Here, and only here, I have made no secret of the fact that I am teaching at an institution that is taking an increasingly fundamentalist turn. Since this turn is never official, quite, but always implicit, coded, and anesthetic as a mosquito bite, anodyne as a platitude, I have little I can point to specifically. However, this year we have had a new Hudibras-like leader [Hudibras is the "trew-blew Puritain knight" who went a-colonelling] require that all faculty attend the weekly "chapel" services. This was probably a mistake, as having even a like-minded body of cranky and educated people forced to do something is bound to generate ill will, and not everyone is like minded.
I have a great deal to say, from an anthropological point of view, about these services. They start with a "praise band," for example. (Imagine someone raided the Nirvana songbook and replaced the lyrics with collages from Psalms.) (That this is unnecessary, given songs like "Rape Me"'s reference to Christian poetry like Donne's "Batter My Heart" is too daring a conclusion.) What moves me most, though, is the central point of the practical theology: Everyone out THERE is unsaved, and many in here are unsaved.
Far be it from me to engage in Christian theology on a political website. It's possible to trace this missionary impulse's extension into all elements of the contemporary world into elections, campaigns, and attitudes toward fellow citizens, but I only want to talk about a poem. You see, the effect of the edict that we must all attend has been that I keep feeling sad rather than angry, and I keep remembering that youth never knows itself, that youth's beauty and danger is passion, and that I could not hope to explain or justify to my students why I sit on the last pew and look miserable.
I could retreat into any number of well constructed literary defenses -- that is one of the purposes of a liberal education, but I come to "Little Gidding," by T. S. Eliot. It's the last of his Four Quartets, and it's a tough read. What makes it hard, though, is not what is on the page, but what is in the reader's life.
Follow down, and I will explain why "Little Gidding" is a poem for a point in life, not a meaning in mind, and why its message, divorced from the bloodless ecumenism of the 1960's, answers the exclusion and expunging of the fundamentalists with an expiating and purgatorial hope.
First, I'm sorry about the Latinate diction. It happens when a body reads Eliot. Second, I suppose I should explain what it is, really, that's bugging me about today's Southern Baptist young.
I hate the idea of violating the copyright on The Four Quartets, and so I will restrain my quoting to fair use as best I can. However, if a person wishes to read the four poems, or just the full "Little Gidding," here is a good online text without silly people stamping on it.
Nearby -- and I would show you, if I knew how to make photos display on DailyKos -- there is a Tabernacle Baptist with a gigantic Quonset Hut style Assembly hall. If the Puritans were still around, they would approve of the lack of beauty, but they might wonder a bit if they went inside these places and saw all the LCD projectors and screens and amplifiers and the like. The group that would not allow stained glass or church music might be suspicious of such things. At any rate, leaving the 300 space parking lot, there is a sign in front of the congregant, on the highway, so that each must see it as she or he leaves: "Now Entering the Mission Field."
In other words, the moment a member of that particular church leaves, he is a missionary attempting to ferret out and convert the ungodly. Other Christians in the area might be a mite miffed. However, a student (yes, a student) told me the other day that I should sit at the front pew and "get the Word." A speaker at a previous service told the students that there were "between 4.2 and 5.8 billion unsaved people in the world," and that this was because they -- the students and other members of their religion -- had not spread the word. I thought this was blaming the sheep in the pasture for the wolves in the wood, myself, and later preachers would tell the students that those wolves were, in fact, Satan in person.
I do not wish to say "No." I do not wish to sway or swerve any person in the passion of young faith. Anger, faith, exuberance -- all of the energy of youth is a force for construction or destruction, both of self and society, and the fire of time will mollify the flame of youthfulness without anyone's intervention.
The story of "Little Gidding" is the story of transcendence. When I was young, Eliot's poetry saved me from the desert of suburbia. I dwelt among the savages of lawn care products and the sophisticates of mortgage schemes. I longed for stimulation, and my high school had none. (It actually had a good bit, but it seemed too little.) I found the knotted poetry of "Prufrock" bracing, and its melancholy celebration of the intellectual in a shattered world sounded like my journey through the middle class waste land. I had the luxury of being born after Eliot stopped writing poetry, and so I could read his whole life's work in a small volume. Like a boxed set of CD's, I didn't have to wait for the next release or appreciate any maturation or history between releases. I could just keep going.
"Oooh, this one has big heavy symbols," I would say, and I would proceed to chew through the lines. That is, I did until I got to the Quartets. I couldn't understand them. Oh, there were references to Julian of Norwich, and I read her and Cloud of Unknowing, and I'm grateful, but I didn't get it. The message was too simple.
Later in my life, I realized that my younger self had not appreciated anything of the Eliot poetry. I had been a decoder ring, not a reader. I missed the fact that the narrator of "Portrait of a Lady" is a jerk, a cad. I did not understand that Prufrock is a sap. I didn't catch the fact that "The Hollow Men" are the bankers caught in the blinding light of revelation. I had been young, been filled with passion and intellect without any soul, and I had read that way. The Quartets are poems of soul atop the intellect.
"Little Gidding" itself, as a place, was a small Utopian community that worked. Don't be surprised. Many Utopias have worked just fine. They usually do not work for long or over a large area. Usually, religious communities manage socialism and Utopian organization, because they cohere around a faith that keeps members giving. Monasteries are socialist. The Shakers managed quite well. The Oneida group worked. So did Little Gidding, but Little Gidding was orthodox.
In the poem, Eliot speaks of something that W. H. Auden would also elaborate on, later. In The Dyer's Hand, Isherwood and Auden would talk about kairos as an hybrid of Existentialist and mystic knowledge. In "Little Gidding," Eliot is speaking fairly clearly of the places and times where time and place become meaningless because of God. Where W.B. Yeats would want history to overlap and "gyre" and spiral and spring, that would put the agency on time itself.
For the Christian mystic, it is not the place, not the day, not the time, and not the person that makes for transcendence, but God and the interchange of the eternal with the temporal.
"You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always." -- Little Gidding I
Where prayer, which is more than words, sounds, and volition, has been valid (accomplished, heard, communicated, literally), the dead may speak with the living in a language that is beyond the language we use in a moment that is never and always and not this place but this place. The temptation to say, "So all religions are the same" is overwhelming, but that's nowhere implied, because the reason for the transcendence is the single reality.
The compound ghost tells the narrator,
"And he: 'I am not eager to rehearse
My thoughts and theory which you have forgotten.
These things have served their purpose: let them be.
So with your own, and pray they be forgiven
By others, as I pray you to forgive
Both bad and good. Last season's fruit is eaten
And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.
For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice." -- Little Gidding II
All that theology, all that elaboration and argument, and all the zeal, are needed, but they are needed for a purpose. This, I fear, is the most troublesome truth standing here, amid the ardor. The machinery of faith does have its place, does have its function, but we must set it aside when the beast is full. It is a husk of meaning.
Even as I rage at and against the hubris of a religiosity that believes that only "conversion" is belief, that has the audacity to judge every non-congregant an unbeliever, that has the presumption to know the content of another's soul and mind by observing non-conformity, I have to hope that one day, too, they can arrive at the place. I have to forgive the good and the bad alike, as both are paths.
If you, too, find yourself beset by exclusive commands, take a look at Eliot's farewell to poetry. After The Four Quartets, there was nothing more that poetry could do.