Ralph Waldo Emerson spends the first half of his great essay, “Fate,” describing the forces that stand in the way of human thriving. And there are plenty of them. Fate and limitation are everywhere. “The diseases, the elements, fortune, gravity, lightning, respect no persons,” he writes. Nature is constantly ready to pit itself against us—as are our fellow humans: “The cold, inconsiderate of persons, tingles your blood, benumbs your feet, freezes a man like an apple” (LoA, 771). Fair enough. Perhaps Hamlet says it a little better when he speaks of “the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, / The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, / The insolence of office and the spurns / That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes.” But Emerson says it well enough. From Nature and our fellow men and women come suppression and sabotage, inhibition and blockage. Life will simply not get out of our way. The world is a world of limit.
Our current moment in culture is characterized by the strong awareness of limits. We’re defined by the consciousness of oppression, by the perceived presence of heavy fate. One hears a great deal about the fragility of human beings. We learn how common trauma is and how it can echo down through a life and even, according to some, through the lives of one’s descendants. We are conscious of the oppression that inevitably comes our way through membership in this or that group. Race, gender, sexuality, class: all trigger oppression in our teeming, hostile world. If one is not perpetually fearful or at least hyper-vigilant, one is not paying full attention. It’s perhaps reckless not to go in perpetual fear of the police, the plague, the bitter forces of vigilante retribution. No one is safe, or can be: we are all vulnerable; the pressure of risk is everywhere.
Fear of fate’s iron-packed glove has even become almost chic. Not to begin a certain quotient of one’s sentences with the phrase, “I’m really worried about . . .” or some variant shows a lack of sensitivity and awareness. One must understand and acknowledge one’s own vulnerability, and also be hyper-attuned to the vulnerability of others. Advocates and allies jump forward in a trice to defend this group or that from injury. It may be injury by pernicious deeds, but it may also be by diabolical words. For make no mistake, words can wound and wound badly. Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me? No, words are sticks, words are stones. And perhaps words can do even more damage to the psyche than the physical weapon can to the body. Face it, we, and especially the educated young among us, live in a world of injury. Hurt is commonplace; vulnerable communities are everywhere; there is pain and the contemplation of possible pain, and the latter may be worse than the former.
Many of us are now, directly or not, disciples of Michel Foucault. It was Foucault who taught a generation of professors that “true” discourses oppress. Discourses become true, to this way of thinking, by aligning themselves with institutional power, and then being deployed to determine and delimit human beings. The words of the religious teacher, the therapist, the physician, the judge and the lawyer enforce institutional values on subject populations. Society is in part a factory that produces cruelly categorizing vocabularies that hem people in. They turn people to objects who should presumably be subjects in their own right. Is there any way out? None that Foucault immediately perceives. Official words, institutional words wound, and wound again and again.
Recently, a duo of sociologists, Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, has informed us that we’re undergoing a cultural shift. Once there was the culture of honor, epitomized by the duel between “gentlemen” fought over the slightest insult. Then came the culture of dignity, in which one maintained one’s self-esteem through the power to look beyond insult and slight. You walked away. You let it all roll off your back. But now, the social scientists say, a new phase is upon us: we live in a victim culture. Now we measure ourselves by how much we have been put upon by nature or humanity. We count our scars and freely exhibit them in the street or on line. And we call to account those who have wounded us. There are hierarchies of oppression, the analysts say. At the top, African Americans, then Indigenous peoples, and then . . . but the list changes all the time, so who is to know?
We are transfixed too by sufferings in the past. We point to the lives of those consumed by famine, plague, holocaust, war, and prejudice, and relive them in sorrow and anger. All suffering must be again described and discussed, and the proper perpetrators blamed. Nor should the perpetrators’ descendants be left out. At their doorstep appears the wrathful spirit of commemorated wrong and the injunction, spoken or not: what will you do to compensate for the sins of your fathers?
Friedrich Nietzsche may have predicted our culture’s present configuration in the Genealogy of Morals, albeit rather hyperbolically. There he informs us that Christianity gradually overwhelmed pagan culture through a transvaluation of values. In this cultural shift, there is a transmutation of “impotence which cannot retaliate into kindness; pusillanimity into humility; submission before those one hates into obedience to One of whom they say he has commanded this submission—they call him God. The inoffensiveness of the weak, his cowardice, his ineluctable standing and waiting at doors are being given honorific titles such as patience; to be unable to revenge oneself is called to be unwilling to revenge oneself—even forgiveness.” (Genealogy, Golffing trans. pp. 180-1). What had been worthy of celebration to the Romans and Greeks—martial prowess, lordly contempt for pain, the desire to outdo those around you—became shameful from the vantage of the new religion. The heroic Roman was now a brute and a sadist, the sort of person we want nothing to do with. Gradually meekness and mildness ruled the day. The more abject one was, the higher one’s value. Nietzsche predicted that the time would come when members of the herd would compete with one another in a sort of Olympics of suffering. To have one leg missing—surely that is something. But both, both: that is something else again! Nietzsche thought that Christianity, taken to its logical conclusion would turn the world into a vast infirmary. The patients most in need of critical care would be the de facto rulers, awash with prestige and a sort of negative power. For when the most put-upon and oppressed makes demands, what can we do but obey?
A paragon of martial virtue, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus stands as a strong product and proponent of honor culture. At the start of his play we learn that he has done glorious deeds on behalf of Rome and is on the verge of doing more. Standing for election as consul, he’s told that he must please the plebeians: without their support he’ll certainly lose. The hero’s advisors tell him that to win election, he had best stand out on the street and show his scars to the passing mob. Never, the hero says. He will not exploit his past pain to gather the respect of his inferiors. “You have received many wounds for your country,” says a plebian. Answers Coriolanus: “I will not seal your knowledge with showing them” (II, iii, 106-8). A Coriolanus is miles from the spirit of any system that values exhibitions of sorrow and suffering.
Robert Frosts implicitly advises us that it would be a good thing to be able to distinguish our grief from our grievances. (“However sad,” he says, “no grievance, grief without grievance.” LoA, 891) By grief, I think he meant life’s inevitable suffering—a death in the family; the sudden failure of health; the ruin of a life’s work from extraneous causes. By grievance he meant inflicted pain, pain that comes from men or institutions and might well have stayed in abeyance. There seems little interest now in separating grief from grievance: life is hard, suffering common, blame prolific.
Suffering is, it seems, more than common among the most advantaged and promising. Students at the best college cry out to bring the world’s eye to their sorrows or the sorrows of those who are close to them. In a frequently watched clip, a young woman at Yale excoriates a distinguished professor for not helping to turn the university into a hospitable and warm home for her and her contemporaries. Our chief vocabulary seems to be that of pain and blame, and then a little more blame. Everyone is hurting, it sometimes seems, everyone is a step from the infirmary, or already there and in residence.
Why do we find ourselves where we do? A dozen reasons, no doubt. One cannot fail to mention early education. No bullying! Be nice! If someone hurts you, tell the teacher! Or current child rearing: the parent as hovercraft, guarding the child from harm, and making the smallest injury into an emergency. We used to brag about our achievements, but now some brag about sufferings, persecutions and how they might some day (but not soon) be overcome.
One reason, a salient one, may be this: suffering brings meaning. One coalesces one’s being around one’s wounds and there finds an identity. Who are you? I am one who suffers in such and such a way. You cannot dispute that, for no one feels my suffering, only I. You must take it and me on faith. I am my claims to sorrow. Respect them-or face the consequences.
We are told that the “post-modern” situation, our situation, is one in which so-called master-narratives have been disqualified. No gods. No religion. No historical destiny creating a meaningful pattern and a way forward. No gurus, no guides, no collective path to the future: goodbye to Marx and the Founding Fathers too.
If there are no master tales to be creditably told, then where is meaning to be found? For meaning is something that human beings cannot live without. Nietzsche told us that too. “Mankind would rather have the void for purpose, than be void of purpose.” And who can contest you if you say that your life is based in pain and oppression? You feel that pain after all: you are its ultimate arbiter. It’s possible to contest happiness or pleasure—we see their proposed source and find it wanting. But pain is a sure anchor. Says Emerson: “in certain moods we actually court disaster.” We feel that grief will give life some basis and meaning.
Those who claim that pain or the prospect of pain is at the core of their everyday experience—their world is on fire, they say—are not to be written off as liars. I would be hard pressed to dismiss anyone who affirms the strong presence of pain and limitation in their lives. “People give and bemoan themselves,” says Emerson, “but it is not nearly so bad with them as they say.” But maybe it is so bad, maybe it’s worse. A delegate from the culture of dignity, I’m still in no position to dismiss the professed sorrow of the residents of victim culture—if we can call it so.
Ultimately Emerson is of the party of hope. After he stacks up all the chips that Fate and limitation possess and carefully counts them out, his essay pivots. “Thus we trace fate in matter, mind, and morals,–in retardation of strata, and in thought and character as well. It is everywhere bound or limitation. But Fate has its lord; limitation its limits; is different seen from above and from below; from within and from without. For though Fate is immense , so is power, which is the other fact in the dual world immense. If fate follows and limits power, power attends and antagonizes fate.” (LoA, p. 779). We’re stronger than we know. When the black days come, we have it in ourselves to rally and to fight back and at least some times to win. Says Emerson “’Tis the best use of Fate to teach a fatal courage. Go face the fire at sea, or the cholera in your friend’s house, or the burglar in your own, or what danger lies in the way of duty” (p. 780). Rally your forces and go to work, says the Sage of Concord.
But how exactly is this to be done? Emerson may have fathered the anti-philosophy we call pragmatism, but he is rarely himself pragmatic. If you want inspiration to move, turn to him. If you want a plan of action as to where to move and how, you’d better consult yourself or someone proximate to you. As Harold Bloom says, Emerson will help you pick the coffee beans, grind the coffee, and boil the water. But he will not stay around to make it and have a cup with you. What’s wanted here is an idea for action that holds fate and its offshoots in full respect. We want a notion of progress that does not ultimately insult those who seem mired in their suffering and even half in love with it. Their pain may be real—who are you or I to dismiss it? (Though a skeptically good humored word may not be amiss.). How do you go to work and replace being (especially if it is toxic painful being) with some form of doing? Our liberal culture, so skeptical about grand narratives, can divide people from collective meaning. Perhaps a narrative of one’s own—a narrative that does not forget pain, but rather inscribes it within itself, is needful. But how to find one?
For a long time I cared nothing for the poetry of T.S. Eliot, nor for his social and critical views. I thought I could learn little from someone who was a royalist in politics, an Anglo-Catholic in religion, and a classicist in literature. (Never mind that he may have had his tongue lightly poised in his cheek when he told the world as much.) But as time passed, I came to like the poetry better. (It was possible to care for Blake and Whitman, and also for T.S. Eliot.) And I came to see what I think of as Eliot’s salient virtue: he took his life seriously. He felt, with the kind of depth one associates with Dante, that this was his one life and that he had best explore his possibilities—never cease from questioning, as he says—until he had reached some kind of culmination where he was at peace with his religious convictions, his political allegiances and his literary project. Nervous, hyper-self-conscious, difficult: he was still brave enough to fight his way through multiple forms of pain and sorrow to reach a culmination that satisfied him well enough. From the sorrows of Prufrock, through to the inferno that is the Waste Land, Eliot measures the depth of his distress with an unblinking eye and consummate art. When he reaches his apogee in Little Gidding, he is someone who has found his way through the thicket of experience and arrived—modestly, tenderly—at a consummation well to be wished for. He makes it home.
Though he wrote very little poetry, Eliot is a major poet: wonderful range, exquisite inner ear, great scope of learning, humor (at least sometimes) and a gift for memorable phrase-making. But beyond that, Eliot did something few of us can manage and all of us should try. He took his life with desperate seriousness and he recorded his spiritual journey. In “Prufrock,” you see a man whose potential authentic life is buried deep by social conventions. “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.” He is full of desire, full of erotic hope, but he sees that his chances for fulfilment are passing by and that the love and erotic joy he pines for will never be his: “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each / / I do not think that they will sing to me.” The mermaids are objects of his desire: and they have no songs for a diffident, nervous man with a bald spot on the back of his head and arms and legs growing ever-thinner.
The Waste Land is a social vision, but it is also a deeply personal poem, as Eliot admitted. After the First World War all of London—perhaps all the Western world—seems possessed by an erotic sorrow not entirely unlike Prufrock’s. No one can love happily, no one can love well in the wake of so much death. The story of the predatory Young Man Carbuncular and the clerk-typist he exploits, and the story of the two women sitting in a pub at closing hour (“Hurry up please, it’s time”) vying for the favors of a returning soldier are at the heart of this poem, which is much more human and intimate in the sorrows it renders than many of its academic critics seem to realize. The pimply young man’s treatment of the typist is one emblem for the fate of love and tenderness in Eliot’s London, the “unreal city” that is all too real:
The time is now propitious, as he guesses, The meal is ended, she is bored and tired, Endeavors to engage her in caresses Which are still unreproved if undesired. Flushed and decided, he assaults at once, Exploring hands encounter no defence; His vanity requires no response, And makes a welcome of indifference. (236-242)
This dispiriting scene takes place under the eye of Tiresias, the presiding spirit of the poem, who has, he says, “foresuffered all.” The prophet has always known about the lowest depths exploitative desire can reach, and now, with this all too representative scene, we the readers do too.
There is a spiritual crisis in the culture and at the heart of the poet as well. The Waste Land works so well in part because of how potently Eliot clearly feels the grief he chronicles. One sees him sinking down with the people he describes and grasping, in the final lines of the poem, for some plausible way out–and alas not finding it. The game is being played for mortal stakes.
Is renovation possible? Eliot moves toward spiritual rejuvenation but he does so with caution—his poetry must be honest; it must not lie. In “Journey of the Magi,” one of the great religious poems, Eliot assumes the voice of one of the three wise men who attended the birth of Jesus. The wise man, worldly as he is, rich and powerful as he is, does not understand what’s happened to him. He’s caught between two worlds, the pagan world of hierarchy and sensuous pleasure where he once ruled serenely and a world being newly born, the world embodied by Christ. “[W]ere we led that way for / Birth or Death?” he asks. Birth to be sure, but the old dispensation is about to die and the magus simply does not know if he can embrace the new. (“This birth,” he says, “was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.”) So Eliot before his conversion, saw the promise of the Christian faith, but it was unsettling, strange, contrary to established commitments.
Eliot’s poetic career culminates with Four Quartets and particularly with Little Gidding. He finally comes to the strength of affirmation: affirmation of faith, of country, and of art. He emerges by the end of the poem a whole and resolved man, much like Dante, a poet he loved, does in the Divine Comedy. Eliot has made a beautiful, agonizing spiritual journey and found his culmination.
And all shall be well and All manner of things shall be well When the tongues of flame are in-folded Into the crowned knot of fire And the fire and the rose are one.
Faith, love, and passionate energy fuse here. It is a moment that is surpassingly moving for poet and attuned reader, even if the values that Eliot ultimately affirms are not one’s own. I have no investment in the beliefs the poet finally claims, not personally. But I am continually moved by the intensity and resolve of his spiritual quest. He took his life seriously. And so few of us do.
Eliot, creator of the vile Gerontion, espouser of vile thoughts about cosmopolitan Jews here at the University I call home, gives us too much for us to turn away from him, too much that we can use. I do not wish to judge Eliot so much as I wish to learn from him. Like Dante, he saw his life as a quest: he was put here once, by whatever means, and he resolved to make of his life something worth living and to chronicle that process in words that will not be readily forgotten. “I do not say these words to fill up an hour,” says Whitman, about whom Eliot was passionately ambivalent. Like Whitman, Eliot saw life as something that had to be won to be worth the living. Complexities abound in Eliot’s story—whole books are and have been devoted to it, and rightly. But know this: Eliot suffered and felt and did all he could to redeem his pain and offered us the chance to do likewise.
Eliot felt the power of Fate as much as anyone. He was not willing to live under the thumb of circumstance; but he was also unwilling to pretend that he could skip free of the impediments with a flourish of the pen or boastful laugh. He inscribed his pain into his overall quest, never denied it, always stayed true to it, but did not succumb. His apparently casual remark that the Waste Land was merely a piece of private grumbling is to be taken at least half-seriously. Eliot wrote his own quest autobiography in poetry and he earned his culmination.
Eliot’s quest rhymes remarkable well with the dynamic that Albert Murray finds at the core of Blues culture. Says Murray in his superb book, The Omni-Americans:
The sense of well being that always goes with swinging the blues is generated … not by obscuring or denying the existence of the ugly dimensions of human nature, circumstances, and conduct, but rather through the full, sharp, and inescapable awareness of them … When the Negro musician or dancer swings the blues … he is confronting, acknowledging, and contending with the infernal absurdities and ever-impending frustrations inherent in the nature of all existence by playing with the possibilities that are also there.
I feel that many of us may think that there is nothing to do with pain except to suffer it and suffer it some more. But if you look at Eliot you see that there’s more to it than that. He initiated something you might call a project and threw himself into it. He brought his pain along—in fact pain was integral to the project to begin with. But the important point: he was not going to stay pat. He was going to move.
The term “project” was made well-known by Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, founders of a version of “existentialism.” Both felt that the world offered no certainties, no foundations. Men and women were free—both desperately and joyously so. There were no established rules, no given boundaries. So it was up to us to create a vision of where we wanted to go and what we wanted to be. Eliot, who surely wouldn’t have given a toss for Sartre and Beauvoir with their Marxism and atheism, did exactly that. But people do it every day. Or they fail to do it, and end up in the swamp of pain unredeemed by the prospect of future achievements.
This idea of embracing the project and your pain with it, turning from being to doing, generates many questions. What exactly counts as a good project? Is it right to generate a few of them? Do we want to be, say, what Marx suggested, a hunter in the morning, a fisherman in the afternoon, and a critical critic at night? Do we want to be foxes or hedgehogs? Or maybe we want to find one major strand—call it a vocation—and commit to that? Then also, one asks if there is an ethics to the choice of one’s project? I fear that Sartre and Beauvoir were not able to supply one, which led Beauvoir to write an essay about the disgusting Marquis de Sade as a proto-existentialist. Indeed he did have a project, filling each of those 120 days of Sodom with some new outrage.
So along with finding a project (or projects) one has to think hard about the ethics of the endeavor. What will your standard for commitment be—personal or public (or both), active or contemplative (or both)? How will it profit others? And one needs to think, above all, of what the project might be. But the point is clear. Fate and limit are eternal, and no one overcomes them with a leap and a loud laugh. But the lords of limit, once given their due in recognition and respect, need to be brought into a program of action, for the sake of oneself and the future of the hard-pressed world.
To believe that fate can be dealt with, not overcome, but dealt with and even put to work in the interest of freedom, to believe that condition and contingency do not control us to the finger tips—that is part of what it means to be a humanist. Most current academic thought is on the side of limit. Its emblems are the prison, the problematic of language, the pressure of history, the burdens of race and gender and sexuality. The professors would inform us that the press of circumstance is vast and all we can do is learn about it and bear our witness. Life is monolithic. But in fact we are, as Emerson knew, a “stupendous antagonism” between fate and power and we will not know what we can do until we try.