[The End of Time and the Ambivalence of the Believer] [9.17.07]

Indecision and its resultant inaction are not uncommon limbos for the characters of T. S. Eliot’s poetry, least of all for one of his most famous creations, the prudential and ultimately wasted titular protagonist of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” First published in 1915, “Prufrock” preceded by twenty-eight years Eliot’s last major work of poetry, Four Quartets[1], first published as a whole in 1943. The world changed a great deal in that baker’s quarter century, and so did Eliot’s verse, that period encompassing one world war, the untrammeled prosperity of the Gilded Age, followed by the unmitigated poverty of the Great Depression, to all of which another world war served as back-end book-end. The uncertainty of 1915, born of a kind of anxiety of disruption of the status quo, becomes the staid and measured ambivalence of 1943, the calm devastation of the victim of trauma, who is also the witness to moments of beauty.

Ambivalence, as defined in the OED (2nd Ed., 1989), might well be the most prevalent tone of Eliot’s Four Quartets:

the coexistence in one person of contradictory emotions or attitudes (as love and hatred) towards a person or thing.

An aphoristic tendency of Eliot’s, disarming the reader from the very beginning, serves to formally cradle the contradiction that describes his paradoxes. He begins the first quartet:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past. (Burnt Norton, I:1-3)

This reads like a Zen koan, a Taoist or Buddhist riddle, but it is worthwhile to remember Eliot’s devotion to Christianity, and to bear in mind the Christian ideals of this later thought, from the second quartet, “East Coker”: “In my end is my beginning.” (I:1) Compare that to this oft-quoted statement attributed to Jesus: “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.” (Rev. 22:13) Or, consider this, part of the [translated] epigraph to Quartets, taken from a fragment of Heraclitus: “The way up and the way down are one and the same.”

In a sense of strict historicity the lines above represent a confusion of events; but all the elements of time are unified as a kind of patchwork in the mind, laid over memory irrespective of the conditional nature of history and its need for antecedents. What is important to Eliot is not the order in which things occur, but the final judgment of everything and the “occupation of the saint” that is the examination of “the point of intersection of the timeless / with time” (“The Dry Salvages,” V:201-202), or what he elsewhere calls “the still point of the turning world” (“Burnt Norton,” IV:136).

That intersection, that still point, is the space between acts, so to speak:

…As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on
darkness. (“East Coker,” III:113-115)

So, too, the final estimation of history is not only what has occurred (on the stage), but also what has not (backstage), the actual combined with the speculative in a sum total of human experience:

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present. (“Burnt Norton,” I:9-10)

This is to say that what was, is and will be are in part affected by what has not been, what is not, and what will never be; inaction must be as much a condition of reality as action.

Placed into context of the historical moment in which he wrote Four Quartets, the implicit statement of Eliot’s is that, perhaps, war is not the sole responsibility of the aggressor, but also of the passive observer. Whether war is, for Eliot, (un)avoidable is up for debate, though, as he seems to hold fast to the idea that “to be restored, our sickness must grow worse” (East Coker, IV:156), and further, that:

There is no end to it, the voiceless wailing,
No end to the withering of withered flowers,
To the movement of pain…. (The Dry Salvages, II:79-81)

Far from describing an apathy for the misery of war and pain, these sentiments seem to point to a yearning for a restoration, a renewal, as that of a sinner. In the final movement, “Little Gidding,” Eliot tells of the death of air, of earth, of water and of fire, the four elements: a description of the apocalypse prophesied in Revelations. He sees that final annihilation and sees that:

Ash on an old man’s sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave. (“Little Gidding,” IV:54-55)

Reminiscent of a rose garden imagined on the first page of the first movement, the burnt roses represent the final destruction of Eden, begun with the apostasy of the first man and woman, and winding tortuously through all the generations of humanity. With the impassible stoicism of the believer, the old man is unafraid at the end of time, which is also the beginning of a promised eternity:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from…
And the fire and the rose are one. (“Little Gidding,” V:214-216…259)

[1] Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets. 1943. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.


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