HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

May 12, 2008
From Liberty Street

The Hollow Men

John Turner


Being in the nation's capital for the past week has brought powerfully to mind certain lines from T. S. Eliot's poem, "The Hollow Men."

Why should that be the case? you may ask. I don't know whether I can answer perfectly. It could have something to do with the pace of life here, which strikes me as frenzied. Still, that's not the main thing. At bottom, Washington is a city where people are driven to project importance and, yet, if you were to ask most of the denizens scurrying up and down the sidewalks or driving along the avenues like madmen about the nature of importance, I doubt many could supply you with a compelling answer. And being caught up in the importance of something when you don't know what it is, isn't a bad definition of hollowness.

As Eliot notes:

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

This is the way hollow men present themselves not only to the world but to themselves as well. It's all about show, but when you dig behind the screen there's really nothing back there -- just shapes, and shades, and paralysis, and gesture. The four strike me as a pretty good synopsis of the current presidential campaign.

For quite a while I've assumed that politicians fail to deal in substance because they fear public response to serious discourse. They think the public is essentially frivolous so they have to appear to be frivolous themselves lest they are tagged with the political death sentence of elitism. But what if I've been wrong? What if they really believe the drivel that proceeds from their lips?

What if they are

the hollow men .... the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw?

What then?

When you walk along Connecticut Avenue through Cleveland Park you don't run into people you're likely to see on TV. But you do notice dozens of young men and women who aspire to be those people. American ambition is alive and vigorous in such settings. In one sense it's not different than ambition has ever been. People want to be a part of a group viewed as chic, modish, fashionable. And I don't suppose there's anything terribly wrong with that. And yet, and yet, as Eliot says:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
                   
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
                   
Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow

It's that shadow in American life now -- in American ambition now -- that's frightening. And what is it? It seems to be the suspicion that making it will be empty, that making it will not bring meaning, that making it will be little more than dust. If that's the shadow, if that's the suspicion, what makes us think it's not true?

Eliot saw and felt that shadow in the 1920s, and since then it has only grown and darkened.

I read somewhere once that if a man can't look forward to a good dinner then he can't really look forward to anything. But what about a world and a generation in which a good dinner is nothing, when the little pleasures of everyday life are nothing, because they are so perfectly assured. They are, as we say, a right -- whatever that means. Then you can't really look forward to them.

The faces on the streets in Washington now tell me that we really do need a new birth, that the old ways have become empty and meaningless, and that in chasing them we become the hollow men. I don't know whether that rebirth might be religious, or political, or intellectual, or some conglomerate of all three. But of the need for it I have no doubt. And if we don't rouse ourselves to seek fulfillment of that need, we may actually experience the kind of subsidence to a whimper that Eliot foresaw. It's not a prospect I like but it is one we would do well to guard against. And that will take thinking of the sort we haven't heretofore thought of as traditional American. The rule of life is irony and we may well have to save America by stepping out of the American mold.


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