Liebestod : Love and Death in the poetry of Anna de Noailles

January 30, 2010 at 8:21 pm (Literary Criticism, Philosophy, Poetry)


Leave me among the graves, I wish to linger here,
The dead are in the ground, the day is bright and clear,
I smell sweet odours, water, leafy trees and hay,
The dead are in their death for ever and a day…
My dancing body will be hard to recognize
Quite soon, my temples cold, dark gaps instead of eyes;

[Allez, je veux rester seule avec les tombeaux :
Les morts sont sous la terre et le matin est beau,
L’air a l’odeur de l’eau, de l’herbe, du feuillage,
Les morts sont dans la mort pour le reste de l’âge…
Un jour, mon corps dansant sera semblable à eux,
J’aurai l’air de leur front, le vide de leurs yeux…]

Anna de Noailles returns European poetry to the twin themes that obsessed the poets of the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance, love and death. We may perhaps trace this duality back to the enduring  cultural impact of the Black Death in the mid fourteenth century which wiped out between a quarter  and a third of the entire population of Europe in two or three years — an incredible figure that no other disease has even remotely emulated as far as we know.  As Huizinga notes, the gruesome paintings of dancing skeletons led by the figure of Death with his scythe fade imperceptibly into enthusiastic celebrations  of the here-and-now.

Our yesteryears have vanished quite,
And years to come are yet to be,
Fair maid, take thy delight, delight,
Before the shadow falls on thee.

But has not everyone always been afraid of death?  Perhaps at some level, yes, but there is considerable variety in the human response to the challenge from one society to another. Medieval man, during the ‘High’ Middle Ages at any rate, was concerned quite as much, or more, with the afterlife than with this life — and with good reason since the afterlife lasted for ever while this life  lasted little more than thirty of forty years on average. After the disastrous fourteenth century which saw both the Black Death and the start of the Hundred Years War, this perception changed markedly and the fundamental human preoccupation was not with the soul’s ultimate destiny life but rather with the ephemeral nature of this one. Though there were some, like the flagellants, who concluded that God was punishing man for his sins, others seemed to have decided that God had given up on this world altogether and that the best option was to eat, drink and be merry and not bother about the Last Judgement. An abyss separates Dante, who died some twenty years before the Black Death struck, and Boccacio who lived through it. The stories recounted by the elegant Florentines to pass the time in their country retreat while the plague raged are scarcely very edifying, nor do they show any concern for the next world. In the first chapter where Boccacio recounts in detail people’s behaviour in Florence, he writes that “Few indeed were they to whom were accorded the lamentations and bitter tears of sorrowing relations; nay, for the most part their place was taken by the laugh, the jest, the festal gathering” and he also remarks on the complete lack of modesty of women stricken with the plague, or who believed themselves to be.

In Anna de Noailles we come across a truly late medieval fascination with, and horror of,  physical decay and death which we would look for in vain  amongst her nineteenth century poetic predecessors. Indeed, if she had believed in reincarnation, I am sure she would have situated herself in the late Middle Ages. In the nineteenth century death seems to have lost much of its horror and to die young was even fashionable during the Romantic period  —  so many young people committed suicide after reading The Sorrows of Werther and suchlike books,  that the authorities even got a little alarmed, much as today’s authorities are concerned about drug addiction amongst the young.  Shelley opened one of his poems with the astonishing line,

“How wonderful is death, death and his brother sleep…”

I felt I had to check and see if Shelley (who drowned before he was thirty ) really did write this, but it is so. The line first comes up in The Daemon of the World and the first verse ends

“both [death and sleep are] so passing strange and wonderful!”

But for Anna de Noailles  there is rarely anything attractive about death —   except that it has the effect of making one savour to the full the passing ecstasies of the present life. Following Nietzsche, whose philosophy she admired, Anna de Noailles finds it necessary to emphasize the absolute finality of physical death. For

“Il n’est rien qui survive à la chaleur des veines !”

(“There is nothing that survives the [loss of] heat within our veins”)

‘Happiness’, envisaged entirely in physical terms, thus becomes a challenge, almost a spiritual discipline : in Exaltation she urges herself to

Accoutumer ses yeux, son vouloir et ses mains
À tenter le bonheur que le risque accompagne ;

(“To accustom one’s eyes, will and hands to strive for happiness which is always accompanied by risk.”)

Anna de Noailles , in her uncompromising atheistic pantheism, thus stands poised precariously between the interesting but ultimately unconvincing attempts of the Symbolists to create a sort of aesthetic hinterland between this  life and extinction, and the even more unconvincing  attempts of the Surrealists to muddy the entire issue by retreating into   ‘the unconscious’.

It may be worth stating that the recurrent Western obsession with the duality Love/Death, which perhaps reaches its paroxysm in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde,  is firmly based on biological fact. Love and death  constitute the twin poles of our biological reality. Sexual differentiation is far from being universal in nature : it is  only one reproductive system amongst many, and if, as some claim, it  is the root cause  of human ‘progress’, it is also the cause of humanity’s quasi-permanent state of  chronic insecurity and anxiety, especially amongst males  (doubtless because they feel they do not have the capacity to produce new life from inside their bodies).  Sexual differentiation  gives rise to the sense of being an individual, indeed can be said to have  created individuality.  As von Bertalanffy, a biologist,  writes in Problems of Life (pp. 49-50)

It is obvious that a fish, a dog, or a human being is an individual.  (…) But in unicellular organisms the notion of the individual becomes muddied. Through many generations they multiply merely by division. [But] individual means something ‘indivisible’…  Can we insist on calling a hydra or a turbellarian worm an individual, when these animals can be cut into as many pieces as we like, each capable of growing into a complete organism?
With individualization death enters the world of the living. …Higher animals, that are incapable of reproduction by fission as opposed to the primitive ‘dividua’ in the lower phyla, are incapable of unlimited existence; by natural wear and tear they decline into old age and death. Not inappropriately the individual could be defined in terms of death.”

Were hydra, or other unicellular creatures that reproduce by fission, to develop into intelligent beings — which is not completely inconceivable and is an eventuality I consider in my SF novel The Web of Aoullnnia — they would find it very difficult to understand what we  mean by death. To us death comes from the inside, it is a consequence of being alive,  whereas for hydra, for whom the notion of  individuality would be meaningless, they — or rather ‘it’ — would have a sense of being immortal. True, hydra or other unicellular creatures, could be wiped out as a species by a natural disaster or could become extinct through lack of nutrients, but this would, for intelligent hydra, be no more than a distant hypothetical possibility like the prospect of our inevitable demise when the sun runs out of fuel, a notion which has never troubled the sleep of anyone (except seemingly the young Bertrand Russell). For human beings, death is not a scientific hypothesis, it is  always with us whether we accept it or not, and in epochs when communal bonds weaken  and religious faith fails, this sense of mortality tends to become unbearable.

Since Anna de Noailles’ time death has, of course, made  a strong come-back in literature but usually  in the context of warfare, which is slightly different — since just conceivably warfare could be dispensed with, but death not (though some scientific crackpots claim the contrary).  In the early Sixties, death, or rather the prospect of death, became temporarily ‘in’  once more, notably amongst women poets  : Anne Seton and Sylvia Plath both wrote endlessly about death and both committed suicide, as did the female icon of the era,  Marilyn Monroe. But such poetry, apart from being unmusical and formless, is not in the same class as that of Anna de Noailles, being typically an exercise in self-indulgence rather than a genuine confrontation with biological reality.  Anna de Noailles turned fear of death into lust for life, whereas so many modern products of psychoanalysis manage to do the precise opposite : they turnfear of life into acquiescence in death. Today, in the age of triviality,  society has ‘resolved’  the entire issue by reducing love to sex and sex to a casual pastime which it is necessary to indulge in, whether you like it or not, in order to be socially acceptable,  and, as for death, it is either kept well out of sight and mind, or, alternatively, hitched onto the media juggernaut where it functions as a somewhat unusual form of reality TV.

Sebastian Hayes

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