From the wonderful play The Cocktail Party, well into the poet’s Christian phase. A man’s wife leaves him and an Unidentified Guest – who is almost a bona fide theophany (Eliot’s God prefers gin) – gives the man, Edward, some advice on how to handle his crisis:
…to approach the stranger
Is to invite the unexpected, release a new force,
Or let the genie out of the bottle.
It is to start a train of events
Beyond your control…
Most of the time we take ourselves for granted,
As we have to, and live on a little knowledge
About ourselves as we were. Who are you now?
You don’t know any more than I do,
But rather less. You are nothing but a set
Of obsolete responses. The one thing to do
Is to do nothing. Wait.
But waiting is the one thing impossible.
Besides, don’t you see that it makes me look ridiculous?
Guest: It will do you no harm to find yourself ridiculous.
Resign yourself to be the fool you are.
That is the best advice I can give you.
“Waiting is the one thing impossible” – in Eliot’s spirituality, activity and self-righteousness and pretension must be cleared from the minds of those who know only “a heap of broken images”, who are only that, and cannot be otherwise. For a man as attuned to grace and broken on the wheels of life as he, the one genuine spiritual vocation is the desperate plea, “teach us to care and not to care/ teach us to sit still.”
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….
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From The Cocktail Party (1949):
All cases are unique, and very similar to others.
You will change your mind, but your 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.”
“Half the harm that is done in this world
Is due to people who want to feel important.
They don’t mean to do harm — but the harm does not interest them.
Or they do not see it, or they justify it
Because they are absorbed in the endless struggle
To think well of themselves.”
“There is another way, if you…
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