Monday, 6 September 2010

We had the experience but missed the meaning: a note on misreading

What do you think is the most terrifying work of literature ever written? It's a tough competition. But personally, I'd say The Dry Salvages (1941) from T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets would have to be high on the list of finalists. The poem is absolutely relentless, suffocating, unforgiving; I find myself gasping for breath as I read it.

It's remarkable – and instructive – to see how often snippets from Dry Salvages are quoted as though they were positive, affirming sentiments, nice pieces of wisdom to live by. As though Eliot liked us; as though he wanted us to feel better about our lives.

"The river is within us." I've seen these words quoted to incite warm feelings of ecological harmony: even though the line is about our absolute insignificance and defencelessness before the implacable malevolent power of the river, not to mention the infinitely greater and more terrible gods of the sea ("the river is within us, the sea is all about us...").

But probably the most egregiously misquoted lines are the ones that mention life's "moments of happiness":

the sudden illumination –
We had the experience but missed the meaning
This is quoted very often – about 44,000 times on the web, for instance – and it's almost always (even in scholarly books) invoked as a positive sentiment. Learn from your experiences; appropriate the hidden wisdom of the past; discover the meaning of life in those special moments of illumination – that sort of bosh. But Eliot isn't talking about any of that. In this second section of the poem, he sets us up to think that we are about to receive a useful gem of wisdom:
It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence
This "pattern" of meaning is the theme of the section. And the pattern consists in seeing that the moments of "sudden illumination" are just fortuitous aberrations. It is the "moments of agony" that are "permanent". The real pattern of human experience is disclosed when we glance over our shoulders, peering back behind recorded history into "the primitive terror". It's here that we realise that the only "meaning" of time is its indifferent destructiveness. The only thing that's really stable and "permanent" in human history, the only "pattern" that orders our lives, is the "agony" of time. In other words, our lives are sustained by time's destructive power. An omnipotent malignancy has usurped the "preserving" role of Providence:
Time the destroyer is time the preserver,
[...]
The bitter apple and the bite in the apple.
This reference to the apple is often glossed as an allusion to the Fall, where death enters the world through human disobedience. But the really striking thing about this image is the way it reverses the Genesis story: the bite from the apple is not our destruction, but our preservation. The bitter apple is Time – and our preservation in time (i.e., our preservation unto destruction) is the one gift we are granted, a single consoling "bite" from this apple. The only thing keeping us alive is the poison that kills us. Time.

The section ends with a final image, even more shattering. What are our "moments of happiness" like, those experiences of "sudden illumination"? They are, the poem says, like a "ragged rock in the restless waters":
On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,
In navigable weather it is always a seamark
To lay a course by: but in the sombre season
Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.
The rock provides a nice piece of scenery on a fine day, and a useful point of navigation for sailors in fair weather. But only the "sudden fury" of the storm reveals its true and permanent nature – "what it always was". We are deceived when, in fair weather, the rock appears to be pleasant or useful; this is merely an aberration from the true pattern of things. Sheer boat-crushing destructiveness is what the rock "always was". If it appears benign for some extended periods, that is like the malignant river in the first section, which appears "patient to some degree" when in fact it is quietly preparing for the next outburst of implacable wanton rage.

So this, mercilessly, is the poem's answer to the question: what do those "moments of happiness" really mean? Eliot sets us up to expect some wisdom about the meaning of life: but while we are waiting for bread, he gives us a stone.

What do the moments of "sudden illumination" mean, when "we had the experience but missed the meaning"? What is that "pattern" of meaning that we missed? It's simply this: that the happy moments are an accidental anomaly, like the appearance of the rock in fine weather. The "permanence" of life is its agony, even if we only glimpse that truth occasionally, amid storms. Human life – like the ragged rock – remains "what it always was": a "primitive terror". That is the truth about life. And our moments of happiness do not reveal but only conceal this pattern, this meaning.

It's true, of course, that a "hint" of hope is introduced in the last section of Dry Salvages – a hope that blooms into the redemptive pentecostal fire of Little Gidding. And it's true that Little Gidding retroactively alters, even transfigures, our reading of the Quartets, so that Dry Salvages becomes an oblique pointer towards redemption. But by the same token, we're not in a position to receive the hope of Little Gidding until we've first passed through the wreckage and despair of Dry Salvages.

"We had the experience but missed the meaning." Taken in context, the line is as crushingly bleak as anything Eliot wrote. If it is also somehow transfigured by the illumination of Little Gidding, that is only by way of a tremendous internal irony. Looking backwards from Little Gidding, one perhaps sees that the speaker himself has also "missed the meaning". (I don't know whether that's a legitimate reading; I only mention it here as the maximal possibility of a "nice" interpretation of the line.) But even this interpretation could never compromise the earlier poem's fundamental bleakness of vision. Rather it's like the irony of the Gospel of John, when Caiaphas insists that "it's better that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish" (Jn 11:49). An irony like that is no happy ending. It evokes no smile, only a sort of pained redemptive grimace.

There is indeed redemption from the crushing theological terrors of Dry Salvages. But we are saved – if we are saved at all – "as though by fire" (1 Cor 3:15). That is the message of Four Quartets.

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