Meditating Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages (V)

To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits, / To report the behaviour of the sea monster, / Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry, / Observe disease in signatures, evoke / Biography from the wrinkles of the palm / And tragedy from fingers; release omens / By sortilege, or tea leaves, riddle the inevitable / With playing cards, / fiddle with pentagrams / Or barbituric acids, or dissect / The recurrent image into pre-conscious terrors— / To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual / Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press: / And always will be, some of them especially / When there is distress of nations and perplexity / Whether on the shores of  Asia, or in the Edgware Road. / Men’s curiosity searches past and future / And clings to that dimension.

“I have never been able to make up my mind,” comments Thomas Howard, “whether Eliot wrote the opening fifteen lines of this section (down to ‘… the Edgeware Road’) with especial relish—even, perhaps, a certain naughty glee” (Dove Descending, pp. 116-117). I agree. When I read these lines aloud, I always find myself reading them in a sardonic tone. I don’t think it’s just me. And for this reason I find them jarring and out-of-place. In my judgment they undermine both the spiritual seriousness and charity of the poem. It’s too easy to make fun of superstition. The poet is shooting fish in a barrel. “Eliot,” I want to say to him, “no matter how cleverly written, these words are unworthy of you and your poem. Go say one Our Father and three Hail Marys.”

The poet rejects the practices of divination, necromancy, tarot cards, palm-reading, and even psychoanalysis. “All these are usual / Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press.” These practices do not enlighten, do not heal and liberate, do not sanctify. Like a narcotic they only anesthetize and distract. But most importantly, they  enslave us to the oppressive sufferings of the past and the paralyzing terrors of the future. (When Eliot wrote these lines Nazi bombs were falling nightly on London.) They are a demonic substitute for the bracing asceticism commended to us by the Quartets. I wonder whether Eliot too quickly dismisses the ascetical benefits of psychoanalysis—can it not be a path to self-awareness and deliverance from delusion?—but I cannot contest that the method may also reinforce us in our self-absorption and close us to the transcendent presence of Eternity. (What Eternity? Freud might ask.) That people should turn to superstition during times of personal and national distress is understandable. We desire relief from pain and fear. Surely there must be a way for us to control events and protect ourselves from the calamities of which the poet has spoken in the first two movements. But Eliot will not seek refuge in spiritual superficiality. “Where is there an end to the drifting wreckage, / The prayer of the bone on the beach?” The popular remedies make empty promises. The primitive terror is not so easily transcended; suffering and death are inescapable. What is needed is not magical manipulation of occult power but surrender to the God who embraces past, present, and future in his infinite love.

We minimize the spiritual dangers of gnosticism and the occult. The Bible knows differently. God has given us solemn warning. Spiritual counterfeits can only lead to darkness, delusion, slavery, idolatry.

If a prophet arises among you, or a dreamer of dreams, and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder which he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or to that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him, and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and cleave to him. (Dt 13:1-4)

Hard words—harder words, perhaps, than those offered us by the poet.

(cont)

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18 Responses to Meditating Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages (V)

  1. Jonathan says:

    I don’t know. There are days I’d rather see a people obsessed by superstition, if it opened them to the unseen vital (and demonic) forces of the world, than stupefied by complacent materialism, which often strikes me as a worse evil than any blatant suffering. It’s all about context, I suppose. TSE had lived thru the loony first few decades of the 20th century, when people went in for all kinds of weird occult stuff. Now we mostly laugh at that kind of thing, even at halfway consistent endeavors like anthroposophy and the like, but are we any less decadent and despairing than people a hundred years ago? And what atrocities are we on the verge of committing, or already committing, behind the smoke and mirrors of our blasé and wonderfully technological and scientific consumerist comforts?

    Then again, we have our own superstitions today, usually of an abstract nature. The words for most of them end in -ism. In a way, I think Eliot, who was really quite healthily earthy and no more a friend of gutless abstraction than he was of unrestrained worldly appetite, might be being generous and somewhat playful here with the mostly antique superstitious practices he cites. Better that people pore over chicken entrails than exterminate whole populations for the sake of some abstract ideal, be it nationalism, communism, or whatever.

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    • Nationalism and Communism are not superstitions, even if they can be torn apart and shown to be wrong. Ideology and superstition have different names because they are different.

      TBH, Jonathan, superstition is really awful stuff, and the Orthodox that I know are among the most superstitious of all. Can’t get pregnant? –go to the relics, not the doctors! &c. It often seem that, for many people (and even parishes), Orthodoxy is nothing but folklore and legends run rampant. I know many people who were so overpowered by this, and so alienated, that they became convinced that their spirituality was not Orthodox when it was, and who ended up leaving the Church. It’s easy for hardliners to dump all of the blame on such people, but the culture of parishes does drive some to this (esp. when there are no other options, and people can’t emotionally take being an outlier who is constantly at cross-purposes with the bulk of their co-religionists).

      The superstitiousness that so often infects people and parishes seems to reduce Orthodoxy to protection from demons (so the awful translation, “deliver us from the evil one”), imagined as agential and thinking gases of sorts. The presentation of the demonic within the NT loses all nuance and depth in such hands, and the sacramental life of the church ends up becoming, in large part, an apotropaic against the demonic.

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      • Jonathan says:

        I don’t really know about life in an Orthodox parish, and neither did TSE.

        “Superstition” runs a wide gamut. Some superstition bears a strong resemblance to ideology, to the point of being almost indistinguishable, in my opinion. In the contemporary context, I’m not actually thinking primarily of communism; nationalism, on the other hand, is obviously still a force to be reckoned with.

        It’s true that the Nazis were bound up with a good deal of occult stuff. But that kind of thing really was rampant in early twentieth century Europe and it didn’t always result in evil. Look at the preoccupations of a poet like W B Yeats, for example. In any case, purely in terms of literary criticism, I think Eliot’s tone here is more generous than Father is reading it. TSE had a sense of humor. That is my main point. For a different take on Eliot and superstition, I suggest taking a look at The Waste Land.

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      • 407kwac says:

        This is a bit off-topic, but it’s been on my mind lately because I have loved ones involved in the occult (New Age practices), and I’ve recently been listening to some recorded testimonies of those who have come to faith in Christ out of that background. I also recently watched a documentary by Judson College grad, Darren Wilson, called “Finger of God.” I suspect the events documented there will leave any Orthodox believer (and many others, too) with a fair number of questions about signs and miracles, faith and (for me) especially spiritual discernment and spiritual counterfeits. Lastly, I was a psychology major at an Evangelical college, and in our Abnormal Psychology class, we studied the difference between people whose mental illness has a physiological or psychological cause and those whose abnormal behaviors are the result of being “demon- oppressed/possessed.” My understanding is that there has been an allowance and provision for the possibility of all of these in the Church from the very beginning.

        With that as context, what I want to say first is it seems to me there is a very fine line between superstition and childlike faith sometimes when it comes to a recognition of the supernatural dimension of life and faith from a Christian perspective, and only one who truly knows the heart can determine which is really in play in a given situation/person. In my experience, the truth is often far stranger and more fantastic than fiction in terms of the role of uncanny “coincidence” and of the blatantly miraculous in the lives of people of faith (and most certainly also in the occult). OTOH, I also have a mentally ill family member and know one can also be blatantly delusional and not merely superstitious about reading “magical” things into circumstances and events that are really not there, and that medication, not solely prayer or counseling, can make the difference between having something of a functional life or institutionalization! (Btw, speaking of infertility, my godmother, a convert with her husband from Protestantism, after nearly 10 years of unsuccessfully trying to conceive a child with her husband, finally conceived their only son in her 40s without the help of doctors or drugs soon after they had their marriage blessed in the Orthodox Church–not that they sought the blessing for this purpose or for any superstitious reason.)

        As for the “nuance and depth” of the NT accounts of the demonic, I’d love for you to unpack a bit what you mean by that. But in absence of that, I’ll also hazard a guess you might not look at those accounts in the same way if you ever have the misfortune to see real live examples of full-on demonic possession, including ongoing extreme mutilation and contortion of their human hosts/victims, as I did in a video earlier today (I regret to have to admit morbid curiosity got the better of me). There will be no doubt in your mind as to the completely sadistic, obscene, and murderous, alien, parasitic, and supernatural reality of the evil on the human victim or victims. It’s worse than your worst Hollywood nightmare. Sadly, there were no Christians on the scenes in that video to pray for the deliverance of the unfortunates I saw in its compilation. It was unspeakably beyond horrifying and heart breaking–I had to shut it down before it finished.

        I would add to prevalent and popular false ideologies having an undue influence on the mindset of the faithful and all people in the modern era, naturalism. To Jonathan, I would also offer my opinion based on observation that involvement in the occult is even more rampant today than it was in the first half of the 20th century. A lot of it has just become more mainstream, less exotic, accepted as normal “alternative spirituality”, and often masquerades as mere “entertainment” or even “therapy.” I’m convinced a lot of the bizarre behavior, transformation of innocent young vocal artists into obscene sexual and occultic stage acts, extreme plastic surgery and transsexualism (both forms of self-mutilation), etc., in our celebrity pop culture are largely, if not all, the result of occult involvement, abuse and manipulation of those celebrities.

        Karen

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Jonathan, I hope my opening sentences did not lead you to believe that I am minimizing the dangers of superstition and the occult. If so, I probably need to rewrite the paragraph. What I’m objecting to in the first 15 lines of the poem is Eliot’s sarcastic tone, which ultimately makes light of the seriousness of the subject. “Surely no intelligent person can take seriously this stuff,” etc. Within the whole of the poem, I find these lines jarring.

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      • Jonathan says:

        I think I’m the one who’s failing to be clear, Father. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think TSE is being condescending about superstition and occult spirituality like a modern rationalist would be. But he’s also clearly not quaking in his boots. It doesn’t need to be one or the other. Take his historical statement seriously: “all these are usual. . . and always will be.” He’s accepting something fundamental about the human condition and fallen human nature. And he’s trying to be a little lighthearted. In a work of protracted seriousness like the Quartets, that is necessary.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Gotcha, Jonathan. But even if Eliot intends the lines should be read in a more playful, teasing way, I still find the tone jarring. I suppose that’s just me.

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          • Jonathan says:

            For sure, there are a lot of sudden shifts of tone in the Quartets, and in some places, depending in part on the mood in which we’re reading or the pace of our reading, we might detect a grinding of the gears. Evidently you hear it more than I do with respect to this particular passage. It’s largely, I think, a matter of sensibility. I’m just trying to suggest a different reading for you. I know that Eliot was fascinated by what may broadly be called superstition throughout his life, and to me this means he was never flippant about it. It’s impossible to be flippant or dismissive about something in which one has real interest. In general, in Europe in the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries you see a massive renewed interest, producing a great deal of insight, into the nature of religious practice, spirituality, and beliefs about the supernatural across cultures. This was arguably one of the fruits of colonialism, as well as a reaction to the technological pragmatism and optimism of the 19th century. The heyday of 19th century bourgeois rationalism was over, and the result was a welter of often silly but sometimes brilliant and even beautiful speculation and new ideas. It’s the age of William James and Jane Ellen Harrison. The Russian sophiologists were not divorced from all this, nor were the Perennialists / Traditionalists, and even people like Owen Barfield and Charles Williams. Eliot, I believe, was pretty good at seeing and parsing out what was ominous, humorous, sad, and truthful in this fervor. His humor, to be sure, runs a bit dry. A chacun son goût.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          And thanks for engaging my article!

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          • Jonathan says:

            Happy to have something maybe a little useful to say. Doesn’t happen often. One more thought that might be of interest to your reading of the poem.

            It seems to me Eliot is deploying a similar trope — appropriating language, we might call it — in the passage where he mimics Chaucerian English in the first movement of East Coker:

            The association of man and woman
            In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie-
            A dignified and commodiois sacrament.
            Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
            Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
            Whiche betokeneth concorde.

            If Eliot is mocking here, then he could be mocking in the treatment of superstition. But I don’t think he’s mocking anything. In fact, I think the Quartets are entirely devoid of mockery. It isn’t that kind of poem. But there is some playing around, often by dipping into a variety of unusual vocabularies and registers of language. But what counts as unusual? I hardly have to tell you that today as many people would regard talk of “commodious sacrament” and complementarian sexuality as “superstitious” nonsense, as they would practices of augury and divination and whatnot.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          I do agree with you that opening lines do not convey a contemptuous tone, and have deleted the phrase from the article.

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          • Jonathan says:

            One other thing I want to add, Father, and that is simply that I really appreciate your meditations on Eliot’s poem. I’ve spent my adult life more or less professionally involved with literature. I’ve nourished a particular enthusiasm for TSE since I was an undergrad, and for no part of his work more than his masterpiece, the Quartets. Yours is a refreshing engagement with that poem, and I can tell you, that is very rare.

            Literature is the only thing I really feel qualified to comment upon, for various reasons. I’ve also really enjoyed and profited from your blogging about George MacDonald’s fantasy. I know you are something of a fan of literary fantasy. I think it is a genre that is especially well served by a Christian approach, regardless of the religious commitment of any given fantasy – for example, that of Guy Gavriel Kay, whom I see you’re reading now. So I guess I’m just trying to say. . . Happy reading! It’s shamelessly self-serving of me to say so, and take it with a grain of theological salt, but I believe Christ must love the fantasists and the poets in a special way — and those who love them.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Thank you, Jonathan, for your kind words. These meditations have been my first sustained attempt to read Eliot—in fact, my first sustained attempt to read poetry. And I was an English major. Somehow I managed to avoid poetry (excluding Homer and Shakespeare) throughout college. I did take one class on the Romantics, but I didn’t do very well.

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  2. brian says:

    Despite the fact that I often write about philosophical theology, literature is my first love. I am particularly grateful that this site addresses the nexus of art and theology. As Christian fantasy is the genre that nourished me as a child and continues as a project of both reading and writing, I encourage more of this kind of dialogue.

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  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Does anyone want to write for the blog a Christian theological reflection on Chronicles of Narnia, the Space Trilogy, Lord of the Rings and Silmarilion, or one of George MacDonald’s fictional works?

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