Disconsolate chimeras

[all images are from Max Ernst's Une Semaine de bonte and were found here and here]

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them. The Word in the desert
Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.

-Burnt Norton, Four Quartets ~ Eliot

I was reading Eliot this weekend, along with St. Augustine's Confessions (for class on Monday), and a few snippets of Pessoa. I wrote about this passage once before [here] but I know I didn't say nearly enough at the time.

I love how active the above passage is. What is the intention of the words here? What do they mean? The necessary finitude of time? The interaction of actual and potential, now and then? Time is a motive thing, or perhaps a receptacle for motion and action [like the chora in Plato's Timaeus]. Only in time can something move. But there is also a distinction set up between moving and living -- and moving things seem to have it a little better.

It's tricky though -- what does it mean for words and music to reach into the silence? Is this some comment on their ability to last through time? Does the ability to reach into silence mean something about endurance? The Chinese jar seems to be rooted or anchored somehow -- it moves 'perpetually' in stillness, and in silence. It is immune somehow to frenetic and destructive time.

Eliot's jar reminds me of two other vessels, the urn of Keats, and the vase in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts:

A vase stood at the heart of the house. Alabaster, smooth, cold, holding the still distilled essence of emptiness, silence.

A beautiful couplet, and so evocative of Eliot's Chinese jar. The stillness seems to be obtained by things which are in some sense independent -- they don't need the 'life' of a spoken word, a played note -- instead it's that ineffable 'this is this' and 'that was this,' -- quiddity -- which reaches into the silence. If music/words can reach through 'the form, the pattern,' it has to be that which is created by the act of speech or musical play which lasts -- the moment of an occurrence, the crystallization of a particular -- of an idea or concept or cognition.

Gilson talks about this -- the artistic process -- how the artist keeps a cache of ideas and projects in her head, waiting for the correct expression, and how we cannot speak of art except to speak of the artist and her efforts. To speak about an artwork without thinking of the artist is to look at Eliot's Chinese jar -- to say with Keats: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter ... " This is an accurate way of engaging with an artwork but it sheds little light on the complexities of art, the artist, and the creative process. To understand art, to speak of it as a philosophy, we must stretch our minds beyond the pure esthetic experience. The Chinese jar, the Grecian urn, the alabaster vase -- these beautiful objects are described as timeless, enduring, immune -- they are objects which delight the human mind.

Eliot isn't content to rest with the Chinese jar, he recognizes that there is something quite different about speech and music, about art which requires an agency to convey it:

... Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them...

[This is one of my favorite passages to read aloud]. Words are somehow more intimately tied with their living, human speakers. There is a much more intense admixture of timeless and living with words, and words are imprecise, inconstant, and untrustworthy because of this. The Word in the desert is tempted -- such a fertile image -- we discussed the Gospel of John two Mondays ago and I keep thinking of it, of the trials of word made flesh, of incarnation -- something that strives to be still, eternal, immune become fallible, susceptible.

I think this may be what Gilson is pointing to when he speaks of the difficulties of the philosophy of art. How do we speak of the beautiful? How do we study it, how is it understood in and of itself, and also in comparison to the good and the true? Augustine calls the beautiful "the least" of the three and despises it for its ability to enslave human beings and lead them away from truth. Keats says: " 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' - that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Finally [I think] the last line of the first passage I copied out here is: "The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera." I love this line most of all, probably because it is the most enigmatic to me. It is so rich, to think of a chimera -- a being that is and is not, a creature that exists in potentiality but in reality is fantastic, imprecise, a figment composed of fragments.


It's this sort of reading and discussion that excites me most ... when art, literature and metaphysics coincide -- it seems to me that it's here, at the intersection of art/creation with existence that we can learn so much more about what it means to be human and to be a creature.