Friday, March 05, 2010

Down the passage which we did not take

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
--T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

My apologies for the hiatus between Ash Wednesday and Four Quartets. Life has been a bit busy and I needed some time to regroup (not to mention buy a new copy of Four Quartets since mine was misplaced somewhere).

I fell in love with the language of Eliot in my freshman year of college. I recall walking to class the day we were to discuss The Waste Land and Miss Kaiser asking me what I thought of the poem. I opined that I loved it. She did not. She asked if I understood it, to which I replied: "Not at all but what glorious language."

Well, there you have it. My aesthetic judgments begin with a sensory, visceral response. The mind races behind trying to catch up, to explain why I like or dislike this or that. This is why my comments on culture or aesthetics here are likely to be non-systematic and idiosyncratic.

Through my freshman year and beyond I reveled in the luxuriant language of The Waste Land and it shaped my own writing, whether poetry or journaling. I believe it lingers in the background of my fiction. It certainly predisposed me to respond favorably to Four Quartets.

Once again the response is visceral. I like the word patterns, whether I have the faintest idea what they mean or not. Hence, I do not pretend to offer here a learned analysis or anything resembling an authoritative interpretation. These are merely some of my individual responses to Eliot's poetry.

Well, enough excursus.

If all time is eternally present

This gives us a starting point that is jarring to the predominant Western perspective. We conceptualize time as something that passes in a linear fashion, like water flowing by, always unidirectional (modern ability to play video in reverse notwithstanding). If contemporary physics offers concepts of space or time curving, we get a bit uneasy. This is because our sensory perceptions on the day-to-day level is of rectilinear three-dimensional space with events moving "forward." When the word "timeline" is used we immediately think of something in a straight line with dates marked in regular numerals along that line. Our conceptual timeline does not curve, deviate, reverse itself, or - gasp - squiggle.

Yet we will speak of all time being eternally present to God, whose being is outside time.

If we were more traditional (and I mean going back to ancient traditions) we might view time differently. As cyclic, for instance, a perspective common in many societies.

Then there are the times we ponder starlight. We see a star in the skies and our scientific thought processes remind us that the light we are perceiving now left that star many years ago. Arcturus, for example, is rather close yet what we see of it is light that left 36.7 years ago. What does this do to our idea of time? To behold this star is to see the past.

Eliot invites us to shift our perspective to the eternal, the timeless, though it is only in time that we can think of it.

Our imagination might be able to grasp the idea that all matter that exists right now, scattered through the vastness of space, once existed - at the Big Bang - as an infinitesimal point. Let your imagination point to that not-even-a-speck and say "everything is right HERE." Eliot asks us to consider that "everything is right NOW."

If that is the case, however, how does it unfold, as we perceive time in the ordinary sense? How can anything have beginning, middle, and end if everything is simultaneous? How could anything happen? Anything change? Movement exist? Can there be transformation or redemption if everything is here and now?

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Eliot is certainly taking our imagination down a passage it would normally never have taken. He calls us into an unfamiliar place, "towards the door we never opened/ Into the rose-garden."

Will we allow ourselves to step into eternity?

Is such an exercise pointless? Merely disturbing dust to no evident purpose?

What might happen if we go into this rose garden?

When Eliot visited Burnt Norton, a Gloucestershire manor, in 1934, he evidently had one of those moments when past, present, and future coalesced: a transcendent glimpse, if you will. In the course of this poem he teases out implications of this, inviting the reader to experience something far more vast than our usual awareness.

Perhaps this is why I unconsciously felt these poems would be good for Lent as Lent calls us to ponder on a deeper, vaster scale than we normally do.

[Should I include one of those ethical disclaimers, announcing that I used "Dust on a bowl of rose-leaves" as the title of a poem I wrote, a poem that is an acrostic of later lines in Burnt Norton?]

--the BB


rick allen said...

I remember, in the late eighties, coming across a record of Eliot reading the Four Quartets, and I made a tape of it and for the longest time listened to it driving to work.

The meaning of the thing baffled me, but I kept listening, and over time it began seeming to make sense, the relationship of the eternal to the temporal, the particular to the universal, the divine in the human. It sounded much like Dante's Comedy transposed into a converted modernism, the sin of the world set out and giving rise to its consequences but ultimately not touching that still point around which the whole revolves.

But I also came to realize I always sound like I'm talking nonsense when I try to explicate it (if that's a word).

Paul said...

Good comments, Rick. Explicate it indeed a word and I appreciate your reticence. I do not pretend to be explaining Eliot's poetry, only reflecting on it and going on my own tangents. It's very rich stuff.

author said...

Well this sounds pretty darn erudite to me regardless of your notes somehow on disorganization, etc. I am one product of a UC education system, even at different campuses where I endlessly and scrupulously studied specifically 'The Wasteland' in more than one class. IMO falling in love with the language is EXACTLY what the poet himself would have adored! Anyway, I think you do a great job.

Paul said...

Thanks, Janine. My life has been an extended love affair with language.