When T.S. Eliot was lodging with his friend John Haward, the charwoman [the cleaning lady] was once asked about the famous man she worked for. Not knowing who Mr. Eliot was, she finally figured out who they were talking about and said, “Oh! you mean the holy man!”
Mr. Eliot’s eleven years with Mr. Haward were eremitical. He withdrew to a back room and limited his interactions to work and a few select friends. His reclusive ways were consistent with a personal mysticism that developed in the the years after the breakdown of his first marriage and his sudden marriage to Valerie Fletcher in 1957.
The roots of his personal mysticism were present, however, as early as his undergraduate years at Harvard. Eliot biographer Lyndall Gordon has discovered which volumes Eliot had borrowed from the library; even then he was reading the classics of world religions: the Bhagavad Gita and the Christian mystics—John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Thomas a Kempis and Teresa of Avila.
Mr. Eliot’s mystical vision is captured in the summit of his poetic work, Four Quartets, and his expression of the interface of this world and the next is formulated in his contemplation of time and eternity. In many respects Four Quartets can be best understood as a long meditation on the nature of time and eternity, and his musings on the nature of time illuminate his wider thought.
The theme of time is established in the opening sonorous lines: “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/ And time future contained in time past./ If all time is eternally present/ All time is unredeemable/ What might have been is an abstraction/ Remaining a perpetual possibility/ Only in a world of speculation/ What might have been and what has been/ Point to one end which is always present.”
Time, if you like, is a little holy Trinity: The past is summarized and fulfilled in the present moment and the present contains in seed form all that that the future will be. We are not cut off from the past. Instead, this past is alive in this present moment. All that has been has come together in this present. Neither are we cut off from the future for all future possibilities exist here and now in the present moment. Past, present, and future are unified here and now. Past, present ,and future are three in one and one in three—an undivided trinity of time.
Mr. Eliot’s understanding of time past, present, and future also illuminates the importance of tradition for the artist. In his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, he expounds the idea that the artist seeks an original voice and style while at the same time he is only recognized if he remains within the great tradition. The tradition informs the artist, but it cannot contain him. Indeed, the artist who remains bound by the tradition is no more than an echoing and unoriginal voice.
Tradition for Mr. Eliot encapsulates all that has gone before while remaining vital in the present moment. Mr. Eliot resolves the tension between tradition and the individual talent by recognizing that the tradition—rather than binding the individual artist—is the dynamic force that empowers and inspires him to produce something truly original. By remaining part of the vine of tradition the artist produces good, fresh fruit. Should he cut himself off from the tradition to seek mere originality, the artist produces nothing but derivative mediocrity.
Mr. Eliot therefore rejects the fashionable romantic view of the artist as the lonely inspired genius. Instead of relying on the inspiration from within the individual, he argues that the great artist forgets himself and immerses himself in the great tradition, and only by losing himself in the greatness of the past will he find himself able to produce something great.
Mr. Eliot’s ideas on the nature of time and the individual talent are happily applied to every aspect of contemporary life. Indeed, the idea that present achievement must be grounded in the greatness of the past is a cornerstone of true conservatism. Whether it is in the realm of the arts, economics, politics, religion or education, we build on what Pope Benedict XVI called “the hermeneutic of continuity.”
The “hermeneutic of continuity” is simply the understanding—in line with Mr. Eliot’s thought—that the present must be rooted in the past so that a fruitful future can be envisioned and constructed. The past not only informs the present through the check of wisdom, but it also grounds the present with the balance of experience. The “hermeneutic of rupture,” on the other hand, is an intentionally revolutionary and iconoclastic formula. The hermeneutic of rupture is based on the idea that the past must be destroyed to create a positive future.
The imaginative way forward is to see that while the past is naturally overthrown and supplanted by the present, the most positive present springs naturally and originally from all that was good in the past. The conservation of the past in a dynamic and living present then becomes the foundation for a positive and flourishing future.
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