17 February 2010

Burnt Norton, part 2 [i]

We now will consider the second section of Burnt Norton. The previous section we considered was sung in the bass voice (a cello); it brought out the darker side of the earthly solidity that characterizes such a voice, though at its end it faded away into something quite different. Now we are faced with a section that is expressed through a soprano tone (violin); of all the parts of Burnt Norton it is the fieriest and bears (along with part 4) the closest resemblance to what might be immediately understood as poetry. Because of the density of this section this analysis will be divided into several parts.

Formally, this division of the poem is divided into three sections. The first, from "Garlic and sapphires" to "reconciled among the stars," is a carefully crafted incantation that attempts to distill and conjure up the essence of "Burnt Norton" in a single, spell-like saying. The second section consists in a commentary on the sentence "reconciled among the stars," written in verse form. The third section repeats the main theme of the relation that prevails between moments in time which we considered in the first divisions, though transformed by what has transpired in this division.

Writing any sort of commentary on the first section of this division is virtually impossible. It is one of the most tightly wound pieces of poetry I've ever seen; while much of Eliot's poetry has many handholds for the critic to use in his ascent, this section is like a sheer wall of glass or diamond. Nonetheless, I will make a few comments; they will be necessarily relatively more wrong than the majority of what I will write about the poem but hopefully they will still be at least helpful in some manner.

The pairing of "garlic and sapphires" in the section's opening stanza suggests the admixture of the common (garlic) and the precious (sapphire). Garlic and a carved gemstone would look rather similar if their forms were shrouded by mud. The mixture of peasant's food and the noble's rare jewels in the terrestrial mud (and of course both garlic and sapphires come from the earth) is a most fitting symbols for human life. For our lives are an admixture of both the most common "animal" functions (though the poem hardly makes the mistake of conceiving of them in this manner) which we share with other members of our race and with the lower animals and the divine fire which informs our human character. On earth these two poles are mixed together constantly; be wary of he who thinks he has left behind one or the other, or who thinks he can separate them in a clear and distinct manner.

The axle-tree bedded in the mud presumably belongs to some sort of wagon or cart. I've often imagined that it is a series of wagons or a caravan of some sort, carrying all sorts of wares, which might go some way towards explaining the actual presence of the garlic and sapphires in the mud; but such an interpretation is not necessary. The use of the word "clot" plays with the next line, where "the trilling wire in the blood" names that explosive (but musical) force that makes living things live. It trills; why it is not at peace is forgotten, but until the debt of the "long-forgotten wars" has been "appeas[ed]" the trilling goes on. This pattern is hardly simply human or simply "biological" or even simply earthly, however. All the manifestations of this pattern are "figured in the drift of stars." The phrase suggests that even the timelessly eternal stars, the forces which in the form of the Zodiac (the "circle of animals") were thought to control the world, are themselves not timelessly eternal but mutable. Now a command: "ascend to summer in the tree." It was clear (to me) that we were already on a muddy path, at night after a day of rain when the clouds have cleared; now the trees are explicitly invoked and are presented as the place of our ascension. Trees stretch their arms to the very heavens yet always remain rooted in the earth (which is why I find trees to be one of the most fitting symbols for human life). Summer, the season in which this section is transpiring (and which recurs in a later section), is a timeless season (like winter) in that it represents the zenith of the sun's ascension in the sky. It is the season in which the life that sprouted in the spring comes to fruition. Summer is traditionally associated with the southerly direction and with fire.

Now that we have raised ourselves above the trees, floating like the ghosts of the first division of "Burnt Norton" (but over a "sodden floor" instead of "dry leaves"), a great mystery is revealed to us: though the "boar" and the "boarhound" continue their serious play, they now have been "reconciled" among the stars. I shall steel myself against the temptation to pronounce this reconciliation as either "subjective" or "objective" and steadfastly state that it is at once both and neither, for reasons that will become clearer at a later point.

Thus we have quickly traversed the first section of this division of "Burnt Norton." Next comes the section that begins "at the still point of the turning world," which (as I indicated above) I take to be a commentary upon specifically upon the phrase "reconciled among the stars." More generally, it is a commentary upon the entire preceding section, but it specifically concerns itself with the essential nature of the reconciliation.

14 February 2010

Burnt Norton, part 1

We left off last with the resolution to carefully consider each section of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets with a view towards offering an interpretation of the poem as a whole. The limitations of the format in which I am writing will necessarily make this interpretation fragmented until we have finished going through the entirety of the poem; I only hope that it will nonetheless direct the reader back towards the poem and help bring them into confrontation with what it is trying to say.

"Burnt Norton," the first section of the poem, can be found at http://www.tristan.icom43.net/quartets/norton.html.

One aspect of the poem as a whole is its concern with the different modes in which time overtakes us. We say variously that time heals all wounds and that time destroys all things. The temporality of human existence is perhaps our greatest blessing and greatest curse. "Burnt Norton" revolves around several different considerations of the essence and meaning of time with respect to the possibility of freedom coexisting with determination. Let us begin to examine this problem in light of the first division of the poem.

This division begins (quite famously) "Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past." Many readers (myself for some time included) have difficulty form the outset reading this since it in no way resembles what we are expecting to find in a poem. Formally, it appears to be a sentential proposition concerning the nature of time. This is the sort of thing one may expect to find in a philosophical treatise. What is it doing in a poem? Is this the criticized "elitism" or "abstractness" of Eliot's poetry rearing its ugly head?

Such characterizations miss the possibility (here necessary) of the poet to speak philosophically in his poetry while still remaining essentially a poet. Like musical instruments, the voices in the Four Quartets do not possess the sort of personality that one typically expects from the speaker of a lyric poem. They do possess a certain characteristic tonality which consists in a fitting of the "concept" being "expressed" in the section with the manner of "expression" (such words are useful so long as we recognize that here expression and mode of expression are one). It may be useful to think of each section as corresponding either to one of the registers of the human voice or one of the instruments of a string quartet; here, we have a bass voice (or a cello from the quartet, if you prefer).

In fact, what we can almost correctly call the hopelessness of the first section of "Burnt Norton" is precisely suited to the sort of pedantic despair with which the poem begins. The meaning of the opening lines is clear: if everything that has happened is contained in the future, and if the future is contained in the past, then everything has already happened. As absurd (at the outset) as such a view may seem it is precisely the position of the sort of popular scientific materialism we still find floating about. If there are exact and binding laws in the physical universe, and if the physical universe is the only dimension in which anything exists, then everything that would ever happen is necessarily determined from the moment at which the universe explodes into being. Every chemical action and reaction in my brain, as I am writing this, is a necessary step from the previous set of circumstances that brought me to this moment. If this is the nature of the world, then it is beyond even hope or despair; it is at a place where hope is a meaningless word. All time, as the voice states, is "unredeemable." This question of the meaning of the redemption and its relation to time is one we will take up later; for now, I would suggest that one look to Prince Hal's "redeeming time" speech from Henry IV or alternatively the section from Ephesians where it is considered.

The voice goes on to proclaim that hope, which is necessarily tied up to what could be, never existed: "what might have been is an abstraction." As the voice introspectively travels back to a prior moment we first encounter one of the poem's key symbols, the rose. "Into the rose-garden" we go, even though such a journey is only "disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves." Here doubt begins to enter into the darkness in which we began: for though it proves nothing to this mechanistic speaker, he recognizes how strange it is that people would be drawn towards contemplation of the past if the past was necessary. What is being encountered in such contemplation? The voice "do[es] not know."

The garden is filled with what the speaker only hears as "echoes," the fact that these sounds are heard as echoes, perhaps like the "withered stumps of time" observed Eliot's Wasteland, may have less to do with the sound and more to do with the listener. A bird urgently calls out to him to follow the echoes, which the speaker proceeds to do. However, he is from the outset prejudiced against this calling, as he enters "our first world," he does so decrying the "deception of the thrush" that led him there. He enters the rose-garden when it is already autumn; the leaves have fallen off the trees; the garden is filled with what he perceives as ghosts moving "dignified" and "invisible" over the "dead leaves." Yet the bird apparently has a different view of things; it sings in response to "unheard music hidden in the shrubbery." Not only that, but the speaker recognizes that the ghostly beings in the garden must be able to see what is happening, for the roses in the garden, as he observes, "had the look of flowers that are being looked at."

The speaker and his ghostly cohort (and presumably the bird) move "in a formal pattern" into the "box circle." The importance of formal patterns will become more apparent when we enter the second section of "Burnt Norton;" the box circle, I believe, refers to the central section of the garden in which a circular pool is walled in (at some distance from the pool itself) by a very short hedgerow. Symbolically, it is a reference to "squaring the circle," a process that ancient geometers reportedly attempted and which certain alchemists claimed to have accomplished. While it is mathematically impossible to perform this function because of the transcendence of the number "pi," the alchemical meaning of the square circle pertains to the elevation of the material (lead) to its perfection in the spiritual (gold).

The pool appears "drained" and "dry" to the speaker. Yet all of a sudden, remarkable in the manner in which the speaker presents it as unremarkable, "the pool was filled with water out of sunlight." If such an event transpired in our lives we would no doubt find it noteworthy, yet the speaker only punctuates this event with a comma from the previous line that ended in "brown-edged." The surface of the water "glittered out of heart of light," a beautiful image that is reminiscent from the Wasteland, and the ghostly onlookers become visible by their reflections in the water. The lotus flower that floats in the pool, like the squared circle, symbolizes the transformation of the lesser into the greater. For the lotus (according to the interpretation in Hinduism) is planted deep in the mud of a pond, only to emerge and unfold as the most beautiful of flowers.

"Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty." What just happened? The symbols that we have just encountered all pertain to what we may generally and almost emptily call "transcendence." What a mighty word, and how low it has fallen now! We need now only understand by transcendence a shifting beyond the world in which one had previously lived; a shift that must be to some extent qualitative and not simply quantitative. The possibility of the existence of an undetermined realm in which freedom would be possible is not something that the speaker at the outset wished to admit. Yet even when he comes face-to-face with it, he seems completely unable to understand what he is looking at.

What Eliot is driving at here is an extremely important point to understand as the poem continues. While most of us believe that we are "free," none of us can easily explain what that means. Eliot is trying to force the reader in the whole of this first division precisely into the position where the tremendous tension that one must undergo to acknowledge the reality of freedom can come to pass. For there is no empirical evidence of any kind that human beings could possibly be "free;" the concept of free will cannot exist in a purely "physical" world, once "physical" has been understood in the light of the physical sciences. Yet though we cannot explain it readily, there are moments where we experience a sudden and fleeting vision and we seem to be actually capable of deciding our path for ourselves, beyond all the conditions and experiences that have made us who we are.

The section draws to a close as the bird exhorts the speaker to "go," for "the leaves are full of children." "Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind / Cannot bear very much reality." These cryptic final words of the bird are its most profound utterance and possibly the solution to the riddle of freedom, a solution that is invisible to the section's speaker. Just as can only stare at the sun for brief moments before one's eyes are blasted, so it is with the experience of transcendental realities. The moment of ecstasy, like the statue by Bernini, pierces one with an unearthly ray of shining fire. Just as the man who goes to the surface in Plato's allegory and stays in the sunlight cannot with ease return to the cave, so too we who must live in this world cannot for long endure the experience of another world. This is the "reality" that the bird is speaking of. People usually read this as the bird suggesting some sort of flight to fancy and false imagination, but it is in fact making a quite true statement that we who (for better or for worse) must now live in a world of shadows simply cannot bear many glimpses of a higher sort of world.

The experience has in some ways changed the speaker, who concludes with a decisively different rephrasing of his opening lines:

"Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present."

The possibility (which will be considered in the next section) that the coming-together of past, present, and future is actually the precondition for the possibility of freedom instead of its destruction is hinted at in the conclusion. For instead of proclaiming that all time is "contained" in time past, he now suggests that time "point[s] to one end," a very different sort of proposition indeed. The "might have been," which was before an abstraction, is now coupled together directly with the highly concrete "what has been." The experience of the lotus in the rose-garden has brought some measure of enlightenment to the deep voice that preached despair beyond despair.

We will continue next time with an analysis of the second section "Burnt Norton." This next section corresponds to the soprano register of the voice, and has a much more melodic and complex structure.

11 February 2010

The Four Quartets: Introduction

This begins a series where I intend to go through the entirety of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets and offer a section-by-section interpretation of the poem, as well as an overall interpretation of each section and the poem as a whole. We shall begin with a few short comments on the overall structure of the work.

The Four Quartets is divided into four main divisions, each bearing its own unique title and being further divided into five sections. Each quartet has its own distinctive character, though common thematic elements run throughout the course of the whole composition. Quartets are musical pieces for four instruments, and there certainly are some similarities between Eliot's quartets and the classical form; as it is appropriate we will discuss these similarities. However, it should be noted that the musical form itself most likely is derived from the natural divisions of human singing into four different voices (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass); thus in some ways creating a poetic work in quartet form can be seen as a more original sort of quartet than the musical variety.

The general theme of the work is a reflection on the nature of relation. Some of the key relationships pondered in the poem are form and matter, time and eternity, beginning and end, human and divine, silence and speech, motion and rest, separation and communion, and lamentation and exaltation. This is not an exhaustive list; but it should give us an idea of the monumental scope of the poem. It also should clue us in to the fact that the poem can be highly tricky to read; much like Eliot's Wasteland the poem's form and content are so superbly fused that trying to make a division between the two is neither useful nor correct. The poem is written in this fashion for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that interpreting the poem creates the possibility of a transformation in the character of the one interpreting it. While this is not principally why Eliot wrote the poem, it may be (at least initially) why we should want to read it.

The poem begins with two quotations from the enigmatic Heraclitus. Eliot gives them in the original Greek; we shall translate them as "Although logos is common to all, most people live as if they had a their own private logos" and "The way and the way down are the same." Logos is of course the Greek word we will translate as "language" (and the root of the word logic). Interpreting this quote separately from the rest of the poem would be fruitless; I will now only remark that the poem is profoundly concerned with the nature of language and the relation between humans and language. The second quote introduces the concept that opposition (in this case the "up" and the "down") is primally rooted in a fundamental sameness, without which opposition would be impossible. This concept will be explored at great length in the poem.

We shall begin next time to consider the first section of the first quartet, "Burnt Norton." Each quartet is associated (among many other things) with one of the four classical elements; the element that characterizes this quartet is earth.

09 February 2010

Ethics, part 3

A highly general conception of ethics is that it is the science by which men discover those rules which, when followed, will allow them to fulfill their end. The "end" we speak of here has classically been thought as the telos, that towards which man's nature inherently is ordered. Aristotle calls this end "happiness;" Aquinas says it is "the love of God;" Kant suggests it lies in the self-determination of the rational being according to the law of reason; the utilitarians suggest it is mass pleasure. What all these conceptions have in common is that they view the end as something to be achieved as the result or product of a series of temporal actions. Aristotle's happiness is only attainable through the habit of virtue (along with some other developments quite beyond the control of the individual) and Kant's rational self-determination is only possible after exercising one's reason, an exercise which is necessarily bounded by the sequential temporality of time as the condition of inner and outer experience. The maximization of pleasure that the utilitarians seek can only come about as the result of a series of sequential steps enacted in a communal setting.

What is decisive in these systems is a sense that the
telos is temporally ahead of man. What I would like to suggest now is that the end they seek may well stand behind them; as T.S. Eliot says in "Little Gidding,"

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."

We should see how this saying does not essentially conflict with the conception of ethics as ordered towards a future teleological goal. It is not impossible that the end of man is both ahead of him and at the same time behind him. Socrates states in Republic that the most just form of speech, dialectic, is precisely that sort of speech that "makes it way to a beginning." (510b) The justice of dialectic is that it manages to comprise its own origins at its conclusion, which consists not in some sort of "result," as though thinking were a mechanical process that produced thoughts as the final output, but rather as a transformation in thinking itself.

What this means to ethical thinking is that it cannot depart from a prepackaged conception of human essence towards a prepackaged conclusion as to the ultimate end of man. Utilitarianism is guilty of this more than any other "ethical system;" but it in some way is true of all the other systems we have considered (some much less so than others). It is precisely at that point when ethics becomes separated from the rest of philosophy (and therefore becomes an "ethical system") that it become more or less inherently impossible.

It thus seems that genuine ethical thinking is an exceedingly difficult task, a task that we are perhaps not yet ready for. But is it not folly to expect things to be any other way? If ethics was the sort of easy, common-sense thing that the utilitarians suggest, why is it that we still struggle with matters of ethics? Should we not expect that the science which concerns the origin and end of the human essence would not in fact be an exceptionally difficult sort of science indeed? A science which perhaps turns out to not exactly be a science at all?

We close with some more from Eliot's Four Quartets. These words, again from "Little Gidding," could well be applied to the true nature of ethical thought:

. . . You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. 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."

03 February 2010

The problem with tools

In the preceding post, we suggested that utilitarianism existed primarily as a piece of "ethical technology" designed to provide mechanisms to remove ethical issues from the complicated web in which they actually exist and produce quantifiable "scientific" solutions (the "felicific calculus" of Bentham). However, for a number of reasons, this turns out to be impossible, and the usefulness of utilitarianism becomes transformed into a monstrous uselessness.

Exhibit A in this transformation is the work on the highly popular modern "ethicist," Peter Singer. Professor Singer holds a prestigious chair at Princeton and his books are published by the presses of the leading universities of the world. He considers himself a utilitarian, and assumes the utilitarian premises to be self-evident, paying a scant 15 pages of his work Practical Ethics laying out his groundwork (and 7 of these 15 pages are in a subsection entitled "What Ethics is Not.") This does not seem to bother Mr. Singer, since he has set out to try the "application of ethics or morality -- I shall use the terms interchangeably -- to practical issues." Evidently the practical application of ethics requires a scant 15 pages of prologue. How much wiser Mr. Singer must be than the legions of philosophers who have written thick tomes on the topic of ethics or morality; how much wiser still than the billions of men and women whose consciences force them to wrestle with right and wrong! Now that such a great master has arisen, let us examine an early conclusion of his inquiry:

"I shall suggest that, having accepted the principle of equality as a sound moral basis for relations with others of our own species, we are also committed to accepting it as a sound moral basis for relations with those outside our own species - the non-human animals."

Thus begins the section entitled "Equality for Animals?" Yes, incredibly the cutting-edge conclusions of ethical technology are that human beings are in no way intrinsically superior to animals. This leads him to the perfectly reasonable conclusion that one may as well use mentally disabled adults or orphaned children for medical experimentation as an animal.

It was at this point that my disgust forced me to put down the work; thus I cannot share any of Professor Singer's further brilliant discoveries. I in no way am in favor of causing needless suffering to animals, but the very fact that I can consider whether or not I ought to kill and eat an animal seems to point to a manner in which I am superior to the animal. Mr. Singer does consider this point but is (I think willfully) unable to see how the intellectual differences between humans and animals are not simply quantitative but qualitative.

And thus the commonsense usefulness of utilitarianism finds itself transformed into something completely repugnant to common sense. This transformation was necessary from the very beginning; by abandoning any system of value that (to use a word that has been worn away almost completely) possesses a transcendent dimension, the mind degenerates into the madness of ratio being turned back upon itself and analytically removing more and more of itself until all that is left is the dark raging of an empty voice preaching to increasingly emptying classrooms. The attempt to use philosophical thinking as a means to some end is always doomed to failure. Just as the "broken drinking goblet like the Grail" in Frost's "Directive" is spelled so that "the wrong ones can't find it," the attempt to technologize ethics into a tool is doomed to failure.

I will hope in the near future to finish this trilogy with some very brief notes on what ethical philosophy ought to consist in, drawing from the example of Plato's Republic.

01 February 2010

Utilitarianism as tool

My attempt to approach this topic did not come off as smoothly or cleanly as I would have hoped, so I would ask the reader to forgive the imperfections in the flow of the prose that follows.

I've often wondered why anyone bothers with utilitarianism; this wonder deepens every time I see works of modern social scientists, who seem need to constantly appeal to utilitarianism when articulating their theoretical foundations. As I considered this, it seemed to me that understanding the real meaning of utilitarianism requires us to refocus on the utilis in utilitarian. Utilis is of course the Latin word for "useful;" the utilitarians adopted this word as the name for their ethics because they viewed as good those things that were useful for accomplishing the highest good, which was the greatest possible happiness for the greatest possible number (I am here referring to classical utilitarian thinkers; we will have the opportunity to consider their modern descendants in the future). For reasons I will now lay out, I believe it would be more appropriate for us to translate the utilis in utilitarian as a statement that utilitarianism itself is a tool, and that its utility consists precisely in its capacity to allow men to leave behind theoretical questions of right and wrong and focus on "practical" concerns of actually doing ethical actions.

Utilitarianism accomplishes this transformation in the essence of ethics by reordering man's end in light of the collective maximization of pleasure and minimization of pain. It is decidedly unoriginal in doing this (the sophists had proposed precisely this sort of ethics thousands of years prior). Its originality consists in the technologization of this transformation. The sophists had only the tattered rags they stole from the cloak of dialectic to clothe their own reflections, but the utilitarians had something both greater and lesser on their side, which was the commonplace dominance of the form of the physical sciences as the preeminent mode of discourse. The "felicific calculus" of Bentham is precisely this sort of construction; a complicated mathematical shell in which a simple (and false) idea has been encapsulated.

Once this piece of technology was developed, its utility became immediately apparent. All sorts of social sciences, from psychology and sociology to political science and economics, now had a new and firm basis upon which they could conduct their inquiries. Questions about the nature or purpose of man no longer stood in the way of these fields, since a convenient answer had been found. Psychology's transformation into "pop psychology," wherein it became completely engaged in the task of providing us with the tools by which we could feel better, has its root in the utilitarian transformation of ethics. Economics could now make the assumption that the rational human being was the one who sought to maximize his own pleasure, a description which philosophy would traditionally have looked upon as quite a questionable premise indeed.

The transformation of ethics into utilitarianism is a decisive one that lies at the foundation of our age. Those of us who are concerned with moving past (the choice of this word is not accidental) modernity would do well to ponder what is transpiring in utilitarianism. As a brief closing comment that anticipates what will come later, I would like to suggest that the fatal defect of utilitarianism is that it does not actually account for the purpose of human existence, which is precisely what people (justly or unjustly) generally expect philosophers to do. The utilitarian (without appeal to other outside principles) could never explain why people should order their lives towards the pursuit of pleasure. Their counter-argument (that most people do in fact try and do this most of the time) is no counter at all, since the fact that it is generally done is hardly an argument in its favor. The utilitarians popular in our own day seem to have recognized this fact and have turned what was originally an eminently commonsense sort of thinking into an outlandishly monstrous recognition of the complete meaninglessness of human existence that follows naturally from the utilitarian premise.