Death as a Suitor

Death and the Maiden by Egon Schiele, 1915

“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—  
And Immortality.

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
Conducted first
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
As Porcelain

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
Its consolation.” 

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. 

The Painted Veil

PaintedVeil

I recently read The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham, selected by my book club. It turned out to an apt book to read during the pandemic as a part of the plot is set in a place in interior China, besieged by cholera. Although cholera is a water borne disease, the fear experienced by the population is eerily familiar. As the outbreak sweeps through the region, people are dying like flies, there are daily burials and abandoned corpses on the street. People are ordered to quarantine at home and doctors work around the clock to attend to the ill. Death hovers everywhere and the precariousness of life hits you with uneasy relevance.

The cholera epidemic is however not the main theme of the book but an important backdrop which triggers a transformation in the main protagonist. Kitty Garstin is a beautiful but shallow and frivolous socialite who marries for the wrong reason. When her younger sister announces her own engagement, she panics and accepts a proposal of marriage from Walter Fane, a shy and boring bacteriologist, her total opposite. She is not in love with her husband but he seems to worship her. The story is set in the English colony of Hong Kong in the 1920s. While Walter is entirely absorbed in his work, Kitty has a torrid affair with Charles Townsend, the charismatic Assistant Colonial Secretary who is married with three children.

When Walter discovers her adulterous affair, he gives her an ultimatum:  She should either move with him to a remote region in China ravaged by the cholera epidemic where he has volunteered to help in fighting the disease or prepare to be brought to court on the charge of adultery which will ruin her reputation and that of her lover’s too. He also gives her another option: if she convinces Charles Townsend to divorce his wife and marry her, he will move out of their way and she can stay in Hong Kong. Kitty is delighted by this unexpected suggestion but when she confronts her lover with the proposal, he refuses to leave his wife. She is heartbroken and agrees to go with her husband to fight the cholera epidemic in Mei-tan-fu. Walter must have been confident that Charles wouldn’t leave his wife. But Kitty failed to realize that he was a shallow cad and is utterly devastated. Walter knows that his wife doesn’t love him and utters these heartbreaking words, among the saddest on unrequited love in literature:

I never expected you to love me, I didn’t see any reason that you should, I never thought myself very lovable. I was thankful to be allowed to love you and I was enraptured when now and then I thought you were pleased with me or when I noticed in your eyes a gleam of good-humoured affection. I tried not to bore you with my love; I knew I couldn’t afford to do that and I was always on the lookout for the first sign that you were impatient with my affection. What most husbands expect as a right I was prepared to receive as a favour.”

Kitty is not a sympathetic character at first; she is quite loathsome. And Walter appears to be a saint. But why does he wish to take Kitty to a cholera infested place, risking both their lives? Is there more to this than meets the eye? While in Mei-tan-fu, he becomes increasingly cold and inscrutable, she is filled with remorse and begins to appreciate his good qualities and respects him more. She befriends Waddington, a local customs official who helps her find meaning in life and introduces her to Taoism. “Tao. Some of us look for the Way in opium and some in God, some of us in whiskey and some in love. It is all the same Way, and it leads nowhither.”  He also accompanies her to visit Catholic nuns in a local convent who end up having a profound impact on her. She finds their values of self-sacrifice, duty and charity awe-inspiring and starts working with the orphaned and sick children there. Maugham shows a parallel between the Christian detachment and self denial of the nuns and Buddhist and Taoist philosophies. Kitty starts pondering the mystery of existence and realizes that there is more to life than the petty problems she faces.

The story has a lot of twists and turns which I don’t want to reveal in case anyone reading my post is planning to read the book. Does the couple reconcile and find happiness together? Or does Kitty go back to the arms of her insincere lover? Are they able to emerge unscathed from the epidemic that ravages the region? Meanwhile Kitty discovers that she is pregnant as if life weren’t complicated enough!

Maugham has the amazing skill to make us change the way we perceive both the main characters. Although Kitty was a disagreeable character at first, by the end of the book you are more forgiving of her and understand her actions better. She was the product of her environment and raised by a hen pecked father and a vain and self absorbed mother whose only agenda was to groom her daughters for marriage. Walter himself was superficial and married Kitty only for her looks although he was aware of her flaws.

After going through the dark night of the soul, Kitty reassesses her life and the choices she made. Human beings have the capacity to learn from mistakes and grow but it is a two step forward one step backward process as we see in Kitty’s case. She becomes more sympathetic to her father’s plight and both father and daughter are united in their grief and learn to express their love for each other.  There is a beautiful feminist message at the end of the story.

My only criticism with the book is the dehumanizing portrayal of Chinese children. Kitty Fane has a distaste for the Chinese orphans who “…sallow skinned, stunted with their flat noses, .. looked to her hardly human. They were repulsive.”These derogatory epithets made me cringe. One could say that it is the character’s perspective and not the author’s but in general there are no significant Chinese characters in the story. They are nameless and lumped together. There is a Manchu princess, the mistress of Waddington who with her painted doll face is exoticized to such a ridiculous degree that it erases her agency as a human being. The story has to be read in the colonial context of the era.

The title of the novel is taken from the opening line of a sonnet by Shelley, “Lift not the painted veil which those who live call Life..”. If we lift the veil we discover the truth that lies beneath the painted veil. Is it better to live an authentic life and face the realities of imperfect relationships rather than dissembling or living in denial? Does it matter as life is an illusion anyway? Maugham was deeply interested in Eastern philosophy and the veil could refer to the Buddhist concept of maya or illusion.

There are two other literary allusions in the story. In the preface to the book, Maugham writes that he was inspired by a canto in Dante’s Purgatorio in writing the book and he explains how he proceeded from a story rather than from a character.“I think that this is the only novel I have written in which I started from a story rather than from a character. It is difficult to explain the relation between character and plot. You cannot very well think of a character in the void; the moment you think of him, you think of him in some situation, doing something…” The second intertextual reference is to a poem by Oliver Goldsmith. I am refraining on commenting on both the references as they would reveal plot details but they add a lot of depth to the story.

The Painted Veil is more than a story of forbidden love- it is a beautiful tale of self discovery and redemption. Kitty Fane often gazes at the vast and dreamlike Chinese landscape from a curtained chair lifted by coolies. Her journey through interior China is a moral one too and the image of her, veiled, at a height and distance is an apt metaphor for many things- the colonial gaze, her spiritual awakening and last but not the least, the painted veil that is life.