On the fear of death and temptations of security: reading sonnet 73 on the eve of my birthday

Paul Serusier. Evening. 1906
Paul Serusier. Evening. 1906

[pullquote cite=”William Shakespeare. Hamlet” type=”right”]…there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. Since no man knows aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.[/pullquote]

It was my birthday this week — always an occasion to pause a bit, take a look back, and a look forward; to attempt a “bird’s eye” view of one’s life.

Since I started the “Sonnets in colour” series, I have been noticing how my life began to fall into their rhythm — almost to rhyme with them; and it is often not quite clear where is the source and where the target in this process. Someone told me recently that painting the sonnets in their traditional order just goes to show that I am not creative enough: a true artist would paint them as they “come” to them — in the order imposed by her Muse. But there is something stranger and more invigorating in following their own order and surrendering to their own rhythm and logic, their own powerful Muse. The idea of “surrender” to something larger than my self was there from the very beginning of this project — because I felt distinctly uncomfortable with the modern discourse of “self” and “self-expression”, and the hold it used to have on me. I needed something powerful enough to counteract it, and the sonnets fit the bill, but I didn’t expect this pleasure of watching my life falling into step with them.

Theodor Rousseau. Twilight landscape. 1850.
Theodor Rousseau. Twilight landscape. 1850.

Birthdays — these natural semicolons of life — make the workings of this process even easier to notice. Last year, my birthday was greeted with the sixty second sonnet  when my glass shows me myself indeed // Beated and chopped with tanned antiquity; this year turned out altogether more uplifting:

That time of year thou mayest in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.

This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

There is a progression of increasingly complex and beautiful metaphors for aging and death here, accompanied — particularly relevant to my series — by increasing precision of colour perception: from yellow to twilight to the glowing of fire. And as I was working on my first study for this sonnet several days ago, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a strangely euphoric feeling: I felt that I was, truly and genuinely, ready for death. In a sense, of course, one is always ready (what else can we be?) — but there was a certain realness and authenticity to this feeling which I had never experienced before, and it was absolutely exhilarating, like the sense of freedom and joy after an illness. After this wave of bliss had abated somewhat, I began to suspect that it might not have been, strictly speaking, mine to begin with: it was his, Shakespeare’s. But that’s beside the point: now I have shared in it, so it is mine, too — and I now know how it feels. This what the idea of surrender is all about.

Henri Martin. Near Colliure in twilight.
Henri Martin. Near Colliure in twilight.

Come to think about it, there is hardly anything more stupid in this life than the fear of death — and it’s twin sister, the urge for security; nothing better suited to build a self-designed cage of security around oneself and so deprive oneself of the freedom of being alive. Have you ever wondered why the fear of death often increases with age? Young people seem to be more willing to risk their life than their older selves, even though the exact opposite would be more rational: after all, the younger one is, the more is at stake; the older one gets, the less one has to lose. Might it be because the fear of death is but another name for the loss of vitality? Or, to put it even more plainly, because the fear of death is death?   

I once met a woman who avoided leaving her apartment because it felt dangerous out there. We were planning a trip to France at the time, and she was surprised that were were not afraid of this (supposedly) perilous journey, and even tried to dissuade us from traveling. After all, it’s arguably much safer to stay at home. People rarely take their urge for security to such extremes (maybe just because the demands of life prevent them from doing so), but a few years ago, I started to notice in myself a similar temptation to build my own prison of safety, complete with occasional out-of-the-blue panic attacks. It was then when I first felt, with the strength that comes from personal urgency, that there is more danger to life in the fear of death than in death itself. I did find a way to cure myself out of this deadly hole of fear some time ago, but the sensation of readiness that came last week with the seventy third sonnet felt like, finally, the ultimate freedom from it.

Vincent Van Gogh. Evening landscape with rising moon. 1889.
Vincent Van Gogh. Evening landscape with rising moon. 1889.

There is a facet of the same temptation which is more difficult to notice, but which, I’ve come to think, might be even more dangerous to life. It is the temptation to have it “all figured out”, to settle into a neat worldview, to see the world as a completely familiar place. I did experience this, too, and I honestly don’t know by what miracle I was shaken out of this deadly neatness of comfortably closed mind (Shakespeare must have had something to do with it). The temptation, though, is always there, if only because the very process of figuring things out, with its aha moments, is one of the most tangible pleasures this life has to offer. The trick I am trying to learn is not to settle into it, to live the questions, to remind myself there are always more unfamiliar things in heaven and earth that are dreamt of in any philosophy, and the life is always stranger and less comprehensible than these aha moments seductively suggest.

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Painting sonnet 42: On metaphors of love and the pain of betrayal

Lena Levin. Sonnet 42: A loss in love. 20"x20". 2013-2014.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 42: A loss in love. 20″x20″. 2013-2014. Click the image to see the painting in its context.

Have you ever wondered, what is language and where it is? It’s in your brain, but it is also in other people’s brains — the same “thing” residing in millions of brains, and easily occupying newly born ones. And you don’t even have conscious access to it: there may be some varying level of conscious control about what one wants to say, but the how of it — both in speaking and in understanding what others say — is supplied from outside the realm of consciousness. The science of linguistics has spent decades in trying to formalise our hidden “knowledge” of language, to make it accessible to conscious rational minds at least potentially — but so far, it has proved to be impossible. And the most troubling aspect of it is that language is not just a means of communication, it is also an essential instrument of thinking, a covert shaper of our understanding of the world.

Poetry is a very special kind of relationship between the human mind and its language, and poets have, for all I know, a very different type of access to language from the rest of us (or maybe language has a different type of access to them). But in this sonnet, I believe, something still more special is happening: the speaker tries to free his thoughts and emotions from the constraints of language. Shakespeare is wrestling with his Language — just like in the story of Jacob wrestling with his God in Genesis 32:21-33. And in doing so, he shows the reader the power language has over her own mind.    

[line]

[accordion_item title=”Read Shakespeare’s sonnet 42“]That thou hast her, it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I loved her dearly;
That she hath thee, is of my wailing chief,
A loss in love that touches me more nearly.

Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye:
Thou dost love her, because thou knowst I love her;
And for my sake even so doth she abuse me,
Suffering my friend for my sake to approve her.

If I lose thee, my loss is my love’s gain,
And losing her, my friend hath found that loss;
Both find each other, and I lose both twain,
And both for my sake lay on me this cross:

But here’s the joy; my friend and I are one;
Sweet flattery! then she loves but me alone.

[/accordion_item]

[line]

On the surface, this sonnet sounds like a feeble attempt to talk oneself out of a painful situation: My lover and my friend are having an affair, and this hurts badly — so I try to find an explanation for this ultimate betrayal, an explanation which would safeguard my belief in their love for me and thus ease the pain.

Modern psychology tells us that we all make up such “narrative painkillers” for ourselves all the time, creating self-serving stories of our lives in which the story-teller, our conscious self, is the major protagonist. Here, the reader may suspect that the affair has nothing to do with the speaker — in this love triangle, he is the forgotten apex. But his self-story transforms the triangle into a cross, putting himself into the centre of the whole situation:

Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye:
Thou dost love her, because thou knowst I love her;
And for my sake even so doth she abuse me,
Suffering my friend for my sake to approve her.

But consciousness is a liar, and its stories are incomplete at best, and often amount to self-deceit. One is usually unaware of it (otherwise, the self-deceit wouldn’t have worked), but not here. The sonnet is spoken as though by two “selves”: the one who is trying to deceive himself, and the one who is witnessing the deception. The speaker is aware of self-serving nature and weakness of his own story: it’s all empty words, sweet yet ineffectual flattery against this cross of two betrayals, a vaguely blasphemous image of unbearable pain. In this visually deserted sonnet, the cross is falling on me, like the naked truth breaking through the veil of empty lies.

The sonnet suggests, and not very subtly, this “self-deceit” interpretation: the first quatrain reads as a forthright statement of facts, and what follows is framed as excuses and sweet flattery. Frankly, the idea that two people who are betraying you with one another do so out of love and for your own good is as a preposterous example of self-deceit as any, and the reader might enjoy a fleeting delusion of “seeing through” Shakespeare’s feeble defences: surely, none of us would ever console ourselves with something that absurd.

But why is it that the first quatrain reads as an “objective truth”? One can think of many reasons, but there is one that, I believe, is harder to notice than others: it is written completely within the “love-as-ownership” metaphor, and ownership is all about “hard, objective facts”. This metaphor is pervasive in the English language, and it makes it appearance elsewhere in the sonnet, too (in the use of words like loss and gain, and even in the pronoun my), but nowhere as blatantly as in the first quatrain. And metaphors shape our thoughts and, through them, our emotions, whether we want it or not. With this in mind, this sonnet reads as the poet’s battle against the “love-as-ownership” metaphor governing his view of the situation and his feelings.

What I first viewed as making up a self-soothing story is now revealed as an attempt to replace the “love-as-ownership” with understanding love as co-feeling. But it doesn’t quite work: by the end of the third quatrain, the pain is still there, more vicious, it seems, than ever. It’s exactly when the speaker invokes compassion (If I lose thee, my loss is my love’s gain), that the cross, this striking image of his pain (and the sole image of the sonnet) pierces the veil of words. It’s as though his pain tells him: whatever words you try, I am still here within, ready to destroy you. If love is compassion, the pain would seem to be unjustified: it is not validated by love anymore. This is, I believe, why the pain strikes back at the speaker at this point: its inner truth would not be denied.

The thing is, metaphors have the power to shape our minds even if one doesn’t consciously believe in their content. I, for one, loathe the idea of love as ownership, but my mind accepted the first quatrain of this sonnet as an objective description of reality without a moment’s hesitation, simply because this metaphor is more deeply embedded in the language than its alternatives. And so it is with the speaker of the sonnet: he knows that this metaphor is the source of his pain, but consciously replacing it with compassion doesn’t quite help, because it sits deeper, in the very core of the language. And the language strikes back at its poet with the pain-as-cross metaphor invoked by his attempt to move away from love-as-ownership, towards higher, self-sacrificing understanding of love.

So, is Shakespeare defeated by his language? Not quite. He turns the tables in the couplet, with the love-as-unity metaphor (my friend and I are one). For a brief moment, the unity metaphor dissolves not only the nightmare of love-as-ownership, but also another, more fundamental linguistic constraint on his feelings, the strict “I – Thou – Other” structure it imposes on our interactions with the world.

The speaker has to choose his thou from the onset, in the first quatrain: he could have addressed his lover (rather than his friend) as “thou”, but what he absolutely cannot do is have two “thou”s at the same time. Not that he doesn’t try: the second quatrain is an attempt to do exactly that: Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye, pulls both of them into the domain of “second person”, the addressees of the sonnet. Together, they can be ye, and yet they cannot both be thou. The language completely blocks us from maintaining several distinct thou-relationships at the same time, and the speaker’s futile attempt to have two of them promptly leads him to lose his thou altogether. From now on, both the friend and the lover are “third persons” (the plot of the sonnet in a nutshell), until the unity metaphor is introduced in the couplet and pulls the friend into the domain of “I”.

But the unity metaphor cannot really replace the love-as-ownership metaphor in the fabric of language, because language is all about drawing distinctions, not about recognising unity. Nor can the human mind dwell in this high place for too long: the distinction between “I” and “other” inevitably reappears, and turns love-as-unity into sweet flattery: then she loves but me alone… This me alone is the final paradox, the unresolved battle between poetry and language: syntactically, it’s a part of the “sweet flattery” (she loves only me), but it’s also the last chord of the sonnet, resonating in the reader’s mind long after the sonnet is over: remaining alone.

Even though I’ve known about the power of metaphors for a long time, I’ve never realised it so fully and viscerally as in painting of this sonnet. This clash between my belief about how I experience love, and the ease with which my mind swallows the love-as-ownership metaphor as a “fact” revealed rather painfully how little I know myself, and what a powerless slave of language I am.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 42: the 2013 version
Lena Levin. Sonnet 42: the 2013 version

At another level, the sonnet added something essential to my understanding of my own relationship with colour, something I am not ready to put into words yet (if ever). The painting of it turned into a battle with colour; the first version, of 2013, was nearly black-and-white, but I had to return to the painting more than a year later. Or maybe it’s the colour that had to return to it, and I just did what Rilke thought is the right thing for a painter to do, and let the colours settle the matter between themselves.

It is incredibly tempting to see this battle with colour as the painting counterpart of Shakespeare’s battle with language, but, I feel, it would be too superficial, too easy (let alone being, obviously, way too self-flattering) to give in to this temptation—in short, it would be a falsehood. I don’t (yet) have a complete understanding of what has happened here, so I will have, in Rilke’s words, to live the question.

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On life’s composition: reading sonnets 44 and 45

What are we made of?

This diptych of sonnets, forty forth and forty fifth, is a fusion of two answers to this question — answers which seem like they come from two different worlds.

[accordion][accordion_item title=”Sonnet 44“]
If the dull substance of my flesh were thought
Injurious distance shouldn’t stop my way,
For then despite of space I would be brought
From limits far remote where thou doth stay

No matter then although my foot did stand
Upon the farthest earth removed from thee,
For nimble thought can jump both sea and land
As soon as think the place where he would be.

But ah, thought kills me that I am not thought
To leap large length of miles when thou art gone,
But that, too much of earth and water wrought,
I must attend time’s leisure with my moan.

Receiving naught from elements so slow
But heavy tears, badges of either’s woe.
[/accordion_item]

[accordion_item title=”Sonnet 45“]
The other two, slight air and purging fire,
Are both with thee, wherever I abide;
The first my thought, the other my desire,
These present-absent with swift motion slide.

For when these quicker elements are gone
In tender embassy of love to thee,
My life, being made of four, with two alone
Sinks down to death, oppressed with melancholy;

Until life’s composition be recured
By those swift messengers returned from thee,
Who even but now come back again, assured
Of thy fair health, recounting it to me:

This told, I joy; but then no longer glad,
I send them back again and straight grow sad.
[/accordion_item][/accordion]

Shakespeare begins with a dream all too easy to co-feel for anyone who has lived through what is now called “long-distance relationships”:

If the dull substance of my flesh were thought
Injurious distance shouldn’t stop my way…

Wouldn’t it be just glorious if we could travel as fast as our thoughts can:

For nimble thought can jump both sea and land
As soon as think the place where he would be.

A familiar experience, isn’t it: our thoughts easily, and with supernatural velocity, carrying the mind wherever it wants to go, quite unconstrained by dull physical limits. If only our whole bodies could do the same — if only teleportation were possible…

Johannes Vermeer. Woman reading a letter. 1662-1663
Johannes Vermeer. Woman reading a letter. 1662-1663

So here we have our first answer: our life is made of thought and flesh, mind and matter — the fundamental duality of human condition.

It may not be an ultimate scientific truth, but it is something that we seem to have a direct, everyday, experience of: I have thoughts, and I have flesh; I experience myself as a mind in a body — and for all I know, this is generally how modern people experience themselves, give or take. It seems like a fundamental property of our worldview — shared, it would seem, by Shakespeare.

But not quite, because there is the second answer — it is brought into the poem by mere mention of sea and land, which immediately transform into earth and water:

… too much of earth and water wrought,
I must attend time’s leisure with my moan.

Here earth and water are two of the four fundamental elements of life, or roots, along with fire and air — which make their appearance in the beginning of the forty fifth sonnet:

The other two, slight air and purging fire,
Are both with thee, wherever I abide;
The first my thought, the other my desire,
These present-absent with swift motion slide.

periodic tableSo humans, just like everything else, are composed of earth, water, air and fire. In contrast to the flesh and thought answer, this ancient idea (traced back to Empedocles, a fifth century BCE Greek philosopher) may sound quite bizarre to the modern ear — at least to a Western one (an Eastern one may just notice that the fifth element is lacking, or that the elements are not quite right). We no longer think of the world, let alone ourselves, as being composed of these elements; and they aren’t even elements anymore — we have a whole periodic table instead, and beyond that, all those fascinating particles of the modern physics.

In spite of this, the imagery still works within the domain of poetry — a space protected as it were from the changing challenges of our scientific worldview. We hear these words as metaphors — and these are strong and very intuitive metaphors: even now, with the underlying theory all but forgotten, we still see that fire and air are “quicker” than earth and water, and that desires are rather like fire than like earth, and that life would sink to death without air and fire. But in Shakespeare’s time, this theory was science as it were — and the foundation of their understanding of human condition, both in medical practice and in psychology.   

(c) Welcome images
(c) Welcome images

The theory of “four humours”, first introduced by Hippocrates (ca. 450–370 BCE), was very much in vogue in Shakespeare’s time (and influenced medical practice for quite some time afterwards). The “four humours” were thought of as four bodily fluids (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood), but they were supposed to correspond to the four “elements of nature”. To be more precise, the humours themselves were composed of two elements each (for instance, the black bile was air plus water) — there is a remarkable resemblance, in fact, to the Ayurvedic teachings (emerged at about the same time), where the “humours” (called doshas) are also composed of two elements each. And similarly, health was assumed to depend on all the elements being in some sort of balance, and that was what the various cures (like blood-letting) were aiming at.   

By ABenis at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons"
By ABenis at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons”

What is really important about this theory — but hard to “get”, looking from our age of fully internalised mind-body divide — is that the “four humours” didn’t belong to either side of this divide: they were both “mental” and “bodily” at the same time. In fact, we know them somewhat better in their purely psychological guises of “four temperaments” (melancholy, sanguine, choleric, and phlegmatic) — even though this classification, too, seems to have been rejected in the modern psychology. The crucial point is, it’s not that a melancholy disposition, or an excess of melancholy, was explained as resulting from out-of-balance “black bile”: the “black bile” and “melancholy” were the same thing (“melancholy” is “black bile” in Greek). In a sense, the state of mind is the state of the body, and vice versa.

That’s why this ancient theory wasn’t a particular favourite with the Christian Church in medieval times — because of this glaring contradiction with the basic Christian distinction between body and soul; but it served as the starting point for the Western medicine during the Renaissance. Here is what one finds on the National Library of Medicine website about medical views in Shakespeare’s time:

During the Renaissance and early modern periods (ca. 1350–1650), most practicing physicians and medical writers continued to understand health and illness within the framework handed down to them by their ancient and medieval predecessors. Medieval representations of the humoural perspective circulated widely in the Renaissance period, book publishers produced attractive editions of Hippocrates’ and Galen’s works, and Avicenna’s Canon continued to enjoy great success as a textbook well into the seventeenth century.   

Albrecht Dürer. Melencolia I. 1514.
Albrecht Dürer. Melencolia I. 1514.

So for Shakespeare, these were not “just” poetic metaphors; the theory of four humours was very much part of his worldview — and his understanding of psychology, which thoroughly informed his plays. Apparently, he was most interested in melancholy: from Open Source Shakespeare, one can learn that he used this word seventy times — compared to ten for choleric, five for sanguine, and a mere one for phlegmatic.   

But the forty fifth sonnet doesn’t quite follow the theory: according to the theory, melancholy is composed of water and air, whereas water and earth combined give phlegm. And yet Shakespeare writes:

For when these quicker elements are gone
In tender embassy of love to thee,
My life, being made of four, with two alone
Sinks down to death, oppressed with melancholy;

Is it just because being phlegmatic isn’t really an appropriate state of mind for a lover seized with longing for his beloved — and so his melancholy, in contradiction to the theory, is composed of water and earth?

Not quite, it seems: the ultimate reality of his sadness isn’t in the exact identity of remaining “elements”, nor even in his separation from his beloved — but in the separation between thought and flesh, which violates life’s composition:

Until life’s composition be recured
By those swift messengers returned from thee,
Who even but now come back again, assured
Of thy fair health, recounting it to me:

This told, I joy; but then no longer glad,
I send them back again and straight grow sad.

The cure, the forty fifth sonnet seems to suggest, comes not from the body following the mind to where the beloved is, and not even from the beloved’s own return, but just from the lighter elements, fire and air, returning to join the heavier elements, water and earth — or, in other words, from thoughts being reunited with flesh, the mind returning to its body.

As we would probably say now, from being present here and now.

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On sonnet 65: art and immortality

[feature_headline type=”left, center, right” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h5″ icon=””] ... is it immortality that humans long for, or rather its perceived ability to give meaning to life? And isn’t this, then, the role in which arts can replace immortality of nature? [/feature_headline]

J.M.W.Turner. Ulysses deriding Polyphemus. 1829. Oil on canvas. 132 x 203 cm.
J.M.W.Turner. Ulysses deriding Polyphemus. 1829. Oil on canvas. 132 x 203 cm.

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?

O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil o’er beauty can forbid?

O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 65

There is one inevitable stage in the process of painting a sonnet: getting thoroughly puzzled with something about it. For this sonnet, the puzzle was this:

The couplet seems to give a tentative promise to preserve for eternity the young man’s beauty, but then why does the sad mortality of long-lasting things play such a huge role, taking over the whole body of the sonnet?

Does one really need this grandiose background to appreciate the fleeting transience of human beauty? We know much more about the mortality of nature than Shakespeare and his contemporaries possibly could, accustomed as we are even to the perishability of stars and the universe itself, but I could neither feel nor see the connection: What does the death of the sun in the distant future have to do with the imminent ageing of one’s lover? How might it possibly help if the sun was, indeed, immortal?

Here is the answer I’ve found…

The seductive idea of immortalising something (or someone) in poetry originated in the Greek antiquity, and outlived its cornerstone: the ancient belief in the absolute immortality of nature. For the ancients, all things in nature were immortal, either ever-present (in inorganic nature) or constantly renewing themselves (in organic nature). They simply didn’t know that neither brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea but sad mortality over-sways their power, and so they lived in a now barely imaginable world where everything was eternal except humans. This is how Hannah Arendt describes this worldview in her 1961 essay “The concept of history”:

“<…> embedded in a cosmos in which everything was immortal, it was mortality which became the hallmark of human existence. <…> The mortality of man lies in the fact that individual life with a recognisable life-story from birth to death, rises out of biological life. […] This is mortality: to move along a rectilinear line in a universe where everything, if it moves at all, moves in a cyclical order.(Arendt 1961: 42)

Hence the fundamental tragic paradox of Greek culture:   

“<…> on the one hand, everything was seen and measured against the background of the things that are forever, while, on the other, true human greatness was understood, at least by the pre-Platonic Greeks, to reside in deeds and words […] This paradox, that greatness was understood in terms of permanence while human greatness was seen in precisely the most futile and least lasting activities of men, has haunted Greek poetry and historiography as it has perturbed the quiet of the philosophers.” (Arendt 1961: 45-46)

Poetry’s role was to resolve this paradox by praising great deeds and words and thus immortalising them in the everlasting memory of humankind (that’s why Mnemosyne is the mother of all muses)— as an animal species, the humankind shared in the immortality of organic nature, so one could rely on the immortality of its memory.  

Claude Monet. Camille Monet on her deathbed. 1879. Oil on canvas. 90 x 68 cm.
Claude Monet. Camille Monet on her deathbed. 1879. Oil on canvas. 90 x 68 cm.

Shakespeare is separated from the antiquity by a whole epoch defined by Christianity and its radical reversal of the ancient worldview (now nature was perishable, and individual humans were immortal). But in the sixteenth century, things were a-changing; as the Roman Church was losing its central political role, intellectual and public life was gradually being secularized; in the words of Hannah Arendt, “men once more had become mortals”. When the Renaissance humanists went back to the source of their intellectual tradition, “the ancient opposition of a mortal life to a more or less immortal world failed them. Now both life and world had become perishable, mortal, and futile” (Arendt 1961: 74).

This, then, is the historical context of this sonnet. Its lament over sad mortality of everything actually subverts the immortalising power of art, traditionally grounded in absolute immortality of nature. Paradoxically, though, the couplet reasserts the power of art: what the sonnet seems to be saying is that this miracle of poetry may still “work”; art might be able to replace immortality of nature, instead of relying on it. But how? If earth and boundless sea are perishable, then so is, evidently, black ink

And yet, that’s the world we live in now, don’t we? We don’t exactly know how and why, but art is still here. And even if its original promise of absolute immortality is gone and forgotten, the conceptual link between art and immortality persists. In the following quote, for instance, Aaron Copland invokes this conceptual link as the raison d’être for arts:

“The arts in general, I think, help to give significance to life. That’s one of their very basic and important functions. The arts soften man’s mortality and make more acceptable the whole life experience. It isn’t that you think your music will last forever, because nobody knows what’s going to last forever. But, you do know, in the history of the arts, that there have been certain works which have symbolized whole periods and the deepest feelings of mankind, and it’s that aspect of artistic creation which draws one on always, and makes it seem so very significant.” (quoted from Brainpickings.org)

Great works of art are actually our only direct experience of immortality, almost the only context which keeps this very word alive in the world: we wouldn’t call earth or sea immortal, but we do still use this word for poems and paintings. But the key word here, I believe, is significance — the meaning of life.

Rembrandt van Rijn. Danaë. 1636-1643. Oil on canvas. 185 x 202.5 cm.
Rembrandt van Rijn. Danaë. 1636-1643. Oil on canvas. 185 x 202.5 cm.

Shakespeare belongs to the age when the sad mortality of nature first threatened the meaningfulness of life. The modern age has grown habituated to the idea that not only earth, but the sun, the stars, the universe itself — everything is mortal, nothing is forever; so habituated to it, indeed, that, for most of us, this knowledge has lost its personal urgency, the immediacy of its connection to our own lives: that painful urgency that can still be heard in Shakespeare’s voice. As Arendt writes, “Today we find it difficult to grasp that this situation of absolute mortality could be unbearable to men” (1961: 74).

This may be true (it is certainly true for me, personally), but this personal longing for immortality in nature has not disappeared from our world completely; Alan Lightman, in a very recent book, writes of it as of an intrinsic paradox of human condition:

To my mind, it is one of the profound contradictions of human existence that we long for immortality, indeed fervently believe that something must be unchanging and permanent, when all of the evidence in nature argues against us. I certainly have such a longing. Either I am delusional, or nature is incomplete. […] Despite all the richness of the physical world — the majestic architecture of atoms, the rhythm of the tides, the luminescence of the galaxies—nature is missing something even more exquisite and grand: some immortal substance, which lies hidden from view. ” (Lightman 2014). 

Perhaps that’s why we can still hear Shakespeare’s pain in his verse, even though the longing has been gradually dulled by resignation and acceptance. But this longing for absolute immortality in a perishable world may not be an eternal universal of human condition, as Lightman suggests, but rather an unhappy part of our intellectual inheritance from the Greek antiquity. It left us with the concept of immortality and its implicit connection to meaningfulness, handed down through generations neatly “packed” in our various languages for easy, unconscious acquisition, even though immortality itself disappeared from the world.

But is it immortality per se that humans long for, or rather its perceived ability to give meaning to life, its seductive promise of significance? And isn’t this, then, the role in which arts can replace the antiquated immortality of nature? Isn’t this what Shakespeare’s tentative hope in this miracle is about?    

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