by Jonathan Vold

Saturday, April 30

Sometimes And Always

From my 1990 journals

Ideas, sparks abound; sometimes it seems like I could write all day long. I’m sure I’ve picked the proper direction at such sometimes; I’m positive then that I am a writer. But these sparks and ideas are all very much in their infant stages. I’m learning that I’ve got a lot to learn. Things don’t just flow from head to lead. The sparks fizzle more than they catch, and even when they seem to catch there are countless steps to the blazing success I dream of, countless steps past the few combusted embers I’ve managed to produce. I do like the ideas, though, while they sparkle and catch and smoke; even at these minor stages of combustion, I like what can be done with words, and I have to stop and appreciate what God allows me.

I’ve finished a rough draft of a story. It’s not great, and really it’s not very good, but I have a certain pride, a certain good feeling that I will never apologize for, because the spark has caught and filled five pages, 1,200 words. If it’s kind of an ambiguous fire, or a somewhat lifeless fire (and my story is all of these, I will be told), I will still have my good feeling and I will still thank God, because there is a flame where once was only a spark, and there was a spark where once was nothing at all.

That “certain pride,” by the way, is not just pride about what I have personally done. Maybe I don’t even have to say this, but I used the word... maybe the better word is fascination, about what I can do.  Yes.  God, thank you.

I will still work to improve the current story, because there is ambiguity and lifelessness and pointlessness and a lack of depth. Maybe I’ll work at it and never get it right, but that’s all right, because I’ve got other ideas after this one....

Sometimes it seems like I could write all day long —but thank you God, sometimes and always.


And then some days I don’t feel like writing at all.

Friday, April 29

TWL, Lines 43-59: A Wicked Pack Of Cards

43     Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
44     Had a bad cold, nevertheless
45     Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
46     With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
47     Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
48     (Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
49     Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
50     The lady of situations.
51     Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
52     And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
53     Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
54   Which I am forbidden to see.  I do not find
55   The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
56     I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
57     Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
58     Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
59     One must be so careful these days.

43. MADAME SOSOSTRIS: See Aldous Huxley, Crome Yellow, 27 (1921), introducing Sesostris, the Sorceress of Ecbatana, a transvestite palm-reader who predicted the manner of clients’ deaths and ended sessions with an abrupt “Thank you.”

Huxley’s influence on Eliot has been disputed, but the coincidence is still remarkable.

44. A BAD COLD: See Flamineo's dying words in John Webster, White Devil 5.6.311-313 (1612), a play about moral corruption:

“I have caught
An everlasting cold; I have lost my voice
Most irrecoverably. Farewell, glorious villains.
This busy trade of life appears most vain,
Since rest breeds rest, where all seek pain by pain.
Let no harsh flattering bells resound my knell;
Strike, thunder, and strike loud, to my farewell!    [Dies]”

The thunder theme will be picked up in Part V.

45. THE WISEST WOMAN IN EUROPE: See E. M. Arndt, Sketches of Swedish History, The Foreign Quarterly Review, Vol. 63, Art. II (October 1843): In 1796 at the age of 17, Swedish King Gustav IV Adolf “outwitted the wisest woman in Europe, the Czarina Catherine of Russia” by calling off his engagement to her granddaughter Alexandra just as the royal engagement party had begun, because she refused to convert from Russian orthodoxy to Lutheranism. This irritated Catherine, and she died of a stroke two months later.  Compare Queen Dido’s banquet at note 92.  See also note 307 for Augustine’s experience at Carthage, also begun at the age of 17.  Czarina Catherine, also known as Catherine the Great, was otherwise known to be an enlightened empress who ruled calmly yet effectively, traits often associated with the Empress Card in the Tarot deck (see note 46).

46. TAROT CARDS: Eliot: “I am not familiar with the exact constitution of the Tarot pack of cards, from which I have obviously departed to suit my own convenience. The Hanged Man, a member of the traditional pack, fits my purpose in two ways: because he is associated in my mind with the Hanged God of Frazer, and because I associate him with the hooded figure in the passage of the disciples to Emmaus in Part V. The Phoenician Sailor and the  Merchant appear later; also the ‘crowds of people,’ and Death by Water is executed in Part IV. The Man  with Three Staves (an authentic member of the Tarot pack) I associate, quite arbitrarily, with the Fisher King himself.”

The Tarot deck makes an extended appearance at lines 43-59. See notes 47-57 for specific explanations of the cards referenced by Eliot, and see also notes 209 and 311.5.  Tarot cards alluded to in this section include the Queen of Cups (note 47), the Three of Wands, or Staves (note 51), The Six of Pentacles, or Pentangles (note 52), the King of Cups (note 55), and three of the trump cards: The Wheel of Fortune (note 51), the Hanged Man (note 55) and the Empress (note 45).  See also Weston, From Ritual to Romance 2, comparing the Tarot suits and those of our modern deck of cards to symbols of the Grail legend: “Cup (Chalice, or Goblet)–Hearts.  Lance (Wand, or Sceptre)– Diamonds. Sword– Spades.  Dish (Circles, or Pentangles, the form varies)–Clubs.”

One of the most popular versions of the Tarot deck is the Rider deck, developed in 1909 by William Rider & Sons at the direction of Arthur Edward Waite, another American born English poet who lived in London in the early to mid nineteen hundreds. The Rider deck, exceptional for having illustrations on all of its 78 cards and not just the 22 trump cards, was sold with an explanation pamphlet titled A. E. Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (1910).

47. YOUR CARD is related to the drowned Phoenician sailor but is not otherwise identified.  However, see the fortune-teller’s final admonition at line 55, and see note 55 for further consideration of “your card.”

48. PEARLY EYES: See also line 125, and see Shakespeare, Tempest 1.2.399.

50. THE LADY OF SITUATIONS: See Arthur Edward Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (1910): The Queen of Cups is a “beautiful” woman, or belladonna, who sits at the water’s edgewith rocks at her feet. Reversed (rotated 180̊), she is a woman not to be trusted, a femme fatale.  Belladonna is also the scientific  term for the poisonous nightshade plant. Visually, this card aligns with Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna of the Rocks (a/k/a Lady of the Rocks, 1486); see Tarot Deck: Queen of Cups, William Rider & Sons (1909).

Leonardo Da Vinci,
Madonna of the Rocks (1486)

Tarot Deck: Queen of Cups, 
William Rider & Sons (1909)

51. THE MAN WITH THREE STAVES: See Waite, Tarot: The Three of Wands shows a “calm, stately personage, with his back turned, looking from a cliff's edge at ships passing over the sea.” He has three staves and is called the “merchant prince.”  Compare the merchant introduced as a separate card, at line 52.

THE WHEEL: See Waite, Tarot: The Wheel of Fortune card represents cycles of change, e.g., winter to spring.  See also the wheel being turned at line 320.

52. THE ONE-EYED MERCHANT. See Waite, Tarot: The Six of Pentacles shows the one-eyed profile of a merchant giving coins to those around him.  He represents gratification and vigilance, and is “one who must not be relied on.” Compare the Smyrna merchant at line 208, and see note 219 for a spectrum of perceptiveness.

53. THE BLANK CARD, not part of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck (note 50), is an extra card that says nothing or at least shows nothing that the card reader can see.  This would seem to describe the fraudulent “clairvoyance” of Madame Sosostris herself, a fortune teller who cries out “Look!” but fails to see beyond the crowds of people around her (lines 54-56, 60); contrast this with Tiresias, who is blind yet foresuffers (see lines 218 and 219, and see lines 218-248 for what the merchant carries).

55. THE HANGED MAN represents life in suspension; see Waite, Tarot, describing him as a “seeming martyr.”  Eliot’s Hanged God of Frazer (see note 46) refers to a description in Frazer, The Golden Bough, of the annual hanging in effigy of Artemis, the goddess of fertility.  Eliot also associated the hanged man, whom Madame Sosostris fails to find, with the one who walks beside the disciples (line 360).  See also the epigraph, with its opening image of the Sybil “hanging in a cage” (note 0.3).

FEAR DEATH BY WATER:  This, the fortune-teller’s final conclusion, refers both backward (line 47) and forward (lines 312-321) to the drowned Phoenician Sailor, which is also the limited description of “your card” (see note 47).  Given the attention to water and the reader’s accompanying warning, the closest Tarot correspondence to “your card” might be the King of Cups, which shows a floating king holding a scepter and chalise, and of which Waite says, “Beware of ill will ...and of hypocrisy pretending to help.”  See Waite, Tarot.  Compare this to the call at line 76 to “you, hypocrite lecteur,” or hypocrite reader.

57. MRS. EQUITONE is, by her name at least, a more even-tempered person than Madame Sosostris; compare Tiresias’s “lovely woman,” who, after her lover leaves, “smoothes her hair with automatic hand, / And puts a record on the gramophone” (see lines 255-256).

59. FORTUNE-TELLING had been prohibited in London since the 1824 Vagancy Act and punishable by three months’ hard labor, but the law had been in flux in the years after World War I.  See Blewett Lee, Spiritualism and Crime , Columbia Law Review 22: 444-445 (1922):  The courts had briefly allowed a “good faith” defense in 1918 but then retracted this a few years later, holding that “professing to tell fortunes is an offense without regard to whether or not the person so professing believes he has the power to tell fortunes.”  For the deciding case, see Stonehouse v. Masson, 2 K.B. 818 (1921), overturning Davis v. Curry, 1 K.B. 109 (1918).