Tapti Roy

Assistant Professor, School of Humanities and Social Sci SciencesSharda University


Death has generally been equated with the cessation of life, as an ultimate end in the biological idiom. This understanding of death has also permeated into quotidian discourses and through practice has rendered other implications of death almost invalid. In this context, the paper aims at unraveling the artistic significations of death and thus read the same as a part of cultural experience, in this case literature. Instead of reading death solely on biological terms, the paper probes into the artistic dimension of it through the utilization of the theories of Eros and Thanatos as given by Sigmund Freud in his work Beyond the Pleasure Principle. The paper established life as an interjection in the process of union with the primal matter thus contradicting the fundamental goal promoted by many spiritual communities across the globe. In order to explicate the same, the paper analyses two poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning and titled A Musical Instrument and Porphyria’s Lover respectively. The poems are examined as depiction of the excruciatingly agonizing process of creation which inevitably commences with embracing death. To sum up, the paper by affecting a departure from the common usage of the meaning of death opens up avenues in which its significance in other discursive and ontological realms can be appreciated. It establishes as a creative force with immense powers to raise the subject to the level of sublime.

Keywords : Death, Freudian Drives, Creative Force, Primordial Matter, A Musical Instrument, Prophyria’s Lover

Death has been a ubiquitous and enigmatic presence in the history of mankind. The history of art, literature, and philosophy would establish the incessant struggle of mankind to understand, conquer, or even cheat death. The fact that death still largely occupies and challenges artistic sensibilities is sufficient proof of its certitude and invincibility. The paper will seek to explore death as anartistic phenomenon directly connected to the conflicting nature of mankind which seeks immortality through embracing death unconditionally. The studies conducted by Sigmund Freud on death-drive or Thanatos will be considered to establish death drive as a constructive, productive force which liberates human beings from the imposed conditions of repression to allow union with the primordial matter. To explicate the aforesaid notions Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s A Musical Instrument and Porphyria’s Lover by Robert Browning will be taken into account. The former will be will be studied for the unique property of art to enrich lives through deathand in the second case, the much maligned artist lover will be studied as a creator of permanent art.

Homo sapiens can be understood to be the most intellectually evolved species in the history of animal kingdom. Its desire for preservation, procreation, and continuation in the has conditioned its responses towards adopting best practices conducive to its survival. These instincts have evolved through ages to give rise to several superstructural advancements which includes profound intellectual potentials of reason and judgment with which the species attempts to overcome or neutralise the fear of death. A desire for anarchy and chaos coupled with a constructive inclination towards self-preservation has been the subject of study of Sigmund Freud, and forms the kernel of his work Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). Freud’s tenets are largely based on speculations drawn on the anatomical structure of organisms and the contemplations upon the coming into being of the psyche in response to the symbolic realm external to it.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud enumerates dual drives (Eros and Thanatos) dictating the psyche of an individual – former seeking to preserve and delay the goal of human existence whereas the latter aiming at restoring instantaneously the original order through the destruction of the physical self of the organism. During the course of explanation, Freud on Darwinian terms asserts the presence of rudimentary protoplasm which through circumstantial stimulus metamorphosed into extremely complex organisms, in this case human. The surroundings and factors sustaining life altered their courses which had corresponding effects on the protoplasm, forcing it,over an extended period of time, to grow or shed appendages in order to sustain the cycle of life. This however, had little bearing on the traces of memory constituting the subconscious which strives to retrace the primordial state of simplistic existence. This is the function of Thanatos which seeks to restore the organism to the state of non-existence or oneness with matter (30). Thus, it can be said that drawing a watertight demarcation would result in an incomplete appreciation of his ideas pertaining to Eros and Thanatos. The dual drives aim at destruction of biological self with the former only active in delaying the pleasure of achieveing this absolute goal whereas the latter strives to fulfill the same instantaneously.

The above explanation of Freud problematises the nomenclatures of life and death by questioning the properties which define life and death of an individual. Common usage would define death as a cessation of the physical processes causing the shutting down of vital organs, loss of body heat, and a sudden discontinuance of the capacity to respond to sensory stimulations in a locomotory organism. These explications are contextual and pertain solely to the biological state of the organism, obliterating in its way psychological, social, or philosophical dimensions of life. If it is assumed that the end of biological life is death of the physical frame and return to the inanimate then biological life, ephemeral as it is, should be deemed as a rupture in the great cycle of eternal life. Consecutively, it would follow that biological death, lamentable as it is, should be seen as a resumption of life in its actual form. This should establish Thanatos as a more constructive force than Eros seeking to restore order and continue the cycle of eternal life almost instantly. Death-drive hence, can be seen as more desirable state owing to its creative dynamics as through repitition it elevates the organism from linearity of biological existence, consequently empowering it with unceasing opportunities to be active, both physically and intellectually.

This essential paradox of art by which it bestows immoratlity positing physical annihilation as the inevitable rite of passage, comprises the determining thread of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem A Musical Instrument (1860). The poem narrates the exploits of the Greek god Pan as he ravages the pristine environment of a river bed in search of the one reed fit to be metamorphosed into a musical instrument producing divine music. On being successful in locating the desired reed, Pan pulls it out of the ransacked river bed and violently drawing out all signs of life from it, turns it into a musical instrument. After the completion of this exercise, he plays fine music which restores harmony of the lifeless and plundered river bank.

At the start of the poem, the poet sets out a tone of unbridled violence through the use of phrases like “spreading ruin”(3) and “scattering ban”(3) which is further supplemented by the description of the torn down abode of the dragonfly. The mention of broken golden lilies lying dead, floating on the surface of the river and the turbidity caused by the “splashing and paddling” (4) of Pan in the latter accentuate the estimate of the plunder. The image of Pan, as used by the poet is ambivalence epitomised where he on one hand is described as a ruthless plunderer with hooves as hard as steel, and on the other as the maker of sweet, blinding music. On a closer scrutiny, it can be established that the scenes of unrest painted at the start of the poem are a depiction of the turmoil raging in the poet’s mind during the search of an appropriate subject for allowing a vent to artistic faculties. The poet’s mind being extraordinarily inspiredcannot be bound by wordly ethical concerns and is free to delve into the deepest recesses of psychological, philosophical, or social norms. This process involves extensive, agonising search that often amounts to existential crises in diverse forms and hence, cannot be regarded as an orderly or tranquil endeavour. The irrevocable damage to the scenic beauty of the river bed can be said to be an expression of the same tormenting quest for a pertinent subject – either sublime or mundane, which forms the indispensable prequel to the production of any work of art.

The proliferation of the literary scene with treatises pertaining to the creation of art are ample evidence that the painstaking selection of the subject alone does not sum up the torturously excruciating process of creation of art. Since, the objective of art is to overcome physical death and death being an individual experience, all artists are entitled to explore, experiment, and devise their exclusive methodologies largely drawn from the individual negotiations with the meaning of life and the reverse. Pan’s process of creation of the musical instrument by drawing the pith can be equated to art in the process of becoming and is described by Barrett Browning as:

Then drew the pith, like the heart of man,

Steadily from the outside ring,

And notch[ing] the poor dry empty thing

In holes, as he sat by the river. (20-23)

The image of dragonfly is a vital symbol serving to fortify the subtle messages comprising the major theme of the poem. As a totem animal dragonfly represents joy, creativity, and a lightness of spiritrequired to perceive the complexities of the realm beyond the tangible real. Therefore, the dragonfly is seen to leave its abode amongst the waterlilies when Pan is struggling to find the suitable reed for his artistic creation and return when the creation is accomplished. After the fourth stanza Pan is treated no more as a destructive force but as a creator. As he sat by the river playing the musical instrument creating the most divine music, Barrett Browning describes the manner in which life erstwhile lost was restored, “The sun on the hill forgot to die,/ And the lilies revived, and the dragon-fly/ Came back to dream on the river”(33-35). The reed as an anatomical reality was fixed in temporal coordinates of linear time and immovable space whereas reincarnated as a musical instrument its significance was magnified as original force qualified to be iterated in multiple forms uninhibited by past, present, or future.

It has been noted earlier that the artist, in order to pick his subject and modes of expression, delves into deepest strata of the psyche, the appearance of which is a cause for discomfort to the well-knit social structures under which the art is produced and consumed. It is for this reason that artists are branded as eccentric, irrational beings and are therefore relegated to the psycho-social margins of civilisation. Such an instance can be studied in Robert Browning’s poem Porphyria’s Lover where the endeavours of the artist to create perfect art is equated to murder and misogyny. The dramatic monologue, Porphyria’s Lover, narrates the actions of an artist who strangles his beloved with her own tresses to seal her pristine beauty against the polluting influence of class structure and its expectations of habitual, unquestioned obediance.

The poem opens on a chaotic note with Robert Browning’s vivid description of tumultuous weather outside where rain and storm are wrecking disaster when Porphyria comes to meet her beloved:

The rain set early in to-night,

The sullen wind was soon awake,

It tore the elm-tops down for spite,

And did its worst to vex the lake: (1-4)

The instance of climatic rampage can be used analogously to represent the conflict between unrestrainable creative force deranging the ego of the artist and the monolithic demands imposed by the sane society on all individuals indiscriminately. This sequence is followed by Porphyria’s proclamation of love for the artist and the manner in which she had preferred to honour her undying love for the artist instead of conforming to the proprieties of her social standing. This is followed by the artist being enamoured by the enchanting web of her tresses, rolling them into a cord to strangle her.

The aforesaid section has been interpreted at various levels, more often on psychological lines branding permanently, the artist-lover as a maniac having little respect for the life and choices of his beloved. However, on a close perusal, a contrary event can be unearthed. Art involves exaltation of the subject to the sublime and a subsequent transformation of physical matter into a form miscible with primal consciousness governing the process of creativity. Hence, the moment in which Porphyria rested by his side giving sincere testimonies of her unflinching affection were according to the artist the perfect subject, qualified for permanence. Thus, in order to preserve the uncorrupted beauty of Porhyria, her original innocence, and to elevate the moment to the dimensions it deserved, liberated her from all concerns which could have disfigured all those attributes that endeared her immensely to the artist. The artist confirms, “That moment she was mine, mine, fair, /Perfectly pure and good” (36-37).

Literary and artistic conventions should refrain from socio-legal considerations while interpreting this event and regard it not as an act of insanity, but as a selfless deed of self-effacement and self-mortification. Deliberated on quotidian terms of sacredness of life, and the desire to aspire for happiness in socio-cultural terms, the act would reveal the immensity of the personal loss caused to the artist who would be deprived of the lone source of love in the course of his existence in the terrestrial mould. Hence, the process of creation of art, as undertaken by the artist, should be understood as synonymous with supreme sacrifice and self-imposed death. It is perhaps for this act of self-mortification on the part of the artist, that he is condoned by God, who “has not said a word” (60).

A brief glance into the Christian religious doctrines which forms the basis of the above discussion of death would emphasise that the advent of human race on earth is a result of Original Sin expressed as an act of trangression committed against the Will of God where the first parents tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The theory further assumes that mankind being the scion of Adam is a natural heir to the ancestral sin, which is compounded by acts of personal lapses. The religious tenets of Hinduism, on the other hand, are largely ordained by the doctrine of Karma wherehumansare free toframetheir own destiny through Karma whichwould determine the form the soul would assume in its next incarnation. The cyclical progression continues unhindered till the soul attains transcendental state of liberation from corporeal emergences and expirations (moksha). Buddhism too observes that sorrow forms the loci of theological discourses – sorrow and the purgation of it through knowledge, virtue, and meditation. The lifespan of a human, becomes a formative ground of action expected to have a bearing on the transmigration of the soul towards God, Moksha, or Nirvana. This entails an acquisition of fundamental knowledge of omnipresent matter that inspires constructive attitude towards non-existence or infinity in the subject and construes life as a transient interjection in the sovereign process.

The universality of death and the ephemerality of human existence in the face of it has induced imaginations to ascertain the continuance of self even after the cessation of life processes in non-material forms. Philosophical probes into the nature of death occurring through the course of history has trained human minds to believe in the futility of tangible existence and stress on the profoundly transcendental values determining it. European philosophy, material in nature, adopts a regressive cognitive pattern where philosophical conception of death presumes the existence of a palpable material existence. On the contrary, Hindu, Buddhist,and diverse Eastern cults are grounded in the concept of infinity, a semiotic presence devoid of beginnings and ends. The above discussions highlight the fact that the mundane demarcations between life and death are mere biological conveniences, motivated by discourses of culture. This also strengthens the role of the artist who strives to touch the higher dimensions armed only with mundane tools to glorify existence in the world. It truly reinforces their stature as supremely inspired beings who embrace death, then transcend it to aspire to the state of impeccable forms to provide a taste of divine through art.

References :

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. “The Musical Instrument”. The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. T. Y. Crowell & Co., 1870. pp. 519. archive.org, https://archive.org/details/poeticalworksofe00brow_1/page/n7/mode/2up

Browning, Robert. “Porphyria’s Lover”. Robert Browning’s Poetry, edited by. James F. Loucks, W.W. Norton, 2005. pp. 74-75.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Translatedand edited by. James Strachey, W.W. Norton, 1961. archive.org, https://archive.org/details/SigmundFreud/Sigmund%20Freud%20%5 B1920%5D%20Beyond%20 The%20Pleasure%20Principle% 20%28James%20Strachey %20Translation%201961%29/page/n1/mode/2up

Ovid. “Pan and Syrinx”. Metamorphoses. Translatedby. Mary M. Innes, Penguin Books, 1980. Pp 47-48.

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Drishti:the Sight is a National refereed Bi-annual Research Journal in the disciplines of Arts and Humanities founded in the year 2012 publishing articles in the subjects of English Literature, Assamese Literature, Folklore, Culture.The journal has been enlisted in the UGC-CARE list (Sr.No. 42) in Arts and Humanities section.The journal is dedicated to the cause of young upcoming scholars of the nation.The journal publishes only authentic research articles. It tries to follow the research ethics to the core.