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.

Seven Years of Emptiness (Incarnational Semiotics 2)

In the opening to Murder in the Cathedral, before the arrival of Thomas Becket, Eliot once again ventures back into the waste land, still populated, as before, by its J. Alfred Prufrocks and Gerontions. Here, “it is impossible to say just what I mean”[i] and life is “measured out . . . with coffee spoons.”[ii] No one would “dare / Disturb the universe.”[iii] They “have no ghosts” because there is nothing of the Spirit or the spiritual.[iv] One of the priests of Canterbury tells Thomas, upon his arrival, that the time he has been gone has been “seven years of emptiness.”[v] Therefore, declare the Women of Canterbury, “there is no danger / For us, and there is no safety in the cathedral.”[vi]

Eliot has, in short, returned once again to the intellectual milieu in which he came of age and of which he remained a part for most of his early career. In large part, this intellectual milieu was dominated by the figures whom later postmodernists would identify as having provided the foundation for their theories. In her preface to Derrida’s Of Grammatology, his translator, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, points to the intellectual background of deconstruction in the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Martin Heidegger.[vii] Both Nietzsche and Freud were early influences on Eliot. Eliot studied Nietzsche while a graduate student and Nietzsche, in turn, exerted some influence on Eliot’s approach to poetry and drama later, as John Zilcosky and others have shown.[viii] Eliot also read Freud around the same time, referring to a work by one of Freud’s disciples as “‘possibly’ one of the most ‘notable productions’ among recent philosophical works.”[ix] While Heidegger’s major work was published too late to exert an early influence, the similarity between his and Eliot’s ideas has been noted as well by Jain,[x] Dominic Griffiths,[xi] and others.

As Spivak goes on to explain, it was the combined force of the ideas of Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger which enabled Derrida’s deconstructionist turn, embodied in his pronouncement that there is, simply put, “no ‘truth.’”[xii]  Instead, there are only “the texts, the chains, and the systems of traces.”[xiii] There is, in other words, only “différance,” the endless train of “signifiers,” or words, which, in turn, never point to a “signified,” or endpoint for the chain of language and thought, but only to further “signifiers.”[xiv] Since, in Spivak’s words, “sign will always lead to sign, one substituting the other . . . as signifier and signified in turn . . . knowledge is not a systematic tracking down of a truth that is hidden but may be found” as had hitherto been assumed by thinkers belonging to the Western intellectual tradition.[xv] Instead, says Spivak, quoting Derrida, “it is rather the field ‘of freeplay’” in which one is to follow each signifier to its signified which is, in turn, a signifier for another signified endlessly within “the closure of a finite ensemble.”[xvi] “The absence of the transcendental signified,” the metaphysical source and telos of thought and language, is “limitlessness of play,” says Derrida.[xvii] Spivak’s comparison of Derrida’s ideas with “even such empirical events as answering a child’s question or consulting the dictionary” in their similar revelation of the fact that “one sign leads to another and so on indefinitely” is apt.[xviii]

As Nevo notes, Eliot in 1922, the year of the publication of The Waste Land, had already taken a turn very much like Derrida’s deconstructionist turn of 1967. In The Waste Land, she writes, “symbols” do not “function as foci. They refuse to symbolize. They explode and proliferate. They turn themselves inside out, diffuse their meanings, and collapse back again into disarticulated images.”[xix] The same world is revisited before Thomas’s arrival in Canterbury. The Women of Canterbury declare,

We do not wish anything to happen.

Seven years we have lived quietly,

Succeeded in avoiding notice,

Living and partly living.[xx]

Repeating the refrain “living and partly living,” the Women explain that “there have been oppression and luxury, / There have been poverty and license.” “Sometimes the harvest is good” and other years it is not. They “have kept the feasts, heard the masses” and they “have seen births, deaths and marriages” as well as “various scandals.” None of these, however, have meant anything. Until Thomas’s arrival, all of these potentially portentous events have signified nothing.[xxi]

It is only with Thomas’s arrival impending that the Women are able to declare “evil the wind, and bitter the sea, and grey the sky, grey grey grey.”[xxii] As a result, though the people have “talked not always in whispers,” they have been cut off from each other, each with “our private terrors, / Our particular shadows, our secret fears.”[xxiii] There is a sense of isolation and unreality that permeates.[xxiv] Only “now” that Becket is approaching, sing the Women of Canterbury, “a great fear is upon us, a fear not of one but of many.”[xxv] Their inability to understand and articulate, however, is only increased by their shared experience. “We / Are afraid in a fear which we cannot know,” they sing, “which we cannot face, which none understands.” Indeed, “our selves are lost lost / In a final fear which none understands.” Harry, in the Family Reunion, written shortly after Murder in the Cathedral, expresses the heightening of horror at the inability to communicate: “Oh, there must be another way of talking / That would get us somewhere. You don’t understand me. / You can’t understand me.”[xxvi] Individually, Eliot’s characters, the Women of Canterbury included, cannot make sense of the signs, but communally they cannot make sense even of themselves.

In addition, even the liturgical and formal aspects of life in this first part of the play are deficient or perverted.[xxvii] As the Herald announces when he proclaims the coming of Thomas, for example, there is “peace” between the Pope, the King of France, the King of England, and Thomas, “but not the kiss of peace.”[xxviii] As St. Augustine indicates in his Sermon 227, the kiss of peace, exchanged, in the Latin Rite of the Mass, just after the consecration of the Eucharistic elements and the communal recitation of the Pater Noster, is linked with the Eucharist and the Lord’s Prayer as “great and holy sacraments” in which the “hearts” of Christians are brought together along with their “lips.”[xxix] The lack of accord between the feuding parties is therefore a lack of Eucharistic unity as well.[xxx] Once again there is a failure to overcome the separation between individuals, to communicate effectively or to participate in a shared experience. Even those signs which signify, then, such as they are, signify only indirectly and incompletely.

Unlike Derrida with his notion of “freeplay,” Eliot does not celebrate the lack of a “transcendental signified” to bring unity and direction to the symbolic.[xxxi] Instead, as Eliot wrote in a letter to Paul Elmer More in 1930, “I had far rather walk, as I do, in daily terror of eternity, than feel that this was only a children’s game in which all the contestants would get equally worthless prizes in the end.”[xxxii]

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

[ii] Ibid., line 51.

[iii] Ibid. lines 45–45.

[iv] T. S. Eliot, “Gerontion,” in Ricks and McCue, eds., 32 (line 30).

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

[vi] Ibid., 175.

[vii] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, preface, in Of Grammatology, by Jacques Derrida (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), xli.

[viii] John Zilcosky, “Modern Monuments: T. S. Eliot, Nietzsche, and the Problem of History,” Journal of Modern Literature 29, no. 1 (2006): 21.

[ix] Robert Crawford, Young Eliot: From St. Louis to the Waste Land (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 293.

[x] Jain, 148.

[xi] Dominic Griffiths. “Looking into the Heart of Light: Considering the Poetic Event in the Work of T. S. Eliot and Martin Heidegger,” Philosophy and Literature 38, no. 2 (2014): 350–367.

[xii] Spivak, xxviii.

[xiii] Derrida, Of Grammatology, 65. Emphasis in original.

[xiv] Ibid., 15.

[xv] Spivak, xix.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Derrida, 50.

[xviii] Spivak, xvii.

[xix] Nevo, 456.

[xx] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 180.

[xxi] Eleanor Cook, “T. S. Eliot and the Carthaginian Peace,” ELH 46 no. 2 (Summary 1979): 353.

[xxii] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 180.

[xxiii] Ibid., 181.

[xxiv] Michael Goldman, “Fear in the Way: The Design of Eliot’s Drama,” in Eliot in His Time: Essays on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of “The Wasteland”, ed. A. Walton Litz (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), 164–165.

[xxv] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 181.

[xxvi] Eliot, The Family Reunion, in Complete Poems and Plays, 269.

[xxvii] Robert W. Ayers, “Murder in the Cathedral: A “Liturgy Less Divine,” in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988), 109.

[xxviii] Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, 178.

[xxix] Augustine, “Sermon 227,” in Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons, tr. Mary Sarah Muldowney (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2008), 197–198.

[xxx] See 1 Corinthians 10:16–17.

[xxxi] Derrida, 50.

[xxxii] T. S. Eliot to Paul Elmer More, June 2, 1930, in The Letters of T. S. Eliot: 1930-1931, vol. 5 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 210.

 

Book Review: Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot

One of T.S. Eliot’s masterpieces, Murder in the Cathedral is a drama of the return to England and martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket. From the historical events, Eliot creates a piece of writing that is simultaneously, and in equal proportions, a prayer, a study in the psychology of both the murderer and the martyr, and a meditation upon the proper relationship between church and state. The result is one of the greatest works of 20th century literature in the English language.

Eliot begins shortly before Thomas’s return to Canterbury following seven years in France. A feeling of trepidation is already in the air. The players, like the audience, know already what is going to happen.

Upon Thomas’s return, he is haunted by four successive temptations. The first three are the obvious temptations of anyone in his position: power, ease, and treason. The fourth, however, comes as a surprise even to Thomas: the temptation to do the right thing, to embrace martyrdom, but for the wrong reasons. Thomas conquers each temptation in turn. The “Interlude,” a homily by Thomas upon martyrdom, finally shows that he has conquered the fourth temptation.

After the murder of Thomas, the knights who have killed him each in turn step forward to justify themselves to the audience. Just as Thomas’s homily revealed the mind of the martyr, the mind of the murderer is revealed in the defenses given by each knight for his actions. The audience is asked to decide who was in the right, if anyone. Perhaps, Eliot seems to indicate, both Henry and Thomas, as well as the knights, were doing their duty, however much the particular duty of each might bring them into conflict with the other.

The book concludes, as it ought, with a prayer to God as well as to St. Thomas, the martyr, not with an invocation of the king. “Blessed Thomas, pray for us.”