Want to catch a glimpse of the face of God?—Or at least feel what it is like to know Him? Take stroll and climb the stairway to Heaven with T.S. Eliot and Russell Kirk on Ash Wednesday.
Being Downriver Darrin and the distiller of the great books that I’ve had the good fortune to have had wash ashore into my little island library, I must excerpt wildly from a volume I’ve recently read which keeps leaping off the shelf back into my hands, Eliot and His Age by Russell Kirk. Now you may know that the Kirk and Eliot were friends, and that Kirk’s ancestral home burned down on Ash Wednesday in the seventies when Russell was away giving a lecture on Eliot’s poem Ash-Wednesday, but if you’re looking for something really spooky, supernatural and paranormal, you must pay the price, pick up this book and take the ride. Kirk (who was also a convinced believer in ghosts) writes:
“Between 1925 and 1930, Eliot passed from misgiving to belief; from horror to peace; from the politics of youthful aspiration to an understanding of politics as the art of the possible. . . . his own mind was moving from the perception of horror to the perception of man regenerate. . . . the average sensual man could not understand the boredom and the horror of existence limited to (as Eliot would write in Sweeney Agonistes) “birth, and copulation, and death.” Our asylums, after all, are packed nowadays with average sensual men whom the Furies have tracked down. . . .Under the bamboo tree, in a jazz version of Rousseau’s idyllic imagination, Sweeney may look for sanctuary; but he cannot find it; he understands now that for one like himself, “life is death,” whether in this flat or on that cannibal isle.”
Eliot revealed that “The governing idea (of Sweeney Agonistes for me) is that the rebirth into supernatural life through a cycle of which a descent into the dark night of the soul is a recurring preliminary. This appears as a process for the common man as much as for the professed mystic, whether he recognizes it or not, and Sweeney is the common man, the average, decent lout. Such a man is put to torture by his soul, of whose existence he is at first but dimly aware, as a maturing man becomes aware of the upthrust of the wisdom-tooth. It hurts , and it drives him, naturally, to violence.” Kirk explains, “Unredeemed by grace, and weak of intellect and will, Sweeney discovers his soul only to know Hell. But T.S. Eliot, with his Ariel Poems, was moving away from the Abyss (about which he wrote piercingly in The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock). . .These verses arch as a bridge between the dim hope of “The Hollow Men” and the compassionate Lady of Ash-Wednesday.”
Kirk perceives, “Good poems of religious aspiration though these [poems arching between The Waste Land and his later work] are, they could not have helped greatly in redeeming the time had there come no Ash-Wednesday and no Four Quartets. They are fingerposts along Eliot’s painful route from the awareness of death-in-life to the awareness of that real life which is found in the conjunction of time with the timeless. How was it, many admirers of Eliot the Innovator demanded, that in a mere eight years the gloomy delineator of the Waste Land could mount the stair toward the multifoliate rose? How could the poetic modernist find it possible to take refuge in an antique orthodoxy? . . .In Eliot’s instance, there is nothing surprising about his recovery of belief (for a recovery it was, rather than a providential fall on the road to Damascus). . . .”Belief will follow action,” John Henry Newman had said. Long before his confirmation, Eliot had been living a Christian life and reading a powerful body of Christian literature. If the imperial intellects of Johnson and Newman, say, had made the submission to dogma, why should not T.S. Eliot (or G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis or Paul Elmer More or Darrin Moore, or YOU, my dear reader) accept the authority of the church?”
“. . .the Church still was a rock, great and ancient. “The reason first (#1) why we do admire those things which are greatest,” the judicious Hooker had written, “and second those things which are ancientest, is because the one are the least distant from the infinite substance, the other from the infinite continuance, of God.” First, Eliot never had been anti-Christian or an atheist; it was only that he had slipped away from the Unitarianism of St. Louis and New England. Since his schooldays, his condition had been one of distressed doubt, but not on of belligerent negation. Twentieth-century American Protestantism, with its tendency to decline into ethos of sociability, had satisfied him neither intellectually nor emotionally. . . .what he needed was the grammar of assent. . . .Second (#2), Eliot’s encounter with Humanism, through Irving Babbitt and others, had led him to ask the ultimate questions. Economics leads upward into politics, Babbitt had said, and politics into ethics. But what sanction exist for ethics? Like More (and Moore), Eliot, found it necessary to pass beyond ethics into theology. “I’m not attacking [the Babbittian] humanism: I should be more hostile toward a catholicism (sic) without humanism,” Eliot explained. “Humanism, then, stung Eliot,” Kirk elucidates, “as if it had been a gadfly, rousing curiosity and inquiry; his reaction after his leaving Harvard (and his teacher, Babbitt), was a gradual transcending of the humanist argument, a fulfillment rather than a rejection of Babbitt’s teaching. . . . Eliot became both humanist and Christian.”
Eliot would remark that, “To put the sentiments in order is a later and an immensely difficult task: intellectual freedom is earlier and easier than complete spiritual freedom.” It is a tricky and confusing thing—indeed to many it seems counterintuitive—to attempt to discuss the freedom one feels when he finds faith in strict Christian sentiment. “Most people suppose that some people, because they enjoy the luxury of Christian sentiments and the excitement of Christian ritual (Ha, ha, ha! What a brilliant sharp-angle Eliot cuts into the condescension of the skeptical non-believer by describing the faith as an ‘exciting luxury’!), swallow or pretend to swallow incredible dogma. For some the process is exactly the opposite. Rational assent may arrive late, intellectual conviction may come slowly, but they come inevitably without violence to honesty and nature.”
“Is everything ephemeral? Does not a permanent reality exist? (#3) Idealism could offer only a misty apprehension of the Absolute through some immediate experience uniting reason, will, and sensation. The Idealist himself is no master of such a transcendent experience: one must turn to the mystics for that. And if one turns to the mystics, must one not turn also to the source of mystical communion–to the being of God? Eliot’s Indic studies inclined him to this same conclusion. Moreover, few of us are mystics; to such a man of genius as Pascal, mystical vision came but once, and then was inexpressible in words, except for “Fire, fire, fire!” Are we not dependent for knowledge of the true self, as distinguished from the hungry and deluded ego and for knowledge of others and of this word, upon revelation and the Logos—upon divine penetration into human consciousness? His metaphysical studies had thrust Eliot forward toward religious insights.” –And Eliot didn’t even have the tremendous benefit of the writings of Whittaker Chambers or Richard M. Weaver who were still unpublished at that time.—Hell, Chambers was still writing for The Daily Worker at that time!
(#4) “Fourth, Eliot moved toward Christian faith because he had seen to what the modern world was descending in the decay of faith,” Kirk explains. “If the land is an arid waste when the waters of faith have dried up, then those waters must have been the source of life in the person and in the commonwealth. He accepted a legitimate presumption that Christian belief might be judged by its fruits—or by what fruits it once had yielded: He had seen how the ignoring or the denial of Christian teaching had been followed by private and public disorder. Darrin is reminded of Eliot’s comment (at least I think it was Eliot who said) that “If one needs proof of God’s existence, one only need look at the hell created in the twentieth century by the absence of the belief in God.” In seeking help searching for the source and exact wording of this aphorism, National Review’s Kevin Williamson graciously reminded Darrin of another perfectly relevant quote from Eliot: “As political philosophy derives its sanction from ethics, and ethics from religion it is only by returning to the eternal source of truth that we can hope for any social organization which will not, to its ultimate destruction, ignore some essential aspect of reality. The term “democracy,” as I have said again and again, does not contain enough positive content to stand alone against the forces that you dislike—it can easily be transformed by them. If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin.”
Returning to Kirk: “From Prufrock to The Hollow Men, Eliot had described the evil half-life of fallen man in this age. With Ash-Wednesday, he would begin to describe the possibility of regeneration. As Hoxie Neale Fairchild says of Eliot, “Slowly and gradually he discovers that frustrated romantic hankerings are impotent to cope with his awareness of the reality evil, and that the problem of evil makes no sense unless it is interpreted in Christian terms. For a time he recognizes this truth without being willing to act upon it. Then he becomes a Christian and begins to write Christian poetry.” “For the remaining four decades of his life,” Kirk points out, “he would be sustained by those Permanent Things.” Kirk goes on to explain how Eliot shocked the world in the late 1920s by declaring himself a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics, and an Anglo-Catholic in religion. In 1927 he was confirmed in the Church of England and became a British subject.
Since nothing could be further from the realm of politics than Eliot’s poem Ash-Wednesday, I will skip past Kirk’s fun and illuminating digression into monarchism and classicism in which the radical individualist gets scorched for being the solipsist he is, and past the fierce political battles that continue to this day between the humanists and the humanitarians that Kirk explodes. For the commentary on the poem itself it is perhaps best to find my beginning in the end of this chapter; a loop in time—so to speak—and jump to where Kirk quotes Santayana to explain the poem’s purpose: “Modern civilization has an immense momentum, not only physically irresistible by morally and socially dominant in the press, politics, and literature of the liberal classes; yet the voice of a dispossessed and forlorn orthodoxy, prophesying evil, cannot be silenced, and what renders that voice the more disquieting is that it can no longer be understood.” Kirk concludes, “In Eliot, that forlorn and dispossessed orthodoxy had found a voice which might be understood by some men of the twentieth century. Although the voice might startle their ears, they would listen.” —Pretty powerful stuff for the Hollow Men.
But in Ash-Wednesday, Eliot was not trying to be political or attract support for a civil social or spiritual order, he was attempting, it seems, to speak to the readers’ individual conscience. His was not attempting to convert the unbeliever, but rather he was expressing what faith ‘feels’ like. In Prufrock and the Waste Land, Eliot gave us back our Hell, the Hell we lost the eyes to see, Kirk explains. Much inspired by Dante, Ash-Wednesday is a poem about purgatory.—That space and time in the afterlife, or as Eliot symbolizes it; in the death-in-life between Heaven and Hell. In it, Eliot is climbing the stairway to Heaven. Fans of the Led Zeppelin will see less dimly into that dark glass of a song when they realize it was inspired by Ash-Wednesday, or perhaps more precisely; Zeppelin totally stole the lyrics for the greatest rock-n-roll song evah! from this poem of Eliot’s.
So now I turn (gulp) to the content of the poem itself. O Lord, what to do? There’s no turning back now. How best shall I proceed? How can I explain this without being a presumptuous fool like I have been so many times in my not-so-long-ago youth? Can I execute this exegesis without egotistically pretending that I have that man’s depth or this man’s breadth? Can I do this without beating my chest like a trousered ape? Dear Prudence, help me restrain my hubris. For whom is this written? Who has come this far? I write for the Remnant and they can smell a rat a mile away. I write for them and the would-be Remnant and for the yet unborn. I am grateful beyond words that I have found something worthwhile about which to write.
(By the way, I hope you have not read the poem yet. If you have not, please do not go and read it until I am done ruminating. If you have read it, you are already ‘in’ on my joke.)
I am reminded what one of those men of great wisdom once wrote:
“I am off the main road and on the path to river. The point of departure must have been inconspicuous; I did not notice it. All I recall noticing is that all of a sudden I began to miss many familiar sights and sounds of traffic. The sensation was odd; it was somewhat like the sensation in one’s ears when a locust stops chirping. It brought certain pleasant ease, a feeling of liberation and expansion of spirit, leading up to an untroubled interest in the rich and quiet beauty of my new surroundings. . . . One has few companions, lately almost none, and one is content with that. My most astonishing realization is that I have lost a great lot of luggage. Evidently one begins life like a person on his first trip to Europe, by loading up with things that one has no use for, and that get themselves left behind, unnoticed, here and there. I discover that my interest in many matters which I thought were important, would still say, offhand, were important, no longer exist; interests in many occupations, theories, opinions; relationships, public and private; desires, habits, pleasures, even pastimes. . . . Awareness that this process of unconscious sifting and selection has been going on is presumably final evidence that one is off the main road and well on the path to the river. It is called, rather patronizingly, “the acquiescence of age”; but may not that mean no more than an acquiescence in matters which have in the long run proven themselves hardly worth troubling one’s head about? “ The fashion of this world passeth away,” say Goethe, “and I would fain occupy myself with the things that are abiding.”
But Nock, in the end, was a damn fool. (And so was Hume and Hayek–and so was Orwell and Babbitt and Hitchens.) Nock may have reached the river, but he never drank from it. His soul somewhere along the path dried up like a raisin. Too much Reason. A man with a chest, yes. But perhaps a heart of coal. Perhaps his brain was just too big? Afraid to love? Too proud? His own prison? I hope to know because I love him like a father. He, after all, assigned me Isaiah’s Job. I hope not to lose the faith like he did. I pray he is forgiven and I hope I will get to ask him at the top of the staircase, in the garden of the multifoliate rose, or perhaps at least, when I am crossing the river. Maybe I will get to bring him along if I beg Him. Maybe he will pull me in. I do not hope to turn again.
“I believe, O Lord; help thou my unbelief.”
The older I get, the more I feel like this body feels like merely a meatbag. My old bones are getting dried up like they’ve been scattered in a desert. Ahead I see some carnivores lying under a tree who would probably love to eat me. I am reminded of the story of the Cherokee chief who tells his young brave that inside each of us—a civil war in a cave—there are two wolves battling; one is evil; it is anger, avarice, envy, vanity, lust, sloth and gluttony. The other is sublime; it is faith, hope, charity, valor, justice, temperance, prudence. “Which one wins?” asks the boy of the wise old chief. He answers, “the one you feed.” . . .What are we feeding our children? Are we gorging ourselves on them like Goya’s nightmarish Saturn? Or are we raising wolves who will one day come and devour us? (like Olesha’s) Are we teaching them to grow up—how to be men in full? Are we ourselves only growing into immaturity? Where are the wise men whispering through the wind the words of truth, love, nobility, and beauty? Are we rushing past them in the crowd? Do they speak our language? Could we even hear them if they were in our midst? Can a voice be clear above the din? To de Tocqueville I do return again and again:
“A democratic state of society and democratic institutions plunge the greater part of men in constant active life; and the habits of mind which are suited to an active life are not always suited to a contemplative one… Everyone is actively in motion: some in quest for power others of gain. In the midst of this universal tumult–this incessant conflict of jarring interests–where is the calm to be found which is necessary for the deeper combinations of the intellect? How can the mind dwell upon any single point, when everything whirls around it, and man himself is swept and beaten onwards by the heady current which rolls all things in its course? . . . A desire to utilize knowledge is one thing; the pure desire to know is another. I do not doubt that in a few minds and far between, an ardent, inexhaustible love of truth springs up, self-supported, and living in ceaseless fruition without ever attaining the satisfaction which it seeks. This ardent love it is–this proud, disinterested love of what is true–which raises men to the abstract sources of truth, to draw their mother-knowledge thence. . . . They facilitate the natural impulse of the mind to the highest regions of thought, and they prepare it to conceive a sublime–nay, almost a divine–love of truth. . . . Such a one, we may be sure, would dive into the deepest mysteries of nature, whatever be the spirit of his country or his age. He requires no assistance in his course–enough that he be not checked in it. . . . These persons will not be strictly confined to the cares of practical life, and they will still be able, though in different degrees, to indulge in the pursuits and pleasures of the intellect. In those pleasures they will indulge; for if it be true that the human mind leans on one side to the narrow, the practical, and the useful, it naturally rises on the other to the infinite, the spiritual and the beautiful. Physical wants confine it to the earth; but as soon as the tie is loosened, it will unbend itself again.”
So strong are the currents which pull most men out into the endless stream of sensation, acquisition, expansion, and entertainment. At some point, some seek out firmer turf and swim for the shore. Aldous Huxley, through a benevolent Big Brother, gives insight as to why this happens time and time again:
“They say that it is the fear of death and of what comes after death that makes men turn to religion as they advance in years. But my own conviction has given me the conviction that, quite apart from any such terrors or imaginings, the religious sentiment tends to develop as we grow older; to develop because, as the passions grow calm, as the fancy and sensibilities are less excited and less excitable, our reason becomes less troubled in its working, less obscured by the images, desires and distractions, in which it used to be absorbed; whereupon God emerges as from behind from behind a cloud; our soul feels, sees, turns towards the source of all light; turns naturally and inevitably; for now that all that gave to the world of sensations its life and charms has begun to leak away from us, now that the phenomenal existence is no more bolstered up by the impressions from within or without, we feel the need to lean on something that abides, something that will never play us false–a reality, an absolute and everlasting truth. Yes, we inevitably turn to God; for this religious sentiment is of a nature so pure, so delightful to the soul that experiences it, that it makes up to us for all our other losses. Mustapha Mond shut the book and leaned back in his chair. “one of the numerous things in heaven and earth that these philosophers didn’t dream about was this” (he waved his hand), “us, the modern world. ‘You can only be independent of God while you’ve got youth and prosperity; independence won’t take you safely to the end.’ Well, we’ve now got youth and prosperity right up to the end. What follows? Evidently that we can be independent of God. ‘The religious sentiment will compensate us for all our losses.’ But there aren’t any losses for us to compensate; religious sentiment is superfluous. And why should we go hunting for a substitute for youthful desires, when youthful desires never fail? A substitute for distractions, when we go on enjoying all the old fooleries to the very last? What need have we of repose when our minds and bodies continue to delight in activity? of consolation when we have soma? of something immovable, when there is the social order?”
O cruel Brave New World! Take me out of this ‘mud of materialism’; this ‘mudslide of never enough’ where people know desire and consumption, compelled by the basest motivations. They know everlasting sorrow, but not of its cause. “When small men cast long shadows, the end of the day is near.” But lest we forget— Sovegna Vos—we were just like them, or we—O but for the Grace—would have been just like them. Are we still them? I do not hope to turn again.
O my brothers, what a beautiful world is the world of the Word. I would tell you confidentially that on the other side of the House of Wisdom lies the Garden of Imagination. It is crowded with a community of souls–the democracy of the dead and a few of the living; rocks that never stir but keep on giving. Even a child or blind eye can image. But to many it seems that the citadel is besieged. From the outside to those who think they’re free—there are no eyes here—it looks like a prison. But inside where many a conscience speaks to a conscience, titans walk and have our backs and let us ride on theirs. They sharpen our minds, strengthen our hearts, quicken our steps and help us to see what cannot be seen. “The dead alone give us energy.” Also there He walks, I know. (I cower in His sight for He knows, He knows, and for that matter, so do they, how much more work I still have to do to pay the price of admission!—it can only be earned—I chisel and chisel on this stubborn, vain, blockhead of marble in an attempt to become that masterpiece hidden in each and everyone. It’s getting late. Please, O’ Lord, not yet. What a fool to think I was done when I was young, when I had just begun. Please, forgive me, forgive us all. We do not know what we were doing with our freewill. I do not hope to turn again.
O but to escape from Heartbreak House and go to You in the garden, to get an Inkling and go to the Grove, under the Chestnut Tree on the Anchora Verde and imbibe the vino and veritas and perhaps, just for fun, if we’re in need of concentration, some Victory Gin. You cannot buy your way in, but consider yourself invited. The Lady of light dressed all in white assures me you are. And when you discover that not all that glitters is gold, and the stores are all closed, and you cannot buy what you came for–grace cannot be bought–there’s still time to change the road you’re on. I hope so.
Alright, if you have not read the poem, I hope the prose I have stolen plus the Zeppelin tune—will have helped to explain it. So go read it now. And then be a rock but not to roll on Eliot’s Staircase.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.