Sunday, October 3, 2010
"Death Is the Mother of Beauty"
Or so said Wallace Stevens, famously, and it's true that the phenomenon, the fact, of death is awe-inspiring, that death possesses (in the collective imagination) a panoply, an array, a glory, giving off a compelling, weirdly dark energy that can be mistaken for illumination. It's also true that, as in Steven's poem, we can actually find ourselves energized by our awareness of finitude, sucking from it a kind of bittersweet, anticipatory nostalgia. Perhaps that's why so many artists and writers have aestheticized/eroticized death; Edgar Allen Poe, for example, claimed that "the death . . . of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world," and David Lynch must have at least to some extent shared the sentiment, as in the photo above, from the "Twin Peaks" television series.
But just now, I found this, from an essay by Christian Wiman:
"Death is the mother of beauty" is a phrase that could only have been written by a man for whom death was an abstraction, a vaguely pleasant abstraction at that. That's not really a critique of Stevens's "Sunday Morning," one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century. Death is an abstraction for all of us, until it isn't. But for the person whose death is imminent and inescapable, nothing is more offensive, useless, or wrongheaded than phrases like "Death is the mother of beauty." http://www.hds.harvard.edu/news/bulletin_mag/articles/35-1_wiman.html
Last night at vespers, we sang:
By Thy burial Thou didst mortify the majesty of death...
O Giver of Life, Christ our God, glory to Thee!
Death in itself is neither beautiful nor the mother of beauty, and it is not an abstraction, as each of us will personally discover in the very cells of our own flesh.
Instead, the humble, non-abstract death of Jesus, inextricable from His resurrection, is the mother of beauty, and our only Light.