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Burnt Norton 1-5 - The Ex-Communicator

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March 14th, 2011

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07:47 pm - Burnt Norton 1-5
The first five lines of Burnt Norton present an hypothesis about time. Then draw a line under it.
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
Full. Stop. All the rest of the Four Quartets discuss the alternative hypothesis.

But first the discarded hypothesis. Perhaps time is a dimension like space. Perhaps the past and the future are just as 'present' as the present, perhaps other times are like other places, which exist in a definite fixed form. Perhaps the past and the present and the future are implicit each in each other. Perhaps by knowing the present we have sure knowledge of the past and future. Perhaps the past is not burnt.

If this hypothesis is true - argues Eliot - there is no free will, there is nothing to be attempted. No hope. Time is unredeemable. This whole world is a total mockery.

But if this hypothesis is wrong, then our existence in time is much more complex, and difficult, but also meaningful and hopeful. And the rest of the poem, and the four poems, are about the implications of that.

(6 comments | Leave a comment)


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Date:March 15th, 2011 07:29 am (UTC)
I agree with you, but I think that bleak argument is the logic of what Eliot is saying. There's an argument in modern theology which says that evil arises from human freedom, and that the alternative - everything being held in perfection by the knowledge and will of god - is paradoxically worse, because there is no freedom. The purpose of the whole cycle of creation of imperfect beings who make errors and are redeemed is to overcome this paradox.

These aren't my views, at all, but I think that is what Eliot is expressing in a very compressed form here, and 'unredeemable' stands in for all the things that would be wrong, if there was no freedom and the past and future were fixed.

How do you feel about it? Do you feel that freedom and the eternal existence of the past and future are compatible? I am resisting the temptation to say what I think :-)

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Date:March 15th, 2011 10:36 am (UTC)
Yes. I would think that this means all time is not eternally present, because time is in flux.
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Date:March 15th, 2011 11:51 am (UTC)
I think there's a bunch of ways of reading these lines (of course! and everything else!) ... I'm teaching two units on time atm, so I'm going to come at this in terms of some of the thinkers about time I'm reading right now. First, Saint Augustine. To him, if 'all time is eternally present' - if it exists somewhere where it can be seen and known (by God) - then it cannot be changed, because it already is. If God already knows the exact state of every particle, every consciousness, at every moment - say 12:03 on 3 February 2012 - then how can my actions in 2011 alter it? How can I attempt to change anything? (Augustine does manage to square this with free will, but it's a problem for him.)

I'd be inclined instead to read these lines against Walter Benjamin's reflections on history as redemption, which follows from the idea that history is infused with 'now-time', so that way we can redeem the past by reframing the 'now', by making new and different connections between different temporal moments.

My splendid gf J reads them much more personally, in terms of trauma theory, which says that trauma is a temporal disturbance (think of traumatic flashbacks): if you can't put the traumatic moment into the past, if it's constantly present, it is unredeemable. You can't own it, narrativize it, do anything with it.

communicator, I'd never noticed that the first five lines present a hypothesis which is completely stopped and the rest of the poem takes up the alternatives - I love that reading.
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Date:March 15th, 2011 01:13 pm (UTC)
My guess is that he is expressing a mechanistic atheism, which kind of tempts and repels him. I am reminded of the limerick

There was an old man who said 'Damn'
I have come to perceive that I am
But a creature who moves
In predestined grooves
Not a car or a bus, but a tram

'Damn' indeed. Also, this ties in with his use of the underground as a metaphor for thoughtless existence in time in part 3.

I like J's theory that trauma makes the past eternally present. I never read it like that, but I can see how it does fit.
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Date:March 15th, 2011 08:50 am (UTC)
Maybe it works in reverse too. In a million years or less we'll all be gone, swept away with no trace we were ever here. An unredeemable endgame, which paradoxically gives us complete freedom to do what we like for the brief time we are here. If we can abandon hope, there's no telling what we might be able to achieve.

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Date:March 15th, 2011 09:10 am (UTC)
Careful, you are turning into an existentialist

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