I recently revisited T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”and found it to be an encouragement for our times, uncertain as they are for the uncertain relationship we have with our past. Perhaps this meditation will offer some light and hope.
Note this remarkable line, which, on the surface, is fraught with the highest human stakes:
A people without history is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern of timeless moments.
Yes, there is that longing for redemption. We all know it. We know too that such desire can strain beneath the weight of forgetfulness. One recalls young Hamlet, burdened by Elsinore’s willful amnesia concerning his father. His heart turns to dark contemplation: “Oh that this too solid flesh would melt.” His dimmed mind threatens goodness itself with diminished measurement: “to be or not to be.”
Our own dimmed public memory inclines us to lose our collective confidence in the life we have together. For Eliot, however, the longing for redemption reminds of something fundamentally good:
History is England and now.
To remember is to affirm our existence. True memory makes our answer possible; it stirs the heart’s choice “to be.”
Augustine reminds us that we are what we love. And where is that love collected? In memory. Among other things, this means that the mind must attend to what is near, lest it be forgotten and lost. The concentric circles of loves that define us depends on some gravity that holds them all in place.
The memory must play its collecting role, then, for the stakes are indeed high. Yeats’ “centre cannot hold”if the falcon, flying higher and in ever widening concentricity is finally lost to the falconer. The order of society, which is the object
of history as a field of study, lies in jeopardy. What is timeless may well give way to broken times and insuperable cultural division.
Eliot approaches a similarly wide gulf but one that is closer to the ground. His “broken king” faces the “tombstone” behind the “pig sty.” It seems that all human glory would, in the shadows of death, turn to loss.
Yet, even there in the graveyard, memory collects what we need:
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Perhaps better said: memory receives what we need. The timelessness of our past—really, the timelessness of those who lie in the past and our bond to them—mysteriously enfolds us from beyond the grave and thereby grounds the affirmative answer we give to Hamlet’s question, here and now, in this place, in this time.
Could America or the West today be that here and now, that place and time? The habit of public forgetfulness makes it exceedingly difficult to hold fast to that vision.
Still, the effort to remember who we are, is not only a choice. The experience Eliot captures for us in “Little Gidding” is a two-way movement between what is within and beyond ourselves:
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
History is a concept of unity; it helps us grasp the whole of our existence and the entirety of the two-way movement. We remember attentively, we explore unceasingly. That is one direction within the whole of things. In the other direction, we remember receptively. The past works on us; we are drawn, called.
The dead we remember, the ones we allow to stir our hearts, are the very ones who, though long gone, have bequeathed to us the life we have. If remembered well, they renew for us our place now and our will to be a people with a history, a people redeemed:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
Andrew J. Zwerneman is co-founder and president of Cana Academy.