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Per Caritatem

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On Exiled Existence and Longing for Eden: The “Unheard Music” of Plato and T.S. Eliot

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

September 18, 2011

Lately, I have been re-reading Plato’s dialogue, the Symposium, in conjunction with T.S. Eliot’s poem, Four Quartets.  In addition to numerous themes that I hope to develop into a full length article in the near future, I have been musing over the different panegyrics to Love presented by the males assembled for this festive occasion. (One female voice is, however, permitted to speak at this gathering, namely, Diotima, the philosopher-priest who serves as Socrates’ mouthpiece, or keeping with the Dionysian themes animating the drama, Socarates’ mask.  I shall have more to say in the days to come about her all important leading role in this typcal male-only event.).  Of the speeches prior to Socrates’/Diotima’s, I find Aristophanes’s account the most captivating.  With his discourse, we encounter a myth about human origins in a primordial past when all was well or significantly better than the present.  As Aristophanes explains, there were originally three kinds of humans—male/male, female/female, and female/male. These originary pairs had a spherical shape, four arms, four legs, two sets of genitalia, and so forth.  More importantly, they were in perfect relational unity with their, as it were, soul mate.  However, for some inexplicable reason they became proud and plotted to usurp the gods. The gods, needy beings as they were, opted to punish them rather than obliterate them.  Why so? The gods required their sacrifices and worship. After some deliberation, it was decided that Zeus would cut them in half, thus producing their current embodied state, their experience of love now as lack—a kind of inner emptiness, a swirling always-there longing for the intimacy that was.

 What I find incredibly interesting about this ancient Platonic account of humanity’s “fall” and present restless condition is how well it resonates with the Christian account as articulated by T.S. Eliot in his poem, Four Quartets.[1] Listen to Eliot’s hauntingly beautiful word imagery in part I of the first movement of the poem entitled, “Burnt Norton.” Having introduced his first major theme, time—or better the problem we have with time and the dismal thought that our time (our past, for example) might be unredeemable, which of course is not his position at all—Eliot sets before us our telos, our end, which he says is ever-present. Just as we find time and memory closely linked in St. Augustine’s Confessions, so too in Eliot’s account.

“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.”

Somehow we are drawn in by echoes sounding in our memory.  But echoes of what? The lines immediately following this first mention of echoes suggest something lost, more specifically potential opportunities lost because not taken. Perhaps we failed to act when we should have, or perhaps the opportunities were lost simply by virtue of our having chosen an alternative path.  A hint of sadness seems to inhabit these faint sounds.

So what about the “other echoes?” Of these, Eliot writes,

“Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.”

Here we are given more details, as these echoes recall a garden, that is, the Garden of Eden, “our first world.” But this is precisely the place where we cannot go, as a sword marks our expulsion and bars our re-entry.  In this particular echo, we recognize our exiled state.  Stated slightly differently, our Edenic yearnings confirm our exilic state. For us banished peregrinators, this “unheard music,” to which the bird summoning us can somehow respond, falls upon tone-deaf ears. Or so it seems most of the time.  Yet, when those tragic moments in life unhinge us, those times bringing intense and rigorously focused soul-reflections, our sense of hearing, like a brief but all too needed interlude from the daily grind, returns. Changing metaphors, we are given a kind a vision of what we were and of what we could have been. In this vision we see pools “filled with water out of sunlight, and the lotos rose,” reposing quietly atop the water whose “surface glittered out of heart of light.” In the water, we see a reflection of them—but of whom we ask? Adam and Eve in their pristine state? Humanity as it once was? Suddenly, the vision ends.  A cloud clouds our vision, and we can no longer see the pool—“and the pool was empty.” Why, we ask?

“Go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.”

As Howard observes in his excellent little book, Dove Descending, Eliot, of course, is not calling us to live in some illusionary nostalgia. Eliot is far too much of a realist (colloquially speaking) for that.  Quite the opposite is the case.  That is, like the authors of Scripture recounting what happens to prophets who experience theophanies—i.e., they fall prostrate—Eliot understands how fragile we truly are, how quickly we become undone when confronted with Reality. We can’t bear it. Thus, it is a good thing—even an act of divine mercy—that our clashes with Reality occur over time, periodically and purposed with our telos in view—a telos that Eliot this early in the poem is happy to leave ambiguous.


[1] My reflections are influenced greatly by Thomas Howard’s book, Dove Descending: A Journey Into T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Ignatius Press:San Francisco, 2006.

*The icon is entitled, The Lord Confronts the Disobedience of Adam & Eve; “The Expulsion from Paradise”, Nave Mosaics from Palatine Chapel, Palermo, Sicily. Mid 12th Century.