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An age-old cliché states that one really never appreciates what he or she has until it is gone. Does this mean that nobody has ever truly appreciated the gift of life while living? Such an assumption cannot easily be made because no one can truly know the experiences or feelings. One can only try to understand by relating it to personal experience. On the other hand, this cliché would seem to explain the changes that people undergo as a result of a close brush with death. Some people fear death because of the mystery involved in what happens afterward. As a result few people like to think that death is simply the disintegration of a formerly animated body into a pile of dirt. T.S. Eliot capitalizes on this fear when he makes the statement: "I will show you fear in a handful of dust" (1. 30). Death is ordinarily a very abstract concept because nearly everyone would like to believe that somehow it’s not going to happen to him or her. Therefore, when the dust is placed before anyone, the reality of death is often enough to scare him or her into some change in perception and/or appreciation of life.
Though it can be imperceptible, the change in life that often results from the fear of death can drastically alter the path of a person’s life. Such is the case for the three main characters in Maddy’s No Past, No Present, No Future. Joe loses his parents when their house explodes. Santigie loses his father, Chief Bombolai, when he falls terribly ill and tribal medicine proves inadequate. Ade (and to some extent Joe) loses Mary when she tries to abort her unwanted pregnancy. But in each case, the deaths aren’t entirely in vain. There are definite lessons to be learned. The biggest danger, however, is trying not to learn the wrong lessons. Sometimes, this task can be next to impossible. If people encounter too much death, they can become jaded. When this happens, death ceases to teach any positive lessons. Instead, it becomes something totally different.
Despite it’s necessity, death is a very bleak and hopeless storm cloud looming in the distance. Nobody can escape the oncoming rain that is the life cycle. It can be depressing to think that no matter how good of a life one lives; everyone ends up dying sooner or later.
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Following the deaths of Chief Bombolai and Mary, Ade and Santigie are forced to leave the mission. This means that Joe in a sense loses (though not to death) two of his closest friends. As a result, he does everything he can to fill the void that death created indirectly. He takes up drinking. When that doesn’t work, he becomes more sexually active hanging around a brothel on a regular basis. No matter what he does though, he’s not able to derive any lasting satisfaction. Eliot describes this frustration with a series of examples: "And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, and the dry stone no sound of water." Furthermore, lines 140 through 170 deal with the post-war sentiment about sex. Eliot seems to suggest that sexual relations are sterile and meaningless. Surely Santigie must have adopted these ideals. As a result of failing his exams a third time, he decides to take his revenge on whites by having sex with as many white women as he possibly could. In this manner, the act of sex is not seen as something special or sacred, but rather as a means to an end: a very dark, depressing end.
Similarly, both Joe and Santigie drink heavily as a means of drowning out life and any pain that it might contain. Furthermore, Joe gets himself into frequent drug use. In a lot of ways, it seems as if the brothers three are all taunting death as a means of trying to add life to life. The idea that one can exist without living is a common theme in "The Wasteland." Eliot says that "Here is no water but only rock, Rock and no water and the sandy road…there is not even silence in the mountains, but dry sterile thunder without rain." Water and more specifically rain represent life, whereas the rock, sandy road, and "dry sterile thunder" all represent existence. In the post-war era that Eliot was describing he saw a great deal of apathy and mere existence. He seems to have looked at this mentality with a great deal of disdain.
It is difficult to say with a great deal of certainty that if placed in the same situation as any of the brothers three anybody else would act differently. At the same time, it’s tough to know how the war would have directly affected anyone of this generation had it been the war-fighting generation. Perhaps everyone would be as generally jaded as the society that Eliot describes. Speaking from personal experience, the thought of simply existing is a frightening one. It seems that being stagnant, and not trying (or worse, not even wanting to try) to make something of life is a crime. Life is a precious commodity. Everyone only gets one and once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.
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.