Between Augustine and Derrida: Reading T.S. Eliot's Poetry of Exile

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Hugh Kenner's observation that "commentators tour the Eliot territory in chartered buses" (x-xi) rings true even today, particularly in reference to Four Quartets. Post-deconstructionist criticism may have taken us beyond Dame Helen Gardner's orotund assessment of the poem as "beautiful, satisfying, self-contained, self-organized, complete," but delusions of critical mastery--the perfect "tour" of Eliot territory--still persist. Even with the use of various interpretive maps or grids, however, the reader of Four Quartets still finds it difficult to recover a clear "narrative."

Harriet Davidson's insight into The Waste Land is equally, perhaps even more apt when applied to Four Quartets: "the opacity remains stubbornly there, not dissolved by any interpretation" (Davidson 5). While this opacity may be attributable to the dense fabric of the poems' intertextuality, it is equally attributable, I suggest, to the ways in which place, or space, functions in the poems. Numerous readers have argued that the historical and autobiographical significance of the house, gardens, and pools of Burnt Norton, the ancestral "old stone" and loam of East Coker, the river landscapes of the Dry Salvages, and, especially, the unique religious community at Little Gidding are central to our understanding of Eliot's life and work. This essay argues that while place functions as setting, subject, or point of reference in Eliot's poetry, it also functions as a trope of displacement, or potential exile, a means to problematize the spiritual journey that Four Quartets describe. This essay suggests one possible philosophical configuration through which to consider place in Four Quartets.

The poems of Four Quartets turn between two contrasting topographies. The first topography can be described in terms adapted from St. Augustine: it is a regio dissimilitudinis, a region of difference that keeps the speaker from a reaching a place of "complete simplicity" ("Little Gidding"). One of the prime features of this land "where all is different" is language; to be exiled here is to "struggle through trackless wastes" (Augustine, Confessions vii) of time and change, escapable only through the (non-discursive) Incarnation. The second topography of Four Quartets is that of a continuously deferred place, what might be called a necessary exile. Jacques Derrida considered this kind of exile a necessary condition for poetry; together with the commentary it inspires, he wrote, poetry is "the very form of exiled speech" (67). Interestingly, both Augustine and Derrida see exile as existing within language; the difference lies in the value each attaches to this situation. For Augustine, the definitive characteristic of an exile distant from the "land of peace" is language; in the progression of words in time "there is no place to rest" (Confessions iv). Margaret Ferguson has written that "unlike many modern theorists, when faced with the contradictions between a philosophy of essence and a linguistics of difference, Augustine chooses to relinquish language rather than God" (845). Clearly, Derrida is one of those modern theorists: in contrast to Augustine, he sees displacement and difference--an "absence of locality" (69)--as vital to poetic autonomy.

The connection between place and language has a long history, and has been both intriguing and useful to a variety of writers and theorists. For Augustine, the "place of peace" is in God alone (Confessions IV). His writings are filled with spatial metaphors. "Make your dwelling in him, my soul," writes Augustine in Book IV of the Confessions. Describing the process of his own religious awakening, he writes in Book VII: "Your light shone upon me in its brilliance, and I thrilled with love and dread alike. I realized that I was far away from you." In this land of dissimilarity, words are equated with sequence, difference, and the body. Language is viewed as inevitably partial, and thus inherently flawed and deficient. …