Explorations and Responses; Kramer's Buberian Lens on Eliot's Four Quartets
Friedman, Maurice, Journal of Ecumenical Studies
In a rare instante of ecumenism, Kenneth Kramer, a Catholic, has written a book on T. S. Eliot, an Anglican, the main thrust of which is the philosophy of Martin Buber--a great Jewish figure of the twentieth century. (1) The book itself is ecumenism at its finest, since it has a fully open spirit that does not in any way sacrifice one tradition in favor of another. Nor does he draw from Buber's philosophy minus its religious component but makes full use of Buber's central philosophical-religious text and even of Buber's writing on Hasidism--the popular communal Jewish mysticism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries--in putting forward his thesis of Eliot's closeness to the spirit of Buber's dialogical thought.
Kramer begins Redeeming Time by indicating that "Four Quartets contemplates, through idea and word, how timeless moments--of redeeming reciprocity, of graced consciousness--shine through physical landscapes and release the poet from temporal enchainments." (2) Aficionados of Eliot's poetry and new readers alike will find in this dialogical reading an invaluable disclosure of Eliot's new life in the spirit--a "new and shocking/Valuation of all we have been." (3) This book on Eliot's Quartets (with references throughout to Eliot's poems, plays, and essays) was the product of a lifetime's effort on Kramer's part of reading, pondering, teaching, and discussing the poetry. The whole book is actually Eliot seen through a Buberian lens--in particular that of Buber's I and Thou, but by no means exclusively that, since Kramer has immersed himself deeply in the whole of Buber's writings. Kramer's Buberian reading of Four Quartets is thoroughly convincing. Kramer has, in fact, accomplished a remarkable feat in presenting such an apt Buberian lens on Four Quartets, but in no way does it neglect all the other voices--and they are many--that have essayed to interpret Four Quartets. Redeeming Time is, indeed, a great study of Eliot's Four Quartets and of Eliot in general--one well worthy of a lifetime's effort.
Kramer's book consists of a Preface, an Introduction, a long chapter on each of the four quartets, a Conclusion on interspiritual practices, and over seventy pages of notes.
We cannot do better than begin with the long summaries of the book that Kramer provides in his Preface. These remarks indicate the scope of Kramer's comprehensive exploration and also capture some of its excitement:
[T]he poet discovers that spiritual substance cannot be found fully in himself or in the totality of his experiences. Rather, it emerges from unsought, unforeseen moments of redeeming reciprocity (divine-human mutual contact) that interrupt time briefly in places entered by chance, and that are then retrieved and appropriated through interplay of detached memory and disciplined imagination. In Four Quartets, therefore, a continual back and forth movement occurs between ordinary time--a field of relentless distractions, struggle, and toil--and redeeming time--a graced elevation of ordinary consciousness arising from a genuinely mutual, giving and receiving engagement between poet and world. (4) For Eliot "grace" is ... a gift that happens not in a person bur to a person from a transcendent source.... a presence that recasts [the person] in the shape of spontaneous mutuality emerging between humans and the divine.... [Redemption] ... involves events and acts awakening one ... into liberating relationships with others and renewing relationships with the world.... not the realization of an inner truth but experiencing a relational connection to God's presence hidden in the world. (5) [T]his dialogic reading provides a network of theme words that help readers to map the entire poem while moving through individual scenes. These theme words ... embody key spiritual motives that inhere in individual passages and are repeated throughout the poem's twenty movements. …