Sunday, November 25, 2007

T.S. Eliot and Community: Part III of III

Miss Maria, feel free to read this post by the way. You may want to begin at the first post which is linked in the next paragraph.

In the first post I focused on identifying the linguistic illness of scientific reduction in the modern community. The second post examined the deterioration of communication when language ceases to signify. Now I shall see if T.S. Eliot offers any hope on these matters.

Often with T.S. Eliot, readers have a hard time discerning how pessimistic he really is about society and the possibility for community. For everything T.S. Eliot writes about the fragmentation of language and the isolation of individuals that are representative of modern society, he still chooses poetry as a legitimate means to communicate this with his readers. Such a communication presupposes a common language and meaning by which we could understand T.S. Eliot’s insights. No matter how far Eliot indicates that the destruction of language and community has gone, the fact remains that he is able to indicate this to the reader. Thus even Eliot’s approach presupposes the possibility for a communal understanding and the ability of words to signify. While T.S. Eliot portrays extremes to validate the importance of his critique of culture and seeks to identify the real threats to community, at the deeper core of his writings comes a certain sacramental and optimistic view of reality. Eliot’s own poetical communication of his insights show a certain hope of intelligibility that is most explicitly expressed at the end of The Waste Land and The Four Quartets.

Nearing the end of the last section in The Waste Land and The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot has composed a theory of renewal. By previously emphasizing a bleak view on the future of community, the destruction of genuine communication, and the despondency of language, Eliot seems to disallow for any possibility of renewal from within this fragmented community, but he does still allow for renewal. If renewal cannot come from within it must come from without, or it cannot come at all. Whereas man creates the wasteland, something else renews it. “In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust/ Bringing rain” [394-395]. The rain comes down as a gift to revitalize the land and offer the possibility of peace. This undeserved grace comes again in The Four Quartets. Eliot stresses the importance of history and past. “A people without history/ Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern/ Of timeless moments” (p.144). Only people with a history can be redeemed because they become aware of their folly and true nature. To ignore history is to ignore man’s beginning, his sin, and consequently his end. Renewal is on the horizon.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time (p.145)

Eliot identifies a certain cosmic narrative in which the beginning signifies the end, and the end signifies the beginning. This may be akin to Aristotle’s understanding of formal cause - what a thing is, and final cause - the end toward which a thing is acting. Community and its history stand at the center of this revelation, and the gift of renewal stands as its redemption.

Although not explicit in either work, humility seems to stand as the fundamental core to this renewal. This openness to possibility and language is what Alfred Prufrock lacks. The problem with the positivistic scientific movement is that it prevents a holistic view on reality because it has no internal means to recognize the mystery inherent in reality and our experience. Prufrock stands as a prime example of being intellectually prideful, at least in the sense that he presupposes the disaster of his possible interaction without actually interacting. In this sense pride leads to fear and cowardice, which leads to loneliness and hell.

Rational scientific knowledge cannot totally inform our worldview because only a willingness to accept mystery and approach others in humility will maintain a community that can both give and receive in an exchange of language. When language attains full representation, the literal and spiritual become one. This redeemed language signifies exactly what the individual means thus eliminating any dichotomy between the signifier, language, and the signified, meaning. Renewal cannot come only or primarily from within because the individual would have to impose the model of self onto the community. Rather than being based on the individual, the paradigm for renewal is that of gift and love within a community. The gift must be given, received, and continually reciprocated in much the same fashion that language between persons operates in the context of a conversation. Grace stands as the transforming power. In other words, maybe we must receive grace from without before we can truly renew the world from within.

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