Eliot in the bardo

A few weeks ago, I preached a sermon about Four Quartets in which I made the point that Eliot is writing about an experience that is impossible to write about (thank you Anita) with the shabby equipment of words. But in attempting to write about that experience, he’s trying to evoke that very same experience in the reader.

Who needs drugs when you’ve got metaphysics?

If we read the poem carefully and intentionally and with the thirsty spiritual yearning of this forty days, we may find ourselves having the very experience the poem is about. We very well might experience those “hints and guesses” that give us a glimpse, if ever-so-briefly, of what is truly Real, the intersection of time and timelessness.

Let me put it this way. When I was an undergraduate, I took a course on the philosophy of time. We used to joke, Who needs drugs when you’ve got metaphysics? This is again what Eliot is trying to do here. Scramble our brains just a bit more, and this time not (just) with metaphysical poetry, but with Eastern philosophy. Specifically Hinduism, and maybe its cousin Buddhism as well. He’s doing essentially what Krishna is doing with Arjuna: trying to get him to stop thinking about himself (that is, his self) in a conventional way. What is this thing, this self that seems to give me a kind of solidity that evaporates when I think of its existence through time. We think of ourselves as solid, existing separately from everything else. Is it an illusion?

Like gazing at a river, we say “that’s the river,” when we only see one place, this place: the river. The present. We don’t realize the river is the whole thing, the part in Dubuque, the part in St. Louis, the part in Memphis, and things are happening in all three places. Time–past, present, future–is all one thing; we just can’t quite grok it in our ordinary state of mind.

The river, that brown muddy wash I think of as myself, is only a fiction. I can’t see all of it, I can only see this part, and the delusion is that this part is the river. And the “me” that was in Dubuque is not the “me” that travelled through St. Louis, or the “me” that will travel through Memphis, if I don’t get sucked into the drink along the way.

Can I contemplate my future self, me in my frayed bathrobe thinking back on this time as “the best of times,” or looking back with regret about what I did or didn’t do? Do you ever think about a future generation who will look at you (hey, there’s Uncle Jeff!) as a shadowy figure in the yellowed photographs of a photo album? (Well, equivalently-yellowed JPEG’s?) Who is this self, from the point of view of now? Or the past or future?

Here’s another way to think of it, and here we’re into another deep dive into philosophy, but not that deep, since it may seem familiar to some of us. A paradox called the Ship of Theseus. The ship of the great war-hero Theseus is preserved in the harbor at Athens for many years, each plank being replaced as it rots out, and over time each part of the ship is replaced. The question posed is thus: is it the Ship of Theseus or some other ship? If all of its parts are not the original parts, does it cease to be what it purports to be? When, at what point did it cease to be the actual Ship of Theseus? What then is the Ship of Theseus?

This is of course a philosophical problem about the identity of the self. Over our lifetime–whether it’s in seven years, or ten, or fifty–every cell in our body will be replaced, by “time the destroyer and time the preserver.” Am I the same person I was when I was ten?

Ship of Theseus

As Eliot puts it, we are literally

not the same people who left that station
or who will arrive at any terminus,
While the narrowing rails slide together behind you.

What “people” are we then? Our minds, thus bent.

This is, again, the stuff of the mystics, the ones from the East this time, and specifically from the Bhagavad Gita, that dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna which he references at the beginning, and which Eliot apparently knew rather well. The lines,

“on whatever sphere of being
The mind of man may be intent
At the time of death,”

are a direct quote from it. It’s a thought that reminds me of another great work of Eastern spiritual literature, the Bardo Thodol, usually translated, The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Bardo, in this tradition, is the liminal space, the transition between life and death, and the state of one’s consciousness determines the state of your transition in to the next phase of existence.

Such a notion might also cause us to reflect on the importance in the Catholic faith (spelled this time with a capital C) on the moment of death. How often do we encounter a story in Dante of a soul who was a complete jerk in life, up until the moment of death, when repentance occurred, and a soul is changed by divine grace and gains admittance into heaven. It ain’t over until it’s over.

It’s almost like what any institution does at the end of the year: give a snapshot of their finances at that one moment in time, that liminal moment between December 31 and January 1. But we know that it’s just a snapshot, in the ever-changing complex dynamic of expense and income, profit and loss, asset and liability. But the moment of death is the X-Ray where it’s all frozen. All is accounted for.

And yet, isn’t every moment such a moment–a moment where we must account for our life; isn’t “the time of death…every moment”?

We are not so solid, and the great delusion is that we are. Are we a self, or a complex of dying and rising processes, taking place across the great river of past, present and future? And it’s in realizing that, that we are liberated.

So would Krishna say.

One final thought in this vein–and encouragement. The thought and the encouragement have to do with a book I read recently called Lincoln in the Bardo. Bardo meaning, again, “a transitional space between life and death.” If you are a fan of Dante or of Eliot, read it (the encouragement). The book has to do with the souls who populate the graveyard where Abraham Lincoln frequented in order to grieve for his dead son, Willie. It is one of the most fascinating – and deadly funny (ha!) books I’ve read in a long time. Unlike in Dante, they don’t know they are dead, and aye there’s the rub.

Could it be that our liberation is to realize that…we, that this fuzzy composite I call “me”, is, are, already dead and dying, and that so realizing, we shall truly live?

So would Krishna say, perhaps.


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