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.