Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Words, after speech, reach into the silence

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them. The Word in the desert
Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.
--T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

Our journey along the purgative way continues to echo Eliot's juxtapositions: word and silence, living and dying, motion and stillness, end and beginning and now.

"[T]hat which is only living/ Can only die." Where there is simply βιος (bios, biological life) the inevitable consequence is its cessation. Mere life can only die.

Here we might suggest ζωη (zōē, life rooted in the Undying, the life proclaimed by Jesus) as the alternative to that which is "only" living. To attain this latter we let go of the former. One passes, the other abides.

Within this poem we struggle, as Eliot struggles with words, to hold together the polarities, to transcend our simple dualities. There is a motion in the pattern on the motionless Chinese jar. When Eliot writes of the end preceding the beginning, I think of Satie's theory that there is a pre-existent rhythm always and ever before musicians play a note. Satie struggled to express this in his music, to compose out of that which precedes music and makes music possible.

How can we talk of these things? "Words strain/ Crack, and sometimes break, under the burden...." Our noise assails the stillness. Our words tempt and attack the Word. If we can be but silent we might hear that Word speak.

--the BB

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