Ite, Missa est (Incarnational Semiotics 6)

For the moment, however, the Chorus of the Women of Canterbury express their assent. While “a Te Deum is sung in Latin by a choir in the distance,” the Women sing the praises of God in the newly renewed significance of the symbols which populate the created order:

We praise Thee, O God, for Thy glory displayed in all the creatures of the earth,

In the snow, in the rain, in the wind, in the storm; in all of Thy creatures, both hunters and hunted.

For all things exist only as seen by Thee, only as known by Thee, all things exist

Only in Thy light, and Thy glory is declared even in that which denies Thee; the darkness declares the glory of light.[i]

God had brought the “light” by which all else is illuminated and understood, and it is seen, in turn, that all things point to God as symbols of his “glory.” “All things affirm Thee in living,” they continue, but it is man, as homo significans, who “must consciously praise Thee.”[ii] It is man, however, as the symbolling and worshipping animal, that creates the signification and praise of things in the natural world.[iii] And it is “the blood of Thy martyrs and saints” which “shall enrich the earth, shall create the holy places.”[iv] The blood of the martyrs, a sharing in and a renewal of the blood of Christ in the Eucharist, is a transubstantiation of the ennui of the waste land to “the life of significant soil.”[v] With the Women of Canterbury, writes Gardner, “we pass . . . through horror, out of boredom, into glory.”[vi]

The final fusion of signifier and signified into a single reality comes in the final words, of the play, a prayer spoken by the Women of Canterbury:

Lord, have mercy upon us.

Christ, have mercy upon us.

Lord, have mercy upon us.

Blessed Thomas, pray for us.[vii]

In the end, Thomas’s name is prayed alongside that of Christ in a litany of supplicatory prayer. In his 1950 lectures on Poetry and Drama at Harvard University, Eliot said,

It is ultimately the function of art, in imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring us to a condition of serenity, stillness and reconciliation; and then leave us, as Virgil left Dante, to proceed toward a region where that guide can avail us no farther.[viii]

This is, of course, the point to which this prayer to Thomas as a saint now brings the audience/congregation. Words are once again unable to adequately express. Their lack of expressiveness, however, does not arise from the lack of “truth” or lack of a “transcendental signified.” Rather, it is because the symbols are, for a moment, no longer necessary and so are fused with the reality, as the Eucharist is simultaneously the symbol and real presence of the Body and Blood of Christ. But now those who have partaken must re-enter the world. In the words of the Mass, “Ite, Missa est,” or “Go, the Mass is ended.”

Eliot later expressed his belief that Murder in the Cathedral had failed because of its archaic setting.[ix] He seems, however, to have been an unduly harsh critic of his own work. In the same lectures, he expressed the goal of “bring[ing] poetry into the world in which the audience lives and to which it returns when it leaves the theatre; not to transport the audience into some imaginary world totally unlike its own, an unreal world in which poetry is tolerated.”[x] The archaic setting of Murder in the Cathedral, however, is not necessarily a barrier between it and the accomplishment of this goal of imbuing common language with beauty and meaning.[xi] Especially through the use of Eucharistic imagery, Eliot accomplished his goal of the redemption of language, and therefore of communication and significance in human existence, in Murder in the Cathedral. The Mass itself, upon which so much of the structure of the drama relies, is not itself insufficient because of its archaism. Rather, it, like the drama, conveys the character of timelessness in the maintenance of its traditional settings and forms. It is, in short, incarnational, an in-breaking of the eternal and the divine into the temporal and material order, thereby revealing the symbolic nature of the material order which, in turn, points to the very light by which it is revealed.

[i] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 220.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] James Olney, “Four Quartets: ‘Folded in a Single Party’,” in T. S. Eliot: Modern Critical Views, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985), 38.

[iv] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 221.

[v] Ibid., V.50.

[vi] Gardner, 138.

[vii] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 221.

[viii] T. S. Eliot, Poetry and Drama (London: Faber and Faber, 1950), 35.

[ix] Ibid., 23.

[x] Ibid., 27.

[xi] Nancy D. Hargrove, “T.S. Eliot and and the Parisian Theatre World, 1910–1911,” South Atlantic Review 66, no. 4 (Autumn 2001): 36.

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.

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.