We haven’t exactly hidden our love for T.S. Eliot’s late play and masterpiece, The Cocktail Party. In fact, it’s become something of a Mockingbird stand-by, literature-wise. Considerably more plainspoken than Eliot’s earlier plays and poetry, it’s really worth seeking out if you haven’t read it. The play concerns the marriage of Edward and Lavinia Chamberlayne, opening with Lavinia leaving Edward just as they are about to host a cocktail party at their London home. She is eventually brought back by a mysterious Unidentified Guest at the party, who turns out to be the psychiatrist whom Edward and Lavinia both consult. They each learn that they have been deceiving themselves and must face life’s realities.
In insightfully reserved style, Eliot sums up perfectly what it means to be human in The Cocktail Party, exploring the timeless issue of free will/determinism, among many others. In the quote below, Edward’s struggle typifies the struggle of all of us. We wish to be free and make our own choices to both remedy the past and direct the outcome of our lives. Today is the day of opportunity and infinite possibilities – isn’t it?
I have come to remind you- you have made a decision.
Are you thinking that I may have changed my mind?
No. You will not be ready to change your mind
Until you recover from having made a decision.
No. I have come to tell you that you will change your mind,
But that it will not matter. It will be too late.
I have half a mind to change my mind now.
To show you that I am free to change it.
You will change your mind, but you are not free.
Your moment of freedom was yesterday.
You made a decision. You set in motion
Forces in your life and in the lives of others
Which cannot be reversed. That is one consideration.
And another is this: it is a serious matter
To bring someone back from the dead.
For Eliot, we are free to make choices, yet paradoxically these choices are never free. It seems that our “moment of freedom” is always yesterday, always remaining at an inaccessible distance. We do not live with free will, but only the illusion of freedom. To borrow a term from physics, life has an interia to it which cannot be overcome.
The accumulation of the past directs our future as the momentum of time pushes us forward toward the past’s ultimate consequence. If we are the captain of our ship, the ship’s course has already been set and the ship is much to large to avoid the iceberg ahead. As a character says elsewhere in The Cocktail Party:
If we all were judged according to the consequences
Of all our words and deeds, beyond the intention
And beyond our limited understanding
Of ourselves and others, we should all be condemned.
But this is only one consideration. Toward the end of the play, Eliot briefly mentions “another consideration” – an alternate approach to the difficulties of life – which exists outside of the constraints of time. This consideration requires “the kind of faith that issues from despair”: the resurrection of the dead. Accordingly, Eliot looks for a time after death and beyond judgment when time itself no longer has any meaning. When the forces of life no longer have any power and we can finally live in true freedom.
“There is another way, if you have the courage.
The first I could describe in familiar terms
Because you have seen it, as we all have seen it,
Illustrated, more or less, in lives of those about us.
The second is unknown, and so requires faith —
The kind of faith that issues from despair.
The destination cannot be described;
You will know very little until you get there;
You will journey blind. But the way leads towards possession
Of what you have sought for in the wrong place.”