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Terrance KleinSeptember 20, 2017

He was not directly referring to his first marriage with Vivian, though how T. S. Eliot described his play “The Cocktail Party” accurately describes their union. “A man who finds himself incapable of loving/ And a woman who finds that no man can love her.” In real life, both of the Eliots, Tom and Vivian, seemed almost to race, seeing who could become more psychologically and physically ill.

There is a small set of lines—a monologue or perhaps a dialogue—in Eliot’s masterpiece The Waste Land that mirrors his home life. At least that is what Ezra Pound thought. In his new work, The World Broke in Two, Bill Goldstein suggests that Pound wrote in his manuscript of The Waste Land the word “photography” next to some of Eliot’s lines as a way of saying that they were not art because they did no more than record the real.

Here are the lines:

“My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me. 
“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak. 
 “What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? 
“I never know what you are thinking. Think.”

 I think we are in rats’ alley 
Where the dead men lost their bones. 

 “What is that noise?”
             The wind under the door. 
“What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?” 
               Nothing again nothing. 
                             “Do 
“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember 
“Nothing?”

    I remember 
Those are pearls that were his eyes. 
“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”   

Pound may be right that Eliot did no more than write down a scrap of actual conversation from his marriage, but, in doing so, he captured a countless number of stymied unions, in which spouses speak to each other but do not listen to each other.

Love is either utterly generous or it does not exist.

They do not hear because their hearts cannot summon the generosity that love demands—even better—the generosity that love is. Instead, so many of us—so often—do the very opposite of our Gospel lesson. We measure out meaning, measure out love. Yet those who measure can never love, because love does not measure. Love is either utterly generous or it does not exist.

You can hear the frustration in the first voice.

“My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
 “What are you thinking of?

Does he answer aloud or merely mutter within himself? “What thinking? What?” She tries to explain herself, “I never know what you are thinking.” He cannot even respond, “Think?”

Eliot seems to have captured one of those innumerable moments in a rotten relationship, when one person reaches out, as best she can, but at a moment when the other is measuring, finding her words insipid, so far from fathoming the depths within himself. He cannot respond to someone who does not understand him. He measures.

And in most such relationships, the chairs are musical. Each of us counts up the times when we tried to break through but the other was busy measuring, neither hearing nor seeing.

    I remember
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”

We are those who measure, who measure out love, but the Scriptures insist that love does not measure.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
As high as the heavens are above the earth,
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts (Is 55:8-9).

The Prophet Isaiah sets an impassible barrier between God’s mind and our own. And the great minds of our philosophers would concur. What can the limited know of the unlimited?

Jesus asks us, “Are you envious because I am generous?”

Yet Jesus, with his parable of the laborers, lately hired, affirms this deep disparity and then opens the door to our comprehension of God. We are those who measure out our love. We speak of rights and of wrongs. We talk of what is owed to us. Of what we should expect. We count up how many times we have been wronged. We calculate what the other should have said, should have done.

We want desperately to be loved, but we are only willing to give love in the measure that we have received it. “I think we are in rats’ alley/ Where the dead men lost their bones.”

Jesus tells us that God is love, and that love itself is unmeasured. The moment we begin to measure, we know nothing of love, know nothing of God.

Jesus asks us, “Are you envious because I am generous?” (Mt 20:15). As those who measure out our love, we are both envious and dumbstruck to learn that God does not, that God simply is love, that God simply is endless generosity. But Jesus will not relent. He presses his point, overturning all of our measures, like the tables of the temple traders. “Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Mt 20:16).

Readings: Isaiah 55:6-9 Philippians 1:20c-24, 26a Matthew 20:1-16a

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