The Michaelian
the michaelian

issue two: december 2010


Ed Madden. Tiresian Poetics: Modernism, Sexuality, Voice, 1888-2001 Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, Associated University Presses, 2008, 402 pages. Hardback.
ISBN 0838639372 66.00/US$80.00.

Reviewed by John McRae


“There is something very queer about Tiresias” is the first sentence of this book. The name of Tiresias, the blind seer most widely known as a character in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex has been imbued with mystery, a “liminal identity” Ed Madden calls it, where even his (trans)sexuality is brought to bear leading to a “crossing of epistemological boundaries” such that “Tiresias has come to function as a kind of ambiguous cultural shorthand for variant or deviant sexualities.”

Whether or not this shorthand is actually necessary or even desirable is not questioned in this book: it is simply taken as read that Tiresias is a useful metaphor (or shorthand) which opens up a range of critical insights. Madden applies this shorthand to an exciting range of texts: The Waste Land is the most obvious one, one of many in which Tiresias actually appears. He also discusses very well indeed a range of texts from Michael Field to Djuna Barnes and Austin Clarke.

These are not the most widely studied of modern voices, but the “Tiresian poetic” which allows Madden to bring them together is an approach to the expression of sexuality in a post-Foucauldian context.

The range of texts he analyses,  together with the cross-references and allusions make for a truly stimulating intellectual journey, taking us through more than a century of writing, several countries and genres, to the post-AIDS generation, where the ambiguities and uncertainties take on new shapes and need new voices.

Throughout, the notion of youth leading age, of Oedipus led by a boy, of wisdom being redefined through experiment and experience, informs the journey, as does a wide range of sexual indeterminacy.

The opening chapter, “Sexing the voice,” seems at first in some ways the most predictable, but it turns out to be in other ways properly innovative: it moves from Ovid all the way through centuries and genres as far as gay pornographic fiction in its search for “penetrating voices” and effectively redefines what “voice” means and how we read the feminine/feminizing. He successfully debunks a lot of traditional concepts of voice and reading, making quite excellent use of Sandor Ferenczi’s 1915 study “Psychogenic Anomalies of Voice Production” and moving between classical and popular culture with ease and panache.

This allows him a neat and smooth passage into discussion of the “voice(s)” of Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper, whom we know and cherish for their writings as “Michael Field.” This gives Madden the opportunity to locate “something faintly threatening to Victorian male subjectivity” if not indeed “alien” in the widely handled Tiresias theme (he cites Browning, Matthew Arnold, Swinburne and Tennyson), because of its female to male movement. He is at pains to underline the fact that, in Michael Field’s work, “Tiresias is a figure of difference and figuration, not of sexual identity”, a point which in various guises, will recur throughout the whole project.

This is an exceedingly important chapter, which deserves to redefine many of the discourses of difference used in the discussion of Michael Field’s writings. Whether or not we agree with the conclusion that “Bradley and Cooper have strategically and poetically refigured Tiresias as an effeminate gay man” I imagine there will be some consensus that theirs is “a striking cultural validation of homosexuality at a moment it was becoming increasingly pathologized” (107).

T.S. Eliot uses Tiresias, in the most noted instance of his appearances in twentieth century writing, as emblematically “between two lives.” Madden makes this the centre of his project and devotes two excellent chapters to the between-ness and lost-ness of voices in (and out of) The Waste Land. His initial focus on Frasca in Chapter 4 is the most refreshing excursus I have read on Eliot in a long time, and if that comes across as more engaging than the actual handling of Tiresias in Chapter 3 the author only has his own originality to blame. He puts a stress in these chapters on “reading differently” and goes well beyond the bodily preoccupations many critics have chosen to occupy themselves with in his analysis of the poem. Tiresias as “voice-over” is a fascinating and pleasing reading of the character and its (and the poet’s ) role inside and outside the poem.

“Sexual meanings” is the title of Chapter 3, but in fact could be a subtitle for most of the book. Madden’s reading of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, (1936), and in particular of the character Dr Matthew O’Connor, is rather obsessed with urination and its Freudian implications. Male urination might be seen here, he suggests “as a counterdiscourse to the master narratives of history” (176). Pissing our lives away, as it were.

The trouble here, in my view, is that although the character in question fulfils all the Tiresian requirements and then some (homosexual, transvestite gynaecologist in drag), in this chapter the text is chosen to fit the theoretical argument rather than a highly interesting theory being applied successfully to a text full of sexual ambiguity. Why not move sideways to someone like D.H. Lawrence or any number of other writers who touch upon not dissimilar themes of sexual ambiguity? (Although we can imagine Lawrence’s horror at Madden’s handling of circumcision and masturbation later in this chapter!)

Madden’s later discussion, indeed celebration, of Austin Clarke’s 1971 long poem entitled “Tiresias” goes far beyond Beckett’s teasing dismissal of the poet as “Austin Ticklepenny” in Murphy. He makes here the vital point of differentiating between an author’s sexuality, putative or known, and the voices of the texts. In fact, he goes so far beyond that level of “gossip in Dublin” as to “demonstrate how homoerotic anxieties are specifically linked to Irish cultural nationalism and to forms of cultural production” (220).

This is probably the most controversial part of Madden’s whole project, but his points are well made. The writings of William Sharp (aka Fiona Macleod) are brought in too earlier on, but I am surprised that Yeats is mentioned so little in all the examinations of Irishness and Irish writing. Voice, identity, sexuality and gender uncertainty are at the heart of all this analysis, and it is hardly a surprise that we reach Chapter 7 to find the chapter title is “Queer and Confused.” Confusion, in the form of lack of confidence in sexual/gender identity has been the scab that Madden has picked at through all the texts he has examined. There is a degree of prurience in this, in seeing where the garment gapes and where possible “revelations” become visible, but this is what such sexually focused criticism must do.

The ending of the whole argument sees “Tiresias as a central, visionary speaker, though only in the conditional tense” (279). That conditional, although based solely on the final text examined, the 1994 play At the Root, by Linda Eisenstein, is almost humorously appropriate: the whole discussion is a conditional one. It is one whose value will be in allowing discourses of difference to be expressed in more resonant ways, whose readings open up hitherto poorly explored regions of difference, and whose stance cannot be ignored in future discussions, especially of Michael Field and of The WasteLand.

Notes, bibliography and index take up 120 pages of the book, which is an indication of the impressive amount of research Madden has brought together here.  I am surprised he has not made rather more direct use of Patrick O’Donnell’s 1992 classic Echo Chambers: figuring voice in modern narrative, but the range of his reading and references in both the creative and scientific fields is constantly exciting, and the way he uses that range of reading is always to the point, appropriate and illuminating. He carries his considerable learning lightly and manages largely to eschew the jargon of much recent work on gender and sexuality. The 66 pages of Notes are vastly entertaining and informative just in themselves, which is the sign of an academic writer at ease with his subject and with joy to spare and share.

This is an exemplary piece of work. It is very well written (which is sufficiently unusual as to be remarkable in this field); it is not always easy: many of its arguments are challenging and will remain controversial; but its approach to gender(s) and discourse(s) is a major step forward, and the case is well argued throughout. As a contribution to the studies of the authors it handles, perhaps especially Michael Field, it may or may not be seen as changing the landscape, but it will be certainly be seen as a major landmark in that landscape.

John McRae
University of Nottingham