History Lessons

We’re coming upon the way up, having spent much time on the way down. Eliot begins by reasserting that our spiritual lives have expression through attachment (the live nettle) and detachment (the dead nettle). These have been expressed in the hedgerows’ May flowers and midwinter snow “flowers,” in the wedding dance and the darkness of the underground (EC I & III). Attachment is the spring of falling in love with lover and child and work, “a time for living and for generation … Two and two, neccessarye coniunction,” (EC I). It is all temporary, of course. Detachment comes later, (“as we grow older, The world becomes stranger”) until it is the dark night of the soul or of the season when our efforts wither and we despair of old convictions. Both attachment and detachment are necessary for any living that is touched by “reality,” i.e., the divine.

Attachment we get, I think. Detachment is trickier. Eliot has worked hard at getting us to understand darkness and detachment for most of the Quartets. It was expressed most clearly, perhaps, in East Coker III:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be light, 
and the stillness the dancing.

The soul’s enemy is indifference, which lies between the two. Not empty. Not full. Just “whatever.” Indifference is the cynicism that says it doesn’t matter either way. Detachment says I can’t know yet what matters, but I wait for the moment when it will make some holy sense. Even in detachment we are waiting for… well, God, at least. Indifference waits for nothing. By placing indifference in the space between attachment and detachment, Eliot is onto something. When our passions fade, our best efforts look feeble, our hopes are denied (“hope for the wrong thing”), it is common to cover creeping despair with a pseudo-calm, with “nothing bothers me.” Indifference resists the dark and leaves us in a twilight world, a wasteland.

The way out of indifference is through memory, historical memory which frees us by expanding love as desire to something more. Eliot’s example is love of country, attachment to particular causes and outcomes. Our particular political commitments, when seen in light of history become something deeper than the passionate politics of the moment.detailpicsaerialview

This part of the poem requires some background to unpack. The poem is placed at Little Gidding which was the home of a small Anglican religious community established by Nicholar Ferrar in 1626. The community’s practices followed High Church traditions of the Church of England for which Eliot had a deep affinity. Until recently it was believed that the Ferrar estate was ransacked by the Puritans during the English Civil War. Charles I visited Little Gidding and afterward was captured, tried, and hung. Eliot, who is writing in the midst of WWII London with bombs falling, notes that these earlier combatants had their own attachments to one side or another. Now, three hundred years later, those actions and attachments are “of little importance.” They mean something different. The people in that earlier conflict were “not wholly commendable,” all motivations are suspect. But still “all touched by a common genius” and here we should remember those opening words by Heraclitus: “Although logos is common to all, the many live as if they had a wisdom of their own.” The Logos. They had in common that Word, that Logos that is Christ. These opponents of the Civil War are united because they have Christ in common. Eliot goes on to remember three on a scaffold — Charles 1 and two others perhaps, but also, certainly Calvary, and others who died in that English Civil War, plus the blind poet Milton.

He bothers with these old conflicts and the dead, not to resurrect their issues, but because looking at them from this distance we discover that the meanings, the patterns have been transformed. Stuck in the midst of a war whose outcome Eliot does not know, he asks his readers to take the long view, to see that in God’s course things will be quite different. The boar and the boarhound will be reconciled in the stars (BNII). The pattern of history, especially salvation history, transforms our understanding. I can only make sense of “We have taken from the defeated What they had to leave us—a symbol: A symbol perfected in death.” as Christ crucified. For this reason “Sin is Behovely” necessary, useful. Sin makes us available to the incarnation. Without our limits, our errors, our defective motivations, without our defeats, we would not need Christ.

In our time political life is also a civil war. Remembering history may make us more humble, at least in our valuation of where we are now. Five hundred years on Columbus’ landing and its aftermath, for example, have changed from “the discovery of a new world,” embedded in law as the Doctrine of Discovery to the destruction and supplanting of a native people. Our attachments in the current civil unrest are important but only to a degree. I have read more than a few “apocalyptic” comments about our current situation, warnings about the end of democracy. History reminds us that previous notices of the end have not been accurate. It is also humbling to remember that while no one was “wholly commendable” from the long view, yet all are “touched by a common genius,” the Logos of God.

In any event, Eliot asserts that whatever we gain from history’s fortunate winners, the real gift is from the defeated, who in defeat reflect the Christ. I don’t know quite what to make of this except that it gets us Julian of Norwich’s famous maxim without the pink-toned specs.

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.

Now for “the purification of the motive” … the refiner’s fire.  Tomorrow. Fare forward.

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