IN the final section of The Waste Land (“What the Thunder Said”), T.S. Eliot strives to integrate two dimensions of the poem that have been running on parallel tracks: the snapshots of inner, psychic alienation (“On Margate Sands. / I can connect / Nothing with nothing”) and the critique of a decadent social order (the “Unreal city”). Eliot lists a series of cities: “Jerusalem Athens Alexandria / Vienna London.” The list plots out the course of Western civilization, from its origins in classical and biblical cultures to its modern European efflorescence. As with so much of the poem, Eliot is being both cryptic and seemingly arbitrary, particularly in his choice of the two modern cities. One can understand London, perhaps: the cradle of democracy and the rule of law. But Vienna? Is there a hint in that choice of a civilization gone to seed, a place of elegance and opulence, yes, but a severe falling off from those cities which represented the human search for the order of the soul and the order of the commonwealth? And does London, by its place on the sequence, also exist on the downward slope of cultural history?
The list of cities is preceded by the two-word line: “Falling towers.” While there may be no specific textual allusion here, the reader’s mind reaches out for connections: to the Tower of Babel, certainly, with its theme of human pride and overreaching; perhaps also the story Jesus tells about the tower of Siloam, which collapses without warning and kills innocent people, a reminder of our mortality and a spur for all of us to be prepared for death.
If Eliot were writing today, he would surely have to add New York to his list. The urban trajectory that the Eurocentric Eliot traced was already questionable in 1922, but within a couple decades it became obsolete, as the Unites States emerged as sole proprietor of “the American century.” Now we all have a mental videotape, perpetually looping back on itself, of our own falling towers. Now, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, we are all New Yorkers.
It is right to mourn our lost and praise our heroes, including those who fell at the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field. As we seek to apprehend the perpetrators and take measures to prevent future attacks, things get more complicated. There are those who, out of religious or ethical conviction, condemn the use of force in the campaign against terror. The argument has merit, but for me it is not the lynchpin issue. What worries me more is that Americans will fail, once again, to learn the deepest lessons of this most teachable of moments. There are two related modes of thought that Americans have always avoided—historical consciousness and the tragic sense of life.
Our national origins are inextricably bound up with the idea of American exceptionalism, the vision of a nation as novus ordo seclorum, a new order of the ages. The shining city on a hill is a city out of time, unburdened by the weight of history. Its towers never fall. And so its language is based on triumph; it is the perpetual underdog/self-made man achieving victory against enemies who are mired in the past. Prosperity is the measure of its success. (In the typical thriller or spy movie, the rugged American individualist, armed with the latest technology, always defeats a villain who comes from a culture that may have wonderful architecture and customs, but who is weighed down by way too much historical baggage.)
On this score, the dominant strains both of American Christianity and what the political scientists call “civil religion” are at one.
In the rhetoric of recent days, several faux pas in our choice of language have threatened to deconstruct the tidy compartmentalizing of good vs. evil and freedom vs. tyranny. Take, for example, the president’s comment that in fighting terrorism we had launched a “crusade.” Then there was “Infinite Justice,” the original name for the military operation in Afghanistan. In both cases, the dark side of Western progressivism—the hubris of cultural imperialism—briefly reared its head. For millions of people on this planet, the word crusade is freighted with historical meaning and infinite justice is an attribute of God alone. To many of them, what we think of as freedom looks a lot more like tyranny.
No act of evil, however heinous, can be completely wrenched from its cultural and psychic context: that is the lesson of historical consciousness. To condemn the act without exploring the context is a form of denial, not moral strength. That our actions must always arise out of mixed motives and bring about evil as well as good: that is the teaching of the tragic sense of life.
T.S. Eliot had come to understand this by the time he wrote Four Quartets. Though he had embraced Christian faith and the Western tradition, Eliot had come to believe that the very genius of that tradition was its awareness of the ambiguity of human actions. In Four Quartets, most of which was written during the Second World War, Eliot provided solace for a generation, but he did so by stressing the need for humility, not triumphalistic national pride. In these lines he explored the paradox that action and suffering are inextricably linked. “Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning, / Every poem an epitaph. And any action / is a step to the block, down the sea’s throat / Or to an illegible stone….”
In the aftermath of September 11, some have called for an end to irony, and others have stressed our need for comedy. But the urgent need of the moment is a deeper embrace of tragedy. Some of America’s greatest Christian writers, from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Eliot, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy, have been accused of turning their backs on our national genius in favor of a dark and derivative European vision. But in their historical sensibility and their belief that grace is most often found through suffering, these writers constitute what is best in the American tradition. In this time of grief and anger, these writers—the true underdogs of America literary culture—offer us the surest guidance to prudent action and to healing.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.