Today being the Feast of St. Augustine, I call to your attention the last lines of “The Fire Sermon,” part iii of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”:
To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
In a way these lines, which allude (among other things) to Augustine’s Confessions, seem to demonstrate the opposite of the ethic of reading Augustine suggests in Confessions book IV, wherein the worst thing you can do is interrupt someone reading out loud because you want to linger on the sound of one particular word, at the expense of the sense of the entire sentence; I suggested in that post that Ambrose’s silent reading affects Augustine so powerfully because it suggests to him the possibility of uninterrupted sense-making.
The distinction I would draw here is perhaps over-subtle, but I think Eliot’s lines actually enact for us the opposite of the privileging of sound over sense that Augustine decries. Rather, by forcing us to read the repetition of the word “Burning,” it becomes not an aestheticized interruption, but an ascetic meditation. And by moving from the whole sentence “O Lord Thou pluckest me out” to the truncated repetition of “O Lord Thou pluckest,” Eliot anticipates the “backlooping” which we silent readers would have done anyway (“backlooping” being Walter J. Ong’s term for “glancing back over the text selectively,” an action possible only with the written word). The difference between backlooping and interrupted oral recitation is like that between memory and nostalgia. The former takes place as necessary for comprehension, the latter merely on a whim.
[First post of two, and a sequel of sorts to last year’s meditations on modern marriage. I might want to add some George Eliot (perhaps Silas Marner and Middlemarch?) to the syllabus offered in the last of those posts.]
In chapter 6 of George Eliot’s Silas Marner, a conversation in the tavern takes a strange turn, and one not particularly relevant to the plot, though of great thematic significance:
Here Mr. Macey paused; he always gave his narrative in instalments, expecting to be questioned according to precedent.
“Aye, and a partic’lar thing happened, didn’t it, Mr. Macey, so as you were likely to remember that marriage?” said the landlord, in a congratulatory tone.
“I should think there did—a very partic’lar thing,” said Mr. Macey, nodding sideways. “For Mr. Drumlow—poor old gentleman, I was fond on him, though he’d got a bit confused in his head, what wi’ age and wi’ taking a drop o’ summat warm when the service come of a cold morning. And young Mr. Lammeter, he’d have no way but he must be married in Janiwary, which, to be sure, ‘s a unreasonable time to be married in, for it isn’t like a christening or a burying, as you can’t help; and so Mr. Drumlow—poor old gentleman, I was fond on him—but when he come to put the questions, he put ’em by the rule o’ contrairy, like, and he says, “Wilt thou have this man to thy wedded wife?” says he, and then he says, “Wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded husband?” says he. But the partic’larest thing of all is, as nobody took any notice on it but me, and they answered straight off “yes”, like as if it had been me saying “Amen” i’ the right place, without listening to what went before.”
“But you knew what was going on well enough, didn’t you, Mr. Macey? You were live enough, eh?” said the butcher.
“Lor bless you!” said Mr. Macey, pausing, and smiling in pity at the impotence of his hearer’s imagination—”why, I was all of a tremble: it was as if I’d been a coat pulled by the two tails, like; for I couldn’t stop the parson, I couldn’t take upon me to do that; and yet I said to myself, I says, “Suppose they shouldn’t be fast married, ’cause the words are contrairy?” and my head went working like a mill, for I was allays uncommon for turning things over and seeing all round ’em; and I says to myself, “Is’t the meanin’ or the words as makes folks fast i’ wedlock?” For the parson meant right, and the bride and bridegroom meant right. But then, when I come to think on it, meanin’ goes but a little way i’ most things, for you may mean to stick things together and your glue may be bad, and then where are you? And so I says to mysen, “It isn’t the meanin’, it’s the glue.” And I was worreted as if I’d got three bells to pull at once, when we went into the vestry, and they begun to sign their names. But where’s the use o’ talking?—you can’t think what goes on in a ‘cute man’s inside.”
“But you held in for all that, didn’t you, Mr. Macey?” said the landlord.
“Aye, I held in tight till I was by mysen wi’ Mr. Drumlow, and then I out wi’ everything, but respectful, as I allays did. And he made light on it, and he says, “Pooh, pooh, Macey, make yourself easy,” he says; “it’s neither the meaning nor the words—it’s the regester does it—that’s the glue.” So you see he settled it easy; for parsons and doctors know everything by heart, like, so as they aren’t worreted wi’ thinking what’s the rights and wrongs o’ things, as I’n been many and many’s the time. And sure enough the wedding turned out all right, on’y poor Mrs. Lammeter—that’s Miss Osgood as was—died afore the lasses was growed up; but for prosperity and everything respectable, there’s no family more looked on.”
Every one of Mr. Macey’s audience had heard this story many times, but it was listened to as if it had been a favourite tune, and at certain points the puffing of the pipes was momentarily suspended, that the listeners might give their whole minds to the expected words.
If Macey’s story raises questions about the efficacy of the sacraments, the gentle irony with which Eliot describes his telling of it expands the scope of the problem. What guarantees the validity of any significant action, given that there’s always a threat that it might not have been really meant—it might have been performed, as it were, by rote?
The “learned” solution, that any question of validity can be settled by the written record, is obviously no solution at all. The expanded scope makes that perfectly obvious: no record is kept of the occasions on which Mr. Macey and his audience enact the ritual of storytelling, but that does not mean the ritual did not take place. Moreover, even for significant actions of which there usually is a record, the absence or presence of a record guarantees nothing. Records can be erased, or lost, or forged, or misinterpreted. An appeal to the written record turns out to be no different, metaphysically speaking, than any other appeal to physical evidence. Just like the spoken word, the written word can be lost to the ravages of time, and it does not interpret itself. Who can now say whether Mr. Macey heard the erroneous vows correctly? And who can say whether vows being spoken wrong really makes a difference to what their vowing them accomplished?
But Mr. Macey is also right to reject the appeal to “the meanin’.” Not only is it the case, as he points out, that intentions do not always hit their mark, but—as philosophers like J.L. Austin and G.E.M. Anscombe would argue a century later—there’s no such thing as an “intention” floating free of the physical world. It would be, not just baseless, but nonsensical, to say that someone “intended” to be φ‘ing when they were neither φ‘ing nor doing something that could be described as failing to φ (whether due to accident, or mistake, or whatever). Knowledge of the couple’s intentions at the time of the wedding might help us determine whether they indeed wedded, but it cannot resolve the question entirely, and in any case such knowledge will just be a summary description of what the couple actually did, which is what we wanted to know in the first place.
Though George Eliot doesn’t suggest a plausible solution in the immediate vicinity of the story, I think Silas Marner as a whole does offer us a way out. At the climax of the book, one character pronounces, just prior to confessing their greatest sin, a hope basic to philosophy: “Everything comes to light, [Wife], sooner or later. When God Almighty wills it, our secrets are found out.” Instead of the passage of time obscuring the meaning of one’s actions, it reveals it. The “meaning” is indeed what matters, but this isn’t something that can be accessed through any inspection of the physical action itself, even if that action was the writing on a piece of paper of words whose meaning we think we know. Rather, the meaning is determined by the context, and the context cannot be limited in advance; it will become apparent either sooner, or later.
For example, much of the drama of Silas Marner revolves around another marriage than that Mr. Macey describes—in fact, one involving the daughter of that marriage—and the question of its validity. The presence or absence of a child is central to our judgment on that question, in complex ways I won’t go into here. And this is entirely appropriate. Whether a union is fruitful is the kind of evidence that by definition cannot be present at the time of marriage, but which can be crucial to determining whether the union was ever open to fecundity. Which matters, of course, because a marriage not open to life—for an Anglican, I think, as much as a Catholic—is no marriage at all.
Geoffrey Hill died last Thursday, June 30th. Hill has in recent decades been called the “greatest living poet in the English language”; now he is one of the greatest dead ones.
I first read Hill’s poetry five years ago, then put him out of my mind until last March, when I read his Collected Critical Writings. They made a tremendous impact on my thinking about poetry, language, history, religion… not so much particular things he’s said, as his way of asking questions. Or rather, not asking specific questions, but sounding out various words and phrases. I also went back and looked again at his poetry; his earlier work now matters a great deal to me, though I’m still (as almost everyone seems to be) baffled by the more recent productions.
Even as I read a lot of Hill I was not thinking much at all about Hill the living human being. Then a few months ago I had a conversation with my advisor about Hill, whose office at B.U., it turned out, had been next to hers. When I mentioned how strange it sounded to hear first-hand anecdotes about someone who always seemed to me a “book person,” she exclaimed that, far from a “book person,” Hill was more alive than most people. He was full of life, full of moral and critical and poetic energy. After that conversation I tracked down the recordings of Hill’s lectures as Oxford Professor of Poetry (you can find them here), and listened to them in early June. I came to share my advisor’s assessment: he sounds aged in those lectures, but not at all decrepit.
It’s strange to learn of Hill’s death just weeks after he most seemed to me alive.
I don’t think Hill would have appreciated the kind of sentimental outbursts one seens on the occasion of celebrity deaths. He loathed celebrity, including his own, and he loathed memorial kitsch. He was grotesquely fascinated by the Holocaust, by the difficulty and perhaps impossibility of responding to it without making it about our own feelings of horror. His elegy September Song explores the problem incisively:
born 19.6.32—deported 24.9.42
Undesirable you may have been, untouchable
you were not. Not forgotten
or passed over at the proper time.
As estimated, you died. Things marched,
sufficient, to that end.
Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented
terror, so many routine cries.
(I have made
an elegy for myself it
September fattens on vines. Roses
flake from the wall. The smoke
of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.
This is plenty. This is more than enough.
Am I sad that Hill has died? A few months ago I said that his was one of the only celebrity deaths that would, hypothetically speaking, bother me. It does bother me as I predicted, but perhaps one ought not to make an elegy for oneself after all. Or at least, one should realize for whom the elegy is written—or else it won’t be true.
Everyone I’ve talked to who knows what they’re talking about has said that David Jones influenced Hill immensely. But HIll has written hardly a word about this supposed influence. A few months ago an acquaintance said that we’re all waiting for Hill to write an essay on Jones; now, I suppose, we’ll wait forever. Or perhaps in Hill’s papers somewhere there’s a draft of such an essay to be found, and it can be published posthumously. Time will tell.
They say Mercian Hymns is the most Jonesian of Hill’s books of poetry. It’s also among my favorites; a bizarre sequence of thirty prose-poems mingling the life of Offa, king of Mercia, with that of Hill himself. For example:
Mercian Hymns VII
Gasholders, russett among fields. Milldams, marlpools that
lay unstirring. Eel-swarms. Coagulations of frogs: once,
with branches and half-bricks, he battered a ditchful;
then sidled away from the stillness and silence.
Ceolred was his friend and remained so, even after the
day of the lost fighter: a biplane, already obsolete and
irreplaceable, two inches of heavy snub silver. Ceolred let
it spin through a hole in the classroom-floorboards,
softly, into the rat-droppings and coins.
After school he lured Ceolred, who was sniggering with
fright, down to the old quarries and flayed him. Then,
leaving Ceolred, he journeyed for hours, calm and alone,
in his private derelict sandlorry named Albion.
Hill was married to an Anglican priestess, and he wrote often about theology and theological poetry; but he does not seem quite to have brought himself to belief. Since today is the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, this Hill poem seems particularly appropriate:
Canticle for Good Friday
The cross staggered him. At the cliff-top
Thomas, beneath its burden, stood
While the dulled wood
Spat on the stones each drop
Of deliberate blood.
A clamping, cold-figured day
Thomas (not transfigured) stamped, crouched,
Smelt vinegar and blood. He
As yet unsearched, unscratched,
And suffered to remain
At such near distance
(A slight miracle might cleanse
Of all attachments, claw-roots of sense)
In unaccountable darkness moved away,
The strange flesh untouched, carion-sustenance
Of staunchest love, choicest defiance,
Creation’s issue congealing (and one woman’s).