Thomas Becket and T.S. Eliot

The BBC Podcast In Our Time has a great episode on the life of Thomas Becket. I listened to it the other day in preparation for teaching T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral.

(Side note: In Our Time ranks as one of my top five favorite podcasts; I hope to be like Melvyn Bragg when I grow up.)

Having not read much of the history about Thomas Becket himself, I was unaware of how what we know about Becket’s personality and reputation does not recommend him as a saint. His story reminds me of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal who eventually becomesThe Death of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral Henry V. As a young man, Becket was energetic, rash, and stubborn. Henry II made him Lord Chancellor, and Becket proved himself an effective and efficient member of the state. As Melvyn Bragg and his guests point out, Becket was the kind of person who had very few friends: everyone loved him or hated him.

Becket took the job of Archbishop of Canterbury reluctantly. Henry ushered him into the position hoping Becket would ensure that the church would remain subordinate to the power of the state. But like Prince Hal who forsook his closest friends when he ascended the throne, Becket swore his allegiance to the church and made a habit of frustrating Henry’s attempts to exercise authority over the church.

There are at least two ways to view Becket’s transformation: either it’s a genuine spiritual conversion which resulted in his conviction that the church should remain on equal footing with the state, or it’s an instance of Becket being consistent with his brash personality. In the podcast, Laura Ashe argues that Becket’s change is similar to a professional footballer changing teams: the player takes his skill-set and uses it in a new setting, even if it’s to the disadvantage of his previous team. How you interpret Becket’s personality inevitably colors your interpretation of his death. Was it a courageous, selfless act in service to the church? Or was it unnecessarily undiplomatic and foolhardy?

Eliot’s dramatization of Becket’s martyrdom engages with this exact historical problem. Upon returning to England after seven years of exile, Becket recognizes that his decision to return will bring his conflict with Henry to a tipping point. He is then met with four Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot — Reviews ...different temptations, all of which point to different ways of handling the situation. The fourth tempter is the most insidious because he tempts Becket with martyrdom—a sacred and revered title within Christian history. The church remembers martyrs for their uncompromising bravery, and reveres them as spiritual exemplars of Christian conviction.

Martyrdom, however, cannot be sought for its own sake. Otherwise it becomes a vehicle for self-glorification and egotism. The tempter makes the case clearly in his appeal to Becket:

But think, Thomas, think of glory after death.
When king is dead, there’s another king,
And one more king is another reign.
King is forgotten, when another shall come:
Said and Martyr rule from the tomb. (37-38)

And…

Seek the way of martyrdom, make yourself the lowest
On earth, to be high in heaven.
And see far off below you, where the gulf is fixed,
Your persecutors, in timeless torment,
Parched passion, beyond expiation. (39)

Martyrdom for the sake of fame and power is no martyrdom at all. Exasperated, Becket responds,

Is there no way, in my soul’s sickness,
Does not lead to damnation in pride?
I well know these temptations
Mean present vanity and future torment.
Can sinful pride be driven out
Only by more sinful? Can I neither act nor suffer
Without perdition? (40)

The play does not provide easy or clear answers to Becket’s questions. All human action is bound up with good and bad intentions, with sin and grace, virtue and vice. “Sin grows with the good” (45), Becket points out. No action can be viewed discretely or as devoid of value; yet every action can be construed in opposite extremes. How then should Thomas act in his situation when even holy martyrdom seems infected with pride?

Becket’s final speech before his death gives some clue. After the four knights have arrived and are returning to the cathedral to kill Becket, some of the priests attempt to persuade him to lock himself in the cathedral. Implicitly, the priests argue that Becket’s decision to leave the doors open is reckless. But Becket responds:

You argue by results, as this world does,
To settle if an act be good or bad.
You defer to the fact. For every life and every act
Consequence of good and evil can be shown.
And as in time results of many deeds are blended
So good and evil in the end become confounded.
It is not in time that my death shall be known;
It is out of time that my decision is taken
If you call that decision
To which my whole being gives entire consent. (73-74)

Temporality is the problem. Actions committed and perceived in time become mixed: “For every life and every act / Consequence of good and evil can be shown.” The passage of time also tends to fragment experience and perception. The moment of experience is only understood as a memory, which is malleable. There is no isolated, objective, unadulterated “fact” of experience. In time, everything “become[s] confounded.” The Thomas Becket | 10 Facts About The Murdered Saint ...only hope of a virtuous selfless action is eternity: some mode of perception in which experiences occur without the distorting effects of time. To act rightly requires either 1) a supernatural gift of insight prior to the decision to act, or 2) a grave humility that acts in faith and hope that right action does not require perfect knowledge, only the grace to act well.

Eliot ends the play with the four knights’ defense and the priests’ memorial speeches. Like the passage of time, the effect of Eliot’s ending distorts the audience’s ability to judge Becket’s actions. Is he a martyr? We’re never given the chance to consider his death on its own terms. Instead we’re met with a series of arguments for the practicality of his death as a means to retain peace within the kingdom, and then the laments and praises of Becket’s followers. Neither group—the priests or the knights—fairly represent Becket’s decision. They are equal and opposite extremes, demonstrating that “good and evil in the end become confounded.”

I think Eliot believed Becket to be a saint, but I appreciate that he doesn’t present him uncritically. There’s room within the play to think Becket made the wrong decision. Given the inescapable distortion of temporality, the play ends appropriately with a call to prayer, and specifically for God’s mercy:

Lord, have mercy upon us.
Christ, have mercy upon us.
Lord, have mercy upon us.
Blessed Thomas, pray for us. (88)

 

Preparing to Teach Dante

This weekend I’m preparing to teach Dante’s Divine Comedy for the next five weeks to a group of tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade students. The task feels overwhelming, especially when I consider the complexity and influence of his poem. Never mind The Divine Comedy, Without The Divine? – The Dishintroducing the Divine Comedy to a group of college/adult students, how do I distill the significance of Dante’s work for high school students without either misrepresenting the poem, making it impossibly tedious, or devoting the rest of the year to reading it?

I ask a similar question of almost every text I teach–this year alone, we’ve read The Consolation of Philosophy, Pilgrim’s Progress, Saga of the Volsungs, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Murder in the Cathedral, etc. As far as I can tell, there is no easy or best answer. I can only hope to give students a sufficient introduction which will hopefully inspire them to return to the text later. This, after all, is only a first pass.

For the Divine Comedy, my introductory lecture will draw on Anthony Esolen’s introduction to the Inferno, where he lays out three underlying philosophical principles of Dante’s view of the world:

1. Things have an End

This is the Aristotelian conception of telos. All things have an end, by which Aristotle meant that all things have an ideal function/purpose. The fulfillment of that purpose will inevitably bring happiness (Greek: eudaimonia). To have accurate knowledge of a thing, you must know its telos, which is unique to every individual person/thing. The punishments in the Inferno correspond to each soul’s direct violation of his telos. The skin diseases of the alchemist, for example, “express, in brute corporeal form, the reality of the falsehoods the alchemists committed” (Esolen xv). Hell, as C. S. Lewis pointed out in The Great Divorce, is locked from the inside. God does not stand over hell imposing punishments on the sinners. They punish themselves by refusing to turn toward the true end and fulfillment of all their desires.

2. Things have Meaning

One of the most wonderful (or most tedious, depending on how you view it) is Dante’s belief that every minute detail plays into the overall importance of God’s created cosmos. Nothing is too small. Esolen illustrates the idea with Jesus’ reference to Jonah in the Gospel of Matthew. Of all the prophets Christ could have referenced–Isaiah, Ezekiel, Elijah, etc.–he chose one of the minor prophets as “a type, or forerunner” of Christ’s own death and resurrection. Jonah wasn’t merely a convenient symbol. He is a testament to the truth of salvation. It is possible to treat every aspect of Dante’s poem in the same way. Detailed descriptions of every punishment in Hell speak to the nature of the sin itself and of it’s corollary telos. This is true not only of the content of the poem but of its structure as well.

Here is Esolen’s description of Dante’s use of numerology:

Dante invented his rhyme scheme (terza rima) precisely to give glory to the Trinity; so, too, the threefold division of the poem, reflecting the threefold division of the hereafter into Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Since tradition held that Christ died at age thirty-three, each of the sections of the poem contains thirty-three cantos, except for the unworthy Inferno, which contains either thirty-four or thirty-two, an excess or a deficiency, depending on whether we consider that Hell begins in the first canto or at the gates in Canto Three. Just as the fall of Adam is the happy fault that brought the Redeemer into the world, so the numerical blemish for the Inferno brings the whole Comedy to an even one hundred cantos, the square of ten, itself the square of the Trinity plus Unity. (Inferno xvi)

3. Things are Connected

If everything has a telos and if everything has meaning, then naturally everything is connected in some way. For Dante, “each thing reflects the mind and plan of its Architect” (xx). Simultaneously, “it is not possible to separate, in this universe, those things which have to do with divinity from those things which do not” (xx). The endless interconnections of Dante’s universe speaks directly to the truth, power, and beauty of Christ’s incarnation. When God took on flesh, He did not merely save human souls, He set in motion the sanctification of the created physical world. This includes everything from mountain ranges to (it pains me to say) mosquitoes. Some of the best descriptions of the comprehensive nature of Christ’s redemptive work occurred during the debates surrounding the Christian veneration of icons in the eighth century. In support of the use of icons, St. John of Damascus writes, “I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation…”

Since Christ saw fit to take on flesh, so Dante sees fit to spend much of his poetic energy in describing the physical appearance & condition of the souls in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. In the Inferno, gruesome descriptions of bodily punishments (e.g., those who sow discord in the body) are balanced with physical beauty. It’s Beatrice’s physical beauty, for example, that makes Virgil himself eager to obey her request to guide Dante back to the “straight and true” path:

When she had finished speaking to me so,

she turned her glistening eyes all bright with tears–

which made me all the readier to go,

And so I came to you as she desired,

raising you from the beast that faced you down

and stole for you the short way up the hill.

Will a discussion about these three principles be sufficient to excite my students about reading the Divine Comedy? Will it be enough to help them grasp some of the basic and essential thematic components of the narrative? Maybe. I probably won’t know until we’ve moved on to a new book, and I’m again busy asking the same questions.

In praise of originals

At The New Republic, Josephine Livingston writes about her experience visiting the only four surviving manuscripts of Old English poetry. And it knocked my socks off. I’m bias, of course–my graduate studies have focused primarily on Old and Middle English literature. But Livingston is right: not only is it a miracle that we still have these codices, but they remind us that the presence of a work of art is powerful–something we continue to lose as technology makes reproductions faster and more ubiquitous.

I struggled not to quote the whole thing. But here’s the heart of the article:

In his 1936 essay on the subject, Benjamin wrote, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”

Our concept of authenticity is derived from the “presence of the original,” he writes, such as “proof that a given manuscript of the Middle Ages stems from an archive of the fifteenth century.” Without such proof, an original becomes a forgery. But when we reproduce a work (via a photocopy or an ebook, say), we create not a forgery but something new. We can “put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself”—the manuscript can leave the cathedral and enter our own homes.

Benjamin argued that this process of reproduction inevitably diminishes the artwork’s presence. He calls that quality an aura: “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” That withering kills our connection to tradition, to the ineffable magic of the original, and—in short—to the entire history of how humans once related to art.

n 2018, we are in a much more elaborate and abstracted phase of Benjamin’s reproduction theory. We are accustomed to reading without reference to any physical object specific to the act of reading. We might have a romantic association with libraries, or prefer to turn real pages rather than electronic ones, but those are tastes borne of nostalgia. They have no real meaning for our experience of literature’s power.

Strong Boxes vs. Filing Boxes

Another common medieval metaphor for memory is the “Thesaurus”–which means “storage room,” “treasure,” or “strong box.” As a metaphor for memory, it provides a more robust conception of memory than the banal “filing box” metaphor. Here is how Mary Carruthers describes it:

Treasuries and book-chests are not like twentieth-century filing-cabinets. They contain ‘riches,’ not documents. And their contents are valued for their richness in terms of their present usefulness, not their ‘accuracy’ or their certification of “what really happened.”

 

Memory Metaphors

Much of my MA thesis work this past year involved reading and rereading Mary Carruthers’ book The Book of Memory. Carruthers is one of those rare academic writers whose work is not only informative but a joy to read. Her research into medieval conceptions of the purpose and function of memory also has motivated me to memorize more poetry and literature.

Unfortunately, in education circles, the importance of memory is downplayed. The emphasis is always on creativity and connecting ideas, while memory is considered a lower-order skill–just look at Bloom’s Taxonomy.

From a medieval point of view, the skills we consider to be “higher-order” could not be so easily separated from memory. In fact, many writers believed that creativity itself is an act of memory. This might sound odd to a 21st century reader, but I’ve realized that part of the problem stems from the metaphors we commonly use for memory.

When we think of memory, we typically use the metaphor of a filing box or some kind of a computer storage device. Information is neatly organized and filed away: e.g., Washington is a state in the Northwest corner of the United States of America. That fact exists in the geography file of my brain that I can access when I need it.

For a medieval writer, the metaphor of a file box for memory is insufficient at best. A castle, mansion, or some variation of a Sherlock Holmes Mind Palace would be a closer metaphor. What medieval writers realized is that memory isn’t simply the categorizing of bland information. It is the process by which we construct our mode of cognition and experience. When we memorize a fact, we place it within a larger complex network of other memories: ideas, images, and emotions. To remember something, therefore, requires the alteration of everything we have memorized up to that point in our life. Every act of memory is an act of composition because you are building up your house of memory with every addition and rearranging everything that’s come before.

The consequences of this medieval conception of memory are far-reaching. It inevitably leads to discussions about morality, theology, philosophy, and anthropology. Memory is not a lifeless storage box, but a vital component to our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. We would do well to remember this.