What Then Did He Mean? (Incarnational Semiotics 4)

It is the presence of Thomas which has brought meaning and significance to what has been there all along. The earth and the sky are no longer the flat, insignificant facts they once were; they have become symbols which point to a higher truth in which all symbols are unified and from which each derives its significance. “Now is the meaning plain,” proclaims Thomas.[i]

Much has been made of Eliot’s inspiration by Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance and James G. Frazer’s Golden Bough because of his citation of them in the notorious notes appended to the end of The Waste Land, in which Eliot assures his readers that “anyone who is acquainted with these works will immediately recognise in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies.”[ii] There can be little doubt that these and similar influences remained important to Eliot throughout his life. Eliot’s assertion in his lectures on The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism delivered at Harvard University in 1932–1933 that “poetry begins . . . with a savage beating a drum in a jungle,” for example, echoes James G. Frazier’s summative statement on his own work that “when all is said and done our resemblances to the savage are still far more numerous than our differences from him” and indeed many of our instincts and drives are still his.[iii] The later influence of historian and cultural theorist Christopher Dawson, however, has been less often acknowledged and discussed. Dawson, who wrote occasionally for Eliot’s periodical The Criterion, is cited several times by Eliot in the latter’s Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and highlighted by Eliot in the preface to Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948) as one of three authors to whom he owed “a particular debt” for his own ideas.[iv]

It is Dawson’s influence upon Eliot, however, which makes it possible to say that Murder in the Cathedral is a re-presentation of the central myth of Christian culture.[v] Added to Eliot’s earlier studies of the myth of the dying and rising vegetative god were Dawson’s insights concerning “the existence of this specifically religious need in primitive man—in other words, the naturalness of the religious attitude.”[vi] According to Dawson, “primitive agriculture was in fact a kind of liturgy” which arose out of the incipient religious orientation of early man.[vii] “It is even possible,” writes Dawson, “that agriculture and the domestication of animals” which enabled the emergence of culture among early humans “were exclusively religious in their beginnings, and had their origin in the ritual observation and imitation of the processes of nature which is so characteristic of this type of religion.”[viii] Dawson held that his theory of religion as the primary motivating factor in culture applied to the modern West as well, positing that “the reconstitution of Western civilization” following the collapse of the Roman Empire “was due to the coming of Christianity” and its effects on society, beginning with the family.[ix] Eliot’s notion that the culture of a people is “the incarnation (so to speak) of the religion of a people” is essentially an extension of Dawson’s theories.[x] Dawson’s theories also enabled Eliot to identify the “Culture Hero” with the “Vegetation God,” as he does with Becket in Murder in the Cathedral, rather than to separate them as Weston had.[xi] It is in Eliot’s Dawson-inspired insistence on the link between religion and culture that Eliot’s semiotics are founded.[xii] And it is here that any analysis of the semiotic aspects of Eliot’s poetry must begin.[xiii]

Meditating on a number of symbols, Eliot writes in the Dry Salvages:

To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits,

To report the behaviour of the sea monster,

Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry,

Observe disease in signatures, evoke

Biography from the wrinkles of the palm

And tragedy from fingers; release omens

By sortilege, or tea leaves, riddle the inevitable

With playing cards, fiddle with pentagrams

Or barbituric acids, or dissect

The recurrent image into pre-conscious terrors—

To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual

Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press:

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

. . . But to apprehend

The point of intersection of the timeless

With time, is an occupation for the saint—

No occupation either, but something given

And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,

Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.[xiv]

It is only the saint, like Thomas Becket, who is “obedient unto death” that is able to make sense of the symbols, to restore meaning within the semiosphere.[xv] According to Becket, speaking of himself,

A martyr, a saint, is always made by the design of God, for his His love of men, to warn them and to lead them, to bring them back to His ways. A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God.[xvi]

The saintly martyr, for whom “suffering . . . [is] a way of sharing in the passion and death of Jesus Christ,”[xvii] in a sense renews the sacrifice of Christ by once more making the presence of God apparent. Through the martyrdom of Thomas, says Helen Gardner, “the chorus becomes humanity, confronted by the mystery of iniquity and the mystery of holiness.”[xviii] The Chorus of the Women of Canterbury, and, through them, the audience, are confronted with the two universal aspects of the human condition which imply the existence of an absolute truth, a transcendental signified, and a life beyond the merely biological—as Eliot referred to them elsewhere: “Sin and Redemption.”[xix]

“The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation. / Here the impossible union / Of spheres of existence is actual,” Eliot continues in the Dry Salvages.[xx] The saint, through participation in the activity of the dying and rising god, makes this Incarnation, this union of the signifier and the signified, as well as of the communicator, the receiver, and the message, possible by making it real through participation. Through participating in this participation of the saint in the event and experience of Incarnation, human life and the symbols of the Incarnation with which it is filled gain their significance. “Only if the heroic has meaning can the ordinary have dignity,” writes Gardner.[xxi]

St. Thomas Becket’s sermon, which forms the midsection of Murder in the Cathedral, brings all of this into view and sets into motion its being brought to fruition. Thomas now turns to the audience, which in the play’s first performance were Christians gathered in a cathedral, forcing them to enter into the drama. “Dear children of God,” he begins, reminding them that they are themselves symbols which derive their definition from their relationship to a transcendental signified.[xxii] In this delivery of a sermon to the audience, Eliot subverts the modern tendency to distance oneself from the drama in favor of the medieval habit of entering into the experience of the drama.[xxiii] Eliot, however, attempts to restore his modern, analytically-oriented audience to this earlier way of experiencing-through-witnessing. Addressing the audience as if they were Christians gathered at Mass, the sermon indicates the impending transformations of the mundane into the holy and implicates the audience in the process.[xxiv] For Eliot, “the consummation of the drama, the perfect and ideal drama, is to be found in the ceremony of the Mass.”[xxv] Not only is a dramatic imitation of the Mass a return to the religious rituals out of which medieval theater grew,[xxvi] it is a means of accomplishing the same effect as the Mass: “effecting as end what it signifies as means.”[xxvii] The Mass is simultaneously “commemorative and prophetic,” thereby uniting past, present, future, and eternity, and has as its purpose the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, the fusion of symbol and reality, signifier and signified, in which the gathered congregation is expected to share, uniting themselves to each other and to divinity.

Thomas’s sermon reminds the audience/congregation of the link between the Incarnation and the Eucharist. “At the same moment,” he says, “we rejoice in His coming for the salvation of men, and offer again to God His Body and Blood in sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”[xxviii] This link between the Incarnation and the Eucharist is, of course, a central motif of the traditional Christian thought from which Eliot drew. In his Against Heresies, the second century church father St. Irenaeus of Lyon declares, “The Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, … did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”[xxix] Irenaeus’s statement was later modified into the aphoristic motto of the fourth century orthodox provided by St. Athanasius of Alexandria in his On the Incarnation: “He was made man that we might be made God.”[xxx] Notably, the 7th century theologian St. Maximus the Confessor drew upon this formula in his explication of the effect of partaking of the Eucharist upon the communicant, saying,

The power of this reciprocal gift which deifies man for God through the love of God, and makes God man for man through His love for man, making through this whole exchange God to become man for the deification of man, and man to become God for the hominization of God. For the Word of God who is God wills always and in all things to work the mystery of his embodiment.[xxxi]

Or, in Eliot’s words in the Dry Salvages: “Here the impossible union / Of spheres of existence is actual.”[xxxii] Signifier and signified, self and other, God and man—all of the separation and alterity which renders communication and significance impossible in the waste land—is here overcome. Here, one is able at last to live “the life of significant soil.”[xxxiii]

The waste land, however, is, in its essence, a place without the Eucharist. In the Grail legends from which Eliot drew via Weston, the hero must pass through the waste land in his search for the Grail, the power of which lies in its connection to the Eucharist.[xxxiv] What “interests Eliot” about the waste land is specifically that it is “the Waste Land from which the Grail is absent; nor does anyone seek to find it.”[xxxv] As such, it is a place which offers “sin and retribution, but no redemption.”[xxxvi] In the waste land, there is only the dissolution of the meanings of life and language, never their significance. Only the Eucharist makes possible the restoration of unity and the resignification of the symbolic.

The saintly martyr, as a participant in the suffering and death of Christ, is also a sharer in this Eucharistic renewal of significance. The link between the martyr and the Eucharist extends as far back as the early Christian practice of using the tombs of martyrs as altars for the Mass, as is recorded in, for example, the second century account of the Martyrdom of Polycarp.[xxxvii] In his sermon, Thomas rhetorically asks, linking the Incarnation and martyrdom, the Eucharist and the saints,  “Is it an accident, do you think, that the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the Birth of Christ? By no means.”[xxxviii] As a place devoid of the Eucharist, then, the waste land is also a place devoid of saints, as it is the saints who make the Eucharist possible.

As a ritual drama, Murder in the Cathedral is a renewal of the Eucharistic imbuing of significance. “So thus as on earth the Church mourns and rejoices at once” for the martyr, Thomas says near the conclusion of his sermon, “in a fashion that the world cannot understand; so in Heaven the Saints are most high . . . seeing themselves not as we see them, but in the light of the Godhead from which they draw their being.”[xxxix] Thomas links his impending martyrdom with the Incarnation, and therefore to the Eucharist, as described in the Gospel of John, when “the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”[xl] In an article which appeared in Eliot’s Criterion the autumn before the premier of Murder in the Cathedral, Dawson wrote, “A secularist culture can only exist, so to speak, in the dark. It is out of the order of the wider world of reality. But as soon as the light comes, all the elaborate mechanism that has been constructed for living in the dark becomes useless.”[xli] Significantly, Thomas’s sermon is given on Christmas Day, a day associated with the restoration of light both in the natural cycles following the Winter solstice and in the commemoration of the historical birth of Christ. The nature of light, of course, is to illuminate; light is that substance by which all other substances are made visible and therefore comprehensible.

As a renewal of the light of the Eucharist, that through which all other phenomena are understood, the arrival of Thomas and his impending martyrdom become the catalyst for a renewal of understanding. As the moment of his martyrdom nears, symbols once again begin to signify with increasing clarity. Part II opens once again with the singing of the Chorus of the Women of Canterbury about the signs present in nature. Whereas the natural cycles were meaningless repetition before the arrival of Thomas, however, now they are indicative of some coming terrible event. The Women sing,

Does the bird sing in the South?

Only the sea-bird cries, driven inland by the storm.

What sign of the spring of the year?

Only the death of the old: not a stir, not a shoot, not a breath.

Do the days begin to lengthen?

Longer and darker the day, shorter and colder the night.

Still and stifling the air: but a wind is stored up in the East.

The starved crow sits in the field, attentive; and in the wood

The owl rehearses the hollow note of death.

What signs of a bitter spring?

The wind stored up in the East.[xlii]

The Women of Canterbury, with their newfound ability to see and understand, arrive at the profound truth that “death in the Lord renews” the world, “And the world must be cleaned in the winter, or we shall have only / A sour spring, a parched summer, an empty harvest.”[xliii] Even in their fear and confusion, the Women of Canterbury are able to articulate the need for a Eucharistic renewal of signification as the symbols become clearer.

As the moment of martyrdom nears, the vision of the Women continues to clear and the symbols become ever more apparent. All of the phenomena of the natural world take on new and increasing significance. “Senses are quickened,” the Women sing as they begin to describe the various symbols they have “seen . . . tasted . . . felt . . . heard . . . [and] smelt,”[xliv] each of them a signifier of the coming moment of crisis, of the death of a saint, the in-breaking of a “transcendental signified.” The symbols themselves, however, begin to take on a certain incomprehensibility. In an inversion of the meaning of the Eucharist, the women proclaim, “I have tasted / The savour of putrid flesh in the spoon.”[xlv] Whereas the flower is typically a signifier of life and fecundity, the women sing that they have “smelt / Death in the rose, death in the hollyhock, sweet pea, hyacinth, primrose and cowslip.” At last, the symbols are totally distorted and contradictory, as the world experiences the upheaval of the impending martyrdom: “Corruption in the dish, incense in the latrine, the sewer in the incense, the smell of sweet soap in the woodpath, a hellish sweet scent in the woodpath, while the ground heaved.”[xlvi]

In the midst of this inundation and upheaval of the symbolic, Thomas counsels the women to “be at peace with your thoughts and visions. / These things had to come to you and you to accept them.” One day, however,

You shall forget these things, toiling in the household,

You shall remember them, droning by the fire,

When age and forgetfulness sweeten the memory

Only like a dream that has often been told

And often been changed in the telling. They will seem unreal.

Human kind cannot bear very much reality.[xlvii]

The symbols are a necessary accommodation. Man is incapable of peering too long into the tremendous truth underlying his existence.  While the Dies Irae, a medieval hymn on the judgment of God is sung, this truth is revealed to the Women of Canterbury. The Women envision the oblivion of non-existence, of a world which is not even the waste land, but “the empty land.”[xlviii] While there are symbols which do not signify in the waste land, this “empty land” is devoid even of the symbols. It is the culmination and fulfillment of the lack of a “transcendental signified,” of the notion that there is “no truth.” It is “the Void, more horrid than active shapes of hell; / Emptiness, absence, separation from God.”[xlix] Here,

. . . those who were men can no longer turn the mind

To distraction, delusion, escape from dream, pretence,

Where the soul is no longer deceived, for there are no objects, no tones,

No colours, no forms to distract, to divert the soul

From seeing itself, foully united forever, nothing with nothing.[l]

A lack of a signified, in the end, is a lack of significance altogether, and therefore the lack of a signifier. Lack of significance recedes into the annihilation of the symbols themselves. This is the same state which is allegorized in The Waste Land by the utter desolation of the Chapel Perilous.[li] The Women of Canterbury recoil in horror from this vision of meaninglessness. Turning instead to the significance imbued through the Incarnation of a transcendental signified, they sing, “Dead upon the tree, my Saviour, / Let not be in vain Thy labour; / Help me, Lord in my last fear.”[lii]

[i] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 196.

[ii] Eliot, The Waste Land, 72.

[iii] James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough: The Roots of Religion and Folklore (New York: Gramercy Books, 1981), 211.

[iv] T. S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (San Diego: Harcourt, 1976), 83.

[v] Francis Fergusson, The Idea of a Theater: A Study of Ten Plays, The Art of Drama in Changing Perspective (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 211.

[vi] Christopher Dawson, Dynamics of World History (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), 182.

[vii] Ibid., 185.

[viii] Ibid., 122.

[ix] Ibid., 170.

[x] Eliot, Christianity and Culture, 101. Dawson himself was somewhat reticent to accept such an application of his ideas, writing in response that Eliot’s thought on the subject was plagued by “gratuitous difficulties which are due to ignoring the necessary transcendence of the religious factor” (Dawson, Dynamics of World History, 113). For Dawson, “(1) race, i.e. the genetic factor; (2) environment, i.e. the geographical factor; (3) function or occupation, i.e. the economic factor” and “thought or the psychological factor” were “the three . . . main influences which form and modify human culture.” Dawson considered the psychological factor the most important of the four and religion at the center of this psychological factor, but religion remained, nonetheless, only one, even if the most important, element among many and could not be directly and absolutely correlated with culture to the extent Dawson feared Eliot had posited. See Christopher Dawson, The Age of the Gods: A Study in the Origins of Culture in Prehistoric Europe and the Ancient East (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2012), xxiv.

[xi] Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance (Mineola: Dover Publications, 1997), 7.

[xii] Brlek, “Polyphiloprogenitive.”

[xiii] Paul Murray, T. S. Eliot and Mysticism: The Secret History of Four Quartets (London: MacMillan, 1991), 224.

[xiv] Eliot, The Dry Salvages, V.1–12, 17–22.

[xv] Phil 2:8 (KJV).

[xvi] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 199.

[xvii] Leo D. Lefebure, “The Understanding of Suffering in the Early Christian Church,” Claritas: Journal of Dialogue and Culture 4 no. 2 (October 2015): 36.

[xviii] Helen Gardner, The Art of T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1968), 139.

[xix] Eliot, “Baudelaire,” 235.

[xx] Eliot, Dry Salvages, V.32–34.

[xxi] Gardner, 136.

[xxii] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 198.

[xxiii] Clifford Davidson, “Murder in the Cathedral and the Saint’s Play Tradition,” in Bloom, T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, 128.

[xxiv] Ayers, 111.

[xxv] T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 1917–1932 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932), 35.

[xxvi] Davidson, 126.

[xxvii] Ayers, 106.

[xxviii] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 198.

[xxix] Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, in The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 1, Ante-Nicene Fathers (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), bk. V, Preface.

[xxx] Athanasius, “On the Incarnation of the Word,” in Athanasius: Selected Works and Letters, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, vol. 4, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), ch. 54.

[xxxi] Maximus the Confessor, quoted in Lars Thurnberg, Man and the Cosmos: The Vision of St. Maximus the Confessor (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), 9.

[xxxii] Eliot, The Dry Salvages V.33–34.

[xxxiii] Ibid., V.50.

[xxxiv] Richard Barber, The Holy Grail: Imagination and Belief (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 222.

[xxxv] Ibid., 328.

[xxxvi] Ibid.

[xxxvii] “The Martyrdom of Polycarp,” in The Apostolic Fathers, ed. Roberts and Donaldson, ch. XVII–XVIII.

[xxxviii] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 199.

[xxxix] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 200.

[xl] John 1:5 (KJV).

[xli] Christopher Dawson, “Religion and the Totalitarian State,” The Criterion 14, no. 54 (October 1934): 1.

[xlii] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 201.

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] Ibid., 207.

[xlv] Ibid.

[xlvi] Ibid., 207–208.

[xlvii] Ibid., 208–209.

[xlviii] Ibid., 210.

[xlix] Ibid.

[l] Ibid.

[li] Derek Traversi, T. S. Eliot: The Longer Poems (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), 50.

[lii] Ibid., 211.

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