t.s. eliot

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.


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.


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.


Incarnational Semiotics: The Redemption of Significance in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (Incarnational Semiotics 1)

The similarity of the insights in T. S. Eliot’s early poetry to the thought of the postmodernists a generation later has not gone unnoticed. Ruth Nevo, for example, claimed for The Waste Land the status of “ur-text of deconstruction,” noting that “The Waste Land deconstructs distinctions between critic and author, ‘fiction’ and ‘fact,’ presentation and representation, origin and supplement. These are the classic, central deconstructionist themes.”[i] Eliot’s perspicacity as well as his proximity to the intellectual avant-garde of his day granted him the foresight to predict the course of the intellectual currents of the twentieth century. Through his thorough of early semioticians like Charles S. Peirce and Josiah Royce while researching and writing his doctoral dissertation at Harvard University Eliot was able to anticipate important later developments in hermeneutics and semiotics.[ii]

Whereas Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and other postmodern theorists saw the direction of their thought as a “liberating,”[iii] and therefore positive, enterprise, Eliot was deeply troubled by the implications of lack of meaning for human life and the limits of communication. Where “the average sensual man,” writes Russell Kirk, quoting Eliot’s unfinished first play Sweeney Agonistes, “could not understand the boredom and the horror of existence limited to ‘birth, and copulation, and death,’” the notion obsessed and terrified Eliot.[iv] Linked to this “horror and boredom of wearisome repetitiveness,” for Eliot, was the inability to communicate effectively.[v]

Admittedly, Eliot is not typically thought of a semiotician.[vi] At heart of semiotics, however, are questions of communication.[vii] And exploration of communication and its difficulties is a central aspect of Eliot’s work and was clearly a personal preoccupation of Eliot himself. Eliot’s meditation upon struggles in communication which consumes most of the final section of East Coker is indicative of his thought as a whole. There, Eliot writes that

. . . every attempt

Is a wholly new start , and a different kind of failure

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

For the thing one no longer wants to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

With shabby equipment always deteriorating

In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,

Undisciplined squads of emotion.[viii]

Characters like J. Alfred Prufrock, for whom “it is impossible to say just what I mean,”[ix] and Harry, of the Family Reunion, who explains that “I can only speak / And you cannot hear me,”[x] express, for Eliot, a universal inability to communicate, to encode and decode messages in a manner that allows meaningful understanding between two persons.

Eliot definitively rejected the “horror and boredom” of meaninglessness, with its accompanying inability to articulate and understand, with his conversion to Christianity in 1927. This rejection of what Eliot termed “the ennui of modern life” in favor of the “significance of living” through a recognition “that what really matters is Sin and Redemption,” gave the shape to much of Eliot’s work for the last several decades of his life, including most of his dramatic works and the Four Quartets.[xi] His first, and arguably best, success in capturing this turn from meaninglessness to significance came, however, in his first dramatic success, Murder in the Cathedral, in 1935. There, all persons and events derive their significance from an ultimate transcendent signified.[xii] In Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot captured his turn toward significance in what may be tentatively termed an incarnational semiotics, a restoration of the meaning of life and language through an in-breaking of the supernatural into the mundane which fuses the signifier and the signified into a single reality.

[i] Ruth Nevo, “The Waste Land: Ur-Text of Deconstruction,” New Literary History 13, no. 3 (1982): 460–461.

[ii] Manju Jain, T. S. Eliot and American Philosophy: The Harvard Years (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 147.

[iii] Tristanne J. Connolly and Steve Clark, eds., Liberating Medicine, 1720–1835 (New York: Routledge, 2016), 6.

[iv] Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2008), 112.

[v] Oscar Chenyi Lbang, “The Horrors of a Disconnected Existence: Frustration, Despair and Alienation in the Poetry of T. S. Eliot,” Wenshan Review of Literature and Culture 3, no. 2 (June 2010): 44.

[vi] Tomislav Brlek, “Polyphiloprogenitive: T.S. Eliot’s Notion of Culture,” Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften, no. 15 (July 2004), (accessed June 24, 2016), http://www.inst.at/trans/15Nr/01_2/brlek15.htm.

[vii] Thomas A. Sebeok, Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), 5.

[viii] T. S. Eliot, East Coker, V.3–11. This and all subsequent quotes from Eliot’s works of poetry are taken from The Poems of T. S. Eliot, ed. Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, vol. 1 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).

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

[x] T. S. Eliot, The Family Reunion, 235. This and all subsequent quotes from Eliot’s dramatic works are taken from The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909–1950 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1971).

[xi] T. S. Eliot, “Baudelaire” (1930), in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), 235.

[xii] Michael Beehler, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and the Discourses of Difference (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 33.