Mortality and Immortality

Death seems to pervade this issue of The Little Review, which is hardly surprising given that it was published in the final months of World War I. I’m choosing to focus on Eliot’s poem “Whispers of Immortality,” which seems to me to link in some pretty clear ways to “Hades.” The poem memorably begins “Webster was much possessed by death / And saw the skull beneath the skin.” The reference is to John Webster, the Jacobean playwright, a contemporary both of John Donne, whom Eliot also references, and of Shakespeare. Eliot illustrates a theme of poetic fascination with death, and with the decaying human body, offering an image that one could imagine in Shakespeare or Joyce: “Daffodil bulbs instead of balls / Stared from the sockets of the eyes!” This is very much in tune with the body-obsessed Bloom’s way of imagining death: not primarily as a metaphysical change, but something physical, functional. Bloom’s morbid fantasies in “Hades” are overwhelmingly fleshy: “Broken heart. A pump after all, pumping thousands of gallons of blood every day. One fine day it gets bunged up and there you are. Lots of them lying around here: lungs, hearts, livers. Old rusty pumps: damn the thing else.” What’s more, they reject the spiritual in favor of this material reality: “The resurrection and the life. Once you are dead you are dead. That last day idea. Knocking them all up out of their graves… Then every fellow mousing around for his liver and his lights and the rest of his traps. Find damn all of himself that morning.” Bloom is also possessed by death in this episode, as one perhaps must be in a cemetery. But it is this emphasis on the fate and decay of the body itself (another form of metamorphosis), partly as an oblique way of meditating on the existential meaning of mortality, which is most characteristic of Leopold Bloom. I suppose this is what is meant by Eliot’s wonderful final lines: “But our lot crawls between dry ribs / To keep its metaphysics warm.” Metaphysical understanding is derived from confrontation with the physical. Hamlet at last finds equanimity about mortality after moving from “The undiscovered country” down to ground level, to a direct confrontation with the reality of human bodily destruction: “That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once… Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.” Hamlet sees the skin upon the skull. Some of his fantasies are really quite Bloom-like, as when he says to the king, “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.” This is one of the most death-possessed of fictional beings… and one of the most immortal. This, as I understand it, is the meaning of Eliot’s title. Webster and Donne are “immortals,” writers whose whispering voices have transcended time, transcended death. And this they have achieved by meditating on death itself. Art, Eliot seems to propose, is a struggle against mortality.

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One thought on “Mortality and Immortality

  1. ktb067

    I’m so glad you brought up the dichotomy of body and spirit in relation to death. Several times in the episode, I noticed that Bloom comments on what he perceives as emptiness in the funeral rite. For example, he comments on the priest, saying, “Said he was going to paradise or is in paradise. Says that over everybody. Tiresome kind of job. But he has to say something” (86). What I failed to see was that this complete dismissal of the spiritual is coupled with an overemphasis of the physical. Thanks for pointing it out!

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