The terror of history: every act of recognition implies that something like this has been seen before

Cyclic theories of time accomplish for the learned what the mythological rituals of the seasons accomplish for the intellectually unsophisticated. Both mitigate the terror of history, in which events, and most of all man’s personal decisions, are set forever in an irreversible pattern. [So said Eliot.] And poems tend to be cyclic, remembering their beginnings; and every act of recognition implies that something like this has been seen before. So the poet of Four Quartets drew four elements, four seasons, four places, into a four part symmetry which closes as it had opened in a transcendental garden and only escapes the world’s sad repetitions by leaving the world (the river at the end of Little Gidding is not a real river, nor the children real children). So says Hugh Kenner in The Pound Era.

And then we have Yeats, who wanted to be both inside and outside the great wheel of history, viewing it perhaps from the mountain carved in lapis lazuli whence his three Chinamen look down “on all the tragic scene” through eyes that are gay; and that gaiety is quite Nietzschean in “The Gyres,” where “we that look on but laugh in tragic joy.”

Then, too, we have Joyce, Finnegans Wake and Vico: “Bloom’s creator, who was later to use Vico’s cycle, used Mme. Blavatsky’s with rigorous literalness: Ulysses plays on Yeats the immense joke of taking his pet doctrines as naively as John Donne took the idea that lovers are martyrs. For the book’s premise must be that Bloom is really Ulysses, though he knows it no more than that wily wandering Greek foresaw being reincarnated as a wandering homebody Jew.”

And then… but I forget the rest.


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