Purifying and Passionate Fire
Purifying and Passionate Fire: An Analysis of the Duality of Fire in “The Waste Land”
How can fire be desirable and aversive at the same time? This question, this paradox manifests itself at the very heart of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” An understanding of this duality, however, offers a glimpse into the precarious balance that pervades the poem: fire can represent purification, or it can characterize desire. The pursuit of the former can lead to entrapment in the latter. How can fire represent purification and desire at the same time? The answer lies in The Fire Sermon, where fire represents both purification or freedom and passion or desire. Despite the duality of fire, it finds meaning in both modes of its existence as a path to enlightenment, to freedom and wholeness. In Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and in the Buddha’s The Fire-Sermon found in the Upanishads, fire assumes seemingly contrary roles. In “The Waste Land” these contraries find voice, but also resolution through allusions to these works as well as Saint Augustine’s Confessions. In the light of this allusion, a transition from passionate to purifying flame unites the duality of fire.
While the image of purifying fire stems from a number of allusions in “The Waste Land,” the most predominant originates in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, especially in The Purgatorio. The image of purging appears most vividly as Dante arrives at the last cornice of Purgatory:
Here the bank belches forth great sheets of flame,
While upward from the cornice edge doth blow
A blast that shields it, backward bending them.
(Dante XXV, 112-114)
Upon exiting Purgatory, souls must willingly choose to pass through this flame to purge themselves finally of their sins. “‘Holy souls, there’s no way on or round / But through the bite of fire; in, then, and come! / Nor be deaf to what is sung beyond’” (Dante XXVII, 10-12). The angel’s invitation to Paradise helps passing souls find the strength to endure the “bite,” or pain of the fire’s purge. The spirits must be cleansed by the flame in order to pass into the sanctity of Paradise.
Even in this depiction of purgation, however, fire also represents another image, that of lust and sin. The duality arises subtly in The Purgatorio. According to Helen M. Luke and her work concerning transformation in The Divine Comedy, fire doubles as an image of Lust, as well as Purity. In quoting Dorothy Sayers, Luke argues that the fire atop the last cornice of Purgatory illustrates a paradox:
“…Fire, which is an image of Lust, is also an image of Purity. The burning of the sin, and the burning charity which is its opposite virtue, here coalesce into a single image and a single experience….” (Luke 91)
This paradox finds voice again in “The Waste Land,” especially since the imagery refers to Lust, specifically. Its manifestation becomes clear in a discussion of The Fire Sermon. Luke’s comments clearly illustrate the foundations of the paradox: the flames represent both lust and the purgation of lust simultaneously. Luke goes on to note that the fire of Purgatory represents and purifies all sin, but the particular reference to Lust will prove apt, since this “Sin” pervades Eliot’s piece.
In the teachings of the Upanishads, the Buddha gathers his priests around him to open their eyes to the oppressive nature of desire—to the oppression of fire. “‘All things, O priests, are on fire’” (Handout 352). By “things,” the Buddha explains that he means sensations and interpretations of the world. He discusses all the senses and notes that those things which come to the mind through these five senses burn “‘[w]ith the fire of passion…with the fire of hatred, with the fire of infatuation; with birth, old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, despair are they on fire’” (Handout 352). Essentially, that which concerns them with the world and its emotions will keep the Buddha’s people from attaining Nirvana, total peace and freedom. Interestingly, the Buddha does not contain his sermon to just the physical senses. He includes the mind, and, just as with the senses, the Buddha cautions that his priests should conceive “‘an aversion for the impressions received by the mind; and whatever sensation, pleasant, unpleasant, or indifferent, originates in dependence on impressions received by the mind, for this also he [a disciple] conceives an aversion’” (Handout 353). Dependence on things on fire—things of this world—impedes the absence of passion, and only by the absence of passion does a disciple of the Buddha become free:
“…and when he is free he becomes aware that he is free; and he knows that rebirth is exhausted, that he has lived the holy life, that he has done what is behooved him to do, and that he is no more for this world.” (Handout 353)
Freedom and wholeness (holiness) become possible, according to both Dante and the Buddha, when passions, lusts, and sins are eliminated. The duality of fire stems from the fact that it represents both the sin and the method of purgation. Eliot masterfully illustrates this duality, and, in The Fire Sermon, he initiates a subtle transition from one kind of flame to the other, alluding not only to Dante and the Buddha, but also to Saint Augustine and to the Bible in his synthesis of lust and purgation.
Before examining The Fire Sermon, A Game of Chess provides a number of examples of fire as passion, or, more specifically, of fire as representing worldly concerns. Fire, in the form of candlelight, serves as the only light by which the scene described in the first verse paragraph is visible. Not only does the fire emanate from opulent and artificial sources, but it also illuminates a scene that seems oppressively ornate and stifling. Flames rise from the “sevenbranched candelabra” (Eliot l. 82) and light a room in which they are the only living things, save a woman wearing jewels. The room’s artificial opulence overwhelms the senses, even in its depiction of living organisms. The light they cast displays carvings and statues of plants and animals: “where the glass / Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines” (Eliot l. 78-79). Here, plants that should grow stand still in order to support a glass table. In a particularly apt description, Eliot writes of a dolphin trapped in mid-swim: “In which sad light a carvéd dolphin swam” (Eliot l. 96). The sad light provided by the flames illuminates nature in stasis. This stasis and stagnation conveys an overemphasis on materialism and indulgence. Even the air stifles any semblance of naturalness: “Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes, / Unguent, powdered, or liquid—troubled, confused / And drowned in a sense of odours” (Eliot ll. 87-89). Through this depiction, Eliot successfully impresses upon the reader the weight of decadence. The objects in the room burn under the light of the candle flames, and, until the flames are extinguished, freedom—Nirvana—will remain unattainable. A resolution to the aversive burning of this candle-lit room reveals itself in The Fire Sermon.
As the text in this third movement of “The Waste Land” depicts the memories of lustful, but empty one-night-stands, and desperation in an “Unreal City,” the resemblance to Dante’s The Purgatorio is unmistakable. Lust pursues the “sinner” with empty feelings, meaninglessness, and loneliness. The allusion to Saint Augustine’s Confessions also seems appropriate at the end of this movement of the poem. “To Carthage then I came” (Eliot l. 307), and when he arrived, St. Augustine claims he tried every experience he could find, whether wholesome or not. Another appropriate allusion involves the Bible: the Book of Zechariah. “O Lord Thou pluckest me out” (Eliot l. 309) refers to the prophets proclamation the he has been chosen for the Lord’s work and, thus, he has been purged by fire, like a log of wood, exposed to a furnace. Not only has he bee cleansed, but he is also made stronger by the process; God’s flame has strengthened him. These two allusions—Saint Augustine and Zechariah—surround one of the final images of fire in “The Waste Land”: “Burning burning burning burning” (Eliot l. 308).
This last image of burning begins to resolve the discrepancy between Dante’s and the Buddha’s interpretations of fire. If the line alluding to Saint Augustine continues uninterrupted into the following line describing fire, it gives the impression that the poetic voice, the “I,” comes to Carthage, burning. This coincides with the Buddha’s interpretation of fire—the sensual experiences in Carthage burn with passion, despair, and indifference. These experiences are meaningless and offer no respite from the burdens of the worldly. The following lines alluding to Zechariah, however, seem to imply that the burning was one of purification—the Lord has plucked the poetic voice out of the burning a strong and cleansed person. Thus, using these two allusions, which depend on the same line describing burning, Eliot transforms the burning of passion into the burning of purity. The transformation occurs in a single line that implies both, disparate interpretations of fire, but that, at the same time, resolves these interpretations into one longing for freedom and wholeness. The movement ends with one word that represents the union of the duality of fire.
In his notes on the poem, Eliot remarks that “[t]he collection of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism, as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident” (Eliot 72). It seems that Eliot intends to offer the both Dante’s and the Buddha’s descriptions of fire in “The Waste Land” as a partial resolution between eastern and western thought. He succeeds in resolving the paradox, or if resolution is too decisive a term, he at least makes the paradox acceptable (in a Kirkegaardian sense) and understandable. The question remains, however: does Eliot intend the detachment from the world, the mind, and the senses—detachment from passion—as a solution to a lack of meaning in life? Does this solution not seem strikingly similar to “l’ennui” against which he struggled?
The answer to these questions lies in the uncertainty evident in the voice and tone of the poem. Rather than simply stating that, yes, Nirvana is synonymous with l’ennui, a more thorough examination reveals that a transcendence of passion is not identical to apathy. The former acknowledges passion, but chooses to exist without it and without desire, while the latter chooses nothing at all; the latter remains indifferent. A dismissal of the similarities between Nirvana and l’ennui would also seem overly simplistic, however. The richness and depth of “The Waste Land” allows for both interpretations to coexist, just as it allows for the duality of fire. Eliot seems to offer the transcendence of passion as merely one of the possibilities available to those searching for meaning in life. The search for purity and strength exists as another possibility. The duality of fire represents not only the elements of passion and their role in adding meaning or purgation to life, but also the uncertainty of any one answer in a poem that often presents confusion and despair. Just as the end of “The Waste Land” remains hopeful for the future, however, the fact that options and avenues for discovering meaning do exist illustrates the optimism inherent in the duality of fire.
Eliot, T. S.. “The Waste Land.” Selected Poems. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1964.
Luke, Helen M.. Dark Wood to White Rose. New York: Parabola Books, 1989.
“The Buddha’s Fire Sermon.” Handout from Professor Knoll’s Class, Georgetown University. November 6, 1997.