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.