation with their internalisation processes.
  3. In Kleinian terms, both poetry and children’s play are based on projective identification, personalisation, and symbol-formation. They are the result of sublimated narcissistic trauma which has undergone reparation.
  4. Poets often revert to multiple combined personae to objectify and resolve their intrapsychical conflicts and to write symbolically about transgression with their impersonal personae. Conflict resolution and ego integration are attained by writing partially only.

This paper considers poetic sublimation, defined as the transformation of repressed instinctual energy into a poetic text, as the main psychodynamic of poetic creation. I conclude that poets sublimate their narcissistic trauma and their repressed negative narcissism into poetry. If we take the poet’s psychobiography into consideration, the psychoanalytic significance of the poem is enriched with biographical fact mixed with affectivity. As a consequence, we become better readers of poetry. After his mental re-education with Dr. Vittoz, Eliot became more conscious of the interrelation between psychology and poetry.

The ultimate purpose of this paper is to suggest that poetry is the proper medium through which narcissistic trauma can be symbolised through writing. Through the poet’s psychobiography, the psychoanalytical reading of poetry can give us insights into the primary and secondary psychoanalytical processes like primary narcissism, negative narcissism, the primal scene, the Oedipal conflict, and their symbolisation, enabling us to analyse the psychodynamics of sublimation in poetry.


  1. Trosman, Archives of General Psychiatry, 30 (May 1974) : 717.   // back
  2. T.S. Eliot, Selected Essays (London : Faber and Faber, 1999), p. 145.   // back
  3. André Green, Life Narcissism, Death Narcissism trans. by Andrew Weller (London: Free Association Books, 2001), p.105.   // back
  4. Ibid., 2001, p. 126.   // back
  5. T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot (London: Book Club Associates by arrangement with Faber and Faber, 1977), p. 68. Further references will be given with the line numbers.   // back
  6. Ibid., 1977, p. 605.   // back
  7. Green, 2001, p. 149.   // back
  8. Ibid., 2001, p. 27.   // back
  9. Melanie Klein, Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946-1963 (London : Vintage Books, 1997), pp. 196-197.   // back
  10. Sigmund Freud, The Origins of Religion (London: Penguin Books, 1990), Vol. 13, pp. 72-73. In Totem and Taboo (1913), Freud defines one of the functions of ‘taboo’ after N.W. Thomas in Encyclopaedia Britannica as “the guarding of the chief acts of life – birth, initiation, marriage and sexual functions against interference. The punishment for the violation of a taboo was no doubt originally left to an internal, automatic agency: the violated taboo itself took vengeance. Thus the earliest human penal systems can be traced back to taboo. ‘The violation of a taboo makes the offender himself taboo…’ Certain of the dangers brought into existence by the violation may be averted by acts of atonement and purification.” The pertinent analogical implications as to the writing of The Waste Land as Eliot’s purification from his parental guilt and that of Vivien and the trespass of the taboo in the primal scene as a primal cause of the land’s destruction is clarified through this reference.   // back
  11. Green, 2001, p. 11.   // back
  12. Peter Ackroyd, T.S. Eliot (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984), p. 114.   // back
  13. Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny ed. by Hugh Haughton (London: Penguin Books, 2003), p.19.   // back
  14. Ibid., 2003, p.19.   // back
  15. Robert Sencourt, T.S. Eliot : A Memoir, ed. Donald Adamson (London: Garnstone Press, 1971), p. 18.   // back
  16. Trosman, Archives of General Psychiatry, 30 (May 1974) : 709-710.   // back
  17. Ibid., 1974, p. 713.   // back
  18. TSE Letters, Vol. 1, p. 151.   // back
  19. Lyndall Gordon, Eliot’s Early Years (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 27.   // back
  20. Melanie Klein, Love, Guilt and Reparation and Other Works 1921-1945 (London: Vintage Books, 1998), pp. 190-192.   // back
  21. Trosman, Archives of General Psychiatry, 30 (May 1974) : 713.   // back
  22. TSE Letters, Vol. 1, p. 273.   // back
  23. Juan Manzano, Palacio F. Espasa, Nathalie Zilkha, Les Scénarios Narcissiques de la Parentalité, Paris: (Presses Universitaires de France, 1999), pp. 4-6 & 9. On p. 8, the authors define narcissism in the Kleinian sense of secondary narcissism: “The existence of an object-representation of another person which becomes one’s proper self through introjective and projective identification phantasies and which can, thus, totally or partially erase the limits between oneself and the object.” Translated from French by me.   // back
  24. T.S. Eliot, On Poetry and Poets (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1957), pp.98-99.   // back
  25. Since mere coincidence does not exist in psychoanalysis, it is interesting to note that The Waste Land was published as a book on December 15, 1922 by Boni and Liveright in New York. (Source: TSE Letters, Vol. I).   // back
  26. T.S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (London: Faber and Faber, 1937), p. 144-145.   // back

    Ackroyd, Peter. T.S. Eliot (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1984)

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    EMILY BILMAN is London’s Poetry Society Stanza representative and hosts poetry meetings and seminars in her home in Geneva. Her poetry book in French is entitled La rivière de soi. Her poems have been published in The London Magazine, Hunger Mountain, Offshoots VII & XII, Orbis, Poetry Salzburg Review, and Iodine ; in America The San Diego Annual 2014 and Aois 21 Annual ; The Inspired Heart Vols. 1, 2 & 3, and Ygdrasil in Canada. Two academic books, The Psychodynamics of Poetry and Modern Ekphrasis were published in 2010 and 2013. Her most recent poetry books are A Woman By A Well and Resilience. The reviews can be read on the Troubador/Matador UK website and at http://www.mciwritershouse.com/emily-bilman.html.