Saturday, August 04, 2007

"Only a Problem Confronting the Builder of Bridges"

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god---sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities---ever, however, implacable.
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

--T. S. Eliot, ll. 1-10, "The Dry Salvages," Four Quartets

I was just re-reading Four Quartets in preparation for next week's MA thesis defense and got chills when I came across these lines again. The chills were in connection with this week's collapse of the bridge across the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. The chills were more intense because Eliot, who grew up near the Mississippi River further down in St. Louis, was referring to the same river when he wrote these lines.

It reminded me of one early theory I'd heard on CNN about the collapse--that the water from rivers often works away at weakening pilings of bridges until the whole bridge threatens to collapse.

"[S]ullen, untamed, and intractable" indeed.

Whether or not that actually turns out to be the reason the bridge collapsed (and not to minimize the tragedy at all for those who went through it), the collapse is certainly a good reminder to us that however much we try to solve the "problem[s] confronting the builders of bridges," we can't reduce the mysteries and the power of the world into problems to be solved quite so easily as we tend to think in today's world, where makers of websites and search engines seek to research complex human behaviors, then to try to tell programmers how to write programs codifying them into gridded databases.

I certainly hope to always remember that life is about far more than simply solving such problems: that's one reason I decided to study Eliot's poem during my MA. To be reminded that there is more to the world than the too-often-shallow things we're so often asked to look for in it. More to us as humans than what we buy or how we're entertained or how we search for something on the Web. More to the power in words than their ability to at times boil things down for easy consumption (for one thing, there's something glorious to their proliferation and oft-inexactitude as well). More to a bridge collapsing than the snippets we hear on the news--things that last longer than the news coverage. More out there that we too often "choose to forget."

We too often approach too many parts of the world as though they were a craft, as opposed to an art--something to be easily mastered. But there's so much artistic greatness in the world as it is presented to us--both beautiful and terrible--that we too often forget.

However much we try to understand and tame our complex world, there will always be mystery about it, both in the world around us and within ourselves. In this world, which sometimes seems filled with "worshippers of the machine" seeking for ways to dispense of this mystery and this moreness, we would do well to remember this lesson.