The Pulse (B.C): In the Dark Water 3

J. Alfred & the Weird Sisters

3:45 AM

Sylvia's three witchy friends are also in European Literature 440. Their names are Charlotte, Emily, and Cynthia. They've spent most of the term filling Sylvia's head with green bile. Old Rex is their enemy and they intend to bring him down. He has every right to be worried. A white male in the 21st Century, I suspect his time has come.

But the weird sisters won't stop there. They've started The Womyn's Co-opt, which aims to use the machinery of male oppression against itself. Instead of getting hammered at the Grad Centre, Charlotte, Emily, and Cynthia spend their time luring lonely females onto misty promontories, which to them represent The Penis, the Male Organ jutting into The Oceanic Female. The profane penetration of The Holy Mother Sea. The Promontory Penis is nothing but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. For this reason they build bonfires at dusk and invoke the sirens of the deep. Their aim is to lure passing sailors and pirates to the rocky shore and then rip them to shreds with their maenad teeth, sharpened with barb-wire phrases from the latest novels of Margaret Atwood. Having concluded their ball-crushing rites, they throw the glistening limbs into the air, thus fretting the majestic roof of the sky with golden fire.

Here's a picture of the weird sisters on a crackling heath, tempting Hecate with their postcolonial charms:

”Shot of three witches in Orson Welles 1948 film” (Wikimedia Commons)

”Shot of three witches in Orson Welles 1948 film” (Wikimedia Commons)

Watching the weird sisters spar with Old Rex was an education in itself. In the middle of his lecture on The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock, Cynthia started to fidget and guffaw. She even coughed out several times, "C-c-ock-a-mam-y." When Old Rex asked her if there was something she’d like to say, she said, "I know you're an expert on this old white european male's tale of insecurity and all, but haven’t you noticed that you are Prufrock! Like him, you have all the privilege in the world. Like him, you get indignant when the woman don't listen to you. Still, you go on with your white male philosophizing. You don’t listen to the women, and then you assume they're speaking gibberish. The women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. Don’t you see they’re mocking you? As they should. You dig up the skull of Hamlet, walk through the dark woods of Dante, etcetera, etcetera, and more white european male etcetera. Are we supposed to feel sorry for you? Isn't it time the women got a chance to speak?"

Before Cynthia said this, Old Rex had such high hopes for Prufrock. Serious as the oracle at Delphi, Old Rex quoted straight from the beginning of Eliot’s poem, which borrowed its otherworldly theme from Dante: But since no one has ever returned alive from these depths, if what I hear is true, I answer you without fear of infamy ... Old Rex was in a mystic’s trance. Like a lion, he had licked his tongue into the corners of the evening, and lingered upon the pools that stand in drains. He intimated that he would soon reveal the answer to the overwhelming question. His voice trailed off to let the class appreciate the profundity of it all. Voices from the other world. Listen, my students, voices prophesying war… He even drew three dots in the air so that we could see the dire import of his words. 

José Benlliure Gil, The Vision in the Coliseum; The Last Martyr, 1887, in the Valencia Museum of Fine Arts. Photo (cropped) by RYC.

José Benlliure Gil, The Vision in the Coliseum; The Last Martyr, 1887, in the Valencia Museum of Fine Arts. Photo (cropped) by RYC.

Yet after Cynthia’s speech, things didn’t go so well. Old Rex got all flustered and started talking to his shoes. It was hard to tell if he was quoting T.S. Eliot, if T.S. Eliot was quoting J. Alfred, or if J. Alfred was quoting Old Rex. In any case, it had something to do with a hundred indecisions and with a hundred visions and revisions, and it all got mixed up with the bald spot in the middle of his hair and with the perfume from a dress that made him so digress.

It got even worse when he made another run at the overwhelming question. Looking up from his shoes, he lifted his finger and pointed at the wall at the back of the room. He made a fist with his other hand and announced that he had “squeezed the universe up into a ball.” He raised his fist and shook it angrily at all the English Department colleagues who never answered his emails and never even read his critical masterpiece, The Siren in Byron’s Eye. He rolled all of his indignity into his fist and told his befuddled students, “I alone possess the answer to the overwhelming question!”

Rising now, like a god in pain, he screamed at the students in the back rows that they would never know The Secret. “Do not even ask, What is it!”

From the side of the room, Cynthia cleared her throat and said “O.K.” She scraped her chair along the floor so that she could lean it against the wall, and added, “I wasn’t interested, anyway.” Leaning back in the chair, she told Old Rex, in a voice that was at once aggressive and exasperated, “You’re a dinosaur. The days of your English Meaning are over. I would say I’m sorry but, but I’m not sorry, you’re not even reading the text accurately. It’s ‘an overwhelming question’ and ‘some overwhelming question,’ not ‘the overwhelming question.’ It’s fine and dandy to make pompous statements, but you should at least try to be accurate about the text. Some clarity would also help. What exactly, for instance, is the entity or concept that’s being overwhelmed?”

“Oh, and one other thing. Leave the business of oracles to the women. In predicting the future, men never get it right. Women listen to what’s there, on the other side of what’s here. They feel the centre of the earth. Your head, like all the other male prophets, is in the clouds.”

Consulting the Oracle (1884), by John William Waterhouse (Wikimedia Commons — cropped by RYC)

Consulting the Oracle (1884), by John William Waterhouse (Wikimedia Commons — cropped by RYC)

Priestess of Delphi (1891), by John Collier, in the Art Gallery of South Australia (Wikimedia Commons).

Priestess of Delphi (1891), by John Collier, in the Art Gallery of South Australia (Wikimedia Commons).

Old Rex’ throat was parched, yet he decided to tell the class The Secret after all. Almost defeated, he managed to take one last stab at poetry: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead, / Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all” — at which point Cynthia drowned him out with a noisy display of unzipping her backpack and yanking her sweater from it. She scrunched it up into a ball between her shoulder and the whiteboard, the legs of her chair squeaking this way and that. She muttered something about the class on dinosaurs being so boring that she may as well catch up on her sleep.

Suddenly, in a death-rattle tremor of incipient senility, Old Rex exploded into rage: “Young lady! Sit up straight this instant! You think you can disrespect the Great Poets of this Age? You think you are greater than Art Itself?”

Re-arranging her sweater like a down pillow beneath her head, Cynthia looked away from Old Rex and stared nonchalantly out the window. Perhaps she was thinking about the mermaids in the poem, the sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown. Perhaps she wanted to ride with them seaward on the waves / Combing the white hair of the waves blown back / When the wind blows the water white and black. In a voice more resigned than angry, she said, “Please, Dr. Rexroth, get a grip. That’s not what I meant, at all. I’m just bored, that’s all.”

Now that classes are over it occurs to me that Old Rex, like Prufrock, may have been like all of us, with desires left stranded on the shore. At one point in his life, he may even have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. Perhaps he too said to himself that There will be time to murder and create, / And time for all the works and days of hands / That lift and drop a question on your plate. Yet at what point did he realize he was out of time? When did he first understand that the beautiful mermaids were never going to sing to him?

All of this talk about time makes me wonder, What time is it, anyway? I look at my watch but it’s not there. I put it on the counter before getting into the bath. But still time flows like water through my fingers, just like Camus said.

Where to fit Prufrock’s crisis of existentialism and meaning? Is it the end of the epic — the death of a literary form that once encompassed the meaning of entire civilizations? Is it Beauty’s revenge — the perfume from a dress that makes Prufrock so digress? Or does Prufrock’s journey signal the end of love, and the beginning of tragedy?

I share in Prufrock's uncertainty, the slippery digits of time cascading like water down the faucet. I see the months, weeks, and days that I should've spent huddled over my books instead of sitting on Wreck Beach and lingering by the chambers of the sea. Like Macbeth, I’ve made my own bed, drawn my own bath. The only thing I’m sure about is that it’s already the tomorrow for whom the bells toll. The bells ring again and again, as if there is no yesterday and as if tomorrow is too monotonous to think about: To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, / To the last syllable of recorded time.

The three witches hail us from the side of the road. I’m too surprised to ride on, but listen instead to their strange and terrifying words. “List, Matthew, the Earth will come crashing down in a hail of orange beams. Your English exam is the least of your worries!”

Macbeth and Banquo Meeting the Witches on the Heath, by Theodore Chasseriau, 1819, in the Musée d'Orsay (Wikimedia Commons).

Macbeth and Banquo Meeting the Witches on the Heath, by Theodore Chasseriau, 1819, in the Musée d'Orsay (Wikimedia Commons).

8:15 AM

Charlotte, Emily, and Cynthia triangulate their thoughts, which appear to be on their exam papers, but which are in fact in a metaphysical dimension, somewhere at the bottom of a metal pot. They’re dipping their ladles in the pot, fishing for big words with Greek prefixes to dispel the old phallocentrism, which Emily defined the other day (as she reclined on a pillow, her light brown hair glowing incandescent in the sunlight of the afternoon) as a Darwinian inevitability. I responded, “Emily, you’re dumb as a post.” Undeterred, Emily continued: “Men fixate on cleavage while the smell of womyn's burning hair drifts into the air. Salem. High school football. War. Bush. Trump. Global Warming. It's all your fault.” Charlotte added, “And we’re tired of your noisy stand-up peeing routine, splashing all over the bathroom floor!”

I see the smoke from the singed hair of burning witches float toward the rafters above me, up through history and basketball hoops. Reaching the ceiling, the smoke sits still or malingers. It drifts slowly, like a cat, around the male pennants that flutter into the cold air. I hear Cynthia saying, Your images are all wrong. That's not it. That's not it, at all.


Next: In the Dark Water: The Prophecy of the Völva

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