The Undiscovered Country
by Barbara Maria Rathbone
‘It is love, not reason, that is stronger than death.’ Thomas Mann
I don’t know why, but these Nietzschean themes keep bouncing up in my life at the moment – somewhere between having a discussion with someone about Hamlet’s Soliloquy (Hamlet currently a stir in the West End, starring Jude Law) and thinking about the great love-death scenarios in German Romanticism à la ‘Tristan und Isolde’. Somehow the resulting mass produces the axis of existential essence, the two things which we can really hold in no doubt – love and death. I should also mention the unassailably moving story of the recent deaths in Switzerland of conductor Sir Ted Downes and his wife Lady Joan, which lifted many questions as well as profound compassion in me, as it must do in all of us.
I am a writer, reader and a musician – everything I do and think is bound by the creative forces born of these certainties: music and words composed in the candour of madness and love in darkened places. This will of course exclude the classical and enlightenment ideals of the late 18th century and bring us up post Sturm und Drang into the 19th – into the realm of Byron, Beethoven and Schiller. However, the existential part of the axis – the death bit if you like, precedes that considerably, particularly in the words of Hamlet and in those of the metaphysical poets such as John Donne.
But let us start with love – love creates, love is art, love is life. Above all else love is the farthest we go from death – it is life in its concentrated form, its quintessence. When we are in love, our senses are intensified, our hearts and limbs pulsate, we are infused with sanguine glory in a state of intoxicating rush. Yet, we would be happy to die in a moment as if there were no other, at the highest pitch of feeling as if so consumed and now having really lived, need to live no more. So here is the proof of love’s removal of death’s sting and the ‘Liebestod’ element of the Romantic movement, the potent juxtaposition of both, entwined in the ecstasy of the inevitable. This idea is also related to why we refer to orgasm as ‘la petite mort’ – at such a moment we would be happy to die, we desire to choke on loves’ fumes. We think above all, that love is what makes life worth living, and it is. Love holds the real dark at bay, the pall that awaits.
This is where the existential frame assembles – whether there is nothing beyond love and life, or whether indeed there is. I think there maybe a higher creative force – a thing to which every atom bows, but it is not the monotheistic notion of god at all, if there is – with this creative power there is no redemption, repeal, confession or servitude. So in denying a particular god I do not deny the idea – Voltaire thought of course that if ‘God’ (note capitals!) did not exist it would be necessary to invent ‘Him’ and science has even established that a part of our brain is designed for such ‘blind faith’. But I personally, cannot speak of that which I do not know, only of what I know for certain – and that is that I am here. An awareness beyond death, and the very notion of a deity whose realm this is, is for me terra-incognita.
So I identify with Hamlet’s cry to the universe, which has only the feel of the moral questioning that comes to one when one has faced death: disgruntled, angry, seeing the teethmarks of it upon yourself and those you love. There is actually much hope and honesty in his words. There is also much Sartre, and I am sure the Danish prince would identify with “L’enfer, c’est les autres”, for hell was certainly other people for him! It is when Hamlet is up against it all – the constructions of his fears and passions, that he realises that there must be something else, something with which to turn away death, to heal his hopelessness, and that of course is love. Unfortunately, by then it was too late for demented and drowned Ophelia.
…But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.