“Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas.” Mother died today. Or maybe it was yesterday. I don’t know. These opening lines from Camus’ L’Étranger (The Stranger) have been playing and replaying in my own mind at this time. I lost my mother a few months ago and I have lost track of time. I wonder what day of the week it is or what the date is on the calendar. These words of Meursault, the protagonist of The Stranger could reveal his indifference or sense of detachment or just the fact that death is meaningless. On the surface, he seems unmoved by the death of his mother but he cares more for her than he lets on. I think the sentiment behind the opening sentence which has been analyzed to pieces by critics, is somewhat lost in translation. Instead of “Mother died today. Or maybe it was yesterday. I don’t know’, a better translation would be: “Today, Mama died. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.” The word ‘Mother’ gives an impersonal tone as opposed to the more familiar ‘Maman’ and the order of the word ‘today’ slightly alters the meaning of the sentence.
Anyway, I will save Camus for another day. I haven’t blogged for a few months as I have been living in a daze. Since May I have been on a rollercoaster ride- I had a wonderful trip to India where I met my ailing mother after 3 years and after postponing my trip twice as the pandemic had messed up my travel plans. The trip was followed by both my daughters’ graduations and then the whole family ended up getting Covid. Three weeks after I returned from India, my mother passed away. It was uncanny. It was almost as if she were waiting for me before crossing over. I went back again for a short trip to attend the funeral rites of my mother.
I lost my father at a young age and have always been afraid of mortality. There is even a name for the condition- thanatophobia or death anxiety. I would avoid thinking or talking about death but since my mother passed away, I have been contemplating the prospect of our demise and accepting it as part of the human condition. I have been reading the poetry of the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore who in 1913 became the first non European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. He was always conscious of the inevitability of death. His lost his mother at a young age and his beloved sister in law, his wife, his daughter, and youngest son all predeceased him. For a poet around whom death was hovering constantly, there had to be something to hope for, to believe in a life beyond death.
Death for Tagore was but one small event in the cycle of life. He was deeply influenced by Hindu philosophy and mysticism and believed in the imperishability and eternal nature of the soul. While reading his poems from Gitanjali ( Song Offerings), I was struck by how often he employed the metaphor of the meeting of a bride and bridegroom to describe the union of life and death:
O thou the last fulfilment of life,
Death, my death, come and whisper to me!
Day after day I have kept watch for thee;
for thee have I borne the joys and pangs of life.
All that I am, that I have, that I hope and all my love
have ever flowed towards thee in depth of secrecy.
One final glance from thine eyes
and my life will be ever thine own.
The flowers have been woven
and the garland is ready for the bridegroom.
After the wedding the bride shall leave her home
and meet her lord alone in the solitude of night.( Gitanjali, No.91)
Tagore resorts to bridal metaphors frequently in his work.The soul of a poet is a bride in waiting or a loyal and devoted wife and the Divine Self, the groom. The beloved looks forward to the ecstasy of union and Death is the consummation of the marriage as seen in these lines from The Gardener ( 82) :
WE are to play the game of death to-night, my bride and I.
The night is black, the clouds in the sky are capricious, and the waves are raving at sea.
We have left our bed of dreams, flung open the door and come out, my bride and I.
We sit upon a swing, and the storm winds give us a wild push from behind.
My bride starts up with fear and delight, she trembles and clings to my breast.
Long have I served her tenderly.
I made for her a bed of flowers and I closed the doors to shut out the rude light from her eyes.
I kissed her gently on her lips and whispered softly in her ears till she half swooned in languor.
She was lost in the endless mist of vague sweetness.
She answered not to my touch, my songs failed to arouse her.
To-night has come to us the call of the storm from the wild.
My bride has shivered and stood up, she has clasped my hand and come out.
Her hair is flying in the wind, her veil is fluttering, her garland rustles over her breast.
The push of death has swung her into life.
We are face to face and heart to heart, my bride and I.
Interestingly, Emily Dickinson, Tagore’s contemporary depicts the union of the mystic poet with death in many of her poems. Like Tagore she witnessed the death of many near and dear ones. Never married, she was a recluse. Her poems reveal that she wished to experience wifehood in death.I have noticed similarities in the motifs and metaphors employed by both poets. In Tagore’s Maran Milan (Death Wedding), the speaker addresses death who approaches him surreptitiously: “Why do you speak so softly, Death?Creep upon me, watch me so stealthily? This is not how a lover should behave.” In Dickinson’s poem, ‘Because I could not stop for Death’, Death is imagined as the lover and the poet/ speaker as the bride:
Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
Death is male and drives a carriage to take the dead speaker on a journey through the different phases of her life before she reaches her ultimate resting place. The poem is full of ambiguity leaving us to guess the intentions of her wooer? Is he going to escort her to a blissful afterlife and have a celestial marriage with her donned in her ‘only gossamer, my Gown- My Tippet- only Tulle”? Is the soft silk the white robes of the bride of Christ or the tulle is just a sheer gown in which she is cold and shivers both literally and at the prospect of her grim ending? Has death come more ominously as a rapist to lead her to her ruin? In Tagore’s poem ‘On the Edge of the Sea‘ a veiled woman arrives in a black horse and lures the speaker/poet to undertake a journey with her which culminates in a marriage ceremony and it is only on the nuptial bed or rather death chamber when her veil is uncovered that she is discovered to be a demon.
In Dickinson’s ‘Death is the supple suitor’, death is personified as a suitor who appears with bugles in a bisected coach.
Death is the supple Suitor
That wins at last—
It is a stealthy Wooing
By pallid innuendoes
And dim approach
But brave at last with Bugles
And a bisected Coach
It bears away in triumph
To Troth unknown
And Kindred as responsive
This poem too abounds in ambiguities. The ‘bisected coach’ is both a wedding chariot and a hearse. Or it could refer to the separation of the soul from the body. Death is again a seductive suitor who woos the poet/speaker slyly. There is both celebration in the air in the form of bugles and a carriage and a morbid atmosphere with death wooing with ‘pallid innuendoes’ and leading the poet/ speaker to her relatives who are as cold as porcelain.
I am struck by both poets’ mystical preoccupations with death although they represent different cultures and traditions. For Tagore, death is the union of the mystic poet with the divine being and for Emily Dickinson, the sublimation of her passion in a celestial marriage as she becomes the bride of Christ. This kind of bridal mysticism or the eroticization of divine love in the hereafter is also a thème de prédilection with Sufis who believe that the human soul had been separated from its divine source of origin and yearns to return to it. Sufi saints’ death anniversaries are celebrated as ‘urs’ or weddings.
The fusion of life and death as the meeting of a bride and bridegroom is seen in both eastern and western mystical traditions and the similarity and universality of these shared human beliefs stems from our ‘collective unconscious. I’ll end this post with a few lines from the Gitanjali. For Tagore life and death are two sides of the same coin. One can’t exist without the other. Just like an infant frets for a few moments moving from one breast of the mother to the other, death is a transitory moment between two states of bliss:
“And because I love this life
I know I shall love death as well.
The child cries out when
From the right breast the mother
Takes it away, in the very next moment
To Find in the left one
For Tagore, death is not the void or dissolving into nothingness but a continuation of our journey. Who knows what lies in the afterlife or if there is even one but having lost a loved one recently, these lines sure provide me with solace and strength.
10 thoughts on “Death as a Suitor”
Well, isn’t it the answer to your question lies in what comes after this famous sentence “My mother died yesterday, or maybe today, I don’t know”? It goes “I got a telegraph from home. Mother diseased, funeral tomorrow”. This means the protagonist really does not know when his mother died – he is not expressing indifference or unconcern, he is merely stating the fact. We, the readers, as the public around Meursault, are quick to judge this expression as expressing indifference or detachment, but the narrator is just being totally honest, this is all. He does not know, he has just received a telegraph – how would he know? The telegraph does not say, it simply summons him to attend the funeral. This opening sentence was over-analysed.
I think the readers analyzed the use of the word ‘ mother’ in the English translation as expressing indifference. Not the fact that he did not know the precise time but a certain coldness in the way he says the word ‘ mother’. Of course anyone who has read the rest of the novel knows that he was far from indifferent to his mother. There is an interesting article in The New Yorker which addresses how the true meaning of the lines got lost in translation: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/lost-in-translation-what-the-first-line-of-the-stranger-should-be
I do not agree that “mother” is “cold”. He is talking to us, complete strangers to him, and he is a grown-up male – he won’t be exactly shouting to us “mommy!”, if you know what I mean. Besides, that’s French, isn’t t? Some respect to mother is conveyed by the word “mother” in translation, especially since she died. “Maman” is “mother” for me here (what do they wanted to see “mom”, or something?)
Hi Diana! It’s not just the beginning of the novel but as far as I remember even later during the funeral . His narrative is detached and devoid of emotion. Of course we shouldn’t judge or condemn him for it. He doesn’t have to react in a way that is expected by society. He is a vehicle through which Camus examines the irrationality of the universe.It’s been a while since I have read the book and I need to revisit it.
So sorry; it’s hard to lose your mother.
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I’m so sorry for your loss, but glad you got to see your mother when you did. Literature can bring solace – Roland Barthes’ Mouring Diary is a book I wish I’d had to hand when my father passed away. x
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Thank you! And thanks for recommending Barthes’ book. I just saw that it is available as a free online read.
What a beautiful post, thank you. My mother died in 2010 and I miss her everyday and still get caught out thinking I must tell her something! I remember reading The Stranger (although my edition was The Outsider, which I think is better) and feeling completely in understanding of the first line, a sense of timelessness.
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Thank you for your kind words, Jane! Yes, that sense of timelessness is apparent in later scenes of the book too.
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A very beautiful post, which gave me much to think about. Nothing ever replaces a parent, but as you show here, art and poetry can help at least a little to understand and struggle with the loss.
I enjoyed Tagore’s poetry, which was new to me. Thanks for the quotes.
I see we share a taste for Egon Schiele’s art & Emily Dickinson’s poetry! This year has been a challenging one for me and, probably not coincidentally I’ve been reading more poetry than I have read in a very long time. I find Dickinson’s poetry wonderful but quite difficult (at least some of it) and have been slowly, slowly, slowly working my way through Helen Vendler’s commentary on a selection of the poems, including “Because I could not stop for Death” (I don’t think she includes “Death is the Supple Suitor” in her commentary) Vendler is famous for her close reading (a little too close for me, at times!) and ascribes a great deal of importance to Dickinson’s use of “eternity” in the last stanza, rather than the “immortality” she uses in the first; part of her argument (if I get it correctly) is that Dickinson actually didn’t believe in a personal afterlife. One enduring fact regarding great poetry, however, is that it lends itself to many interpretations.
So nice to see you’re able to post again.