April is the month when T.S. Eliot is most often remembered thanks to his flattering description of it as the “cruellest month” in The Waste Land. But September is actually the month when it all began — Thomas Stearns Eliot was born on September 26, 1888, in St. Louis, Missouri. He had a contested relationship with his American heritage: when he was 25, he left for England, where he stood out like a sore thumb among the Bloomsbury intellectuals presided over by Virginia Woolf, who never missed a chance to poke fun at his Americanness, at least in private. Here is Woolf writing in her diary on November 21, 1918: “I was interrupted somewhere on this page by the arrival of Mr Eliot. Mr Eliot is well expressed by his name—a polished, cultivated, elaborate young American, talking so slow, that each word seems to have special finish allotted it.”But Eliot knew how to play the game, forestalling mockery by caricaturing himself.
Irony and self-deprecating humour became his style: anguish is routinely undercut by sarcasm in his work. When critics praised The Waste Land for voicing the collective disappointment of a generation, Eliot punctured them by saying: “I may have expressed for them their illusion of being disillusioned, but that was not my intention.” The Waste Land is strewn with images of brown fog and scampering rats, but a jittery strain of laughter also runs through it, offering a different take.
Perhaps the most colourful figure in The Waste Land is Madame Sosostris, the celebrated Tarot-card reader, who has a “bad cold”. The thought of the common flu affecting the famous clairvoyante immediately lightens the grimness. Madam Sosostris probably harks back to Aldous Huxley's satirical novel Crome Yellow, where Mr. Scogan cross-dresses as an old fortune-teller called Sesostris, who foresees a war even as he/she tries to arrange a tryst with a young girl. The themes of war, destruction and sex flow into The Waste Land as does the fact that Sesostris, as a clairvoyante of indeterminate gender, is a diminished version of Tiresias the prophet, a central figure of The Waste Land, who has lived through the ages both as man and woman and possesses the gift of prophecy.
Madame Sosostris/Tiresias is a nod to the poet who, in his wisdom, can look into the future. Great minds are also androgynous, as Coleridge and Woolf declared. Anti-climactically, the modern poet, pent up in polluted London, suffers from bad colds (Eliot always had a delicate constitution) and the physical manifestations of his psychological androgyny can make him a butt of jokes. Here is the inimitable Woolf, writing in her diary about Eliot in 1922: “I am not sure that he does not paint his lips.” Such ‘sightings’ added grist to the rumour that Eliot was homosexual, fearing women and loving men, especially the young French medical officer Jean Verdenal, whose death in the Great War is lamented deeply in The Waste Land.
Eliot’s alter ego, the Prufockian man characterised by timidity and overthinking, reappears in The Waste Land in what seems like a dramatic exchange between a frantic woman and her male partner, who sits blankly, much to her chagrin. Is he shellshocked or has he just zoned out in the face of her tirade? He clings on to sanity by enumerating the quotidian: “The hot water at ten./ And if it rains, a closed car at four”, which, in its banality, echoes Prufrock’s “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”. If this is funny, it is decidedly laughter in the dark, but the image of the effete husband being bullied by his hyper wife can also be from a silly marriage joke.
In his later years, Eliot became this revered figure of Anglo-American letters whose celebrity would match that of an Instagram influencer today. The sprightly persona of the younger Eliot who, in his bowler hat and four-piece suit, smirked at the world and himself, receded behind this larger-than-life image of the poet-prophet whose private life was a closed book. It is only in the last decade or so, when collections of Eliot’s letters are being published, that details of his life are coming to light. Such as that he had a very happy marriage with his second wife Valerie, went on long holidays with her on the seaside (with the bottom of his trousers rolled, hopefully), thought of taking up dancing again in his old age and wrote a poem on her beginning, “I know a nice girl named Valeria / Who has a delicious posterior”.
While an overwhelming interest in a writer’s private life is unhealthy, a bit of iconoclasm brings some balance, especially if the writer has been venerated to petrifaction. And Eliot invites irreverence. After all, he is also the author of the cat poems, the creator of the feline crimelord Macavity, who can miraculously disappear behind his deeds, leaving everyone desperately searching for clues.