20 April 2009

Madame Sesostris

The character, Mr Scogan appeared in Aldous Huxley's first novel, Chrome Yellow, a 'roman à clef' published in 1921. Mr Scogan appeared at the village fair as Madame Sesostris, 'the Sorceress of Ecbatana'. In this role he read palms and tried to set up selected female clients for seduction.

It is generally agreed among critics that Mr Scogan is based on the philosopher and womanizer, Bertrand Russell.

The very same year, T.S. Eliot, in his much to be discussed poem The Waste Land, used the character (with a slight spelling change, and perhaps influenced by the fact that Russell had had an affair with his wife Vivienne) to give a tarot reading anticipating the rest of the poem:
Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor ...
P.Lal, the Indian poet, renders homage in 1960:
All that they knew.  In Sly hieroglyph
Floating on time’s gauze, Psammetichus
Carved more than carvers of the carious cliff …
Ask the wild sea.  It is all on the rock.
But Cheops sleeps: he has not heard of birth.
And Sesostris: he has not heard of death.
In episode 2.8 of the television series, Witchblade, Roger Daltrey of the Who, plays a priest who has a second persona as Madame Sesostris.

'Sesostris' is the name of three twelfth dynasty Egyptian pharaohs, and another pharoah whom Herodotus tells of as invading Europe. Ecbatana is in Iran. To conflate the two is an example of orientalism, the Western custom of projecting fantasies upon the East, a custom that often features cross-dressing.  This is the kind of thing that Marjorie Garber discusses in Vested Interests, 1992, although she did not use this particular example.
  • Aldous Huxley.  Crome Yellow.  A Triad Grafton Book.  1977 (original 1921):  chp XXVII.
  • T.S. Eliot. The Waste Land in The Complete Poems and Plays, 1901-1950.  Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.  1971: line 43-59.
  • Grover Smith.  The Waste Land.  George Allen & Unwin. 1983: 67-8.
  • Calvin Bedient.  He Do the Police in Different Voices: The Waste Land and Its protagonist.  The University of Chicago Press. 1986: 52,55.

1 comment:

Marcel said...

For the sake of reference, the mix-up of egyptian and persian is not "just" random orientalism, but a pretty direct STAB at it, as "the sorceress" is actually a man in drag doing scams at gullible people.