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Revisiting the Dead

As I write this article, we are in the middle of a little stretch of time in which the end of November and the beginning of Advent overlap. Liturgically, we are between death and rebirth, holding our breath in suspended, watchful silence. We pray for the dead, and we pray for new birth. We reflect on darkness and hope for light.

At least here in South Bend, all the leaves on the trees have long since dropped; the ground has frozen and thawed once already this year, and people are bracing themselves for dreary and difficult months to come. This fall, I've found my mind turning to a scene from the second of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, "East Coker":

In my beginning is my end ....

In that open field

If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,

On a summer midnight, you can hear the music

Of the weak pipe and the little drum

And see them dancing around the bonfire

The association of man and woman

In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie—

A dignified and commodiois sacrament.

Two and two, necessarye coniunction,

Holding eche other by the hand or the arm

Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire

Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,

Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter

Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,

Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth

Mirth of those long since under earth

Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,

Keeping the rhythm in their dancing

As in their living in the living seasons

The time of the seasons and the constellations

The time of milking and the time of harvest

The time of the coupling of man and woman

And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.

Eating and drinking. Dung and death ....

The houses are all gone under the sea.

The dancers are all gone under the hill.

.... In my end is my beginning.

There is something in the way that Eliot approaches these dancers in their earthy celebration of this "commodiois sacrament" that is reminiscent of Odysseus in the underworld, trying futilely to embrace the spirit of his mother. We can explore this joyous scene, even engage with it. We can feel the weight of the people's "loam feet" tethered to the dust; we can resonate as they dance in time with the drum and the constellations and the passing of spring and fall. But despite the thread of shared human experience that binds us to them, we cannot travel back through time and join them in their dance. "The dancers," we are reminded, "are all gone under the hill."

In Eliot's essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," he imagines that the great authors, artists, poets and thinkers of the Western tradition are all seated around a table. When a new member arrives, she not only takes her seat among them; everyone else must also shift to accommodate her. While an ancient master like Homer or Aristotle may move less than, say, Flannery O'Connor or Evelyn Waugh, each new contributor forever alters the way every other is perceived. It is a bit like a kaleidoscope; each new reflecting surface changes the image entirely.

The tradition, in other words, is never set in stone. There is always room for more: room to revisit old, forgotten authors and to celebrate fresh perspectives. At the same time, the more the tradition grows and changes, the more it must stay the same. No writer, no artist can be properly understood except in light of her influences, and her influences' influences, and so on and so forth. The more a work is built upon, the more it materializes into one of the great columns on which the entire structure rests. If these columns — the Platos, Virgils, Augustines, Michelangelos, Shakespeares, and Austens — crumble, the entire edifice will collapse. The Western canon has always been such that no single figure can stand alone. Without the foundation of the tradition itself, nothing that is good, true, or beautiful can last more than a fleeting moment.

And yet, like the ghosts of the sacred dancers whose presence Eliot could sense beneath the hills of East Coker, we often feel a small agony in relinquishing ourselves, in however small a way, to a community we can never truly claim to know.

On the one hand, we find that there is an impassable distance between "us" (the living) and "them" (the dead). To cross that line and try to join their dance is to no longer be a traveler on the way. It is to have little need any longer for the stories that have inspired and guided us here in this life. It is bittersweet to realize that Homer is, in a sense, no longer Homer; wherever he is, we can be assured he is no longer the same as he was when he wrote The Iliad. He no longer needs it; we do.

On the other hand, we face the equally uncomfortable reality that Homer was never really "Homer" at all. When we enter the Western canon, we assent to entrust ourselves to the best aspects of human beings who were nevertheless as fallible as ourselves. To deify these men and women on the basis of their pursuit of justice, mercy, truth, or love is a constant temptation, but it is ultimately to deny them their place in the Great Conversation.

In fact, by joining that conversation with all our own faults and failings, we implicitly admit that the tradition is a home for the flawed — and not only admit it, but embrace it. As romantic and nostalgic as Eliot's dance may seem, it was never a present reality; it has only ever existed in the distant past.

Is the foundation, then, irredeemably broken? Eliot doesn't seem to think so. "In our beginning is our end .... / In our end is our beginning." Hero's journeys and heavenly spirals aside, it makes no sense to assert that beginning and end can contain each other. It is unfathomable that time could so completely envelop itself.

And yet, in our current strange liturgical circumstance, caught between the promise of death and the promise of life, it is the perfect time of year to reflect on the wonderfully messy hope that is our Western heritage. The prospect that death is found in life and life in death is our only possible lifeline in a world where nothing is certain except these two things. Love loses its beauty without life; sacrifice loses its power without death — and neither means anything if both are not part of the mechanism of our salvation. As long as we continue as pilgrims on the way, we are always caught in the middle of this great metaphysical coil. When we realize this, it becomes our joy wait patiently between them — to remember that we are already under the hill, even as we carry on the dance.


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