Literary Yard

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Much to build, much to restore: T.S. Eliot’s challenge to our culture

By: Ben Cribbin

At first reading, T.S Eliot’s Choruses from ‘The Rock’ seem like something of a literary joke. Their form is odd: The Rock was a verse play written to raise money for new churches in London. Eliot supplied the texts for the choruses. It’s hard to imagine an epoch-making literary figure like Eliot being involved in such a project today.

Then there’s the language. The Choruses are a pastiche of a biblical prophet: cantankerous, hectoring, and proudly reactionary. ‘Oh miserable cities of designing men, Oh wretched generations of enlightened men!’ Eliot’s prophet-voice thunders, as he castigates British society for turning away from its Christian foundation:

I have given you hands, which you turn from worship,
I have given you speech, for endless palaver
I have given you my Law, yet you set up commissions…
Will you build me a house of plaster, with corrugated roofing,
To be filled with a litter of Sunday newspapers?

This is not Eliot as we are used to reading him. Gone are the classical references, and the fragments of Greek poetry, thrown together ‘like a heap of broken images.’ Gone the dry wasteland where there is no water. If you didn’t know better, you’d hardly suspect that this was the same writer who wrote The Waste Land, the diagnosis of lost faith, alienation and spiritual dryness.

But perhaps what is perhaps most striking about these poems, read today, is how utterly anachronistic they sound to the modern reader. The language and the themes are explicitly Christian, urging Britain to return to a time when ‘Christ Jesus himself [was] the chief cornerstone.’ How many people in Britain want that today? Or believe that ‘There is no community not lived in praise of God?’ British people have a deep-seated aversion to Christian language: hearing the name ‘Jesus’ makes us cringe. One suspects that many modern readers, approaching The Choruses today, would find them quaint and well-written, perhaps moving. But a serious answer to the problems we face? I doubt it.

But in dismissing The Choruses, we miss out. The wisdom Eliot puts forward is both radical and profound. At the heart of these poems is a deeply conservative vision of the world, a world in which order and meaning are part of the foundation. To those of us lost in the crisis of meaning, and wandering the postmodern wasteland, Eliot’s poems offer us a way out.

An Ordered Universe

Eliot opens The Choruses by use of the universal symbol of order: ‘the circle’.

‘The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.
O perpetual revolution of configured stars,
O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!’

In his book The Gift of the Jews, historian Thomas Cahill argues that the circle was the pre-eminent symbol of the ancient world. Ancient cultures as diverse as the Sumerians, the Mayans and the Jains believed that history moved through great cycles, and whatever happened was always a recurrence of what had happened before. The circle was also the shape of the observable universe, the constellations, the seasons, the life cycles of plants and trees all following the same predictable pattern. To people living in these cultures, the circle seemed permanent. It seemed natural. You couldn’t escape the circular pattern of the cosmos any more than you could escape your own circular pattern of life and death. ‘All evidence’, Cahill writes, ‘points to there having been, in the earliest Religious thought, a vision of the cosmos that was profoundly cyclical.’

The Sioux elder Black Elk summarises this belief well:

‘Everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the power
of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.’

As we enter the world of The Choruses, we feel like we’re entering a world that is ordered, secure, meaningful. The movement of the stars is ‘configured’, the passing of the seasons ‘determined. There’s something comforting about a world like this. As Eliot later develops in the poems, it’s a world with a right way up and a right way down. It’s a world of natural law. A world where how people should conduct themselves is clear, and not open to interpretation. Do we live in such a world? Or do we live in the postmodern world of ‘clamouring voices, each vying for the right to reality?’

Interestingly, in The Gift of the Jews Thomas Cahill argues that the Bible is the first great story to claim that history is not a circle. ‘The Jews’, he argues, ‘were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of think and experiencing, a new way of understanding and feeling the world… their worldview has become so much a part of us that it might as well have been written into our cells as genetic code.’ The Judeo-Christian story is a narrative, not a circle. It begins in a garden and ends in a city. It has a direction, a goal, a Telos. In some ways the story begins with Abraham, a man living in his Father’s house, whom God commands to set leave his homeland and his Father’s house and try something new. ‘Abraham went’, which Cahill calls ‘two of the boldest words in Literature.’ Later in the story, this God names himself as ’ehye ’ăšer ’ehye, best translated as ‘I will be who I will be’ – the God of the open future. The bible, Cahill argues, is the inspiration for our linear concept of history, our belief that the future is not set in stone, and that we can actively shape it. It is, therefore, the inspiration for our concept of ‘progress’: the belief that tomorrow can be better than today.

The Speaker in The Choruses, however, doesn’t seem optimistic about the notion of Progress.

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness,
Knowledge of words, but ignorance of The Word.
Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.’

Is he wrong? Are we better off now with our innovations, our technical prowess, and our deluge of information? This is the next pearl of wisdom that Eliot offers us: innovation is not necessarily progress. More information does not make us wiser. Perhaps we should look back to earlier, ‘less developed’ ages, to see what they have to teach us. Perhaps we should slow down.

The Centre of a Society: The Temple

Something that modern society forgets is ‘the way to the Temple’.

‘Where there is no temple there shall be no homes,
Though you have shelters and institutions,
Precarious lodgings while the rent is paid,
Subsiding basements where the rat breeds…’

In the world of The Choruses, the health of a society depends upon people worshipping in the Temple. Not only that, but a healthy society is also one that is building itself into a temple, ‘a habitation of God in the Spirit.’ Here, Eliot is using concepts we find difficult to grasp. We don’t believe that worship is an important activity, nor that we as a society are a home for ‘a spirit’, a word that we think belongs in a previous, superstitious age. The Temple, however, is not just a building, but a symbol for a society’s ‘centre’, that thing that its energies are focused towards, the thing that holds it together. As Benedictine monk Cyprian Smith put it, the temple is ‘the thing that your whole life tends towards, the thing that for you is most real.’

What is ours? Some might say economics, or capitalism, or the vast, churning machine that devours the Earth’s resources. It’s interesting to note that London’s tallest and most impressive buildings are in the financial districts of Canary Wharf and The City. Are we happy with this state of affairs? Are we content with the kind of society this gives us? Throughout The Choruses, Eliot shows us what a society that has neglected the Temple looks like. The people of this world are engaged in trivial, frivolous pastimes. ‘On Sundays, [they] motor Hindhead or Maidenhead… or stay at home and read the papers.’ They expend a great deal of energy in fevered, fruitless activity, ‘Engaged in devising the perfect refrigerator. Their cities are not poleis but slums with high rents, where the unemployed rot on the street; where there is no community, and ‘no man knows or cares who is his neighbour.’ Eliot warns us that this is a society that cannot survive, if it neglects ‘The Faith to which it owes its significance.’ The world Eliot describes could easily be our own. And so, the next wisdom that Eliot offers us is, what do we choose to worship? What shall we put at the centre of our lives and society?

Perhaps it won’t be Christianity. Perhaps the world has moved on, perhaps we’re too distant from the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, and perhaps for too many people Christianity is simply unpalatable. But if not Christianity, then what? Eliot would tell us that it must be something. ‘What is the meaning of this city?’ he asks us of the London depicted in The Choruses. A society that has left religion behind, that claims not to have a temple would find this an impossible question to answer. But we would do well to contemplate it. A society with no temple cannot survive, and most only decay. Eliot, though, urges us not simply to ponder but to get to work, telling us:

‘Much to cast down, much to build, much to restore,
Let the work not delay, time and the arm not waste,
Let the clay be dug from the pit, let the saw cut the stone,
Let the fire not be quenched in the forge.’

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