Incarnational Semiotics: The Redemption of Significance in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (Incarnational Semiotics 1)

The similarity of the insights in T. S. Eliot’s early poetry to the thought of the postmodernists a generation later has not gone unnoticed. Ruth Nevo, for example, claimed for The Waste Land the status of “ur-text of deconstruction,” noting that “The Waste Land deconstructs distinctions between critic and author, ‘fiction’ and ‘fact,’ presentation and representation, origin and supplement. These are the classic, central deconstructionist themes.”[i] Eliot’s perspicacity as well as his proximity to the intellectual avant-garde of his day granted him the foresight to predict the course of the intellectual currents of the twentieth century. Through his thorough of early semioticians like Charles S. Peirce and Josiah Royce while researching and writing his doctoral dissertation at Harvard University Eliot was able to anticipate important later developments in hermeneutics and semiotics.[ii]

Whereas Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and other postmodern theorists saw the direction of their thought as a “liberating,”[iii] and therefore positive, enterprise, Eliot was deeply troubled by the implications of lack of meaning for human life and the limits of communication. Where “the average sensual man,” writes Russell Kirk, quoting Eliot’s unfinished first play Sweeney Agonistes, “could not understand the boredom and the horror of existence limited to ‘birth, and copulation, and death,’” the notion obsessed and terrified Eliot.[iv] Linked to this “horror and boredom of wearisome repetitiveness,” for Eliot, was the inability to communicate effectively.[v]

Admittedly, Eliot is not typically thought of a semiotician.[vi] At heart of semiotics, however, are questions of communication.[vii] And exploration of communication and its difficulties is a central aspect of Eliot’s work and was clearly a personal preoccupation of Eliot himself. Eliot’s meditation upon struggles in communication which consumes most of the final section of East Coker is indicative of his thought as a whole. There, Eliot writes that

. . . every attempt

Is a wholly new start , and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer wants to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,

Undisciplined squads of emotion.[viii]

Characters like J. Alfred Prufrock, for whom “it is impossible to say just what I mean,”[ix] and Harry, of the Family Reunion, who explains that “I can only speak / And you cannot hear me,”[x] express, for Eliot, a universal inability to communicate, to encode and decode messages in a manner that allows meaningful understanding between two persons.

Eliot definitively rejected the “horror and boredom” of meaninglessness, with its accompanying inability to articulate and understand, with his conversion to Christianity in 1927. This rejection of what Eliot termed “the ennui of modern life” in favor of the “significance of living” through a recognition “that what really matters is Sin and Redemption,” gave the shape to much of Eliot’s work for the last several decades of his life, including most of his dramatic works and the Four Quartets.[xi] His first, and arguably best, success in capturing this turn from meaninglessness to significance came, however, in his first dramatic success, Murder in the Cathedral, in 1935. There, all persons and events derive their significance from an ultimate transcendent signified.[xii] In Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot captured his turn toward significance in what may be tentatively termed an incarnational semiotics, a restoration of the meaning of life and language through an in-breaking of the supernatural into the mundane which fuses the signifier and the signified into a single reality.

[i] Ruth Nevo, “The Waste Land: Ur-Text of Deconstruction,” New Literary History 13, no. 3 (1982): 460–461.

[ii] Manju Jain, T. S. Eliot and American Philosophy: The Harvard Years (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 147.

[iii] Tristanne J. Connolly and Steve Clark, eds., Liberating Medicine, 1720–1835 (New York: Routledge, 2016), 6.

[iv] Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2008), 112.

[v] Oscar Chenyi Lbang, “The Horrors of a Disconnected Existence: Frustration, Despair and Alienation in the Poetry of T. S. Eliot,” Wenshan Review of Literature and Culture 3, no. 2 (June 2010): 44.

[vi] Tomislav Brlek, “Polyphiloprogenitive: T.S. Eliot’s Notion of Culture,” Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften, no. 15 (July 2004), (accessed June 24, 2016),

[vii] Thomas A. Sebeok, Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), 5.

[viii] T. S. Eliot, East Coker, V.3–11. This and all subsequent quotes from Eliot’s works of poetry are taken from The Poems of T. S. Eliot, ed. Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, vol. 1 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

[ix] T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” line 104.

[x] T. S. Eliot, The Family Reunion, 235. This and all subsequent quotes from Eliot’s dramatic works are taken from The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909–1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1971).

[xi] T. S. Eliot, “Baudelaire” (1930), in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), 235.

[xii] Michael Beehler, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and the Discourses of Difference (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 33.



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