Eliot’s Midrash on Augustine and the Buddha

The third section of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” is titled, “The Fire Sermon,” after a famous discourse attributed to the Buddha, in which the sage maintains that all sensibles and sense experiences, indeed every act of consciousness, are aflame with the fire of passion and heedless desire. He insists that only by becoming averse to such experiences, and so divesting oneself of passion, might one escape this cataclysm. Fittingly, this section of the poem deals largely with the perverted sexual mores of the modern West, with the androgynous Tiresias standing as a kind of synecdoche for the confusion and despair of the young.

At the end of this section, Eliot alludes to the “Fire Sermon” with a simple, “burning, burning, burning, burning” (l. 308 — the word punctuates the sermon), but he sandwiches this line between two allusions to Augustine’s Confessions. “To Carthage then I came…O Lord, Thou pluckest me out, / O Lord Thou pluckest / burning” (307, 309-11). In his “Notes” to the poem, Eliot writes, “The collocation of these two representatives of eastern and western asceticism, as the culmination of this part of the poem, is not an accident.”

Of course not — but what is he getting at? You have to look beyond the lines quoted to see. the quotation simply pulls on one thread; our job is to see the tapestry it’s embedded in. The first Augustine quotation comes from Confessions 3: “To Carthage I came, where a cauldron of unholy loves bubbled up all around me…my soul was far from well, and, full of ulcers, it miserably cast itself forth, craving to be excited by contact with objects of sense” (3.1.1). Augustine, like Buddha, is describing the soul set aflame by passion, boiling in a cauldron of loves, addicted to sensible delights.

The second quotations is trickier yet. It comes from Confessions 10: “I resist seductions of the eyes, lest my feet with which I advance on Your way be entangled; and I raise my invisible eyes to You, that You would be pleased to pluck my feet out of the net. Thou dost continually pluck them out, for they are ensnared” (10.34.52). Here again, the resonance with the “Fire Sermon” lies just beyond the frame of the quotation; Eliot expects the reader to be able to supply the missing material.

But I suspect that he hoped the reader would not only discover Augustine’s disavowals of the “seductions of the eyes” in the broader paragraph. The phrase “plucked out” is an uncommon one in Scripture; it appears in Ps 25:15, from which Augustine quotes in Confessions 10, but close parallels to it also appear in Amos and Zechariah: “Ye were as a firebrand plucked out of the burning: yet have ye not returned unto me, saith the LORD” (Amos 4:11); “Even the LORD that hath chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee [Satan]: is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?” (Zech 3:2) Eliot truncates his quotation from Augustine (excluding “from the net”) in such a way that the biblical material evokes the Amos/Zechariah image as readily as the one from the Psalms; here again, the one protected from the “seduction of the eyes” is rescued from the raging fire that is love of sensible world.

Early critics of the “The Waste Land” understood that its chief literary device is allusion. Conrad Aiken called it, “A poem of allusion all compact” (Norton Critical Edition, 149), and I.A. Richards suggested, “Allusion in Mr. Eliot’s hands is a technical device for compression. ‘The Waste Land’ is the equivalent in content to an epic. Without this device twelve books would have been needed” (NCE, 171). It might be better, though, to think of what Eliot is doing here, not simply as allusion, but as a kind of midrash, a style of interpretation in which two texts are braided together, so that each illuminates and informs the other. Eliot wants us to see that reading Augustine can help us make sense of reading the Buddha, and vice versa. He doesn’t do for us the work of understanding how that can be; rather, he dashes off a few bold strokes that suggest the lineaments of the picture he has in mind, and lets us fill in the gaps.

This entry was posted in Augustine, Buddha, Midrash, T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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