Sunday, February 27, 2005

On death and beauty

Few poems of the previous century have attracted more discussion than Wallace Stevens' Sunday Morning. In its ambivalence, its nostalgia for traditional faith, its frank hedonism, its skepticism, and its final, halting resolution, it captures as well as any other document our own spiritual restlessness in the face of death.

Briefly, the poem describes a woman's thoughts and feelings as she sits in a sunny chair on a Sunday morning, indulging herself with coffee, oranges, and the "green freedom of a cockatoo." Into her dreamy reverie comes "the dark encroachment of that old catastrophe," Christ's bloody sacrifice, with its promise of her own resurrection into eternal life.

But what would this promised paradise be with its ripe fruit that never falls, boughs that always hang heavy in a perfect sky? Where in that heavenly abode might she find the delight of hearing wakened birds test before they fly "the reality of misty fields, by their sweet questionings"?

"Death is the mother of beauty," the poet writes, not once, but twice. Only in the face of personal oblivion do we attend to the sweet perfections of the here and now: "Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow; grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued elations when the forest blooms; gusty emotions on wet roads on autumn nights; all pleasures and all pains, remembering..."

Stevens explores our psychological responses to death, but those responses have deep roots in biology.

Life need not be mortal. Bacteria and amoebae reproduce by splitting down the middle, cloning themselves, a kind of immortality. An individual bacterium or amoeba might die -- by being exposed the excessive heat, for example -- but it need not die. It's lineage can endure forever.

Even sexual microorganisms, such as certain algae and fungi, can reproduce either sexually, jumbling genes, or by simple division, making millions of exact copies of themselves.

Death as we understand it entered the story with the advent of multicellularity. During the Cambrian Era, sexual creatures evolved made of two kinds of cells: germ cells -- eggs and sperm -- stored in the gonads and destined to play a role in reproduction; and soma cells, body cells -- tissue, skeleton, stalk, stem, blood, heart, eyes, ears, horns, feathers.

The germ cells have a kind of immortality in that their genome, or part of it, finds its way into future generations. But the soma is doomed to die, perhaps in days, as for mayflies, or centuries, as for sequoias.

It is the death of the soma that the woman in Stevens' poem is thinking about -- the soma who sits in the sunny chair, wrapped in her silken dressing gown, inhaling the aroma of coffee, tasting the tangy fruit. The fact that something of ourselves -- the germ cells -- can flow into future generations is little consolation for the death of the part of us that thinks, feels, dreams. The soma we see in the mirror is the self afflicted by thoughts of mortality.

"But in contentment I still feel the need of some imperishable bliss," says the woman in the poem, and, yes, a longing for immortality is deep within us, in our culture, perhaps even in our genes. To assuage the woman's unease, the poet offers no deathless personal paradise, only the enduring beauty of creation -- the deer on the mountain, the sweet berries that ripen in the wilderness, the flocks of pigeons that in the evening make "ambiguous undulations as they sink, downward to darkness, on extended wings."

The microbiologist Ursula Goodenough writes: "Sex without death gets you single-celled algae and fungi; sex with a mortal soma gets you the rest of the...creatures. Death is the price paid to have trees and clams and birds and grasshoppers, and death is the price paid to have human consciousness, to be aware of all that shimmering awareness and all that love."

Death, she might as well have said, is the mother of beauty.

Further Reading

This is not the first time I have quoted from Ursula Goodenough's The Sacred Depths of Nature. The book consists of twelve short chapters that offer about the best introduction to biology I have ever read. Each chapter is accompanied by "Reflections" of a spiritual nature.

Student Activities

  1. Ursula Goodenough writes: "Once you have a life-cycle with a germ line and a soma, then immortality is handed over to the germ line. This liberates the soma from any obligation to generate gametes, and allows it to focus instead on strategies for getting the gametes transmitted. And since morphogenesis is the key niche-negotiating strategy of eukaryotes, multicellular eukaryotes, freed of constraints, have generated every complex morphological structure imaginable: wings, gills, eyes, leaves, glands, claws, bark, nostrils, tentacles...The arrangement is that the parts will do their utmost to ensure the transmission, and often the nurture, of the germ line, and then they die. One of these "parts" is my brain, the locus of my self-awareness."
  2. Understand the meaning of "germ line," "soma," "gametes," "morphogenesis," "niche-negotiating," "eukaryotes," and "morphological," all terms that might be learned in a high school biology class. Then translate the sense of the passage above into your own, nontechnical words.
  3. Write your own poem on the theme of Stevens' Sunday Morning, evoking some particular pleasure or pleasures of your own. Of course, your take on the theme might be completely different than Stevens'.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.