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I am immortal. Although I realize that I will die, I don’t believe it. The fear of death motivates me to ignore my mortality and, in motivating me to ignore, allows me to live a jaded, happy life. If death were a predominant thought, then appreciating life would seem difficult—unless of course I changed my name to Harold. Everyone confronts the idea of death sooner or later; different people just deal with death in different ways.
Death or the fear of death can create a greater appreciation of life. I once heard a story about a monk. This monk was on a walk through the woods one day when a bear or a lion or a reasonable facsimile thereof appeared as if from nowhere. The monk’s ‘fight, fly, or hit the fence’ mechanics kicked in, and he was off. He was chased to the face of a cliff, so he began to climb it. Now the cliff was a vertical wall, and the monk was unable to climb very high. He clinged to the smallest of cracks in this wall. When he looked down, there were more of whatever had chased him there, but when he looked back up, he noticed a strawberry growing on the face of this cliff. He ate the strawberry—it was perfect. The strawberry was far from perfect, but because death was ten feet below him, it tasted better than any meal he had ever had. Death created a greater appreciation of life in the monk. Life should be lived out at every moment; death creates immediacy in living life to the fullest. As T. S. Eliot put it, "I will show you fear in a handful of dust."
Eliot’s The Waste Land is the portrait of a society whose culture and infrastructure is dying. The post-WWI-era saw Europe decaying. The massive destruction to its cities combined with the incredible loss of life created disillusion in Europe. But The Waste Land is not merely a picture of European society dying; it is Eliot’s commentary on his society, and his attempt to save it.
Tiresias is the only main character in The Waste Land. He rarely has an active role in the poem, though. He serves as an onlooker—a reporter—to and a narrator of this waste land:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
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A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down
King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
This passage is a description of the ‘unreal’ quality of life in the modern-day waste land. Crowds of lifeless city dwellers march across the London Bridge to work. They are zombies: they march on, keeping strictly to themselves.
As well as comparing London to Alexandria and Jerusalem in later parts, this section compares London to Dante’s The Inferno. "I had not thought death had undone so many," in his notes, Eliot refers to Dante’s line, "Such a long stream/Of people, that I should never have believed./That death had slain (or undone) so many men." Dante is speaking to his guide, Virgil, about the unhappy souls that know neither good nor bad; they lived totally for themselves. Eliot draws comparison to the city dwellers marching across the bridge, keeping totally to themselves, to the souls in Dante’s vision of hell.
Also an allusion to Dante, "Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,/and each man fixed his eyes before his feet," again in his notes Eliot quotes Dante, " Here, we heard no sound of lamentation /No sound of grief, except the sounds of sighing/Trembling/quivering forever through the eternal air". This is said in Limbo, an area where righteous pagans were allowed to live, but they would never be allowed to see God although they desire to. The inhabitants of The Waste Land are in limbo. They desire to rise above their means, but they never will.
In the last part of this quote, "To where Saint Mary Wollnoth kept the hours/With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine," Eliot makes reference to his own observation. Again, in his notes, Eliot describes the worker-zombies filing into their offices and factories at the flat (dead sounding) stroke of nine.
The Dante imagery combined with the dead sounding bell creates a dark picture of an ‘unreal’ personal hell. Because these workers are bitterly keeping to themselves and building self-loathing, they cannot enjoy the strawberry. They have fixated on the negative aspects of their lives and created within them a hell. But hell, like life, is what you make it. Perhaps Eliot is making a statement that although living in this modern waste land can seem like hell—surrounded by death and destruction and working in a job that has no future and is not what you had hoped for—it is only what you make of it. If one is able to redefine their limits of good and bad or heaven and hell, then it would be possible for one to find life in the waste land: "There is no spoon" (The Matrix).
In Yulisa Maddy’s No Past No Present No Future, the three friends constantly revise their idea of good and bad. Death brings the three together—Joe’s parents dying in the fire—and eventually breaks them up—Mary’s death forces Ade away and Santigie has to leave when his father dies. Death is what brought the three together and made them appreciate life. Although death was not the sole motivation behind their friendship, on a thematic level, it is the reason they became friends.
Much later in the novel, the three are in London, and the friendship is deteriorating. Upon being thrown out of acting school, Joe attempts suicide. Michael finds Joe, takes him to a hospital, and Joe is saved, but Joe wanted to die. Joe never thanks Michael or appreciates his life after his suicide attempt; he never tries again, though. Joe’s relatively weak attempt at suicide shows that although Joe thinks he wanted to die, he didn’t really. Life is a precious and valuable commodity. Joe realized that after his suicide attempt because Michael saved him, but Joe would never admit that. Joe is the only of the three to walk away with a stable relationship—he knows what his life is worth; he is the only of the three to find the strawberry.
The monk saw the strawberry because he realized that for every second of his life he was alive. Simply because death was so near it could be measured in yards, did not mean that his life was already over. Sadly, the monk understood this only directly before he died. Eliot and Maddy, however, have already come to terms with their own mortality. Their writings are their suggestion on how to confront life and how to accept morality. I am immortal, but I will die eventually—I just can’t understand it yet.
Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land, Prufrock and Other Poems. New York: Dover, 1998.
Maddy, Yulisa Amadu. No Past No Present No Future. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann-Reed, 1996.