“Death is the mother of beauty.”
Dear Wallace Stevens, you brilliant, urbane, doddering old insurance-salesman of a poet: no it isn’t.
Yesterday being All Souls’ day, I spent some time thinking about death. I wasn’t depressed. I felt (and feel) great, actually. Thinking of death is what you’re supposed to do on that day and on Ash Wednesday and at the very least, although more often would probably be better. Pulvus es, et in pulvum reverteris. How will you live, knowing that you’re going to die?
The quotation at the top is taken from Stevens’ very beautiful Sunday Morning, where the mild ennui of a non-churchgoer on Sunday slowly gives way to a meditation on the paradoxes of desire.
“She says, ‘But in contentment I still feel/The need of some imperishable bliss.'” The woman longs for something without knowing what. Even paradise would be incomplete, says the speaker, because paradise lacks death — death which is the mother of beauty, giving all things value because they will have an end. If life extends to infinity, life becomes meaningless; only death gives meaning to life.
This is, of course, romantic horsesh★t.1 It’s exactly the sort of thing you would believe if you were a melancholy college student who didn’t give much creedence to the ordinary idea of happiness as fulfillment of desire because it was too mainstream. Death is the mother of beauty: this was my mantra for years. I had to live, Live!, because one day I would be dead and what did I want it to say on my gravestone?
So I constantly questioned myself: was I living life to the fullest? Was I wringing the maximum enjoyment out of every moment? Did I embrace every experience with open arms, or did I hide from life? Was I fully awake, or did I ever let myself coast along on autopilot? Was I joyful, was I alive, was I having EXPERIENCES??
Try living that way and see if it doesn’t make you a nervous wreck. The irony is that I was doing my best to celebrate life, but there was no atmosphere of celebration about my desperate grasping after experience. That wasn’t joy, it was fear. Fear of not meeting the deadline, fear of flunking at life — in short, fear of death.
If you want proof, think back to the last time you were really happy — not just content, but happy, awed, sublimely assured of the goodness of things. Were you thinking about death? Were you glad, because the world was perishing and you were surrounded by dying flesh, which made everything more precious? Probably not. It was eternity you were tasting. Children know that the last two weeks of summer vacation are impossible to enjoy, because you can’t forget that death/school is just around the corner.2
Live every day as if it were your last, goes the saying. That might be good advice if you’re the kind of person who pays no attention to life, who feels no stirring of guilt after days of nothing but sleep, pot, and video games. But if your natural tendency is introspection, I think a better motto is this: Live every day as if you were going to live forever.
Which is, by the way, true. But the afterlife isn’t an extended epilogue, where all the adventure is over and we get to sit on comfy sofas, reminiscing. Heaven isn’t Stevens’ stagnant paradise, where “the boughs / Hang always heavy in that perfect sky, / Unchanging.” Heaven is where the story begins.
There are too many loose ends in this life, too many unanswered questions, for it to be anything but a prologue.
1 I don’t mean that the poem itself is horsesh★t, just my interpretation of it at the time, which may or may not have been Stevens’ and in any event does not fully account for the poem. I still think it’s one of the most beautiful poems ever written. Even C. S. Lewis notes that melancholy does bear some mysterious resemblance to Joy. But this is too much to go into in a footnote.
2 I’m thinking of that Calvin & Hobbes strip, of course. I’d link to it but they’re impossible to find online. Anyway, here’s a few good, but unrelated, strips.