This is the middle movement of Eliot’s second quartet, “East Coker” and, as we know by now, Eliot is exquisitely aware of his—and our—present existence as being the midpoint between past and future. My fellow blogger John Timpane spoke of this when he wrote about the idea of Immanence in his post last week. This leads me to reflect this week on the significance of being “in the middle.”
Being in the middle of things is an important and, usually, interesting place to be. Being in the middle of things can sometimes give you a rush of excitement and can confirm your importance—here I am, where all the action is taking place, where things are happening, and I’m a part of it! Wow, that’s great! In a work of literature, being in the middle is where the story is unfolding, moving the reader or listener from first premises to an as yet unknown resolution. In his treatise The Poetics, Aristotle suggested that the best, most effective plays are those that begin in the middle of things—in medias res. The playwright either assumes that the audience knows the story and so can fill in the background to the present action, or, more usually, the author is obliged to provide the background story in an early scene in order to launch the action of the play. Think of the second scene of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which Prospero explains to his daughter Miranda how they came to be living on a deserted island.
Sometimes being in the middle of things is not so exciting or comfortable. It can be a place of uncertainty, anxiety, or doubt. You know—or think you know–where you’ve come from, but you don’t know exactly where you are going. And wherever you think you are going, will you ever get there? You’re lost. Like Zeno’s paradox, if we run half the race’s distance, and then half of what remains, then half of that remainder… then we’ll never finish the race! The race, and our lives, become an infinity of slivered fragments that prevent us from ever reaching the race’s finish line or our life goals.
T.S. Eliot in “Four Quartets” evokes over and over again the opening of lines of
Dante Alighieri’s Commedia:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
When I had journeyed
half of our life’s way,
[more literally, “In the middle of the road of our = my life”]
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.
Eliot strongly identifies with Dante as the archetypal life traveler who, in the “middle of life,” has lost his way and perhaps his faith. The woods are dark and scary, or at least perplexing (not like the woods in Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”: “These woods are lovely dark and deep, and I have miles to go before I sleep….”) and there seems to be no reliable path for the traveler to follow. In such a moment, Dante seems to say, both the body and the soul are stuck, stymied, frozen, with no way forward and no way back. In this case, being in the middle of things seems almost like a prison. It can be a condition of stasis, moving neither forward nor back. Or, in one of the popular truisms of our time, “if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.” More grimly, stasis is death.
This certainly seems close to the place or condition Eliot evokes in the middle section of “East Coker:”
O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark…
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
….all go into the dark.…
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.
Eliot ends this section with a series of paradoxes that seem to fix the poet/traveler in a psychological and spiritual place from which he can neither escape nor move forward:
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
But Eliot’s lines also echo some of the paradoxes at the center of our Christian faith: the “first” shall be “last” and the last shall be first; the master must be the servant; to gain one’s (heavenly) life one must lose one’s (earthly) life. I think that I am more comfortable with paradox than I am with stasis. Paradox is an invitation to interpretation; what do these seeming riddles mean? Stasis is just…, well, stasis: Not forward, not back; no motion or movement, no possibility for life. John Newton, former slave ship captain and famous hymn writer, has expressed one of the most beautiful and, to me, most hopeful images of being “in the middle.” In the fifth verse of his hymn “Amazing Grace,” Newton imagines the saved soul’s time in heaven as both time-bound and infinite because at every moment you are only half-way through your blessed sojourn.
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.
The verse expresses a heavenly mid-point, but in a dynamic not a static way (like grading on a curve or a sliding scale, one might say). Time passes, but at each moment time extends into the future for the same duration of time that has passed. It’s almost a Zeno’s paradox in reverse; as long a time as you’ve spent, so much more time do you have. This to me embodies a more hopeful message of salvation and of what it means to live with and in Christ.