The deep harms of life prefigure death. Can we find some manner of peace with them? Psychoanalysts tell us they harken back to the early loss that brought us self-awareness. As babies we were at one with a flow of warmth and milk, feeling that we were part of our mother’s body (our mother, or whoever mainly took care of us). But then, through recognizing parts of our bodies reflected in some shiny surface, we began to imagine an “I” that became a separated being, not part of the place of milk and surrounding embraces. Every deep loss carries us back to that originary cutting off and chill, when we launched out into self-awareness. Language is what we mainly use to cram into the hungry gap. We drink in words, and take pleasure in our own speaking, that covers over, makes us forget for a moment, what we are–which explains why unhappy people may talk too much.
Death, as image of the wholeness we lost, is desired as well as feared because it holds out the promise of return to that wholeness. Walt Whitman saw it as mother earth, with long grass as her hair: “Tenderly will I use you, curling grass, for I think you are the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Or in his paean for the dead Lincoln he called to a dark mother who would rock us to sleep: “Come lovely and soothing death,/ Undulate round the world.”
Nursing a baby, as it is pleasurable for the mother, also gives the baby the origins of erotic pleasure, in that place of original wholeness. The poet Spenser in his ‘Garden of Adonis,’ the place of always emerging life forms, portrays this life-love-death in its central bower, where Venus is always again ‘taking the sweetness’ of her boy Adonis. And that erotic pleasure too is lost, in the originary separation that begins awareness and selfhood. Thus we naturally seek a lover with full intensity, especially when life brings us to a time of collapse of some version of our self that no longer works in a new situation. In modern pluralistic societies this will happen more often than in traditional ones, where identity was achieved once at adolescence and may last the rest of a person’s life.
Psychoanalysis teaches that we are doomed always to seek yet never to find that lost place of union with a beloved–we seek it in language and art, or in achievements promising satisfaction, or in lovers, perhaps get some of these things, then usually find that the promised satisfaction subsides and must be sought again. But in some cultures or eras people have not been so pessimistic about our prospects for long satisfaction. Shakespeare’s heroine Cleopatra makes us realize this. For decades she has loved Antony through ‘gaudy nights,’ and so, despite her flaws, has grown into a human ripeness. She has become, from the sun god Apollo’s “amorous pinches, black/ and wrinkled deep in time” (Antony & Cleopatra I.V. 28-29). Believing Antony dead and his earthly greatness ended after the Battle of Actium, she decides to come to him in death. She takes a viper to her breast to suckle like a child, and says to her waiting women, “Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have/ Immortal longings in me. Now no more/ the juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip/ . . . Methinks I hear Antony call . . . Husband I come. Now to that name my courage prove my title.”
But this is ‘only’ poetry, we say? What if, as with Cleopatra, the blood is not sucked from someone unwilling, but given freely. Viewing her action in a Christological sense–as a free giving of one’s lifeblood to those who thirst–we see the possibility of redemptive ‘exchanges of life,’ as the theologian Rosemary Haughton puts it in The Passionate God. These are not delusional because their satisfactions are part of the ongoing life of company and community, where our selfhood will be held even after our death–in memorials, in prayers and new hope, in the ongoing effects of the particular love and gifts we gave and were given. The experience of that outpouring of life blood, leading into a state of greater love, can help us toward a readiness for death. It can be a ripeness of waiting in good hope for death’s time, whenever that may come, but also waiting in open readiness for further life that will bring new ‘exchanges,’ if that is to come. There we can part company with Cleopatra’s dramatic embrace of death. We drink “another juice than that of Egypt’s grape.”
In eating the body of a god in Eucharist, we are like the Hindu earth goddess Kali–a wild and fearsome mother who eats as well as bearing her children. We take someone’s flesh as food, their blood as drink. We take the place of earth woman as, so to speak, a subject position. We enter the earth deity’s perspective, look out through her black eyes and wear her thick black braids. From dust we came and to dust we shall return. But we take generative food, and it brings us renewal through liturgy, tradition, and community–mundane and flawed though these may be, inhabited at times by people we don’t even like. In the finding of Christ alive in each other, we step into that subject position of the goddess, and as children of the divine, begin to live out the motherhood of God.