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More Than Morbid

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.[1]  

  • T. S. Eliot

“We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men,” Eliot begins his 1925 poem, “The Hollow Men.” Not the most positive of notes on which to start. But perhaps therein is its haunting power. Reality has a way of pressing beyond our rather feeble attempts at distracting ourselves. ‘Modern’ and ‘Enlightened’ humanity has succeeded in stuffing itself, says Eliot, but with straw! The real boy has reverted to scarecrow. We are full with inconsequential emptiness. “Shape without form, shade without colour, / Paralysed force, gesture without motion.” For all our technological advances and life improvements, we find ourselves impotent and apathetic, now living in what Eliot throughout this poem refers to as “death’s other kingdom.”

Why does Eliot think ‘Modern man’ is in this condition? In one of the most haunting of phrases, he hints at his answer: “Lips that would kiss / Form prayers to broken stone.” In the living dead the love expressed in a kiss—love which transforms living to life—is traded for the knee bent to idol, the epitome of death. A little later he continues: “The eyes are not here / There are no eyes here / In this valley of dying stars / in this hollow valley.” He is referencing psalm 115, where we are told that the people worship idols that “have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see” (v. 5). This psalm also says that “those who make them will be like them” (v. 8). The turn to the self is the turn to the self as god. Cut off from the God of the living, one then finds in oneself only the god of the dead.

Prior to the start of verse in “The Hollow Men”, Eliot rather cryptically refers to the equally haunting character of Colonel Kurts in Joseph Conrad’s Into the Heart of Darkness. In this ‘yarn spun,’ the reader finds herself on a journey up the Congo into the heart of Africa, on mission to find the infamous Mr. Kurtz. Kurtz had set himself up as a kind of deity there, deep in the interior; he answered to no one and to nothing, either “high or low… There was nothing either above or below him… He had kicked himself loose of the earth.” He was his own master, his own rule maker, his own god.

Throughout the story, Kurtz is often referred to simply as “a voice,” which initially adds to his supernatural façade. Like in Eliot’s poem, however, it turns out he has become little more than a voice. There is no real substance to him. He is “hollow at the core.” He falls, to use Eliot’s phrase, somewhere “Between the potency / And the existence.”

Conrad writes this tale in such a way that, as you journey along the Congo into the heart of Africa, the sense grows that the journey is really into your own heart. Mr. Kurtz is that hollow, emptiness of yourself, sitting as one of straw on a throne of rubble. And this brings me to the point of this uplifting little post. Why write on such dark matters?

It may be, as C. S. Lewis observed, that “our most esteemed poets and critics are read by our most esteemed critics and poets…and nobody else takes notice.”[2] But surely we don’t need the mediation of an Eliot or a Conrad to know our own experiences of this darkness, this emptiness. Helpful as that mediation can be, we all know too well the raw futility of our own ‘turn to the self.’ And we know of its subsequent insanity.

As we approach March, we come to the season of Lent. Whether or not you observe Lent, it is an important reminder of the heart of darkness, that wretched body of death. It is a reminder of the need for confession and repentance (as we’ve recently been reminded). More specifically, for confession and repentance of our own sin. As Lewis also noted: “Those who do not think about their own sins make up for it by thinking incessantly about the sins of others.”[3]

Let us ask with Bonaventure, then, “O stubborn heart, insane and irreverent, why is it that in your misery you laugh and rejoice like a madman, while the Wisdom of the Father weeps over you?”[4] Having considered our own insanity, the season of Lent becomes a chance to look beyond one’s self. “Behold the grief of him who brings you healing,” continues Bonaventure.

March turns to April; Ash Wednesday to Good Friday; Good Friday to Resurrection Sunday. It may just be that April isn’t ‘the cruellest month.’ In April, our death runs headlong against God’s great contrastive conjunction: “But God…” In April, God does indeed make lilacs to grow from this ‘dead land.’ Christ, the first-fruit, proves it.

So, why so morbid a reflection as this? Why reflect on our own turn to the self and its subsequent death? It is morbid, to be sure. What’s the alternative, though? Distracting ourselves from its reality? And when that doesn’t work, excusing ourselves? Sure, its morbid. But “the alternative,” remarks Lewis, “is much more morbid” still.[5]
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Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel

Joshua Schendel grew up in Montana before going off to study classics, philosophy, and theology. He currently resides in St. Louis along with his wife, Bethanne, and three kids, where he is pursuing his PhD in theology.

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