Against My Ruin

27 February 2011


——————I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon — O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
———-Shantih shantih shantih

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, “What the Thunder Said”

The moral innocence of youth is understood to reflect the inexperience of youth, and as time passes and experience accumulates, youth passes and is replaced by the person shaped by the experiences that have robbed that person of youth. Yet we can think of experience in two senses which could be called experiences of agency and experiences of sufferancy (following the distinction I drew between agents — those who act — and sufferants — those who suffer the actions of others — in Agents and Sufferants). Most experiences involve both acting and suffering, but many experiences are predominantly one or the other. When we consider the life experiences that bring us from youth to maturity, we can make a rough distinction between those experiences we initiated and therefore, in a sense, “did” to ourselves, and those experiences that befell us, sometimes the result of what others “did” to us, and sometimes simply the result of what happened to us quite apart from any intentional agency.

One thing that I have learned from middle age is how losses accumulate in life: we suffer more losses the longer we live — losses of all kinds. Now that I understand a little better the reality of loss, I look to those older people that I know (like my parents) and I find myself asking how people can continue to go on as the losses mount. The answer, of course, is that some individuals do not go on. Some among us are overwhelmed by losses and are broken by them, in some sense or other of “break.” Just as there are many senses of loss, so too there are many ways of being broken. (I previously wrote about what it means to be broken in Broken Lives.)

Most of us are not broken. Even those who suffer repeated catastrophic losses may not be catastrophically broken, although the experience of loss certainly changes us even if it does not break us. The little losses the mount over time, like the mass wasting that silently, incrementally levels mountains, break us in small ways, a little bit at a time. We become broken in a thousand minor ways. That is to say, we become damaged. Most of us are damaged, even if we are not broken.

T. S. Eliot, in his repudiated book, After Strange Gods, wrote that “…the damage of a lifetime, and of having been born in an unsettled society, cannot be repaired at the moment of composition.” I came upon this quote in Walter Kaufmann at a time when Eliot’s book was virtually unobtainable. (Now the whole book can be read by all, for free, on the internet.) Kaufmann took this as a sign of Eliot feeling sorry for himself, though with the full text available we can consider a longer quote that doesn’t sound quite so self-pitying:

“No sensible author, in the midst of something that he is trying to write, can stop to consider whether it is going to be romantic or the opposite. At the moment when one writes, one is what one is, and the damage of a lifetime, and of having been born into an unsettled society, cannot be repaired at the moment of composition. The danger of using terms like ‘romantic’ and ‘classic’ — this does not however give us permission to avoid them altogether — does not spring so much from the confusion caused by those who use these terms about their own work, as from inevitable shifts of meaning in context.”

T. S. Eliot, After Strange Gods, p. 26

This is the recognizable voice of Eliot the critic. But Eliot the poet also recognized the toll of loss, and the predictable human reaction to loss, in the final lines of The Waste Land: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” While as a critic Eliot had his splenetic moments, Eliot the poet — whether the early poet of The Waste Land or the late poet of the Four Quartets — was much too much the artist to give vent to mere sentimentality. Eliot as a poet is a witness to a moral truth, and not a self-pitying scold.

While even the most passive among us will inevitably suffer losses, merely as a sufferant, one may also suffer losses as a result of taking action and placing oneself in a position of agency. Indeed, failed action is often a pretext for a defeated individual to renounce his agency and profess a cataclysmic or eschatological conception of history in which human beings are understood to suffer only and be almost without ability to act. In this way a Weltanschauung may embody the self-pity of those broken by loss, and a loss can become a pretext for the denial of human agency.

More interesting than a conversion attributable to loss are those losses knowingly suffered as a consequence of agency. One can become broken, damaged, and imperfect even while striving toward the attainment of greater perfection — or especially because of such striving. To pursue a momentous undertaking is to consciously take risk, and to consciously take risk is to be aware of the ever-present possibility of failure. And even if one is successful in one’s momentous undertaking, there will almost certainly be casualties, even if one is not oneself broken. Being the cause of another’s suffering is, in turn, its own particular species of suffering.

At this point we may wish to appeal to what can be called the principle of inoculation, most famously expressed in an aphorism of Nietzsche: “That which does not destroy me makes be stronger.” I do not wish to deny this outright, but it is a principle that admits of qualifications. Often one is stronger in one sense from having suffered adversity, even while in another sense one is damaged.

From a naturalistic perspective, the one observation that can be made here (i.e., the one naturalistic observation that is not merely a reiteration of the brutal facts of life) is that every loss is a selection event, and that those that remain have been selected for. This may be cold comfort with the memory of those selected against still fresh in the mind, but it remains true and can be accepted on some level as a naturalistic form of hope. When we are ready for it. This day may not yet have dawned.

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