Death in Literature
Among the most frequently treated subjects in literature, death—present as a theme, symbol, or plot device—exists as one of the defining elements in the writing of modern poets, dramatists, and novelists. Intertwined with the origins of literature itself, human consciousness of mortality has for centuries provided the impetus for reflection on the causes, meaning, and nature of existence. And, while treatments of death are as varied as the authors who write them, scholars have perceived in modern texts—whether for the stage, in verse, or in prose fiction—certain clearly defined approaches to this topic of nearly universal interest.
Modern writers have frequently presented death as the ultimate existential dilemma, one which arouses terrible anxiety as it offers an avenue toward authentic self-discovery. Likewise, death is often perceived within a larger context, as part of the natural cycle of decay and renewal, or treated as a source of laughter, co-opted for humorous ends by writers of black comedy and absurdist drama, who nonetheless recognize the high seriousness of their subject. Death in literature also carries with it a range of symbolic implications, over the years having been aligned with ideas of retreat into solipsism, escape, alienation, and ultimately with the sources of meaning and the creation of literature itself.
In the modern novel and short story death has achieved a nearly ubiquitous presence. Critics observe in the works of Franz Kafka and D. H. Lawrence, for example, an almost obsessive concern with human mortality, which produces states of alienation, anxiety, and a potential retreat into the self in order to escape the omnipresent forces of death and decay. Death in the works of the Modernists is also frequently associated with solipsistic individuals, in relation to whom external and internal forces collude, symbolically cutting them away from humanity. Scholars acknowledge that the intense study of death undertaken by many Modernists also affords some writers the opportunity to more fully understand life and living. For writers like Gertrude Stein and Italo Svevo—in his Confessions of Zeno (1923)—the contemplation of human mortality leads to an understanding of personal identity and provides for an immanent meaning in life. Writers of the contemporary era have also often focused on the comic qualities of death under the umbrella of "black humor" fiction. Using the pretext of death as an inescapable part of the human comedy, such writers as J. P. Donleavy in The Ginger Man (1955), Thomas Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow (1973), Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in Slaughter-house Five, (1969) and Vladimir Nabokov in Pale Fire (1962)—to name only a few—have used the subject of death as an ironic metaphor for life and art in the twentieth century. In the writings of these and other contemporary authors, death pervades the story and its protagonists' minds, and offers an absurd commentary on the brevity and meaninglessness of their lives and the finality of their deaths.
The symptoms of black humor fiction stretch beyond genre boundaries to the field of drama, in which the writers of modern tragicomedy and proponents of the theater of the absurd—represented by such writers as Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and Harold Pinter—again study the humorous side of death. Critics have seen a wide diversity, nonetheless, in the writings of these dramatists. These range from Beckett, whose fatalism in the face of incomprehensibility demonstrates that laughter might be the only appropriate response to a violent and hopelessly absurd universe, to Ionesco, in whose tragicomic plays about death critics discern an affirmation of life. Other playwrights, including Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, have dealt with death as the defining feature of stage tragedy. Critic Philip M. Armato has characterized Williams's mid-career plays, among them The Night of the Iguana (1961), as "one poet's quest for a solution to the problems created by man's awareness of the inevitability of death." Elsewhere, Robert Feldman has seen in the characters of O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) a longing for death as an escape from the seemingly interminable pain of life.
Such tragic responses to death are more in line with the serious mood that tends to prevail in poetry on the subject. Critics find this attitude best exemplified in the musings of the twentieth century confessional poets, a group that includes such writers as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and John Berryman. For several of these writers, notably Plath and Sexton, death as a pretext for understanding life is of tantamount importance. In the poetry of these introspective writers, mortality exists as the defining sensibility, and is deeply rooted in a personal experience of the anguish of living and of death; an experience so intense for Plath and Sexton as to have culminated in their own suicides.
Winesburg, Ohio (short stories) 1919
The Floating Opera (novel) 1956
Happy Days (drama) 1961
Mr. Sammler's Planet (novel) 1970
77 Dream Songs (poetry) 1964
The Abortion (novel) 1971
Der Tod des Vergil [The Death of Vergil] (novel) 1945
La peste [The Plague] (novel) 1947
Death Comes for the Archbishop (novel) 1927
E. E. Cummings
Santa Claus—A Morality (drama) 1946
J. P. Donleavy
The Ginger Man (novel) 1955
"The Dying of Francis Donne" (short story) 1896
Der Meteor [The Meteor] (drama) 1966
As 1 Lay Dying (novel) 1930
Second Skin (novel) 1964
Catch-22 (novel) 1961
A Farewell to Arms (novel) 1929
Når vi dýde vågner [When We Dead Awaken] (drama) 1906
Tueur sans gages [The Killer] (drama) 1959
Le roi se meurt [Exit the King] (drama) 1963
"The Turn of the Screw" (novella) 1898
The Wings of the Dove (novel) 1902
Dubliners (short stories) 1914
Der Prozess [The Trial] (novel) 1925
D. H. Lawrence
The Man Who Died (novel) 1931
Life Studies (poetry) 1959
Der Tod in Venedig [Death in Venice] (novel) 1913
Der Zauberberg [The Magic Mountain] (novel) 1924
Pale Fire (novel) 1962
Mourning Becomes Electra (drama) 1931
The Last Gentleman (novel) 1966
No Man's Land (drama) 1975
The Collected Poems (poetry) 1981
Gravity's Rainbow (novel) 1973
Rainer Maria Rilke
Duineser Elegien [Duino Elegies] (poetry) 1923
Live or Die (poetry) 1966
The Auroras of Autumn (poetry) 1950
Confessions of Zeno (novel) 1923
Smert Ivana Ilyicha [The Death of Ivan Ilych] (novel) 1886
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (novel) 1885
The Centaur (novel) 1963
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Slaughterhouse-Five (novel) 1969
Suddenly Last Summer (drama) 1958
The Night of the Iguana (drama) 1961
SOURCE: "On Death and Dying: Kafka's Allegory of Reading," in Kafka and the Contemporary Critical Performance: Centenary Readings, edited by Alan Udoff, Indiana University Press, 1987, pp. 87-96.
[In the following essay, Bernheimer studies Franz Kafka's literary-existential exploration of the subject of death.]
My title alludes to two very different books, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross's compassionate account of the feelings of terminally ill patients and Paul de Man's rigorous study of the self-destructiveness of literary texts.1 This double allusion is intended to suggest the scope of Kafka's conception of death, which ranges from naturalistic reference to the writer's approaching end to near suspension of reference in the allegorical figuration of his writing destiny. A close analysis of two famous passages, frequently conflated by critics, will demonstrate how Kafka' s different attitudes to death and dying are inscribed in his fiction as implied models for its reading.
The first passage is a diary entry written on December 13, 1914:
Recently at Felix's. On the way home told Max that I shall lie very contentedly on my deathbed, provided the pain isn't too great. I forgot—and later purposely omitted—to add that the best things I have written have their basis in this capacity of mine to meet death with contentment. All these fine and very convincing passages always deal with the fact that someone is dying, that it is hard for him to do, that it seems unjust to him, or at least harsh, and the reader is moved by this, or at least he should be. But for me, who believe that I shall be able to lie contentedly on my deathbed, such scenes are secretly a game; indeed, in the death enacted I rejoice in my own death, hence calculatingly exploit the attention that the reader concentrates on death, have a much clearer understanding of it than he, of whom I suppose that he will loudly lament on his deathbed, and for these reasons my lament is as perfect as can be, nor does it suddenly break off, as is likely to be the case with a real lament, but dies beautifully and purely away. It is the same thing as my perpetual lamenting to my mother over pains that were not nearly so great as my laments would lead one to believe. With my mother, of course, I did not need to make so great a display of art as with the reader.(D II, 102; T, 448-49)2
What strikes one immediately about this meditation is that Kafka, who usually experiences himself as weak, indecisive, and anxiety-ridden, here attributes mastery to himself, mastery indeed of that most extreme of human eventualities, his own death. And this remarkable assurance in the face of death he sees as the basis for a second kind of mastery, a control of the writing process so fine that he can create a text that is "möglichst vollkommen," as perfect, complete, entire as possible, "schön und rein," beautiful and pure.3
There is no doubt a certain cruelty in the game Kafka describes. Himself immune to the fear of death, he detaches himself from his reader in order to facilitate that reader's identification with the protagonist's feelings of loss, injustice, and confusion. Whereas the reader is convinced by the mimetic power of the literary work of the implacable finality of death, the writer rejoices in his ability to construct that finality as a textual effect. The death with which the writer identifies—"Ich freue mich ja in dem Sterbenden zu sterben"—is a fiction produced "with clear understanding" of its fictionality. The ground of that understanding, Kafka insists, is not literary; it is experiential. First the writer must be able to face his own death cheerfully, then he may write that death as part of a fictional game free of existential relevance.
The game of literature thus has a center that originates its freeplay while it stands outside that freeplay, to borrow terms from Derrida's critique of metaphysical structure. Kafka's concluding reference to his childhood lamentation to his mother suggests a psychoanalytic reading of this generative center. For the mother is the original source of contentment and frustration, the original ground in symbolic relation to which a game of mastery may be played—witness the famous fort-da game of Freud's grandson. The young Kafka's lamentation in deceitful excess of any felt pain prefigures his later artful deception of his reader. Both fictional elaborations are based on a fundamental confidence in existential reality, in life's biological origin in the first case, in its biological end in the second. One might even speculate, given the associational logic of the passage, that the contentment Kafka believes he will feel on his deathbed is due in part to his fantasizing death as a return to the mother, a speculation that can be supported, as I have shown elsewhere, by an analysis of the letters to Felice and to Milena, in which Kafka expresses a regressive yearning to dissolve into these maternal presences.4
But if it is indeed this hidden fantasy scenario that sustains Kafka's confidence in the face of death, then matters are not quite as they seemed in our initial analysis. What appeared to be an experimential grounding for fictional freeplay may actually be a fantasy motivated by a wish to deny experience. This point of view would suggest that Kafka thinks himself able to die contentedly not because he has mastered the reality of his own death but because he has, in fantasy, never lived, never been born. "My life is a hesitation before birth" (D II, 210; T, 561), he noted in 1922. If his life has itself been a fiction, a duplicitous mirage, if he has been "dead . . . in his own lifetime" (D II, 196; T, 545), then the writing game in which he lives through his own death is not secondary to but rather a mirror image of the existential game in which he dies through his own life. The grounding in experience has been lost: fictional death mirrors fictional life. Kafka has not mastered his actual death: he has made the distinction between life and death into a literary game.
It now appears that Kafka may be deceiving himself in this passage and that his understanding may not really be much clearer than that of the reader he thinks he is tricking. He describes the freedom of writing as dependent on the writer's freedom from the terror of death. The literary work can achieve completion, he maintains, only if the artist can place himself imaginatively at the end of his life and not "suddenly break off his writing as a result of this imagined placement in extremis. The beauty and purity of the work are thus qualities that reflect, and are grounded in, the wholeness of a biological life that will pass away without resistance. Not surprisingly, this view of a contented death corresponds to Kafka's most positive account of a happy birth—that of "The Judgment," written in one long night of inspired creativity. "The story came out of me," he observed, "like a real birth. . . . Only in this way can writing be done, only with such coherence, with such a complete opening out of the body and the soul" (D I, 278, 276; T, 296, 294). No breaking off here: the lament "verläuff schön und rein." Such a relation to writing, in which the text is born and dies as the biological extension of the author's being and achieves its coherence, its "Vollkommenheit," as what Kafka elsewhere calls "a blood relation" (D I, 134; T, 142) of its creator, this fantasized relation to writing that binds the freeplay of fiction to a maternal origin and makes it readable as what Barthes calls a "text of pleasure" was the focus of Kafka's literary ambition throughout the first period of his creative activity.
But in this same period Kafka was coming to realize with ever greater lucidity that to conceive himself as origin and ground of his writing, as existing outside its fictionalizing game, was a wish-fulfilling delusion. I have suggested that a trace of the repression of this awareness is perceptible in the implied circularity of the associational logic in Kafka's reflection: he can imagine himself dying contentedly because this ending will be a return to his beginning. This circular fantasy cancels the temporal sequentiality of experience while it maintains the biological determinants of that sequence: maternal origin and physical death. The fantasy thus appears to have a primarily psychological genesis and to reflect a regressively narcissistic impulse. Kafka's sense of having mastered death is fostered by his repression of this regressive motivation. The attraction of this illusion of mastery may also account for his inability in this diary entry to move from an analysis founded in subjective psychology to one that perceives writing as the undoing of such a psychology and of its biological determinants.
Numerous passages in the diaries and letters to Felice, written in the period from 1912 to 1916, suggest that he was arriving at such a negative perception of his scriptive destiny even while he continued to assert writing's affirmative, mimetic potential. In these passages Kafka identifies his life entirely with writing. He comes into being, he declares, not at the point of his biological birth but at the moment of his body's being possessed by writing, as by a devil. "I have no literary interests," he tells Felice in 1913, "but am made of literature. I am nothing else, and cannot be anything else" (LF, 304; BF, 444). And what does this identification with writing entail? "It is not death, alas," says Kafka, "but the eternal torments of dying" (D II, 77; T, 420). Death in this sense belongs to life, whether it be approached with contentment or with lamentation. Dying, in contrast, suspends, or defers, the possibility of death—it is, in the phrase from Hegel that Maurice Blanchot makes the focus of his extraordinary article "Literature and the Right to Death," "that life which supports death and maintains itself in it," death in the process of becoming.5
The writer sustains death, maintains himself within it, by attempting to free language from any ground outside its own negativity. The writer never rejoices in his own death because he is always-already immersed in a process that removes him from life and offers him death as a "merciful surplus of strength" (D II, 184; T, 531). There can be no question of mastery here: the writer, made of literature, gives himself to an incessant activity of selfdistancing, self-fictionalizing, to a game that suspends indefinitely the difference between life and death.
It is this state of suspended animation that Kafka describes with disturbing vividness in his letter to Max Brod of July 5, 1922. The context is an explanation of Kafka's fearful resistance to going on a trip to visit his friend Oskar Baum in the Georgental:
Last night as I lay sleepless and let everything continually veer back and forth between my aching temples what I had almost forgotten during the last relatively quiet time became clear to me: namely, on what frail ground or rather altogether nonexistent ground I live, over a darkness from which the dark power emerges when it wills and, heedless of my stammering, destroys my life. Writing sustains me, but is it not more accurate to say that it sustains this kind of life? By this I don't mean, of course, that my life is better when I don't write. Rather it is much worse then and wholly unbearable and has to end in madness. But that, granted, only follows from the postulate that I am a writer, which is actually true even when I am not writing, and a nonwriting writer is a monster inviting madness. But what about being a writer itself? Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but for what? In the night it became clear to me, as clear as a child's lesson book, that it is the reward for serving the devil. This descent to the dark powers, this unshackling of spirits bound by nature, these dubious embraces and whatever else may take place in the nether parts which the higher parts no longer know, when one writes one's stories in the sunshine. Perhaps there are other forms of writing, but I know only this kind; at night, when fear keeps me from sleeping, I know only this kind. And the diabolic element in it seems very clear to me. It is vanity and sensuality which continually buzz about one's own or even another's form—and feast on him. The movement multiplies itself—it is a regular solar system of vanity. Sometimes a naive person will wish, "I would like to be dead and see how everyone mourns me." Such a writer is continually staging such a scene: He dies (or rather he does not live) and continually mourns himself. From this springs a terrible fear of death, which need not reveal itself as fear of death but may also appear as fear of change, as fear of Georgental. The reasons for this fear of death may be divided into two main categories. First he has a terrible fear of dying because he has not yet lived. By this I do not mean that wife and child, fields and cattle are essential to living. What is essential to life is only to forgo complacency, to move into the house instead of admiring it and hanging garlands around it. In reply to this, one might say that this is a matter of fate and is not given into anyone's hand. But then why this sense of repining, this repining that never ceases? To make onself finer and more savory? That is a part of it. But why do such nights leave one always with the refrain: I could live and I do not live. The second reason—perhaps it is all really one, the two do not want to stay apart for me now—is the belief: "What I have playacted is really going to happen. I have not bought myself off by my writing. I died my whole life long and now 1 will really die. My life was sweeter than other peoples' and my death will be more terrible by the same degree. Of course the writer in me will die right away, since such a figure has no base, no substance, is less than dust. He is only barely possible in the broil of earthly life, is only a construct of sensuality. That is your writer for you. But I myself cannot go on living because I have not lived, I have remained clay, I have not blown the spark into fire, but only used it to light up my corpse." It will be a strange burial: the writer, insubstantial as he is, consigning the old corpse, the longtime corpse, to the grave. I am enough of a writer to appreciate the scene with all my senses, or—and it is the same thing—to want to describe it with total self-forgetfulness—not alertness, but selfforgetfulness is the writer's first prerequisite. (L, 333-34; Br, 384-85)
Here the writer's loss of any experiential ground, of any basis in duration, of any life outside his ongoing death, is seen as constitutive of his being-as-literature. Writing sustains his life, but that life involves a cannibalistic depletion of his biological existence. It is a diabolic reward for having denied life's sheltering happiness and its offer of a final and satisfying death. To write is to enter the darkness of unknowing, where language becomes a buzz of words that expresses no self but rather perpetuates its erosion, its continual, never-ending loss.
The contrast with the earlier passage we analyzed is striking. The writer who had pictured himself confronting death with contentment now has "a terrible fear of death." And this fear is related to precisely the same fictional staging of his own death that had previously given Kafka a reassuring sense of mastery. Now that mastery is considered vanity, the vanity of a self-enclosed linguistic system that can only metaphorically be considered a "Sonnensystem" (sunlight, Kafka declares earlier in the letter, would erase the writing he generates in the dark, nether regions). This is a solar system in which the sun is missing, outside itself, elsewhere. No longer is the activity of writing grounded in the experiential reality where Kafka had anchored it in his reflection of 1914. Then the writer was sustained in his fictionalizing activity by his memory of his non-fictional selfs confidence that death need not be feared. Now that non-fictional self, "mein wirkliches Ich," is considered never to have lived, to have been a corpse all along. The writer's precarious existence is sustained by bis ability to forget this dead self. But this forgetting can never be total. "Everything is allowed him, except self-oblivion," Kafka wrote in one of the aphorisms of the "He" series, "wherewith, however, everything in turn is denied him, except the one thing necessary at the moment for the whole" (GW, 158; B, 285). What remains of this denial is a trace that may be understood psychologically as a "sense of repining," the writer's regret for an ego that has never moved into its own house, or that may be understood reflexively as literature's mournful awareness that it can never "die beautifully and purely away" but must continue ceaselessly to feed sensually off of life.
Kafka's fear of death may be understood as a fear of this trace's being conclusively erased, causing a fusion of corpselike self and insubstantial writer. Such a fusion did at times appear desirable to Kafka as the achievement of self-oblivion and hence of wholeness. "After all," he wrote to Felice, "there can be no more beautiful spot to die in, no spot more worthy of total despair, than one's own novel" (LF, 142; BF, 231). Despair fosters the happy fantasy of an inscription that coincides with being by symbolizing its end. Kafka's novel here plays the role of his mother in the earlier passage. In fantasy, the novel receives his despair as generously as his mother had received his laments. In contrast, the writer who fears his own death does not despair. He suffers, and suffering, Kafka wrote in a notebook, "is the only positive element in this world, indeed it is the only link between this world and the positive" (DF, 90; H, 108). Unreadable in itself, suffering stimulates the ongoing process of self-reading of which the Georgental letter is but one remarkable residue. Actually this residue, as Stanley Corngold has pointed out, is a kind of excess or surplus, produced in the midst of the self's suffering as an inexhaustible question about the mode of that production.6 What is the difference, the text asks, between "I, myself and "he, the writer?" Each is alive only insofar as the other is dead, and vice versa—"the two do not want to stay apart for me now," comments Kafka. It seems as if each could be read as a figure for the other, as if each were capable of functioning as either tenor or vehicle and "veer[ed] back and forth between [Kafka's] aching temples." Only the fundamental reference to physical suffering remains stable.
How can the analysis we have performed of these two passages linking writing and death help in the task of interpreting Kafka's fiction? First of all, it should alert us to the very different meanings that death can have for Kafka and to the contrasting conceptions of writing he associated with each. Thus if Kafka's prose is, as Roman Karst has observed, "a contemplation of dying—a poetic eschatology," the critic should beware of adding, as Karst does, "Everything in it is the desire for and expectation of the end—of that which the ultimate moment brings."7 Such a desire for death translates in literary terms into a desire for wholeness, "Vollkommenheit," the finality of an ending that closes itself off from the incessant murmur of writing. It is a desire for death to be clearly definable as the absence of life and for writing to be free to elaborate its fictional inventions on the basis of their analogy to life's limited organic form and constricted temporal extension. Kafka no doubt felt this desire intensely, and it could be shown that it motivates not only many of his protagonists but also many of his critics. The critics who interpret Kafka in these terms implicitly allege not to be taken in by the secret game whereby he pretends, in the diary entry of 1914, to be duping his readers' understanding. But their claim to hermeneutic mastery is no more than a repetition of Kafka's own similar claim: they are grounding the literary game in lived experience and reassuring themselves thereby of death's reality outside linguistic freeplay. In this they resemble the family man in Kafka's story who finds nothing more worrisome about the mobile spool of tangled thread that calls itself Odradek and occasionally inhabits his house than the thought that Odradek may be unable to die and will most likely outlive him. Odradek, a word, the narrator tells us, of uncertain etymology, is also a being of uncertain ontology. A laughing figure ("Gebilde") for the enduring instability of the figurai, he/it renders unreadable the distinction between life and death, creature and thing.
Walter Benjamin's observation that "What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about" applies to Kafka's protagonists.8 They are most often readers of this kind, with the peculiar twist that the story with which they hope to warm their shivering lives is their own—the engagement story Georg Bendemann writes to his friend in Russia, the tale of dutiful work performance whereby Gregor Samsa attempts to justify himself to the chief clerk, the narrative of innocence Joseph K. futilely presents at his interrogation, the account of his being hired as Landsurveyor with which K. wishes to confront the Castle, In a sense, all these would-be stories are analogous to Kafka's claim that he is capable of meeting his death with contentment. Their goal is to narrativize a life in such a way that the present moment appears as its end and completion. Indeed, in "The Hunter Gracchus," the story that illustrates more explicitly than any other the issues I have been exploring, the hunter declares: "I had been glad to live and I was glad to die" (CS, 229; SE, 228).
But the hunter's death ship has taken a wrong turn and now, neither dead nor alive, the "fundamental error of [his] onetime death" ("der Grundfehler [seines] einstmaligen Sterbens") (CS, 229; SE, 287), mocks him forever. What has been lost, precisely, is the ground on which an individual's death can occur only once, the ground that justifies the narrative completion of his life. The hunter, like the other Kafka protagonists I mentioned, has lost himself in a space of fundamental error, of perpetual errancy. Like Odradek, who is "extraordinarily nimble and can never be laid hold of (CS, 428; SE, 139), Gracchus is never more than provisionally and delusively present in any world. He has become an unreadable text, a floating signifier: "Nobody will read what I write here" (CS, 230; my translation; SE, 288), he declares in a surprisingly undisguised identification of his suspended existence with the writing process and a disturbing denial of what I as reader am presently engaged in doing.
A certain mode of psychoanalytic interpretation offers a way of reading this denial. Kafka, whose name is etymologically related to Gracchus, may be fantasizing a way out of the writer's predicament as illustrated by Gracchus's perpetual errancy: if his text is not read, if it is not put into motion through any reader's help, then Kafka can imagine it as a grave that will not be opened, as a death ship that will not be led astray. "Nobody knows of me" (CS, 230; SE, 288), says Gracchus, reminding us of Kafka's lifelong reluctance to publish and of his request, when faced with his own death, that Brod burn all his unpublished manuscripts, as if in a great funeral pyre. Thus we are brought back, via this biographical circuit, to the writer's narcissistic dream of a contented death and to his fantasy of dying inside his own texts. The denial of the reader now appears as a strategy to counter the diabolic activity of the writer, dramatized in the narrative as fundamental error. Error supports death and maintains itself in it. Thus conceived, error corresponds in psychoanalytic terms to the fundamental drive energizing all unconscious activity, the death instinct. Gracchus seems to embody that instinct in its close relationship to the scriptive process. Constantly in motion, hovering between life and death while hoping for death's finality, Gracchus errs in much the same sense that the unconscious does. To refuse the effort to read the unreadable text of his errancy would thus be tantamount to denying the unconscious function of writing. And this, according to one psychoanalytic interpretation, may well have been Kafka's unconscious desire.
Psychoanalysis thus transforms the unreadable text into a readable one. It is essentially a hermeneutics, wherein meaning and understanding, however complex, qualified and mediated, are ultimately based in an extralinguistic truth.9 If we can speak of the text as having an unconscious, we do so by analogy with the human psyche. "Psychology," Kafka wrote in one of his notebooks, "is the description of the reflection [Spiegelung] of the earthly world in the heavenly plane or, more correctly, the description of a reflection such as we, nurslings of the earth, imagine it, for no reflection actually occurs, we only see earth wherever we may turn" (H, 72; DF, 65-66). In these terms, Kafka's narratives become a kind of psychomachia: the protagonist wishes to tell a story of mastery, as if from the point of view of his death, of his reflection in the heavenly plane, and he battles against the erasure of this reflection, an erasure that represents the death drive within him. He wants to reach the imaginative space of his own death and thereby achieve the authority to narrate his life, but he is repulsed by the, to him, unimaginable activity of his own death impulse.
But there is perhaps a step beyond the circle of hermeneutic recuperation that Kafka's texts challenge their interpreters to take: this is what I call the step into allegory. Its epigraphs (or perhaps I should say epitaphs) could be Kafka's notebook observations, "The evolution of mankind—a growth of death-force" and "Our salvation is death, but not this one" (DF, 101; H, 123). The allegorical world is historical, it is in evolution, but, as Walter Benjamin observes in his brilliant discussion of allegory, "in this form history does not strike one as the process of eternal life so much as the advance of unending decay. . . . Allegories are in the realm of thoughts what ruins are in the realm of things."10 In the allegorical world, death can never offer salvation because the very notion of salvation betrays the ongoing temporal erosion, the continual growth of death-force, that characterizes the ruinous allegorical landscape. This is a "Sonnensystem" from which the life-giving sun is absent; that sun is the center of a universe of truth of which the mournful allegorical world has no part.
The existence of the writer as Kafka describes it to Brod in the letter of 1922 is purely allegorical in Benjamin's sense. The corpse Kafka claims to have been his whole life long is the allegorical emblem par excellence. "The allegorization of the physis," comments Benjamin, "can only be carried through vigorously in respect to the corpse."11 "I" has been a corpse his whole life long, Kafka tells us. One way of understanding this observation would be to say that "I" has spent his life attaining the neutrality of "it."12 This depersonalizing process whereby "I" loses his humanity enables him, paradoxically, to recognize his identity, his selfhood, in the experience of suffering.13 This empirical experience constitutes the referential, mimetic moment that always persists in any allegory but that remains outside that allegory's staging of its reading. Kafka, suffering sleeplessly in bed, only begins to read himself when he remembers that the ground of his life is "altogether nonexistent" ("gar nicht vorhanden"). At this point, when what is remembered is that memory itself has no coherent organic or referential basis, "I" and "he" become rhetorical fictions each of which signifies the death of the other.
The allegorical protagonist, here Kafka himself, attempts to capture this signification, that is, to coincide with his own death, by destroying the distance and difference that keep him alive as a figure. But this coincidence can never occur, for it would mean the literalization of the figure, its transformation into pure scriptive matter, the letter as corpse. Allegory tends toward this mute literalism. According to de Man, it "names the rhetorical process by which the literary text moves from a phenomenal, worldoriented to a grammatical, language-oriented direction."14 "The cruelty of death," Kafka commented in his notebook, "lies in the fact that it brings the real sorrow of the end, but not the end" (DF, 101; H, 122). The hermeneutic impulse to read a life mimetically from the point of view of its end is frustrated by the allegorical impulse to figure that end rhetorically as the death of figuration. By staging the narrative of this frustration, Kafka's texts offer their readers a powerful dramatization of the life-and-death issues at stake in the act of reading.
1 Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying (London: Tavistock Publications, 1970); Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figurai Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).
2 I have used the following abbreviations for Kafka's works, giving references first to the standard English translations (all published by Schocken Books in New York) then to the German originals (all published by Fischer Verlag in Frankfurt):
B Beschreibung eines Kampfes, 1954
Br Briefe 1902-1924, 1958
BF Briefe an Felice, 1967
CS The Complete Stories, 1971
D I Diaries 1910-1913, 1948
D II Diaries 1914-1923, 1947
DF Dearest Father, 1954
GW The Great Wall of China, 1970
H Hochzeitsvorbereitungen auf dem Lande, 1953
L Letters to Friends, Family, and Editors, 1977
LF Letters to Felice, 1973
SE Sämtliche Erzählungen, 1970
T Tagebücher, 1954
3 For a suggestive commentary on this passage, which has influenced my reading but from which it differs significantly, see Maurice Blanchot, "La mort contente," in De Kafka à Kafka (Paris: Gallimard, 1981).
4 See Charles Bernheimer, Flaubert and Kafka: Studies in Psychopoetic Structure (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), pp. 139-67.
5 Maurice Blanchot, "Literature and the Right to Death," in The Gaze of Orpheus and Other Literary Essays, edited by P. Adams Sitney (New York: Station Hill, 1981), p. 61.
6 See Stanley Corngold's article in this book and his fuller discussion of what he calls the "surplus subject" in chapter five of his book The Fate of the Self: German Writers and French Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986).
7 Roman Karst, "Kafka or the Impossibility of Writing," The Literary Review, 26:4 (Summer 1983), p. 516.
8 Walter Benjamin, "The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov," in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), p. 101.
9 In this sense, the final goal of the readable text is to abolish the activity of reading: "The ultimate goal of a hermeneutically successful reading is to do away with reading altogether," comments Paul de Man ("Introduction" to Hans Robert Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982], p. ix). In contrast, "allegories are always allegories of metaphor and, as such, they are always allegories of the impossibility of reading—a sentence in which the genitive 'of' has itself to be 'read' as a metaphor" (Allegories of Reading, p. 205).
10 Walter Benjamin, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels, in Gesammelte Schriften 1.1, edited by Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhauser (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974), pp. 353-54. My translation.
11Ursprung, p. 391.
12 Michel Foucault mentions this process of authorial neutralization as one of the conceptual innovations most likely to make his readers uneasy: "Must I suppose that in my discourse I can have no survival? And that in speaking I am not banishing my death, but actually establishing it; or rather that I am abolishing all interiority in that exterior that is so indifferent to my life, and so neutral, that it makes no distinction between my life and my death?" The Archeology of Knowledge (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 210.
13 Kafka evokes a similar experience in one of the aphorisms of the He series: "He has the feeling that merely by being alive he is blocking his own way. From this sense of hindrance, in turn, he deduces the proof that he is alive" (GW, 154; B, 280). The He series as a whole explores the problematic status of the third person Kafka both is and is not.
14 "Introduction" to Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, p. xxiii.
SOURCE: "Solipsism and Death in D. H. Lawrence's Late Works," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. VII, No. 3, Summer, 1966, pp. 495-508.
[In the following essay, Cavitch explores Lawrence's representation of a retreat from the alienation and division of modern society into an "isolation of personal identity" and into death in his late fiction.]
Unlike D. H. Lawrence's earlier novels, Lady Chatterley's Lover1 invites a gossipy sort of attention: the novel itself encourages readers to separate details of the characters' behavior from the fictional context which interprets them, and the result is that for nearly forty years the dissociated facts of the lovers' words and acts have given the novel notoriety that has caused widespread misrepresentation. But even now, five years after the courts in England and America have recognized that the fiction is not obscenely detailed in its sexual episodes, it is improbable that the general approach to Lady Chatterley will alter, because the work draws attention to circumstantial information that is deliberately garish and shocking. Connie Chatterley and Mellors are prominently interesting in the novel because of what they do and say from moment to moment, while the represented quality, or ambiance, of their lives is subordinated to a background that is too simple, too fanciful or too vague for most readers' interests. Lawrence reversed his usual treatment of his subject material when he brought personal and particularized data about the characters into the foreground of the fiction, and subordinated the generalized life-qualities which earlier characters embody.
Lawrence prizes Connie personally and he presents her with more evidence than she needs of his unequivocal sympathy. He excuses the weakness that initially led her into marriage with Clifford Chatterley by explaining it as the effect of immaturity and misguided modern feminism; she sought to retain "a pure and noble freedom in love." But Connie, as her father and older men approvingly notice, is basically "old-fashioned"—which assures us from the outset of her marriage that her error of judgment does not indicate a deep character fault. When Clifford returns from the war paralyzed and impotent, the sympathy in the novel's viewpoint attaches only to Connie, for Clifford's paralysis is symbolic of his incapacity for sympathy with others or any warm-hearted natural response. Connie's years of unfulfillment in marriage seem a cruelly wasteful penalty for her youthful mistake; she is completely deprived of intimacy and she has no place with the cleverly talking, passionless men of her husband's society. As she comprehends the vacuity of her life, the vacuity of Clifford, the vacuity even of her liberty to have affairs or bear another man's child to rear in Wragby Hall, it is evident to the reader that anything Connie does to attempt sensual fulfillment will receive Lawrence's easy, unquestioning approval.
Oliver Mellors, whose love changes Connie's life, also suffers from a disastrous marriage. In his youth he knew women who gave him their spirit of love but they never really wanted the physical act of sex; Mellors reacted from them by marrying Bertha Coutts, whose aggressions during intercourse finally demonstrated her fierce sexual hatred. Embittered against women and against modern industrial civilization, Mellors withdrew from the world to a hermit's life as a gamekeeper on the Chatterley estate. But apparently, he would have been fully capable of tenderness and sympathy for a girl like Connie at any time before he met her. He, too, commands a singleminded sympathy in Lawrence's viewpoint.
The background of the lovers' separate misery and solitude reveals that civilization or "other people in the world" are mainly to blame for their troubles; the lovers themselves are free from the complexities or shortcomings of character that might defeat their chance for happiness together, and their romance is the story of their progress into a relationship uncorrupted by social evil. The narrative is the simplest of all Lawrence's major fictions and it introduces no complications that seriously interfere with the lovers' attention to themselves. Mellors' love-making brings Connie gently into full sensual responsiveness. She becomes pregnant, openly acknowledges her affair with Mellors, and at the end of the novel the lovers are anticipating divorces which will enable them to marry each other. The story centers on Connie's steady growth into a fulfilled woman; her uncomplicated nature flowers like the woods in springtime where she meets with Mellors:
She was gone in her own soft rapture, like a forest soughing with the dim, glad moan of spring, moving into bud. She could feel in the same world with her the man, the nameless man, moving on beautiful feet, beautiful in the phallic mystery. And in herself, in all her veins, she felt him and his child. His child was in all her veins, like a twilight.
She was like a forest, like the dark interlacing of the oak-wood, humming inaudibly with myriad unfolding buds. Meanwhile the birds of desire were asleep in the vast interlaced intricacy of her body. (163)
For Connie and Mellors sexual relations are sweeter and simpler than for any earlier pair of Lawrence's protagonists. They are the first major characters who are absolutely free of self-revulsion or any fear of sex, and the novel concentrates attention on their sensuality. Lawrence describes their sexual intercourse in more explicit detail than in earlier fiction, as he tries to purify every word and act of any shameful associations. He introduces the diction of vulgarity to the lovers' dialogues, and even Mellors' occasional preference for the "Italian way" is alluded to in the novel as a necessary immersion in wholesome sensuality. The descriptions of their intercourse are not dominated by images of aggression, resistance, violation or loss of identity, nor do the lovers struggle to orgasms of horrific intensity.
The imagery of harmony and direct sensual fulfillment gives an astonishing new sweetness to Lawrence's style in Lady Chatterley, but the apparent rosiness of his vision only announces his retreat from a mimetic representation of life. To present characters who have perfect inner freedom for direct sensual fulfillment, Lawrence had to circumvent his own sense of reality. He created a conventionally artificial world where the lovers could act according to his ideal of love rather than according to his knowledge of experience. Connie and Mellors live in a world of pastoral idyll. Their love is dramatized only in the woods on the Chatterley estate, where rain falls softly through the darkness or the twilight and the fresh growth of spring scents the air. They dance nakedly in the glades and spread forest flowers on their bodies; they make love in a forest hut, or on the ground, and Connie returns in secrecy to her conventional place in the outer world. Anyone but the lovers enters the woods as an intruder. The arrival of a postman at Mellors' cottage and the return of Mellors' wife introduce the complications which threaten to defame their love. Only meanness thrives in the encircling world: the ugly works of the Chatterley coal mines line the rim of the forest, and in the manorhouse the conversation of sophisticated guests displays the cynicism of modern society.
The contrast between the innocence of experience in the forest and the decadence of life in the world depends upon Lawrence's most facile judgment against modern industrial civilization. His evaluation of modern culture is made diagrammatically, and it is only effective to support the schematic structure of the novel.2 As Connie matures into a sensual woman but forfeits her place in conventional society, Clifford climbs to success in the world. He forgoes his literary dilettantism and becomes a progressive business leader in the coal-mining industry, but inwardly he disintegrates and regresses to child-like dependency upon his housekeeper, Mrs. Bolton. Their perverse eroticism underlies Clifford's thriving in the outer world, while Connie and Mellors discover innocence in the privacy of the woods. A world peopled only by Clifford and his vitiated friends offers no defense against Lawrence's denunciations of its mechanization, its abuse of money and its hatred of life.
The attack against modern society is only superfieially verified, because the atmosphere of romance dominates the novel. Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley three times over in order to achieve the world of idyll in the final version, and in each text he reduced the lovers' connection with society and made the outer world less relevant in the fiction.3 From the first version he rejected the gamekeeper's virulence towards other people, his lower class uncouthness and his social radicalism as a secretary of a Communist League. He rejected the distressing conclusion of the second version, in which Connie and her lover are beset by a coarse, prying gamekeeper as Connie weeps desperately over their unlikely prospects for future happiness. In the third version, Mellors takes a job on a farm and prepares to receive Connie and their child when they return from Italy. His letter to her displays confidence in their love, along with a stoical foreboding of a bad time of social violence ahead for the rest of the world as a result of the "mass-will of people, wanting money and hating life." But he assures her that the inevitable ruin of humanity that is fostered by industrial civilization can have no effect on their destiny: "All the bad times that ever have been, haven't been able to blow the crocus out: not even the love of women. So they won't be able to blow out my wanting you, nor the little glow there is between you and me." (363-64)
The conclusion of the novel repudiates any alternative to the evil imputed to society. Mellors believes that the world could be a better place if men would act more like men, which in his mind means wearing scarlet tights and white jerkins, but the fiction dismisses his hypothesis as a passing fancy; his brief remarks are absurdly irrelevant to Clifford's failure as a man or to Connie's triumph as a woman. He speaks from a child's notion of interchangeable personal identities; and even Mellors' Midlands dialect, which he uses almost exclusively with Connie, suddenly sounds like an infant's accents:
Why, if men had red, fine legs, that alone would change them in a month. They'd begin to be men again, to be men! An' the women could dress as they liked. Because if once the men walked with legs close bright scarlet, and buttocks nice and showing scarlet under a little white jacket: then the women 'ud begin to be women. It's because th' men aren't men, that the women have to be. (263)
This frail proposal which is not even presented affirmatively is all that remains in Lady Chatterley of Lawrence's former passion for cultural reconstruction. He abandons the world to its madness—the result of humanity's incapacity for direct sensual fulfillment—and he precludes any possibility of the lovers' regenerative return to society. The novel marks the end of Lawrence's search for a new world of communal experience; in his art he no longer experiments with forms of social organization as a means of objectifying essential human character. The sensuality that flourishes in Connie and Mellors seeks no positive counterpart in the relationships of the larger world, and the novel rejects all likelihood that men's social experience will ever lead to anything but disaster.
Harmony among people can prevail only within the family relation implied at the end of the novel when Connie is pregnant and the lovers, though presently separated, anticipate marriage and being "together next year." But this family grouping even with its promise of new birth achieves no societal relevance in the fiction—Mellors and Connie plan to sever finally their connections with the world of social circumstances. The real meaning of Connie's pregnancy is reflected in Mellors' reinstatement to emotional security and his retrogressive freedom from the demands of sexual activity; and it is identified by the carefully discriminated parallel of sexual innocence in his relation with Connie, and Clifford's child-like happiness with Mrs. Bolton. Mellors' famous letter to Connie celebrates his reachieved state of chastity in fact and in spirit, for he explains that his erotic nature is quieted by peaceful thoughts about her womb; and he enjoys his purity of consciousness in final detachment and immunity from the effects of present experience. The emblematic situation at the conclusion implies the stability of maternal rather than conjugal relations.
A similar disavowal of adult and circumstantial experience dominates all of Lawrence's last art, as other protagonists achieve their deepest desire in blissful quiescence. In "The Man Who Died," Lawrence's last completed work of fiction, the renunciation of purposive activity and direct personal relations becomes the meaning of Christ's resurrection. In his crucifixion the Man knew all the bitterness of human experience. Escaped from his tomb, he turns away from further entanglements with his disciples and he rejects his former mission as a mistaken effort to compel life unnaturally; he wanders aimlessly through a calm and sunlit Mediterranean world, slowly acquiring the full satisfactions of his "aloneness." A priestess of Isis gives him sexual fulfillment and she becomes pregnant by him. Not wishing, however, to be ensnared in "the little life of jealousy and property," he sails away again: the god-like man in the security of his little boat remains attached only to the womb of the mild-mannered woman. His fatherhood, like Mellors', points to his pre-natal identification and leads to his eternal freedom from the demands of making particular responses.
These disintegrations in Lawrence's fiction occurred partly because he lost interest in external experience during his long tubercular illness—and sexual experience particularly may have been only a memory in those last years—so that his strong regressive tendencies easily dominated his art. Even his descriptive writing indicates his withdrawal from realistic scenes to highly abstract settings, such as the idyllic Chatterley forest and the Mediterranean world of "The Man Who Died." The most prominent scene in the story seems properly Mediterranean in its painterly expanse of sea-space and bright light, but it offers no perspective or impression to suggest that the total view is directly seen. The details are generalized and conventional, and they are not brought to sharp definition by the sensibility of a perceiving intelligence; they reflect none of the complexity of "character," as Lawrence's descriptions previously did. Instead, the setting places the Man and priestess in a conceptualized world which aggravates the solipsism evident in the fiction;
The wind came cold and strong from inland, from the invisible snows of Lebanon. But the temple, facing south and west, towards Egypt, faced the splendid sun of winter as he curved down towards the sea, the warmth and radiance flooded in between the pillars of painted wood. But the sea was invisible, because of the trees, though its dashing sounded among the hum of pines. The air was turning golden to afternoon. The woman who served Isis stood in her yellow robe, and looked up at the steep slopes coming down to the sea, where the olive-trees silvered under the wind like water splashing. She was alone save for the goddess. And in the winter afternoon the light stood erect and magnificent off the invisible sea, filling the hills of the coast. She went towards the sun, through the grove of Mediterranean pine-trees and ever-green oaks, in the midst of which the temple stood, on a little, tree-covered tongue of land between two bays.
It was only a very little way, and then she stood among the dry trunks of the outermost pines, on the rocks under which the sea smote and sucked, facing the open where the bright sun gloried in winter. The sea was dark, almost indigo, running away from the land, and crested with white. The hand of the wind brushed it strangely with shadow, as it brushed the olives of the slope with silver.4
The fairly insubstantial materials of the composition-light, wind, the invisible sea—emphasize the purely tonal qualities of the setting, and the chief details are arranged by the syntax of logical organization: "But the temple. . . . But the sea . , . though its dashing . . . save for the goddess." This sort of description has the atmospheric effect of reducing vision to the sparest, unnaturally isolated details; it reveals little interest in actually examining the world.
In his life as in his fiction, Lawrence was no longer inclined to empirical observation; his travels around the earth were over and when he looked back upon his explorations he saw them as a completed adventure, one that led him to realize the greater expanse of inwardness he has to enjoy, as a late poem explains:
TRAVEL IS OVER
I have travelled, and looked at the world, and loved it.
Now I don't want to look at the world any more, there seems nothing there.
In not-looking, and in not-seeing
comes a new strength
and undeniable new gods share their life with us, when we cease to see.5
The current of his imagination simply flowed away from the circumstances of external life to a passionate interest directly in himself. He was irritated by events which interrupted his attention or contradicted the harmonies of his subjective experience, and his attitude towards the common experience of other people became more petulant and satirical than ever. Most of the poems in Pansies, Nettles, and More Pansies are prosy verses that expressed a moment's irritation with the vulgarity or evil of the world outside him. But he was impatient over objective reality, and he was more apt to dismiss it than to sustain even negative emotions about it, and so the poems are usually slight or inept.
His significant artistic achievements in these last years issue from his one remaining involvement with life: from about 1926 Lawrence knew that he was dying because of his recurrent tubercular attacks, and a group of deathpoems from his posthumously collected Last Poems together with his piece of graveyard literature, Etruscan Places, comprise the best of his final art. He still drew upon immediate knowledge of experience in his preparations for dying, which represent death as a supreme satisfaction. In Etruscan Places6 he describes his tour of the cities of the dead, tombs where corpses were provided with all the accoutrements necessary for a continuing life. Lawrence climbs in and out of the caverns dug under the hillsides or covered with mounds of earth, hurrying across the daylight from one dark descent to another: "And gradually," he writes, "the underworld of the Etruscans becomes more real than the above day of the afternoon. One begins to live with the painted dancers and feasters and mourners, and to look eagerly for them." (76)
The entire account is governed by his developing impression that in the awareness of death one sees more clearly just how life is individually, sensually experienced. He believed that the Etruscans felt no aversion for death and therefore they could represent life honestly by including it. Their art freely accepts the frailty and evanescence of all life-images; they knew no poignancy or horror over transience. For them, as Lawrence interpreted their tombs, death was the quickness, the subtlety of the life-experience. Even the irony of their ruined preparations for an after-life strikes him as soothing and true to the spirit in which they died:
The tombs seem so easy and friendly, cut out of rock underground. One does not feel oppressed, descending into them. It must be partly owing to the peculiar charm of natural proportion which is in all Etruscan things of the unspoilt, unromanized centuries. There is a simplicity, combined with a most peculiar, free-breasted naturalness and spontaneity, in the shapes and movements of the underworld walls and spaces, that at once reassures the spirit. The Greeks sought to make an impression, and Gothic still more seeks to impress the mind. The Etruscans, no. The things they did, in their easy centuries, are as natural and as easy as breathing. They leave the breast breathing freely and pleasantly, with a certain fullness of life. Even the tombs. And that is the true Etruscan quality: ease, naturalness, and an abundance of life, no need to force the mind or the soul in any direction.
And death, to the Etruscan, was a pleasant continuance of life, with jewels and wine and flutes playing for the dance. It was neither an ecstasy of bliss, a heaven, nor a purgatory of torment. It was just a natural continuance of the fullness of life. Everything was in terms of life, of living.
Yet everything Etruscan, save the tombs, has been wiped out. It seems strange. One goes out again into the April sunshine, into the sunken road between the soft, grassy-mounded tombs, and as one passes one glances down the steps at the doorless doorways of tombs. It is so still and pleasant and cheerful. The place is so soothing. (28-29)
The descent to darkness and oblivion comforts Lawrence with the promise of peace and justification. The dying man journeys into an underworld, as in the pagan myths of death; there, his body is enveloped by unfathomable blackness and he is cleansed of his continuous awareness of separation, which is the distressing condition of life. In "Bavarian Gentians" Lawrence anticipates the loss of objective awareness in death by using intensive repetition of key words—blue, dark and torch—to surpass the descriptive and referential limitations of language. The effort of his style is to make speech so symbolic that his individual words directly express facts of consciousness, without first being metaphors or symbols that refer also to the external world:
Not every man has gentians in his house
in soft September, at slow, sad Michaelmas,
Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark
darkening the day-time, torch-like with the
smoking blueness of Pluto's gloom,
ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness
down flattening into points, flattened under the
sweep of white day
torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness,
Pluto's dark-blue daze,
black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark
giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter's
pale lamps give off light,
lead me then, lead the way.
Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!
let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of
down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is
darkened on blueness
even where Persephone goes, just now, from the
to the sightless realm where darkness is awake
upon the dark
and Persephone herself is but a voice
or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark
of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion
of dense gloom,
among the splendour of torches of darkness,
shedding darkness on the lost bride and her
The poem intentionally separates two planes of reality by using two kinds of language in opposition. The casual self-effacement of the opening lines ironically undervalues the poet's objective situation, and the more weighty emotional terms of the second line allow his mood to dominate the scene. Objective circumstances appear reflected in simple, logical statements in which they are only marginally, laterally developed. The room, the flowers, the time of year remain at the edges of the poem's field of awareness, where they frame the central, imagined world of oblivion. The actual situation is mildly reasserted in "frosted September," in the imperatives, and in the analytically simplified metaphor: "Reach me a gentian, give me a torch! / let me guide myself with the blue forked torch of this flower." The world from which the poet is ready to depart appears already subordinated to a lower level of reality, to a periphery of less intense consciousness.
For the central experience in the poem Lawrence uses language that is laden with compound adjectives and adjective clauses. The elaborate modifications tend to dissociate darkness as a substantial, complex quantity apart from the flower. It is darkness which suggests fire, smoke, light of the underworld and the myth of the soul's descent to oblivion and sensual experience in the deepest cavern of the earth. The qualifying constructions build on each other, as seemingly autonomous words crowd together in incremental, proliferating contact. Dark leads to "dark darkening," to "blaze of darkness," to "darker and darker" and other variations. Each sentence extends farther and farther away from the influence of the simple grammatical base that refers to the actual situation. The amount and density of modification break down the normal syntactical patterns that preserve the duality of objective circumstances and a perceiving intelligence. Modification in this poem replaces verbs, so that adjectives function as whole predicates and appear as acts of mind.
The poem gives artful form to the regressive feelings which undermine Lady Chatterley and "The Man Who Died" by properly identifying the pattern of action as an obliteration of consciousness and clearly associating death with the peace of maternal reunification in the embracing womb. Because of its linguistic complexity and its sustained discrimination between the poet's circumstances and his mood, "Bavarian Gentians" is probably an earlier poem than "The Ship of Death," in which Lawrence is more at ease with his desire for death and can generalize it and state it absolutely. He does not have to make the effort of a special language or maintain categories of reality to express his subjective experience precisely; his lines are shorter and more pliant, and his diction is simple and sometimes disarmingly casual. The emotional force of the poem is more conceptual and does not so noticeably arise from the words or structure of the poetic expression. Death is introduced as a heavy gravitation drawing all of nature downward; the elliptical compression of the opening lines avoids the qualification of any personal assertion:
Now it is autumn and the falling fruit
and the long journey towards oblivion.
The apples falling like great drops of dew
to bruise themselves an exit from themselves.
And it is time to go, to bid farewell
to one's own self, and find an exit
from the fallen self.
The soul liberated from the body voyages over an unknown sea in a small boat, like the Man's boat and like the Etruscan's ship of death, drawn like Persephone into the density of darkness:
There is no port, there is nowhere to go
only the deepening blackness darkening still
blacker upon the soundless, ungurgling flood
darkness at one with darkness, up and down
and sideways utterly dark, so there is no direction
and the little ship is there; yet she is gone.
She is not seen, for there is nothing to see her by.
She is gone! gone! and yet
somewhere she is there.
The journey ends at the first thread of dawn over eternity when the soul regains her lost body and enters it, "filling the heart with peace." Only death could finally promise Lawrence to remove the basic human sense of self-division and alienation from the life of the body, after he had lost serious hope for a new world of improved human relations in adult sex and social organization. He found that beyond the griefs of manhood or modernity, the isolation of personal identity was the final, rudimentary obstacle in the way of vivid, perfect experience.
1Lady Chatterley's Lover was first published in Florence by G. Orioli in 1928. The Grove Press edition, New York, 1959, is used for citations within the text of this article.
2 G. Armour Craig believes that "it is one of the ironies of modern social history that public censors should be so outraged by the thoroughness of the idyll yet so oblivious to the attack on modern technology." "D. H. Lawrence on Thinghood and Selfhood," The Massachusetts Review, I (Fall, 1959), 58. My own view is that the public has disregarded the novel's attack on technology because in Lady Chatterley Lawrence does not persuasively depict social evil.
3 A general comparison of the three versions appears in E. W. Tedlock, Jr., D. H. Lawrence Manuscripts, A Descriptive Bibliography (Albuquerque, Í. Ì., 1948), pp. 279-316.
4The Tales of D. H. Lawrence (London, 1934), p. 1116.
5The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence, edited by Pinto and Roberts (New York, 1964), p. 662. Additional references to poems will be cited in the text.
6Etruscan Places was first published in London by Martin Secker in 1932. The Heinemann edition, London, 1933, is used for citations within the text.
SOURCE: "The Quintessence of Dowsonism: 'The Dying of Francis Donne'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XI, No. 1, Winter, 1974, pp. 45-51.
[In the following essay, Cushman describes "The Dying of Francis Donne" as "a masterly delineation of the psychology of dying" in which its protagonist succeeds in escaping "the tyranny of time only by intellectual detachment and by death. "]
The evidence suggests that Ernest Dowson thought more highly of his prose than his poetry,1 but that has not been the verdict of the world. If Dowson has an audience at all these days, it is for his frail, languorous poetry, not for his stories, sketches, or translations, or for the two novels he collaborated on. For the most part the stories and sketches are interesting period pieces, pale, delicate variations on Dowson's characteristic themes of lost love and the tragic gap between the flux of life and the perfection of art. The end of "The Diary of a Successful Man" epitomizes the typical Dowson situation. The protagonist sits "in a cloud of incense" in the Church of the Dames Rouges, listening first to the "perfect litany" and then to the beautiful singing of a nun who had been his love years before. The "sweetness and power" of the singing mock the unhappiness of living, and the story closes with the "successful man" feeling "alone in utter darkness."2 Estrang
(The entire section is 112259 words.)
SOURCE: "Death and the Native Strain in American Poetry," in Social Research, Vol. 39, No. 3, Autumn, 1972, pp. 449-62.
[In the following essay, Bloom selects a representative poem from both Wallace Stevens and W. B. Yeats in order to contrast American and British poetic conceptions of death, and observes that the former is generally more solipsistic than the latter.]
Shall we be found hanging in the trees next
Of what disaster is this the imminence:
Bare limbs, bare trees and a wind as sharp as salt?
The stars are putting on their glittering belts,
(The entire section is 30453 words.)
Philip M. Armato
SOURCE: "Tennessee William's Meditations on Life and Death in 'Suddenly Last Summer', 'The Night of the Iguana' , and 'The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore," in Tennessee Williams: A Tribute, edited by Jac Tharpe, University Press of Mississippi, 1977, pp. 558-570.
[In the following essay, Armato studies Williams's portrayal of human perceptions of death in his dramas, concluding that "underneath the guise of southern decadence, Tennessee Williams practices the art of a decidedly Christian playwright.]
In Tennessee Williams' autobiography, the chapter dealing with his life in the sixties might well be entitled "The...
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Enright, D. J., ed. The Oxford Book of Death, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983, 351 p.
Offers literary selections from throughout history on the subject of death.
Ackerman, R. D. "Death and Fiction: Stevens' Mother of Beauty." ELH 50, No. 2 (Summer 1983): 410-14.
Studies the figure of the Mother of Beauty in Wallace Stevens's writing as a symbolic construct that encompasses the ideas of "natural decay and procreative renewal."
Barreca, Regina, ed. Sex and Death in Victorian Literature. London: Macmillan, 1990, 264 p.
(The entire section is 956 words.)