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Death’s Statuary

Michelangelo, Pietà. Via Wikimedia Commons.

What is death—an event in life or, as Wittgenstein thought, a boundary? Does death make art possible—finitude providing the impetus to make the most of time—but is art, at the same time, an act of defying death? Carl Trueman explores these and other questions at First Things:

Statuary and portraiture were once means by which the wealthy attempted to ensure that they would be remembered after they died. Technology democratizes these methods of keeping the dead present. Photographs of the dearly departed populate walls of living rooms across the world, allowing the living to feel the proximity of the dead.

We may also rebel against death by ignoring its claims. Dylan Thomas’s poem (‘And death shall have no dominion’) evokes the arrogance of youth, for whom death is but a distant possibility. Thomas strikes a different note in his later poem, (‘Do not go gentle into that good night.’) Anticipating the death of his father, Thomas remains defiant but acknowledges impending defeat. His progress bespeaks another truth about the human condition: As we age, death becomes more familiar to us, more obviously powerful, and more terrifying.

The most common response, especially in our era, is simply to ignore death. This is one reason why funerals are so difficult and involve conflicting emotions. We see the dead body before us; yet we manage to persuade ourselves that this is not our destiny, that somehow death, which comes for everyone, will never touch us. When Pyotr Ivanovich views the body of Ivan Ilyich, he is momentarily terrified, knowing that he beholds his own fate. Mere seconds later, he persuades himself that, no, this cannot happen to him, and he is immensely relieved. Only Gerasim speaks truth, while helping Pyotr into his carriage after the funeral. Pyotr remarks that the death of Ivan is sad, and the peasant responds, ‘It’s God’s will. We’ll all be there.’

Speaking of denying the terror of death, Yeats thought that Paul Valéry could have been a great poet if it weren’t for his denial of death’s power. Was he right? Michael Wood:

Yeats​ was a great admirer of Paul Valéry’s poem ‘Le Cimetière marin’ (‘The Graveyard by the Sea’), but only up to a point – the point where he thought that the poem’s main injunction was not about lingering among the tombs and talking to the dead, but about getting on with life, or trying to. ‘After certain poignant stanzas,’ Yeats wrote, ‘and just when I am deeply moved, he chills me.’ Valéry turned out to be a mere ‘metropolitan, who has … learned as a part of good manners to deny what has no remedy’, and who ‘in a passage of great eloquence rejoices that human life must pass’. ‘I was about to put his poem among my sacred books,’ Yeats continued, ‘but I cannot now, for I do not believe him.’ It’s not that Yeats doesn’t recognise that all things must pass, it’s the rejoicing he objects to. ‘Man is in love and loves what vanishes,’ Yeats himself wrote. ‘What more is there to say?’ One answer is: pretty much everything.

If he had paused over the poem’s epigraph, taken from Pindar – ‘Do not, O my soul, aspire to immortal life, but exhaust what is possible’ – Yeats might have given up earlier. But then is the poem illustrating the epigraph or complicating it? It ends with a declared commitment to ‘l’ère successive’ (‘passing time’). But then the famous exhortation ‘il faut tenter de vivre!’ (‘we must try to live!’), sounds a little unsure of itself – tenter is after all related to ‘tentative’. Perhaps we should see the poem’s earlier, vigorous ‘no’ to the idea of stasis, ‘cette forme pensive’ (‘this pensive form’) as part of a continuing argument rather than an achieved end. Such a picture would match everything else we know about Valéry’s work. How could he be saying ‘no’ to thought? He thinks about nothing else.

In other news: The University of California Board of Regents votes to phase out the SAT and ACT.

I’m a big fan of Francis Poulenc. Check out his Dialogues des Carmélites on Spotify (I don’t think it’s on YouTube) or Stabat Mater, which you need to give time—don’t stop listening after 30 seconds. John Check reviews Roger Nichols’s biography of the composer at The New Criterion: “Born in Paris on January 7, 1899, Poulenc grew up in comfortable circumstances. His father, Émile, was a devout Catholic who wished for his only son to succeed him in the family’s flourishing chemical firm. Poulenc recalled that his mother, Jenny, agnostic and inclined to the arts, ‘revealed music to me’: she was his first piano teacher. Also influential was Poulenc’s godfather, Jenny’s brother Marcel (‘Papoum’), who encouraged the boy’s interests in painting and theater. Among Marcel’s friends was a band of opera singers, and so familiar did the world of opera become to Poulenc—so much a part of the natural flow of things—that, as he put it, it soon ‘held no secrets.’”

Dominic Green reviews Ilhan Omar’s autobiography: “Political autobiographies are written to conceal, not to reveal. They come in two eminently pulpable forms. One is the twilight apologia of the retired or defeated politician, the other the resumé-polishing pitch of the rising star. Which category Ilhan Omar’s autobiography falls into depends on whether you, like her, think she’s a cruelly traduced beacon of hope in a land of benighted bigotry; or whether, as one investigative journalist concluded, she has committed the ‘worst spree of felonies by a congressperson in history’.”

What should we make of Horace’s Ars Poetica—a work that leads to as many questions as it answers? “In 476 lines of dactylic hexameter, one of the great Roman poets tells us, if not how he wrote his songs, at any rate how we should go about writing ours. The advice is not all his own; an ancient commentator notes that the poet drew some of it from a third-century BC Greek critic called Neoptolemus of Parium. But it is Horace’s version that has lasted. The Ars lays down literary laws observed by writers for centuries: modern editions divide Shakespeare’s plays into five acts, for instance, because that’s how many Horace said a play should have. It canonized critical ideas, like the concept of artistic unity, that we now take as self-evident. Phrases from it have become conventional tags, some typically encountered in translation (‘purple patch’ from purpureuspannus), but others familiar in the original Latin: ut pictura poesisnorma loquendiin medias res; laudator temporis actisub iudice; ab ovo. Yet the work is full of mysteries, starting with its very title.”

Patrik Svensson’s natural history of eels was a surprise hit in Sweden. It is available in English translation next week: “A combination of natural history, memoir and metaphysical musing, the book, which comes out in the U.S. on Tuesday, is a debut for the 47-year-old journalist. It is already a best seller in his native Sweden, where it won the August Prize, the country’s most prestigious literary award. ‘He takes scientific mysteries and makes them part of a lived experience; a story between father and son that people can relate to,’ Emi-Simone Zawall, a book critic for the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet and a former juror for the August Prize, said in a phone interview. ‘But I think the reason for [the book’s] success is that he combines them with a level of literary craftsmanship that is quite rare.’”

Kyle Smith writes about George Bernard Shaw’s sudden rise to fame and asks if he deserved it: “In his final column as a critic in the then-towering Saturday Review, for which he toiled even as he struggled to get his own plays produced, Shaw lambasted the public for being unworthy of him. ‘Do I receive any spontaneous recognition for the prodigies of skill and industry I lavish on an unworthy institution and a stupid public?,’ he wrote. ‘Not a bit of it: half my time is spent in telling people what a clever man I am. It’s no use merely doing clever things in England.’ He complained, ‘It is humiliating, too, after making the most dazzling displays of professional ability, to have to tell people how capital it all is. Besides, they get so tired of it, that finally . . . they begin to detest it.’ Well, yes, when you have to notify the public that you’re clever, that does present a problem. Like Nixon, though, Shaw engineered one of history’s great reversals of fortune when, after a quarter of a century of Shaw strenuously seeking the title of genius, the world finally granted it. As late as 1902, the year he turned forty-six, his annual income was only £90—in the neighborhood of £10,000 today. We might not even know Shaw’s name today were it not for the efforts of a single fanatical devotee, the Austrian writer Siegfried Trebitsch, who in that year undertook to translate Shaw’s plays into German and get them produced in central Europe. “Within the year,” writes Shaw’s biographer Michael Holroyd, ‘Trebitsch began to accomplish what Shaw had been failing to achieve in Britain in more than a decade’.”

Photo: Église Saint-Martin de Casteil

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about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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