Death Is the Mother of Beauty

whale death
Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?
Why set the pear upon those river-banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Alas, that they should wear our colors there,
The silken weavings of our afternoons,
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly. (Wallace Stevens, from
Sunday Morning)

Why this confidence that technical ingenuity can drive through, over or around any obstacle? Even the dead end of death itself is seen by the more fanatic of the Techno-Utopian thinkers as a barrier that will somehow be conquered. Apparently they’ll be carried into the infinite limit of the Singularity on the backs of 72 virginity-regenerating sex robots.

But no cryogenic resurrection will refute Wallace Stevens’ poem Sunday Morning. Life is not mechanically self-replicating, but leaps from metaphor to metaphor. And every creative leap is a plunge into nothingness. The world shape-shifts, but these shifts in shape don’t promise continuance or progress. They imply discontinuities and death.

The desire for a deathless state (an unending Heaven of one sort or another) is an unintentional desire for lifelessness, for a static and inanimate repetitiveness. Some call this a death wish. But this is really a desire “to have never been born”, as Beckett said.

Or, as Krishnamurti said:

“You cannot live without dying. You cannot live if you do not die psychologically every minute. This is not an intellectual paradox. To live completely, wholly, every day as if it were a new loveliness, there must be dying to everything of yesterday, otherwise you live mechanically, and a mechanical mind can never know what love is or what freedom is”.

And this society is caught in a thousand mechanical monkey-traps, dead (lifeless) ends we refuse to face (whether it is the fossil fuel industry, or the war machine, or the political system, or this perpetual escape from my own trailing everyday worries). All based on a wish “to have never been born.”

But what really scares the hell out of this culture is not the threat of death, but the judgment of beauty and meaning. Hence, the love of irony, and the perpetual mockery of sincerity. To escape the fear of living and dying, death is dealt on a whim – or, rather lifelessness is created on a whim. But beauty and meaning are accusations that chill the bones of even automatons like Trump.

Especially now, especially at the end. Beauty and meaning expose the enormity of the crime. A limp, inanimate corpse can’t do this. The culture feels more or less at home among inanimate corpses, which is why it craves the company of machines. And it’s too easy to imagine that the last elephant or the last whale will be treated heinously by a culture too cowardly to look into their dying eyes.

For even if I can’t hear the deep bass of the elephant and the whale echoing across the Savannah or the ocean, I’ll hear their silence. And then I’ll know the real meaning of alienation and loneliness, guilt and sorrow. Or as Richard Wilbur wrote in “Advice to a Prophet”:

What should we be without
The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return,

These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?
Ask us, prophet, how we shall call
Our natures forth when that live tongue is all
Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken

In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean
Horse of our courage, in which beheld
The singing locust of the soul unshelled,
And all we mean or wish to mean.

Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose
Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding
Whether there shall be lofty or long standing
When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.

These prophetic words were not heard, and it’s surely too late. But do I leave this world as a mechanical being, pushed and pulled by automatic impulses of fight and flight, dreaming only of a merger with technology, the heartless new god? Do I play virtual games while the Amazon burns? Or do I turn even at this late date, when all hope is lost, and do the right thing for no good reason, maybe as a belated confession of love? Do I dare not only look into the heart of darkness, and finally face what is monstrous in me, but do I dare face what is beautiful?

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