They Know and Do Not Know (Incarnational Semiotics 3)

It is Thomas’s arrival that finally brings the “terror of eternity” to Canterbury. His first word upon entering, a simultaneous blessing and admonishment to “peace,” sweeps aside the Second Priest’s attempts to once again stifle the symbols which have begun at last to signify.[i] “You go on croaking like frogs in the treetops: / But frogs at least can be cooked and eaten,” the Second Priest tells the Women of Canterbury.[ii] While he attempts to destroy one symbol, he attempts immediately to replace it with another false symbol. “Let me ask you to at the least put on pleasant faces,” he requests of the Women.[iii]

Thomas, though, understands that replacing one incomplete symbol with another false symbol is insufficient. “They know and do not know,” he tells the Second Priest, referring to the Women of Canterbury but, no doubt, including here the priest himself.[iv] While the Women have been “croaking like frogs,” all of it has been an attempt to understand, to “know.” “It [the human mind] needs the multiplicity of words. It does not really know what it knows,” Hans-Georg Gadamer writes.[v] While the priest intends to destroy and distort symbols to evade reality, the Women at least seek gropingly at understanding through their multiplication of words. While “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality,” the women outdo the priest in that they make an attempt at it.[vi]

Thomas himself, however, is not immune from the desire to fall back into the apparent calm—which, in truth, is the “boredom and horror”—of the mundane, the simple, the absence of signification, and therefore of significance, in the pattern in which “there is nothing to do about anything.”[vii] The Fourth Tempter tempts Thomas to return to the waste land in terms that recall Eliot’s abhorrence at the idea that human life might be “a children’s game in which all the contestants would get equally worthless prizes in the end”:

Man’s life is a cheat and a disappointment;

All things are unreal,

Unreal or disappointing:

The Catherine wheel, the pantomime cat,

The prizes given at the children’s party,

The prize awarded for the English Essay,

The scholar’s degree, the statesman’s decoration.

All things become less real, man passes

From unreality to unreality.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Passing from deception to deception,

From grandeur to grandeur to final illusion.[viii]

At this, the Women of Canterbury and the Priests, too, join in agreement with the Tempters. Together, the three groups attempt to persuade Thomas to leave. The Women of Canterbury tell him that they

. . . have gone on living,

Living and partly living,

Picking together the pieces,

Gathering faggots at nightfall,

Building a partial shelter,

For sleeping, and eating and drinking and laughter.[ix]

Now, though, they are assailed with the symbolic. “Now a new terror has soiled us,” they cry, “which none can avert, none can avoid, flowing under our feet and over the sky.”[x] It is inescapable, “flowing in at the ear and the mouth and the eye.” They declare, “the forms take shape in the dark air.” The Women of Canterbury are trapped within a closed system of signification which is being torn open. In their confusion, they might have spoken the same words as the famous statement of Niels Bohr: “We are suspended in language in such a way that we cannot say what is up and what is down.”[xi]

[i] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 182.

[ii] Ibid., 181.

[iii] Ibid., 182.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 443.

[vi] T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton I.42–43.

[vii] Eliot, The Family Reunion, 271.

[viii] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 194.

[ix] Ibid., 195.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Niels Bohr, in Niels Bohr: A Centenary Volume, A. P. French and P. J. Kennedy, eds. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 302.



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