Saturday, November 16, 2013

Death Is the Mother of Beauty

I have often endorsed Thomas Aquinas's claim that the good is the desirable, and that our natural good is the satisfaction of our natural desires (ST, I, q. 5, a. 6).  But Aquinas also claims that our natural desires reach out to a supernatural end--to eternal life with God in the afterlife--and only that can fully satisfy our natural desires and thus give us true happiness (ST, I-II, q. 2, aa. 7-8; q. 3, a. 8; q. 69, aa. 2-4).

We might explain this desire for eternal life as rooted in our evolved human nature.  We have an instinctive desire to preserve our lives, and our powerful imaginations allow us to project our lives into an endless future.  But what if the four possible ways of achieving immortality--staying alive forever, being resurrected after death, living forever as a disembodied soul, or living forever through one's legacy--turn out to be illusory?  Could we learn to live with the inevitability of death without that knowledge ruining our lives?

We could, if we could see that living forever is not as good for us, and death is not as bad for us, as we might think.  We would have to see that living forever is not really desirable.  And we would have to see that fearing death makes no sense.  The first point is beautifully conveyed in Wallace Stevens' poem "Sunday Morning", which was first published in Poetry Magazine in November of 1915.  The second point has been developed by Epicurus, Lucretius, and Montaigne.

Consider the first stanza of Stevens' poem:
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound.
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.
A woman is relaxing in her dressing gown, enjoying coffee and oranges on a sunny Sunday morning with her green cockatoo, and her simple morning pleasures dissipate any thought of the holy ceremonies usually performed on a Sunday morning.  But then her feelings turn dark as she dreams of the transcendent realm conjured up by Christian teachings about ancient sacrifices in Palestine.  In the second stanza, a speaker tries to persuade her that she is mistaken to allow her dreaming about ancient Palestine to darken her day.
Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measure destined for her soul.
The speaker advises her to cherish the bountiful experiences of the earth--all pleasures and all pains--as superior to any thoughts about divinity or heaven that exist only in her dreams.  He reminds her of the beauty of the earth as she has known it in all of her transient moods evoked by the changing seasons and weather.  Even her suffering--"grievings in loneliness"--can be affirmed as part of the poignancy of being alive.

In the third stanza, the speaker explains the evolution of religion.
Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth.
No mother suckled him, no sweet land gave
Large-mannered motions to his mythy mind.
He moved among us, as a muttering king,
Magnificent, would move among his hinds,
Until our blood, commingling, virginal,
With heaven, brought such requital to desire
The very hinds discerned it, in a star.
Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?
The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain,
And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.
First there was an inhuman Jove.  Then he became half-human, God incarnated in human flesh, commingling with our human blood, because only in becoming human could he find "requital to desire."  Finally, we have moved to a fully human time.  And if we can someday learn to see the earth as all of paradise that we shall ever know,  we will then see the sky as much friendlier to us than it now seems.

In response to these thoughts of the speaker, the woman speaks in the fourth stanza for the first time.

She says, "I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?"
There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven's hill, that has endured
As April's green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow's wings.
The woman says she can't be fully content with the natural beauty of earthly life, because she desires a permanence that this life does not have, a permanence found only in a heavenly paradise.  The speaker responds by arguing that conceptions of heavenly permanence are actually themselves impermanent: none of the imagined visions of heaven are as enduring as our experiences of the earth.  Even if the earth is not permanent, at least it is enduring; and that real earthly endurance is better than any imaginary heavenly permanence that has no enduring reality.

Indicating that she is still not fully persuaded by the speaker, the woman speaks in the fifth stanza for the second time.
She says, "But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss."
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams
And our desires. Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our paths,
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
Whispered a little out of tenderness,
She makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plate. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.
So the speaker's response to the woman's wish for "imperishable bliss" is: "Death is the mother of beauty."  This is the most famous line in this poem, and it is repeated twice in stanzas five and six.  It's often quoted in essays on the meaning of death.  For example, Leon Kass quotes it in his elegant and incisive essay on death, which appears first in his Towards a More Natural Science (1985) and then again, slightly revised, in his Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity (2002).  Kass attributes the line to "the poet," without identifying its source.  He suggests that the line could have at least three different meanings.   It could mean that our awareness of our mortality moves us to make beautiful artifacts that will live on after our death.  Or it could mean that natural beauty depends on the poignant transience of peak experiences that cannot last--the beauty of flowers is deepened by the fact that they must wither.  Or it could mean that our mortality enhances our appreciation of human beauty--that one human being's love of another is intensified by the recognition that both of them must decay and die.

Although all of these meanings might be implied in what the speaker says in the poem, what is said in stanza 5 suggests another meaning as well:  death allows for an enduring renewal of life through maidens and boys.  Children replace the older generation, and then they procreate and thus produce their own replacements.  When Stevens was questioned about the meaning of the boys piling "new plums and pears on disregarded plate," he indicated that "disregarded plate" should be understood as a family plate passed on to the children.

The woman thinks she wants an alternative to this enduring natural cycle of life, death, and renewal of life--an alternative promising eternal life without death.  But the speaker suggests in the sixth stanza that this makes no sense.
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 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.
A deathless life in paradise would not satisfy us, because it would not be a human life at all.  Eternal life would be eternal boredom--"our insipid lutes"!  Living timelessly and changelessly would not be really living.  Augustine and Aquinas explained that when our bodies are resurrected for eternal life, we will have the perfect bodies that we had, or would have had, at age 30, and we will never age.  But my ageless 30-year-old body would seem to be more dead than alive.  And would this really be me?

What exactly would we be doing during this eternal life?  As the speaker suggests, we tend to project our earthly life onto heaven--we imagine "our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly."  But this indicates that we have no conception of human happiness as anything other than what we have experienced in this life.  Would heavenly life, then, be just the continuance of what we have done in this life?  The speaker forces the woman to consider how nonsensical this would be.

The speaker doesn't consider the theocentric conception of heaven advanced by Augustine and Aquinas, which is the idea that the only fully satisfying activity of eternal life would be the beatific vision, contemplating God forever.  If the speaker had taken up this idea, he might have argued that this beatific vision is still an imaginative projection of our earthly experience of intellectual understanding into heaven, and he might have wondered whether the idea of perpetual but timeless thinking makes any sense as a living human activity.

Notice that neither the woman nor the speaker consider the possibility that the afterlife might include divine judgment and eternal punishment in hell.  The woman seems to be part of that modern movement towards believing that all human beings go to heaven, and there is no hell.

Now the speaker in the seventh stanza turns in a new direction that is somewhat confusing.
Supple and turbulent, a ring of men
Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn
Their boisterous devotion to the sun,
Not as a god, but as a god might be,
Naked among them, like a savage source.
Their chant shall be a chant of paradise,
Out of their blood, returning to the sky;
And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice,
The windy lake wherein their lord delights,
The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills,
That choir among themselves long afterward.
They shall know well the heavenly fellowship
Of men that perish and of summer morn.
And whence they came and whither they shall go
The dew upon their feel shall manifest.
This stanza seems odd to many readers, because the speaker seems to be suggesting a new religion--a Dionysian orgy?--that contradicts the generally atheistic message of the speaker.  Is this Nietzsche's new Dionysian religion?  If this is a religion, it's a religion of the earth that celebrates earthly mortality.  The men are devoted to the sun "not as a god, but as a god might be."  Whatever paradise or heavenly fellowship they have belongs to them as "men that perish."  And their determining "whence they came and whither they shall go" will be set by how they walk on the dewy earth.  They are part of the earth, and they claim no transcendence of that earth.

Now the woman hears another voice in the last stanza.
She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries, "The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay."
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
The voice tells her that God is dead--that her dreaming travel to Palestine reveals the grave of Jesus.  From this, the speaker draws conclusions both about our position in the universe and about the innocence of nonhuman nature.  We live "unsponsored" by any divinity or intelligent designer who cares for and about us, because our life on earth emerged from the ancient "chaos of the sun."  We live surrounded by plants and animals that share that earthly life with us.  And all of that life is destined to die--"downward to darkness, on extended wings."

What Stevens says here about our human place in nature as the evolved mortal animals that we are is close to what I have said in the last paragraph of Darwinian Natural Right:

"We are neither mindless machines nor disembodied spirits.  We are animals.  As animals, we display the animate powers of nature for movement, desire, and awareness.  We move to satisfy our desires in the light of our awareness of the world.  We are a unique species of animal, but our distinctively human traits--such as symbolic speech, practical deliberation, and conceptual thought--are elaborations of powers shared in some form with other animals.  Our powers for habituation and learning allow us to alter our natural environments, but even these powers are extensions of the behavioral flexibility shown by other animals.  So even if the natural world was not made for us, we were made for it, because we are adapted to live in it.  We have not been thrown into nature from some place far away.  We come from nature.  It is our home."

Some of my thoughts here are elaborated in my post on "Darwin's Understanding of Love and Death."

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