Sunday 5 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.


kim fabricius said...

Jeez, I can't believe some people have put a Panglossian spin on this the water poem of The Four Quartets: moving from the Mississippi, "sullen, untamed and intractable," to the hidden horrors of the New England coast; written at the height of the Blitz; and inspired by Beethoven's mournful late string quartets. "Relentless" is the word alright. And, on time, you could have pounded us even further - e.g.:

... the past is all deception,
The future futureless ...


We cannot think of a time that is oceanless
Or of an ocean not littered with wastage
Or of a future that is not liable
Like the past, to have no destination.


You cannot face it steadily, but this thing is for sure,
That time is no healer: the patient is no longer here.

Thank you, Ben, for reminding us that "The Dry Salvages" is a text of terror. Now I think I need a dram or six of Laphroaig.

Ben Myers said...

Actually Kim, now that you mention it I think "text of terror" is too mild a description. I should have used your description, horror — it's not as though we're merely terrified, running around frightened; it's more like an absolutely paralysing ontological horror.

And since you've mentioned the ocean, I can't help adding that the poem's deepest image, the image that holds the whole thing together, is also the most appalling: the clanging of the bell at sea, rung by a time that is "older than the time of chronometers". It's the transcendent distinction between time and eternity transposed into this hideously familiar setting: human time versus the (true) time of the sea.

It's that clanging bell that makes this one of the most terrifying (or as I should have said, horrifying) things ever written. Reading this is probably the closest we could ever come to feeling the truth and intensity of ancient Israel's immense theological horror of the sea.

Pamela said...

I would nominate "Heart of Darkness" as the most terrifying piece of literature and, also close, "Lord of the Flies". Predictable choices I guess but nonetheless great pieces of writing, especially the mounting intensity of Conrad's work.

Jannette said...

I have not read any of these and alas I cannot remember the name of the scariest book I ever read.

I do know it was in college and it was set in the Middle East. A girl was raised as a boy and it was utterly horrifying.It was your classic doppleganger book. While I had never done it before, I told the professor she should warn people about the book as chapter 16 was more than I could take.

Jason Goroncy said...

A(nother) great post Ben. It made the MacKinnon in me leap for joy.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy when someone can unpack Eliot for me. Can you recommend a book you think gets him right?

roger flyer said...

No resurrection without the cross.

roger flyer said...

As to terrifying works of literature, this snippet from a poem by Mary Oliver has stopped me cold in recent days.

“…Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal,
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it,
and, when the time comes to let it go–
to let it go.

From ‘In Blackwater Woods’
-Mary Oliver

Unknown said...

I had similar felt experience as you describe of Eliot's song, Ben, of the Camus' Stranger when I was 17, I think. Also, watching the Chilean film Tony Manero (2008) recently gave me some similar feelings of utter ontological horror. But non-human nature does not produce such terror in me, even when contemplating its destructive force. Only when I try to empathize with the inner lives of human beings who are completely, utterly alienated from anything we describe as humanness. Deepest horror.

kim fabricius said...

For sheer angst-filled hopelessness (fear as "the hand at my throat"), human futility and impotence before the implacable claustrophobic inscrutability of being, and life as a punitive sentence (life means life) - hands up (or down) for Kafka.

"It's always too late in Kafka" - Louis Begley

"a horror of all shared experience" - Zadie Smith

"a series of commentaries on the Book of Job" - Northrop Frye

Erin said...

The most horrifying film I've ever seen in this vein: A.I. Gave me panic attacks for weeks.

As far as egregious misreadings: I wrote a paper for J. K. Smith examining Foucault once. After the class it dawned on me I pretty much rehearsed the straightforward account of free speech Foucault was unwrapping. I seem to do that every time I read him.

Paul Tyson said...

What I really like about chilling literary renditions of malicious banality is that they do produce such deep horror in us. Call me perverse, but this only confirms me in my faith that reality is meaningful and goodness and providence alone are real. For if this were not the case, why the horror? It is the calm acceptance of non-malicious banality, and the apparent ease with which people seem to fill the time between their birth and their death with endless meaningless ‘home improving’ trivialities that really disturbs me. If life can be lived comfortably without meaning, then maybe futility is the reality?

John David Penniman said...

Great thoughts.

I feel similar about Jeremiah 29 (especially the "Greetingcardization" of the 11th verse). Really, every time I read that text and come to the "For I know the plans I have for you" part I find myself gasping. Only if one has not read the melancholy-filled prescriptions and promises of the preceding verses can the 11th appear happy-go-lucky or even remotely comforting.

Myk Habets said...

Is there a really useful guide to the Four Quartets that helps interpret and unpack it? I have read them many times but have to admit I love them but don't really know the depth of what they are about in terms of his allusions and imagery. Is there a guide to the Qartets for people like me?

Paul Tyson said...

Great post Ben. Let me try and engage with it again. The most horrifying thing I have ever read is an IKEA catalogue. Unlike Conrad, with IKEA there is no deep horror beneath the thin surface that is life – such horror I can spiritually relate to – there is nothing even as insubstantial as Heidegger’s Void implacably wearing us down, quietly asserting ‘itself’ against all our crazy pretensions to immortal substantiality and the illusions of our own (and all) ontic presence. No… just nothing. The meaningless surface just is and it is all in an IKEA catalogue. And we are presumed to be happy with it… and, often enough, we are happy with it. Now that is frightening. That gives me first degree nauseating spiritual vertigo. But I do not mean to belittle Eliot, Kafka, Conrad etc. They have vital prophetic importance and the imaginative stimulation of crushing ontic dread is probably the only remedy for our IKEA society. And the Bible is full of such literature – a third of the Psalms, most of the wisdom literature, much of the prophets, and the terrifying totally inexplicable Godforsakenness of Christ Himself on the cross. Yet… I no longer read Conrad et al. I no longer willingly imaginatively dip my head beneath the surface of the river of agony in which we are all adrift. Through tragedy – in my own life, and in the lives of those I care about – I am now too acquainted with the pathos of pointless suffering to find it in any way stimulating as a chosen imaginative exercise. The emotional landscape simply drowns me and I can get no edification from it any more. And however I feel, I simply don’t believe that these feelings, sensations, experiences of despair are the deepest truth. For as deep and as true as Eliot is compared with IKEA, as Aslan might say, there really is a deeper magic than the vision of despair. I like Kierkegaard on despair – it is (very carefully defined in SK) sin, though it can be of a particularly delicate and spiritually cultivated genre in those of true brilliance and genuine sensitivity.

Matthew said...


Hello! Dame Helen Gardner's book, The Art of T.S. Eliot, has a significant discussion of the Quartets and was for a long time the classic in this field. Also, her book, The Composition of the Four Quartets, which contains the various drafts and versions, etc, as well Eliot's correspondence with John Hayward regarding the poems, is an invaluable resource that is unsurpassed.

The quantity of critical literature out there on Eliot is massive, and much of it repetitive - and, in recent decades, rather hostile. The best more recent study I have read, with really fresh insights, is Ronald Schuchard's book Eliot's Dark Angel: Intersections of Life and Art.

Matthew Baker

Anonymous said...

Helen Gardner's The Art of T.S. Eliot (Faber) is about as lucid as you will get. My book, published earlier this year: Anglo-Catholic in Religion: T.S. Eliot and Christianity (Lutterworth, Cambridge) is the only full account of the inter-relationship of his faith and artistry.
Barry Spurr, University of Sydney

Myk Habets said...

Thank you!! :-) To the bookshop...

spiltteeth said...

Specifically on the For Quartets I found Dove Descending: A Journey into T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets by Thomas Howard to be pretty engaging.

Mon said...

Tess of the d'urbervilles would be one of my picks. I was only familiar with Eliot's wasteland, so will now read the quartets. I must say that I was depressed when I woke up this morning and am more thoroughly so now after this post....

Post a Comment


Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.