The Professor, Four Quartets, and an Epiphany

Albert Camus, reflecting on the Myth of Sisyphus, argued that the fundamental question of philosophy, and perhaps the only question worth asking, is this: is life worth living?

Some teachers achieve fame and influence by performing brilliantly for large classes. Often, they are celebrated by both students and institutions. Such brilliant, polymathic, inspiring, performers have opened my eyes to many of the world's wonders. After the first flush of adrenaline, however, I have sometimes walked away wondering: why should I care?

Other teachers focus their attentions with laser-like intensity on small groups of students, or even one student. These teachers not only see the universe in a grain of sand; they help us to understand why that bit of glittering silicon matters. They are not often publicly celebrated, and many who encounter them shrug and move on to the next arena, the next library, the next celebration. For a few, their teachings take root quietly, and, like mycelia, spread surreptitiously under the chaos of daily life. These are the teachers who, in a few moments, lead us to ask why we should care about the world's wonders.

This essay is about my encounter with one such teacher—Mary Eleanor Bender—and what, after 50 years, I have learned, and continue to learn, from her.

In, 1969, I had just returned from almost two years of vagabonding around the world, road-tripping from my birthplace in Winnipeg to Montreal, and then by freighter to Belfast, and from there overland through the U.K., France, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, and India. There, after six months of volunteer work in Bihar, I boarded a ship in Madras and spent several months hiking around Southeast Asia. Although, at various times I attached myself to small groups of travellers, for most of this time, I was alone. Being alone was my comfort zone. One might have labeled me an introvert, but I am wary of labels and categorizations. Finally, after eight months of rotating shift work in a Vancouver sawmill, I decided that physical labour was not one of my primary skills, and returned to academia.

If I were to think of those months of mental, spiritual and physical vagabonding in terms of books, I would, at the one end, put something by one of Oxford University's upbeat and morally instructive Inklings—C.S. Lewis, probably, and J.R.R. Tolkien. I was, in short, a true believer in the tradition of Mennonite Brethren pietists who had fled the Soviet Union in the 1920s.

In the middle, I would put a few tattered, locally-authored volumes that I picked up from sidewalk booksellers in India. One of them, whose title I can't remember, was a thick blue paperback, printed on cheap paper, falling apart at the binding, on Indian democracy; I remember the subtitle: “abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” The subtitle matched my mood as I jostled and sweated and shat my way through the streets of cities then known as Varanasi and Calcutta. It was also on one of those rickety tables piled with books that I discovered Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali, with an introduction by W.B. Yeats. That slim volume became a comfort to me as I struggled through sloughs of mental, physical, and spiritual despond. I could add a recent Nobel prize winner, whose song, “Like a Rolling Stone,” I heard for the first time in a run-down, smoke-filled, coffee house in Vientiane.

The other end of this short shelf would be propped up with some mish-mash of Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea and Kobo Abe's Woman in the Dunes. Mentally, I had arrived at a dark, nihilistic, volatile, pit, vacillating between true belief and existential despair.

This, in brief, had been the path that led me to Mary Eleanor Bender's course on Twentieth Century European Fiction. The importance of the class to me can be summed up by events in the US in the Fall of 1969.

On November 15, 1969, half a million people converged on Washington DC to show their support for a Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. November 15 was a Saturday, which made it easier for students—peers of those being sent to the front lines to kill, be killed, and traumatized by an older generation—to attend. Goshen College, a small liberal arts college in Northern Indiana where I was a student, had organized a bus to take students there. The bus was leaving on Friday; my girlfriend at the time would be on it. I could look forward to a thrilling bus ride and an adrenaline-charged sense of “making a difference.”

My quandary was that Friday morning was also the time when I needed to attend lectures for Professor Bender's course on twentieth century fiction; also, I needed to be back for another of her lectures before the bus would arrive back at campus. Unlike most of my peers, I attended the lecture. I missed the bus, arriving in DC, bedraggled, well after my classmates, having hitch-hiked there with my guitar-playing friend Steve. On the way, we slept under a tree near the highway and enlightened each other with Zen koans. Later, I recall lying on the crowded cement floor in the nosebleed section of an auditorium while William Kunstler played Claire de Lune on a grand piano far below. In a state of exhaustion and confusion, I might have tried to explain to my girlfriend why I would have chosen to attend a one-hour literature class over ten hours of canoodling with her. I may have said it was complicated. That, apparently, was not the right answer.

But the course!

I needed that course. More than that, I needed that course the way it was taught by Professor Mary Eleanor Bender. Three times a week I would roll out of my narrow dormitory bunk at eight in the morning, schlepp myself across the idyllic green campus, and listen intently to Bender. I thought then that she must be very old, given how much she understood; I realize now that she must have been in her forties. She leaned over the podium and spoke quietly to us, to me specifically, I thought, of Sartre, Camus, Mann, Beckett, Ionesco, Kafka, Dos Passos, Wolfe, Mansfield, Joyce, Robbe-Grillet—all those writers who helped define the twentieth century European way of framing and grappling with the troubles of the world.

Mary Eleanor Bender, I discovered, was not one of those professors who spent all their time expounding on language and plot, structure and style, modern, modernist or post-modernist, although she did cover that material. Ross Lynn Bender [1], another student in the class, recalled fifty years later how she had introduced Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway as a way of understanding impressionism and pointillism. “What sticks with me,” he said, “is the concept of ‘the perfect moment,’ which I determined to pursue.” Another student wrote to me that he didn't think lectures should be impressionistic, which hers seemed to be.

She taught literature as if the subject matter, regardless of form, was important, that there were reasons why dictators might have writers assassinated. As a troubled, aspiring, writer, I was riveted. Even as I argued strongly with other professors that all literature—all art—was less than useless, a distraction from life's fundamental questions, I returned to Mary Eleanor Bender's morning classes for assurance that I was wrong about this. And when, at the end of the course, she looked up from her podium at us—at me —and said, “They have defined the problem. Now it is up to you to find the solution,” I understood what I needed to do with my life.

It is not hyperbole to say that, in 1969, her teaching dragged me out of Dante's hell, saved my life, and gave me a reason and a passion to live. I've written more than twenty books since then—poetry, fiction, nonfiction, framed as novels and short stories, memoirs and personal histories and science, books on plagues, insects, feces and Mennonite cooking—all of them struggling to find that “solution.”

An encounter between a teacher and a student requires that they are both prepared for this meeting, not only by what they have read, but also by how they have lived. The meaning of the encounter is an emergent property—something new that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Only after retiring from my own career as a professor in 2011 did I begin to wonder about the path that had led this soft-spoken, self-deprecating teacher from a well-known Mennonite family, whom students described as the quintessential version of a Mennonite nun, to the cross-roads where, in 1969, neither of us, each on a path alone, had intended to meet. Looking back now, having been a professor myself for a few decades, I understand that I was there at 8:30 AM for Mary Eleanor's lecture because it made me feel that something, after all, mattered, but what brought Mary Eleanor, herself deeply introverted and thoughtful, to that lectern, to that classroom space?

Her friends tell me that she delighted in teaching. As a professor, I too loved teaching. I also knew that, in the words of T.S. Eliot 'between the idea and the reality falls the shadow'. Before every lecture, I was filled with deep anxiety; every lecture forced me to drag myself out of my comfortably sepulchral inner sanctum, to walk into the bright lights and put on a performance. But how did one step through that shadow between the doubts and aloneness of the inner self to enjoy the teaching? A large part of it for me came from the delight of communicating to young people subjects about which I cared deeply, subjects that mattered. Is this also what drove Mary Eleanor? Mary Eleanor understood that great literature alters how we imagine the world, and therefore changes how we live. In a college whose motto was “Culture for Service,” making this link between literature and living was strategically and administratively important. But for Mary Eleanor, this was no mere tactical strategy. I sensed that for her—and hence for me, her student—this deep connection between literature and life gave meaning to both. Is this why we found common ground, a small quiet space under a tree at a crossroads where, away from the spotlights, we could share ideas?

I looked online for more information about her. There were a great many articles about her father, but I found very little written about her. With the help of her surviving colleagues and some students, I might have been able to cobble together something like a Wiki-type entry.

Such an entry might reduce her life to a journey that, with the exception of a few brief forays to Europe, never ventured far from her home in northern Indiana. Mary Eleanor Bender was born on March 3, 1927, in Goshen, Indiana, into the family of Harold S. (H.S.) Bender and Elizabeth Horsch Bender. H.S. was a brilliant, ambitious, strong-willed Mennonite patriarch. Together with Elizabeth, an editor and translator, he directed and influenced a whole generation of Mennonite academics and activists. In 1946, having completed high school and some college, Mary Eleanor entered Civilian Public Service at a mental health hospital in Cleveland.

Although Mennonite women were not required to work in Civilian Public Service as an alternative to joining the armed forces, some, in keeping with their own strong anti-war beliefs, and in solidarity with the men, nonetheless volunteered. As she described it later (College Mennonite Church, 1995):

“The lion's mouth into which I jumped in 1946 was the ward of about 60 of Cleveland State's sickest female patients, a ward featured in a Life magazine expose as a ‘snakepit for the mentally ill: Pello Second Floor.’ Our patients still sit rigidly on their wooden benches in picture books as examples of their terrible conditions in hospitals. Our day began in the hall outside the ward. As a preliminary we took deep nasal breaths to desensitize our noses against the smell of urine and feces that would hit us when we opened the door.

Then came mopping and scrubbing, followed by showering of the patients—without the use of big straw brooms on sore, filthy bodies, as was done by some nurses and other attendants—all done with the most love and patience we could muster under the circumstances.” [2]

In 1947, Mary Eleanor moved to Basel with her parents. From October of that year until April, 1948, she was bedridden with hepatitis. Her mother took care of her and taught her sufficient German so that, on recovery, she could continue university there. When her parents returned to the United States in 1948, Mary Eleanor remained behind for another year to study French. Upon her return to the United States the following year, she completed her MA and PhD at Indiana University in Bloomington; her thesis was titled: “The sixteenth-century Anabaptists as theme in twentieth-century German literature (1900-1957).” For two years she was on the faculty at Hesston College in Kansas, and then returned to Goshen College where, from 1955 to 1987, she taught, at various times, courses in German, French, and English literature.

Apart from the brief description of her time as a volunteer, I could find little written by her, or about her, that satisfied my need to understand how this one professor could have had such an extraordinary impact on my life.

David with Mary Eleanor

In 2019 (when she was 92), after sending her the occasional Christmas card, I finally worked up the courage to telephone my old professor. Not knowing how alert and thoughtful she might be as a nonagenarian, imagining, perhaps, an old lady dozing by the radio, I asked her if she was reading much. She said that she read the Times all through every day. And then she added that just the previous week she finally understood TS Eliot's The Four Quartets. I don't recall ever formally being taught T.S. Eliot. What little I knew of him had to do with wastelands, the cruel month of April, cats, magi, and hollow men. I tried reading his work again, and found my attention coming and going, like Eliot's women, talking of Michelangelo. It would be in exploring her understanding of The Four Quartets that I would finally begin to understand the emergent property of our encounter, but when we began this conversation after a fifty-year hiatus, I did not yet understand that.

After this, I continued to phone her sporadically, just to stay in touch, and then, in 2021, when she was 94, my wife Kathy and I followed up with a more formal in-person interview at Mary Eleanor's apartment in Goshen. Although the primary intent was to get her to recount the important experiences in her life, we frequently wandered off topic, and she often tried to turn the conversation away from herself and back to us. In the summary that follows, I have deleted most of these asides, and attempted to let her speak with her own voice.

Kathy asked if we might record the conversation.

Mary Eleanor: Of Course!

David: So we can remember things a little bit?

Mary Eleanor: Of course. I don't intend to say anything incriminating!


David: It's for our own memories. Because you explained last time we talked what you thought The Four Quartets meant. And after we hung up people asked me, well what did she say? And I went…I forget! (laughs)

Mary Eleanor: Oh I know, I know! That is a new experience and it just is so disconcerting!

I wondered at the notion that, at age 94, forgetfulness was a new experience, but did not pursue that line of inquiry.

David: Was it early on that you decided you wanted to study literature?

Mary Eleanor: Well, I can remember when something snapped into my brain. I was sick in Basel, Switzerland where my father was working for MCC and we were all living in the MCC center in Basel. And I saw this moth fall into a flame, and I thought, that's the way I want to be. And I want to teach German because in those days, that was 1947, we thought the German problem was the biggest problem. Boy, was I wrong! And that's when I decided to teach German. And never got off that track until Lois Gunden fell in love and moved to Pennsylvania with her husband [in 1958]. And I had to replace her teaching French![3]

David: How old were you when you had the sense of the moth in the flame?

Mary Eleanor: Twenty.

David: And then did you study or go to university at that point or…?

Mary Eleanor: When I got sick.[4] Well, my mother was a German teacher. So she taught me German. And by the second semester I was well enough to go to the university. And I did.

David: In Germany?

Mary Eleanor: In Switzerland. And then I was another semester at the University of Basel in German and [when my parents returned to the US] my father said, “Well, you're in Europe. You better get some French, too.” So I went to French Switzerland [to the University of Lausanne] for a term. Then I came home and finished my last year at Goshen. And then I went to Indiana University and got my PhD in German. That was a wonderful experience. I keep thinking it was a great department and such a wonderful experience. And then I got a call from Hesston College. (laughs). My advisor said, “You can do something better than teach in the middle of a corn field!” But I wanted to go, so I spent two years at Hesston. And those were good. When you share a dining table with somebody like Cal Redekop[5], you have fun!

David: Was he at Hesston?

Mary Eleanor: He was teaching there at the same time. And then I was called to teach at Goshen. And I said yes. But in the English department. I think I taught one or two courses in German. But the rest was English and then Lois Gunden dropped out and I was asked to teach French. So I had a kind of crazy career. But it was wonderful. It was truly wonderful.

In a telephone conversation in August, 2021, I asked how she kept up her French. She replied that whenever she had a summer semester when she wasn't teaching, she would attend the Sorbonne in Paris.

At the same time, she certainly did keep up her German, even as she shifted her teaching into French and English. Ross Lynn Bender wrote to me that he was reading Schiller and Goethe, and, encountering Mary Eleanor on a campus sidewalk, quoted Faust's lines to Gretchen:

"Mein schoenes Fräuleindarf ich wagen
Meinen Arm und Geleit ihr anzutragen?"

Without missing a beat, Mary Eleanor responded:

"Bin weder Fräuleinweder schoen,
Kann ungegleitetnach hause gehn."[6]

David: And so, when we were there, you were teaching French language courses and Twentieth Century Fiction. Those two subject areas. How did that come about?

Mary Eleanor: Oh, Carl Kreider the dean called me up and said, “We need another literature course. Do you want to teach?” And I had written my thesis on modern German literature, so I said, well, I'd better teach twentieth century. And that's how I got that course. And I've been thinking, none of us thought of defending turf. We did what we were asked to do. Like my father asked Mary Oyer to go to graduate school and prepare to teach a course that combined and compared all the arts. And she did it.

David: Right.

Mary Eleanor: We did what we were asked to do.

Kathy: I wonder what you would have chosen had you not been asked? If it had been just up to you?

Mary Eleanor: I can't think of anything else I could have done. It turns out that what I was asked to do was the only thing I was able to do. (laughs)

David: Maybe if you would have been asked to do something different, you would have taught something different?

Mary Eleanor: Well I think if it would have been physics probably it wouldn't have worked! (everyone laughs).

Kathy: Well, we are very curious. We wondered about your friendships with the other young women faculty when you were a new faculty member. There were not many women.

Mary Eleanor: Well, Mary Oyer and I were very close, of course, from the time of early childhood. She's the first person I remember playing with. I was three years old and she was seven. And we grew up together in Sunday School and church. And so we've always been very close. And I think the relationships with other faculty women were… I was very much inspired by the other faculty women when I began to teach. People like Lois Gunden, who had come back from her work with Jewish children in France right after the war. I was just inspired by those older women. And then, people my age, that would have been Mary Oyer or Mary K. Nafziger. Good friendships. There weren't many.

[Although Kathy had framed the question in terms of how women were treated in academia, the notion of feeling alone within the academy, of not having many deep work-related friendships, resonated with me in other ways. We both thought of ourselves as being introverts, and yet we both loved teaching!]

David: Did you feel “push back” from the men? Like did you feel some sense from the male faculty and administration to try to …

Mary Eleanor: ( interrupts) I never felt that at all. Never felt any, any, discrimination at all, ever, ever.

Kathy: Do you think you got the same pay? The same salary as the men?

Mary Eleanor: (quietly) I don't know.

Kathy: I don't think that women today have that, so I doubt it.

David: And university administrations, even now, never want to talk about salaries in public. And so, if they find it convenient, they're able to keep people at different salaries. Just wondering...

[She did not respond to this further.]

David: So when did you leave, retire from Goshen? Because, I remember I came back once, and you had been ill.

Mary Eleanor: Oh I remember that very well.

In a later telephone conversation I asked her more about the illness. She explained that she'd had two surgeries and was asked to prepare a departmental budget over a holiday weekend, when she didn't have access to all the materials she needed. She had church committee commitments for Sunday, and immediately afterwards flew to another university where she'd planned to take a literature course. There, she was informed that the professor who was to offer the course was suffering from clinical depression. Mary Eleanor felt that, “being a Mennonite, I thought I had to help him.” At that point, she felt completely overwhelmed with what was happening, with life, with her responsibilities. “For one thing, I couldn't talk. I felt like I was walking on the moon. Inside my head,” she said, “it was a foreign world.”

Somehow, in the midst of this, she was able to make her way home and find appropriate treatment.

Such crises happen more often in academia than many members of the general public realize. These experiences are rarely shared publicly, as institutional administrators fuss over perceived stigmas and reputations. What has amazed me was the resilience that Mary Eleanor showed, finding treatment and returning to continue an intellectually and personally rich life, one which led her—and through her, me—to a new understanding of The Four Quartets.

David: And you were advised, told, not to read books. At least, this is what I remember when I visited and we walked around the track with your dog.

Mary Eleanor: I remember that visit. It was kind, David.

David: Did you go back to teaching after that?

Mary Eleanor: Yes, I taught Twentieth Century Fiction. I taught one course. My mother was sick, and I nursed her until she died [in 1988]. That was two years. And then I was asked to go back and teach a course again. But I felt I was too old. I didn't have the energy. It wasn't a good course. But that's the way my life fell out. I wasn't expecting to nurse my mother [who died in 1988, a year after Mary Eleanor lost her job]. I wasn't expecting to leave the college.”

In 1987, when she was sixty years old, Mary Eleanor, along with a handful of other faculty, was given “early retirement” by Goshen College. According to some colleagues, Mary Eleanor was irate and disturbed. Yet in our interviews, the closest she came to complaining was to say, “That was a really full time. “

And then Mary Eleanor took our 2019 recorded conversation in a startling new direction, but one that illustrated her resilience and which, in retrospect, answered one of my unspoken questions. As a retired professor, I wondered: what does one do now? What does meaningful work look like? I wondered how it was, after more than 30 years of “retirement,” that Mary Eleanor had returned to, and finally understood, Eliot's The Four Quartets. How did one transcend crises, and going beyond the words, take seriously not just the structure, the words, the poetry, but the deeper meaning which the words suggested? What was at the illuminating core of the The Four Quartets once they had burst free from their word-constraints? How did one live the illumination?

In our 2019 interview, after saying she wasn't expecting to nurse her mother, or to leave the college, she said, “I [also] wasn't expecting the most wonderful gift of about a dozen Indian students whose pictures are up there.” She pointed to some pictures behind her on the wall.

Just two weeks after her mother died, Mary Eleanor was returning a book to the college library and started a conversation with a downhearted-looking student at the desk. He explained that he had seen her at work in the garden of the white house, and thought that perhaps the people who lived there were wealthy because they had a gardener. He went on to explain that he and his friends—also students from India—were looking for a place to live and were having a hard time finding accommodation. Mary Eleanor (as a good Mennonite, she might have added) offered him a room. Then, after some time, he asked whether there might be room for a friend of his at her house. One thing led to another, and a year later, the white house was full of Goshen College students from India—Christians, Hindus, Muslims .

“They lived with me and that was full time,” she said, “because they kept having arranged marriages that were tragic.”

Mary Eleanor went on to explain how, over those six to eight years, she loved having those students, but also how she became involved in their family and marital problems, some of which took her to Chicago to testify at court cases regarding family violence, or regarding children taken from their parents. The mother of one of the students went so far as to assert that Mary Eleanor would be the “American mother-in-law” for her son.

I wasn't sure how her stories of living with, cooking with, and being a general house-mother to, those Goshen students, related to the larger conversation we were having, so I set that aside and circled back to her earlier comments about finally understanding The Four Quartets.

Mary Eleanor: You know speaking of The Four Quartets, I was forced to sit a few feet away from T.S. Eliot when he gave a lecture at Orchestra Hall in Chicago. I got my ticket late. So I thought I'd be up in the back of the third balcony. But I was forced to sit on the stage. That was the only place that was available. So I was right beside T.S. Eliot, and I remember when he said, “And then, light.” And he just beamed. And he started reading The Four Quartets.”

David: That's quite a memory.

Mary Eleanor: Oh, I'll never forget that beam he had on his face when he talked about his conversion.

David: And at the time you were listening, did it mean something different than now?

Mary Eleanor: Oh everything, yes. I didn't get anything then. (laughs) I was just feeling self-conscious because everybody in the audience could see me.

Kathy: It sounds like when you saw the beam on him, you were caught a little bit in that too.

Mary Eleanor and David: Yes

Kathy: So that you weren't as self-conscious, maybe.

Mary Eleanor: Yes, yes. But I couldn't articulate it. I felt as though I'd gotten into another person's experience.

Kathy: Yes.

Mary Eleanor: Because the beam… was so, so powerful.

David: It's so different to read something oneself than to hear it read by someone else. Or to read it on the page. And sometimes it takes somebody outside to come in and see it differently. I was wondering, when you talked about The Four Quartets, if there would have been one sense of meaning when you heard him read. But a different sense when you come back to the poetry later.

Mary Eleanor: Oh my goodness. Oh yes! Age has its problems, but one of its gifts is being able to read better.

David: What do you mean by “read better?” I think I know what you mean, but can you…

Mary Eleanor: Get insight that you couldn't possibly have had when you were younger…

After this conversation, I decided that I needed to go home and actually read The Four Quartets. I struggled to find insight in those wordy poems. Maybe I wasn't old enough? But then, in the dense shrubbery, I began to see images bright as Bohemian Waxwings, flitting twig to twig, or, as Eliot wrote, “the hidden laughter of children in the foliage.”

As I attempted to understand the illumination offered by The Four Quartets, I began to think back to courses I had taken by another professor, also now in her 90s, with whom I had also recently rekindled conversations, and who exerted a profound, albeit different, influence on my thoughts and actions during the years 1969-71.

Professor Mary Oyer was the “other” kind of teacher, the extrovert who enthusiastically introduces students to the wonders of the world. Four years older than Mary Eleanor and her good friend (and, in later years, piano duet partner), Mary Oyer was trained as a cellist and classical musicologist. Indeed, even at the age of 98, Mary Oyer described to me nine different versions of an old hymn, and which version she thought was the best, and why. As Mary Eleanor implied, and as Mary Oyer confirmed when I talked with her during several delightful conversations after her 94thbirthday, H.S. Bender had asked Mary Oyer “to go to graduate school and prepare to teach a course that combined and compared all the arts. And she did it.”

The omnibus course that emerged from this patriarchal directive covered European architecture, music, painting and sculpture. It was what one could describe as a quintessential liberal arts course. Mary Oyer taught this course until her position, like Mary Eleanor's, was terminated in 1987.[7]In 1969-71, Mary Oyer also taught separate courses on the history of Western music and African arts. These courses opened to me a world of cultural wonders well beyond what the syllabus described. Through the History of Music, I was able to dive into the world of John Cage, and through him, to a group of artists that included Marcel Duchamp, Jean Tinguely, and Robert Rauschenberg. These free-thinking artistic rebels grated against everything that Mary Oyer herself taught or believed in, yet, good teacher that she was, she opened the windows so that we might discover for ourselves what “tygers” burned bright in that Blakeian jungle.

John Cage believed that Beethoven was “wrong” about music, that 4’ 33” of sitting quietly at a piano was a greater sort of music than one of Beethoven's late quartets, that everything—all of life—was music. And what should I make of Tinguely's provocation that "...once you get rid of the idea of art you acquire a great many wonderful new freedoms?" It occurs to me now, decades later, after reconsidering Eliot, to ask if these notions of art also alight in that timeless moment where we dance our lives.

My 1969 encounter with Mary Eleanor, like her own 1950s experience of Eliot, was a sort of epiphany, a stunning sense of light, and release, and peace. As one who grew up in an evangelical community, I recognized this as the tear-filled, heart-wrenching salvation experience of an altar call. It is also the peace that can come with Yoga, or transcendental or Vipassana meditation. And precisely because these being-in-the-moment experiences are untethered from specific religious doctrines, as well as from past or future, they are available to anyone. To understand The Four Quartets, then, is to understand there is a lifetime burning in every moment, that all time, past and future, are here, now, and that language cannot hold this in any coherent fashion.

A few years ago, a friend and colleague of mine—a physicist, philosopher and photographer—brought to my attention that the Greeks had defined two senses of time: Aion, the eternal time of now, which is infinite, ritual, circular, the future returning to the same moment; and Chronos, time's arrow, which is empirical, and linear. Both Eliot and Cage understood this, but responded differently. If Cage and his fellows, dismayed at the constraints of language and the artifices of art, asked us all to traipse out into the woods and gather mushrooms, Eliot struggled to use the straining, near-breaking words of poetry to embrace that core contradiction at the still point of life. In an anecdote which may be apocryphal, but which nonetheless rings true, Eliot was once asked by one of his readers what the poem meant, to which he replied, “If I could have articulated it more clearly, I would have done so.” I have heard musicians wrestle with the same conundrum when someone asks, well this piece by Bach is wonderful, but what does it mean?

As I wrestled with Mary Eleanor;s recent statements on Eliot, and requests by friends to explain The Four Quartets, I concluded that there is a distinction to be made between understanding something and being able to articulate that understanding in plain language. For many years, as a professor, I argued that if one understood something, one should be able to explain it. Now I am not so sure. What happens when you reach the limits of language, which is what Eliot struggled with in The Four Quartets? Physicists and mathematicians like Stephen Hawking shift into mathematical language. But even then, at the edges of mathematical language, Hawking was led to ask, “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?”[8] Artists and writers, like Eliot, shift (some might say retreat) to symbolism and ritual—hence his self-described Anglo-Catholic orientation—which have their own unwieldy burdens.

I wondered if my mental connection from T.S. Eliot to John Cage was too far-fetched, an academic conceit. But, in an August 18, 2021, phone conversation with Mary Eleanor, she explained that she'd finally understood The Four Quartets when she let go of the literal meaning of the words and felt the rhythm of the poetry. The meaning was in the rhythm. This understanding, it seemed to me, arose as much from a new awakening after her personal crises—caring for other people, walking a dog around the track with a former student—as it did from the text itself.

“It's like raindrops falling through the sky,” she said. “You just experience one drop after the other. And you don't try to make them make literal sense. Eliot's poetry is a dance. We don't know much about a still point. We always want to have words to make them logical. We tend to mistrust intuitive meanings. And mystery, and everything at that level, is hard for Mennonites.” I suggested that this was not just true for Mennonites, but is a characteristic of the modern world, built around the language of computers, which is all based on ones and zeros. “Yes,” she agreed. “Everything is [seen as] binary. Which is it, this or that? And we've got to know, exactly which it is, and follow that and not be caught dead with the other.”[9]

In “Burnt Norton,” the first of the quartets, Eliot offers this:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.[10]

In returning to Eliot, and to my conversations with Mary Eleanor, I have been reminded of Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali, in which he wrote that: “From the words of the poet men take what meanings please them; yet their last meaning points to thee.” In not giving “Thee” a name, Tagore's embrace of that illuminating point is similar to the ambiguity of the “I Am” in the burning bush, or the lover in Songs of Solomon.

Eliot himself, feeling his words fail him, sought solace in the certainty of Anglo-Catholic Christian doctrine and its symbols and rituals, which being beyond words, are both well-defined and ambiguous. He identified that still point around which the world turns as Jesus Christ. But to make such an assertion requires one to step outside the dance and see it from an external perspective, which is an act of imagination, of faith. Not everyone, stepping imaginatively outside that intense, illuminated, eternal moment will step in the same direction, nor will they see the same image in the flames.

Here's the rub, then: such experiences can make you a better soldier, killer, mountain climber, runner, lover, parent, veterinarian, butcher.

I raised these troubling thoughts to Mary Eleanor in our phone conversation in August of 2021—Eliot's antisemitism, for instance, and religious patriarchal attitudes. Can a misogynist, racist, anti-Semitic, privileged white academic produce art that transcends and redeems? I was thinking not just of Eliot, of course, but of theologians like John Howard Yoder, a protégé of Mary Eleanor's father, who admitted to multiple instances of sexual impropriety. And more broadly, to the many artists, writers, philosophers and social activists, from Saint Paul and Gandhi to Degas, Dickens, Wagner, Picasso, and Heidegger who expressed despicable attitudes and engaged in cringe-worthy acts ranging from murder and incest to bullying and misogyny, and yet produced important works of art, theology, action and philosophy. What do we do with that? Separate the work from the person? Say good work, bad person?

“No,” Mary Eleanor insisted, “We're all mixed up. That's what it means to be human.” We descry the terrible attitudes of the person and embrace their good work at the same time.

“The way people become adults,” she said “is that they become able to handle ambiguity.” In saying this, she understood and embraced the meaning of The Four Quartets more bravely, I think, than Eliot himself, without retreating into the safe-haven of culturally-constrained religious ritual and symbolism. And then, as if her mind were grappling with the many facets of this ancient dilemma, and pondering perhaps someone she knew or the turbulent 60s and 70s during which we encountered each other, that time when The Revolution was coming that would change everything, she added that “In social action it is dangerous to think we have the right answer.” I asked if the protests against the right-wing populist George Wallace that occurred in nearby Elkhart while she was a professor changed anything. She said, “Oh the protests during those days changed everything!”

“For the better?” I asked.

“That's ambiguous,” she said emphatically. “It's hard,” she finally said. “Often the best things are done in the hardest way.”

After the loss of her academic position, Mary Eleanor's attention to the foreign students who approached her for a place to live, and her mindful work as an “American mother-in-law,” reflected a deep understanding of what lay at the core of Eliot's quartets. If literature means something, it means something beyond itself, the words straining and spilling into everyday life. Mary Eleanor has not only lived in that eternal, mindful, moment of illuminated stillness, she also understands how to embrace the ambiguity of dancing those moments forward into Chronos, how to do “social action,” moment by moment, without claiming to have “the right answer.”

I ponder this as I attempt to write, and to live, meaningfully, even as the headlines speak of pandemics, wildfires, floods, political chaos, experts with all the right answers, marches in the streets. When I care for, and talk to, my small flock of backyard chickens, I think about The Four Quartets. I think about walking the dog with Mary Eleanor, of her work in the garden and how it led to unintended house guests. I consider how her close reading of literature, her personal crises, and her focused being-in-time were not just still points in time, occasions to stay motionless, to block out the world, but opportunities to see the world more clearly, to invite others in to share that light, to dance. This is hard, yes, but perhaps an answer to Camus's question and an antidote to Sartre's Nausea, a way to embrace time-present and time not-present, a path forward through the never-ending struggle to wrest from life meaning, and the strength and will and passion to express that meaning in what we do every day.

For all this, thank you, Mary Eleanor.

David Waltner-Toews, September 1, 2021

[1] Whom some of us called Blender, to differentiate him from his father, Ross Bender, a Mennonite educator and leader.

[2] Taken from "Detour...Main Highway": our CPS stories.” College Mennonite Church in Civilian Public Service. College Mennonite Church (Goshen, Ind.) 1995.

[3] Over the course of her career at Goshen Mary Eleanor Bender taught German and French language and literature, as well as Twentieth Century Fiction.

[4] With hepatitis, she explained later, probably picked up from attending a local fair. Infectious hepatitis (Hepatitis A) was a widespread problem among returning soldiers.

[5] Calvin Redekop (b 1925) is a Mennonite sociologist, writer, teacher, and activist, who published prolifically. Unlike Mary Eleanor, he has been known for being an extrovert and raconteur. During his time at Hesston, he would have been a recent graduate from the University of Chicago.

[6] Faust: My beautiful lady, may I dare/ To offer my arm and accompany you? Margaret (Gretchen): I am neither a lady, nor beautiful, And can go home unsupervised.

[7]After that, the course was taught by multiple professors, the administration thinking, perhaps, that no one person could be able to teach such an all-embracing subject.

[8] Hawking, Stephen. 1996. The illustrated a brief history of time. New York: Bantam Books.

[9] I suggested that the virus in current pandemic behaved in an unstable fashion and people didn't know what to do with this. They want something to be this or that, and they believe governments are playing games when they “change their minds” and policies.

[10] The Four Quartets have been published in various collections, and can be found online on various websites, including at http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/t__s__eliot/poems/15132

About the Author

David Walter-Toews

David Waltner-Toews (Goshen, ’71) is an internationally recognized Canadian veterinary epidemiologist and University Professor Emeritus at the University of Guelph. He was the founding president of Veterinarians without Borders/Vétérinaires sans Frontières – Canada (https://www.vetswithoutborders.ca/) and a founding member of Communities of Practice for Ecosystem Approaches to Health in Canada (www.copeh-canada.org). In 2010 the International Association for Ecology and Health presented him with the inaugural award for contributions to ecosystem approaches to health, and in 2019 he received an award from the World Small Animal Veterinary Association recognizing “veterinarians who have exhibited exceptional acts of valour and commitment in the face of adversity to service the community.”

Besides being an author of over 100 scholarly articles and books, he has published six books of poetry, a collection of recipes and dramatic monologues, a collection of short stories, two novels, and various books of popular science including On Pandemics: Deadly Diseases from Bubonic Plague to Coronavirus (2020); The Origin of Feces: what excrement tells us about evolution, ecology and a sustainable society (2013); Eat the Beetles: an exploration into our conflicted relationship with insects (2017); and Food, Sex and Salmonella: why our food is making us sick (2008). His non-fiction books have won awards in the US and Canada, and have been published in Japanese, French, Chinese and Arabic.