Peterson on Eliot’s knot

Oh abbondante grazia ond’ io presunsi
ficcar lo viso per la luce etterna,
tanto che la veduta vi consunsi!
Nel suo profondo vidi che s’interna,
legato con amore in un volume,
ciò che per l’universo si squaderna:
sustanze e accidenti e lor costume
quasi conflati insieme, per tal modo
che ciò ch’i’ dico è un semplice lume.
La forma universal di questo nodo
credo ch’i’ vidi (Dante, Paradiso, 33.85-92)

O grace abounding, through which I presumed
to set my eyes on the Eternal Light
so long that I spent all my sight on it!1
In its profundity I saw — ingathered

and bound by love into one single volume —
what, in the universe, seems separate, scattered:
substances, accidents, and [their mutual] dispositions2
as if conjoined — in such a way that what
I tell is only rudimentary.3
I think I saw the universal shape
which that knot takes4

These are close to the last lines of the last canto of the last section of Dante’s Commedia, the Paradiso, in which Dante tells of his beatific vision there. The last lines of the last section of the last Quartet of Eliot’s Four Quartets, ‘Little Gidding’, cited by Peterson and discussed below, were written in modest echo of Dante’s unsurpassable vision.

*****

There was no one McLuhan wrote about more in his published and unpublished work than T.S Eliot. Hugh Kenner has described “the passion (…) with which we two (…) studied Eliot! We penciled notes on the yellow postwar paper of a Faber Four Quartets.5 This was in the late 1940s when McLuhan and Kenner were planning a book on Eliot together. The project came to fruition, however, only in separate publications by both men.6 While Kenner was already expert in tracing the narrative of literary figures like Pound7 and Eliot, McLuhan was fixated on understanding discontinuity in Eliot, but also in cybernetics, the epyllion and in his own life. He was undergoing his second conversion at just that time. His investigation of Eliot then continued for the rest of his life such that one of his last literary essays and one of his last public lectures would be on Eliot.8

Jordan Peterson has paid far less attention to Eliot than McLuhan, and — as a psychology professor — with far less training to do so, but he does discuss Eliot briefly in 12 Rules for Life (p 57-58). He begins by citing the last lines of ‘Little Gidding’, the fourth of the Four Quartets. These last lines of the last Quartet bring the Four Quartets to its close and represent a wonderful coda of the whole work:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing 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.

Characteristically, Peterson takes this culminating passage to describe heroic “exploration” and especially the heroic exploration of consciousness (dual genitive9):

The beginning of conscious history, the rise of the state and all its pathologies of pride and rigidity, the emergence of great moral figures who try to set things right, culminating in the Messiah Himself — that is all part of humanity’s attempt, God willing, to set itself right. And what would that mean? (…) The answer is already implicit in Genesis 1: to embody the Image of God — to speak out of chaos the Being that is Good — but to do so consciously, of our own free choice. Back is the way forward — as T. S. Eliot so rightly insisted — but back as awake beings, exercising the proper choice of awake beings, instead of back to sleep. (58)

Peterson makes a series of assumptions here which control his reading of Eliot’s coda — and lead him to mis-take it fundamentally. More importantly, these misguided assumptions disable Peterson’s own project and actually rehearse the grounds of the distress of the world rather than (as he of course intends) tending to its relief. Some of these assumptions are:

  • time is singular, linear and progressive (no matter, strangely enough, if it is considered forward or backward)10
  • time is only horizontal, not also vertical
  • a beginning is to be located at the start of a horizontal timeline
  • a beginning is less than what it generates, not more11
  • consciousness is the motor of history and the great need is to have more of it12
  • there are two states of consciousness, being awake or asleep, light and dark, and the imperative is to enhance the former and reduce the latter

Now the Four Quartets disputes all these assumptions and wonderfully rehearses its contrary acceptances in those very closing lines of ‘Little Gidding’ cited by Peterson. Here “beginning” is not to be found at some singular point at the start of an historical sequence, but is “here, now, always”.

This is a moment (as Eliot has it earlier in LG13) “suspended in time” or, if a “moment” must be said to implicate some sort of time, this is a moment in

time not our time
(…)
a time
Older than the time of chronometers (DS).

This “moment”, although specifically not chronological, yet has vast implication:

Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered. (EC)

This is a time that is at the heart of chronological time

in the stillness
between two waves of the sea (LG)

Yet also precedes and succeeds it:

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. (BN)

But as ‘Burnt Norton’ already has it near the very beginning of the Four Quartets:

If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

For in this “time not our time”,

time future [is] contained in time past (BN)

Such that: 

In my beginning is my end (EC)

And this is why:

that which is only living
Can only die. (BN)

More, when “all is always now”, the shameful hurt we have inflicted on others is incessantly exposed:

And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been. (EC)  

Such that:

We are only undeceived
Of that which, deceiving, could no longer harm. (EC)

In short, there is no heroic way of redemption: its progressive “exploration” is undermined from the start. “The end of all our exploring”, as those last lines of LG distil from all the Quartets, is not a matter of being more, but of being less:

costing not less than everything

“Everything” must be lost — including, or especially, heroic identity and its lights.

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.
    The houses are all gone under the sea.
    The dancers are all gone under the hill. (EC)

BN, the first Quartet of the Four Quartets, introduces images which will be taken up again, transformed, at the end of the last Quartet, in its coda in LG:

Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always—
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

“The waste sad time stretching before and after” is Peterson’s linear history, the time of heroic exploration:

Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after (…)
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after. (BN)

It is exactly this assumed notion of progressive capability that must be jettisoned14 through submission to another time — “Quick now, here, now, always” — as “that which was [and is and will be] the beginning”:

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing 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.

 

 

  1. The 1964 French translation of Alexandre Cioranescu is given at the Dartmouth Dante site: “Ô grâce généreuse où j’ai pris le courage / de plonger mon regard dans la Clarté suprême, / jusqu’au point d’épuiser la faculté de voir!” Since determinatio est negatio, Dante here loses his sight and at the same time comes to see how it is that there is something like a faculty of sight. This occurs, however, in sight of the knot of Being that is also the ‘not’ of Being — “jusqu’au point d’épuiser la faculté de voir!”
  2. The modern Italian paraphrase at Weschool gives: “e sostanze, gli accidenti e il loro rapporto“. Mandelbaum captures this in the next line: “as if conjoined”.
  3. Mandelbaum does not give indication of Dante’s contrast here between ‘un semplice lume’ and ‘la luce etterna’ seven lines above. The Longfellow translation at the Dartmouth site is a “simple light”. Cioranescu in the same place: “un pâle reflet”.
  4. Mandelbaum translation given at the Columbia Digital Dante site.
  5. Kenner’s new ‘Preface’ to the 1985 reprinting of his The Poetry of Ezra Pound from 1951.
  6. Kenner, ‘Eliot’s Moral Dialectic’, Hudson Review 2 (1949); McLuhan, ‘Mr. Eliot’s Historical Decorum’, Renascence 2:1, 1949.
  7. See note 5.
  8. ‘Rhetorical Spirals in Four Quartets‘ (1978) which appeared in a volume of essays dedicated to McLuhan’s student and friend, Sheila Watson, and ‘The Possum and the Midwife’ (McLuhan’s 1978 Pound Lecture at the University of Idaho).
  9. A dual genitive is both objective (where, in this case,  consciousness is the object of the exploration) and subjective (where, in this case, consciousness carries out the exploration). A world-historical riddle is, of course, posed by the internal relation of this duality.
  10. Peterson writes quickly with intentional risk. Here he writes of “the beginning of conscious history” followed by a further “rise” and an “emergence” — and then says that “back is the way forward”. “Back” against the “beginning”, “rise” and “emergence”? An attempt to rescue some sense here would take it that another “rise” or “emergence” must be in play at this point as a new appreciation (“but back as awake beings”) of Genesis and other comparable texts and mythologies. What was only “implicit” in them is now to be made explicit through the “conscious” insight of “awake beings”: “part of humanity’s attempt, God willing, to set itself right.” But lost in the fog here are the great questions of the singularity/plurality of time(s) and the sort of com-plicated figure time/times makes in, or rather as, history — that is, just what Eliot’s coda (specifically recalling the “nodo” of the last canto Dante’s Paradiso) describes in its very culminating lines as “the crowned knot of fire” when “the fire and the rose are one”.
  11. Compare Heidegger’s concluding sentence to his Introduction to Sein und Zeit (1927): “Higher than actuality stands possibility. The understanding of phenomenology (dual genitive!) lies entirely in the grasping of it (dual genitive!) as a possibility.” (Höher als die Wirklichkeit steht die Möglichkeit. Das Verständnis der Phänomenologie liegt einzig im Ergreifen ihrer als Möglichkeit.)
  12. The heroic “rise” according to Peterson goes on from “the beginning of conscious history” (dual genitive!) to the attempt “to set things right (…) consciously (…) as awake beings, exercising the proper choice of awake being”.
  13. Eliot’s Quartets are identified here as BN = ‘Burnt Norton’, EC = ‘East Coker’, DS = ‘Dry Salvages’ and LG = ‘Little Gidding’.
  14. EC: “not in movement / But abstention from movement; while the world moves / In appetency, on its metalled ways / Of time past and time future.” Compare Heidegger in ‘Das Wesen der Sprache’: “Die verweilende Rückkehr da-hin, wo wir schon sind, ist unendlich schwerer als die eiligen Fahrten dorthin, wo wir noch nicht sind und nie sein werden.”