IV. Death by Water
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,Bryan comments: Traditionally, this beautiful section is understood to point to the bleakness of human life: there is no resurrection or regeneration, just bones and nothingness. I take this bleakness, however, to apply only to a particular type of human life. Namely, to a life concerned only with "profit and loss" and obsessed with material gain. The lust for wealth engulfs us, just as the sea engulfs Phlebas.
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passes the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
The looming specter of Death ensures that the world of "profit and loss" is quickly forgotten; the daily count of gold and silver is without larger meaning and thus easily exposed as ephemeral. As the drowned Phlebas rots, his bones are "picked in whispers" and it seems that a different voice, a voice other than profit and loss, now begins to stir his bones. The whispers and the subsequent "whirlpool" turn our thoughts to the cycle of life. They point to the "stages of age and youth" when different priorities might have been present: the simple joys of childhood perhaps, or to the thoughtful reflections of an old man. The whispers tell us to see our lives as a whole. They remind us to not forget our dreams as children and to avoid the regrets of old age. The whispers that pick the bones of Plebas point us beyond the wasteland.
[T.S. Eliot's poem, The Wasteland, is one of my favorite pieces of poetry. I've decided I want to blog about it occasionally, more for my own amusement, perhaps, than for anything else. I think the deeply spiritual nature of the poem is not fully understood -- something I hope to remedy in my own mind. I begin with the fourth section.]