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LostInParadise's avatar

How do you interpret "Between the idea and the reality...Falls the Shadow" ?

Asked by LostInParadise (25092points) July 19th, 2010

The line is from T.S. Elitot’s The Hollow Men . The full stanza is:
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

I am not looking for an interpretation of the whole poem, just this part. I would give it an existential spin. The shadow represents the uncertainty that follows from making any particular choice. It seems though that this is not quite right.

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19 Answers

janbb's avatar

I have studied Eliot but not “The Hollow Men.” It sounds to me like it is a reference to Plato’s theory of the ideal in the cave and the reality; that the shadow is the difference between the concept and what actually is done or created. It’s early in the morning and my brain is a little fuzzy; does that make sense in the context of the poem?

shrubbery's avatar

I agree with janbb, because from what I’ve read about Plato’s theory of the cave is that there is a curtain in between, is that right? And so “Falls the Shadow” is like a curtain falling, perhaps.

jesienne's avatar

what you get is never what you want, not never but always.
It seems like one is doomed and incapable of doing what he/she always dreams about.

Andreas's avatar

@LostInParadise I read it this way: The idea and the motion are the theory and moving towards the goal.

The reality and the act are the achievement of the goal.

Between these two happenings something else happens, and the light showing our way is blocked, hence the shadow.

As a result: we fall short of achieving our goal.

I think I must agree with @jesienne.

wundayatta's avatar

The process that is felt but not really seen clearly, nor directly understandable. The idea may be realized, and the motion may result in an act, but between one and the other, much must happen, and it is not clear what that will be. I.e., we can intend to do or make something, but we may not get there the way we thought we would. Indeed, we may not get there at all.

jfos's avatar

The first thing I thought of was that the shadow could be referring to the phrase “shadow of (a) doubt.”

So, to substitute, the poem would read:
Between the idea and the reality,
between the motion and the act
falls the shadow (of doubt.)

The meaning would be fairly easy to decipher: that the doubt lies somewhere in between setting a goal and completing the task, somewhere after we mean to do something and before we do what we mean to.

LostInParadise's avatar

@jfos , @wundayatta You share my existential view of the quote. I would add one other aspect of doubt. Even if your action achieves its aim, there is the uncertainty of whether another choice may have been better.

The connection to Plato’s famous analogy is tempting, but the way he presented it was in a passive mode, with people just in the position of observing the shadows. In this case the shadow falls after someone acts.

I will have to give some thought to @jesienne‘s darker interpretation.

jfos's avatar

The second thing I thought of was that the shadow, which in this case is falling in between the idea and reality, in between the motion and the act, could therefore be “shadowing” one side or the other.

That is, the idea could be casting a shadow on reality. Or reality could be casting a shadow on the idea. If this were true, the shadow would still be in between the two.

To explain, imagine an idea so great that it could cause reality to fade from the vision of the people. Imagine an act so influential that the motion which started it is no longer remembered/important.

mammal's avatar

if, for example, you take an ideology and perhaps any ideology, be it Religious, Fascist, Capitalist, Marxist, Anarchist, Libertarian, Puritanical or even sexual fantasist the reality is that the praxis almost inevitably casts a kind of Jungian shadow upon the collective consciousness of whomsoever is involved in the enterprise.

jesienne's avatar

@LostInParadise
what I’ve said is a well-accepted version of Chinese translation. Perhaps I could put it this way, there’s a gap between the idea and the reality.And, this line is my favourite of favourite. You’ve raised a very good question which I’ve been so long trying to find the real interpretation.

wundayatta's avatar

@jesienne Chinese translation of what?

jesienne's avatar

@wundayatta a Chinese translation of
“Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow”

wundayatta's avatar

@jesienne I meant where is that quote from? Is it a part of anything larger? Who wrote it? Or are you saying it was translated into Chinese and then translated back?

janbb's avatar

I’m confused about the Chinese translation reference too. The OP states that the lines are from a T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men.” Since he was a student of philosophy and linguistics, I think the allusion to Plato’s cave still stands.

LostInParadise's avatar

I took Chinese translation to be the Chinese translation of the poem and that what @jesienne is giving us is the literal translation back into English of the one stanza.

@janbb , It is quite possible that Eliot had Plato’s cave allegory in mind, but I think that what he is saying goes beyond it. Plato’s shadows are stand ins for our perceptions. Plato maintained that what we perceive is a distorted image of the Ideas that represent the “real world.” The poem is referring to the line dividing our thoughts from our actions. Plato was talking about how the world acts on us and Eliot was talking about how we act on the world.

janbb's avatar

Yes, that makes sense.

jesienne's avatar

@wundayatta sorry…....yeah I just translated the Chinese back into English. The author of original translation is unknown and Chinese translation provides the transliteration of T.S. Elitot’.

mtplon's avatar

The above posts are from 2010, so i don’t know if this matters to anyone BUT this Elliot quote was featured in Netflix series entitled “The Fall” episode entitled “Darkness Visible” That show seems to take the position that a serial killer’s aspiration is to conquer the “shadow” and to real the “reality” and the “act”. Pop culture! Ain’t it GREAT?

Pwyll's avatar

Yes, an old question, but I’m glad I ran into it so that I can think it through. I’m working from memory here, but didn’t Eliot do his Ph.D. thesis on the Idealist philosopher Bradley? That means he was strongly interested in Idealism, the view that the Ideas are the true reality, and that the world we live in contains copies or shadows of the Ideas. “Things below are copies…” as Yeats wrote. Or Shelley: “Life, like a dome of many-colored glass/Stains the bright radiance of Eternity/Till Death shatters it to fragments.”
I think that this notion is crossed with a Hindu/Buddhist/Zen notion of a void or gap:
So: There is a gap between the idea and the reality [It’s unbridgeable from an Idealist POV.]
Between the[beginning of the] movement and the completion—the finished act—there is a gap. I think that this is a gap of longing.

Between the conception and the creation; between the emotion and how we act in response to the emotion. Again a gap.
In the Japanese martial arts, the warrior is supposed to strike the opponent during this gap—when he has thought of attacking, but has not moved yet.
Between the desire and the spasm—hey, we’re talking about sex here. In between desire and orgasm is what Eliot thought of as the messiness of actual sexual activity. LOL. I think.
Potency/Existence: Potency is Aristotelian for potential. Existence is equivalent to actuality.
Essence/descent: Another Platonic (this time Neo-Platonic) formulation, The Essence is the Idea, which descends, step by step, until it becomes actual. Thus the Creator created leserbeings, who created lesser beings, which finally led us into this mess we call reality. The same image is part of the Medieval picture of the universe as represented by Dante: the earth is at the bottom of the universe, with Hall at its center. Soaring ove the earth are succfessively more excellent planetary spheres guided by angelic Intelligences. Farthest away, and surrounding all, is the sphere where God dwells, unimaginable to us, in the center of a celestial Rose.
All human activity, Eliot seems to be saying, (especially creative activity) is doomed to fall short. Later he described poetry (I’m not quoting this correctly) as ‘raids on the unsayable.’
Whew!

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