But Like Beasts (Incarnational Semiotics 5)

The Knights who now enter to kill Thomas behave as personifications of this lack of significance. As the Priest notes in his warning to Thomas,

these are not men, these come not as men come, but

Like maddened beasts. They come not like men, who

Respect the sanctuary, who kneel to the Body of Christ,

But like beasts.[i]

They have lost their humanity because they have lost their ability to see signification; they are no longer, in the terminology of Roland Barthes, man the “meaning-maker, homo significans.”[ii] Through the renunciation of the symbolic, the Knights have renounced their own humanity, their identity as the symboling creature, and so have become directly identified with animals. “Men who have emptied themselves—for ‘a soul cannot be possessed of the divine union, until it has divested itself of the love of created beings”—are entitled to hope for this metamorphosis of symbols,” writes Hugh Kenner, citing the quotation from St. John of the Cross used by Eliot in his Sweeney Agonistes.[iii] “For the empty men who parody those saints it is only a hope, and a forlorn one.” Eliot uses their own drunken words against them to reinforce the point:

Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

Are you marked with the mark of the beast?

Come down Daniel to the lions’ den,

Come down Daniel and join in the feast.[iv]

All of their imagery is the imagery of animals. In a blasphemous mockery of the Eucharist, they sing about being “washed in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14), as they will be spattered with the blood of Thomas when they kill them. “The mark of the beast,” another image from the Revelation (13:16), functions as an inversion of “the Blood of the Lamb” which marks the faithful. Finally, they identify themselves with the lions to whom Darius ordered the biblical prophet Daniel to be fed (Daniel 6:16).

Thomas, however, once again restores the correct signification of the symbols, insisting, “It is the just man who / Like a bold lion, should be without fear.”[v] And once again this resignification is accomplished through the Eucharist, with which he identifies his own blood which the Knights are about to spill:

This is the sign of the Church always,

The sign of blood. Blood for blood.

His blood given to buy my life,

My blood given to pay for His death,

My death for His death.[vi]

Thomas drives home this identification of his death with the sacrifice of Christ and the Eucharist, and therefore the identification of the entire drama with the liturgy, by reciting a prayer reminiscent of those said during the lavabo, the ritual washing of the priest’s hands in the Mass just before the consecration of the Eucharist. Thomas prays, “Now to Almighty God, to the Blessed Mary ever Virgin, to the blessed John the Baptist, the holy apostles Peter and Paul, to the blessed martyr Denys, and to all the Saints, I commend my cause and that of the Church.”[vii] Only the inclusion of St. Denys, an early Christian bishop of Paris who was martyred in the third century, sets Thomas’s prayer apart from its model in the Mass.

The Women of Canterbury continue this theme of washing in their chorus of reaction to the Knights’ slaying of Thomas. In a confused cacophony of approval and horror they implore the Knights to wash away the symbolism that the world has taken on: “Clear the air! clean the sky! wash the wind! take the stone from the stone, take the skin from the arm, take the muscle from the bone, and wash them. Wash the stone, wash the bone, wash the brain, wash the soul, wash them wash them!”[viii] This washing away of symbolism and significance, however, is not accomplished by the death of Becket, but by the speeches of the Knights following their murderous act.

Immediately upon killing Thomas, with his blood still on their hands, the Knights turn to the audience, once again, as did Thomas in his Christmas sermon, drawing the observer into the action. Now, however, the audience is being pulled in the opposite direction. Whereas Thomas’s sermon is intended to draw them into the liturgical element of the drama, to bring about participation in the ritual renewal of the Incarnational and the Eucharistic, the Knights’ speeches are an attempt to persuade the audience away from the liturgical, and therefore away from significance, to reduce the drama to mere entertainment and spectacle. “The Archbishop had to be put out of the way,” the Second Knight argues.[ix] “No one regrets the necessity of violence more than we do,” adds the Third Knight.[x] “Unhappily, there are times when violence is the only way in which social justice can be secured.” The Knights’ words and arguments are Eliot’s parody of modern political debate, a contrast to the liturgical poetry of Thomas.[xi] Being addressed to the audience, the Knights’ speeches are not merely technical devices internal to the poetry, however. Murder in the Cathedral is, after all, a ritual drama. Drama and ritual are interactive in their essence.[xii] In one of the earliest descriptions of the Mass, written near the middle of the second century, St. Justin Martyr elucidates among the essentials of Christian liturgy that “all the people have expressed their assent” to the Eucharistic prayers of the priest.[xiii] The Mass, then, is not merely observed, but participated in. The Knights’ speeches are one last attempt to draw away the participation of the audience, to render the Eucharist impossible by removing the assent of the people. The Knights’ speeches are also a reminder and a challenge, like Thomas’s earlier words to the Chorus, that the audience must shortly venture back out into the waste land, that what they have experienced in the ritual and in the drama will eventually be only a faint memory.

[i] Ibid.

[ii] Allan Johnston, “Identity, Inclusion, Ethics, Values: Potentials of the “Literacy Event”” Journal of the Philosophical Study of Education 1 (2011): 86.

[iii] Hugh Kenner, “Hugh Kenner on the Hollow Men as Lost Souls,” in T. S. Eliot, ed. Harold Bloom (Broomall: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999), 67.

[iv] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 212.

[v] Ibid., 213.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid., 214.

[ix] Ibid., 215.

[x] Ibid., 217.

[xi] Carol H. mith, T.S. Eliot’s Dramatic Theory and Practice, From Sweeney Agonistes to The Elder Statesman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), 102.

[xii] Umberto Eco, “Semiotics of Theatrical Performance,” The Drama Review: TDR 21, no. 1 (March 1977): 117.

[xiii] Justin Martyr, The First Apology, in The Apostolic Fathers, ed. Roberts and Donaldson, ch. LXV.

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