Skip to content

The Wonder of Living and the Anxiety of Death

By Ranu Uniyal

Literature has been one of the most potent civilizational inheritances that has given us the insights to look into the past and also the future. The present stands before us. With our eyes and ears open and our minds active we can see the changes, touch the nuances, hear the rhythms, and feel the distress and joy that we are surrounded with. The pandemic has led to a pandemonium where masses have been stranded without a home. Hunger and health issues are now our primary concern. While millions have been gasping for breath, basic needs of clean water and food have become worse with the sudden onset of bad weather in many places. When we take a look around, what do we see? Abandoned streets, no public transport, few thelawaalas, people with masks neither smiling nor frowning. We have had several people sharing pictures of clean beaches, quiet countryside, and peacocks strutting on busy roads. We have also had visuals of waterlogged gullies and mohallas, desperate migrant labourers waiting to catch the train, the dead body of a mother covered in a dirty cloth with her child trying to wake her up. These are tales of despair, hunger, and abysmal lives of our own people. Homeless and without jobs, who do they look up to? The state paraphernalia, the rich and ravenous upper class, nachos-munching middle class or the comfort-loving intellectual elite who in his public life wails for the poor and homeless, but in the private confines is worried about the depleting stock of Glenfiiddich. Some desi is also a relief for him in these times. 

This is the paradox of living in the twenty-first century. Twenty years into the new millennium and we have seen the emergence of China as a global power, the rise of divisive forces in all walks of life, and witnessed death and destruction on a massive scale. The old order yielding place to new and the new being rejected by the eternal sceptics. One might recall Hegel, who spoke of the unhappy consciousness, and Dostoyevsky, who wrote in a similar vein: “Man will never renounce suffering…suffering is the sole origin of consciousness” (Notes from Underground, White Nights, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, and Selections from The House of the Dead, Part 1, Section 9).

The years between 1914 and 1918 are significant because of World War I. The Spanish Flu in 1918 was an influenza pandemic (interestingly it is said to have emerged from China) that led to the death of at least 40 million people and was a global disaster. One children’s rhyme gained immense popularity in America, a skipping song chanted by children in 1918:

I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened the window
And in-flu-enza.

Not just in Europe, America and Africa, the mortality rate was also very high in India with 50 deaths from influenza per 1000 people. 

It was in 1922 that Eliot completed The Waste Land which was interpreted “as an anthem of a disillusioned generation.” In “Burnt Norton” (the first poem of the Four Quartets), he wrote: “Time past and time future / allow but a little consciousness. / To be conscious is not to be in time…only through time time is conquered.” Perhaps, one of the epigraphs from the Fragments of Heraclitus in the poem, “the way upward and the way downward is one and the same”, also contains the essence of Eliot’s philosophy of the desire to live and the anxiety of death. Eliot’s The Waste Land makes all of us aware of the inevitability of death.   

Originally published on May 14, 1925 focusing on a mid-day in June, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway has the Big Ben, the giant tower clock located in Westminster, as one of the most representative sentinels of British Empire. At one end we have a femme mondaine Clarissa Dalloway arranging a party and at the other end is the war victim Septimus Smith. Both battling their inner convictions in a world governed by masculine assertion and aggression – “the leaden circles of Big Ben” blent “clouds and wisps of smoke” reminding each one of the passing time. “Big ben was beginning to strike, first the warning, musical: then the hour, irrevocable” – the miracle and the mystery of time destroying the privacy of the soul. Woolf nobly captures not just the freshness of Elizabeth, but also the ordinariness of Miss Kilman, the amazing capacity of Clarissa to adapt and connect. She opted for the comfort and security of the Tower, the enclosure of Westminster which was much in contrast with Peter’s love of the open and the exotic. Her choice determines her future. War has left many distraught and in a state of despair. As one of the finest novels focusing on the decadent ruling class, Mrs Dalloway resonates and speaks to me of what life could have been and fills us with trepidation. One begins to marvel at “years like an arrow sticking in our heart the grief, the anguish” of what lies ahead of us. The longer we live, more afraid we are of the uncertainty that labels our existence. 

In the early twentieth century when Woolf was writing, literature had a sense of perpetual gloom – she was sad whenever she wrote of the destruction caused by war, shelling and bombing. Moments of happiness are few and far in Mrs Dalloway – the pleasure of buying flowers is juxtaposed with the precarity of the pain and anxiety of Septimus Smith. In To the Lighthouse, the joy and precision of a meal which is a coming together of different minds also conveys the uncertainty and ennui besieging Mrs Ramsay, while the guests are still at the dinner table.

Less than hundred years prior to Woolf, who committed suicide in 1941, Edgar Allen Poe, the master of horror stories in America, died in mysterious circumstances at the age of forty in 1849. In his classic story “The Masque of Red Death”, Poe writes of the seven chambers with a multitude of dreams. The fear of the ongoing epidemic compels the Prince to move to an abbey with his dames and knights. Neither the walls nor the grandeur of seclusion could keep the revellers away from death. “Red death” comes like a thief in the night and one by one the revellers drop dead in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel. “Blood was its Avatar and its seal” – it enters as a guest at the masquerade. The Clock and the swinging of the pendulum cannot restrain the movement of death from being an unwelcome intrusion. It is said that three of the most important women in Poe’s life died of tuberculosis: his wife Virginia, his mother, his foster mother and, also his brother, all of them victims of consumption. He had seen death from close quarters. All the signs of illness – chest pain, cough, blood, and dizziness – come alive in his story. He gives us another vivid picture of cholera epidemic in the summer of 1832 in his story “The Sphinx” published in 1846. The narrator has moved to the countryside after the outbreak of cholera in the city. Fear of death puts him in a state of perpetual anguish. 

The desire to be seen and the advice not to be seen are contradictory. Thomas Macho, the cultural studies theorist, has rightly said that we live in a society of faces. Not showing them is a sign of state of emergency – a masquerade, carnival, war, or precisely a “pandemic.”  Masks are here to stay. “Mask is the new normal.” Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first important black poets in America, beautifully sums up the need for such a mask in his poem, “We Wear the Mask” (1895):

We wear the mask that grins and lies.
 It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, –  
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile

In 2020, the mask emerges as an irrefutable necessity. Regulations are there to be followed. The self is now being constituted by the distrust and not the look of the other. One recalls the famous play by Jean Paul Sartre originally published as Huis Clos No Exit in English or In Camera in which the author sums it up with an assertion: “Hell is Other people.” The play brings out the anguish wherein conflict lies at the core of human relations. 

The pandemic of our times has left us with an uncanny awareness of our fragile mortality. It is interesting to read Pandemic by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek in which he argues that “the new normal will have to be constructed on the ruins of our old lives…” He refers to the death of Doctor Li Wenliang and the way his voice was stifled in China. Zizek observes with a voice of caution, “class divisions have acquired a new dimension in the corona virus panic. We are bombarded by calls to work from home, in safe isolation, – Are we safe? … What about those whose work has to take place outside in factories and fields, in stores, hospitals, and public transport? Many things have to take place in the unsafe outside so that others can survive in their private quarantine…”

There is a need for “global cooperation more urgent than ever.” A democratic virus calls for “global solidarity.” It is also a slap on our face: hum becomes a humble cry ki hum mein nahin hai dum. William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies written in 1951 focuses on a story about the young boys marooned in an island. Ralph weeps bitterly at the end of the novel “for the end of innocence and for the darkness of man’s heart.” And is it not Shakespeare who said aeons ago, “the evil that men do lives after them/ the good is oft interred with their bones” (Julius Caesar)?

A question that comes to mind is: do we always need a disaster to bring us together? Or can it be used as a ploy to divide us further? Is it in moments of crisis that the protagonist Praneshacharya in UR Ananthmurthy’s Samskara, a novel published in 1965, faces his inner self? As an allegory of modernity – the ritual of cleaning the ailing wife’s body with the hope of gaining moksha – “the unclean anxiety” of the Brahmin minds is in sharp contrast with the purity of Chandri and that of Putta in the novel. Samskara is more than a ritual or a way of life, a ceremony to be performed, an initiation that brings a refinement of spirit. It is a passage and also a tour de force. On one hand, it glorifies tradition, represents custom, and on the other, it is ever-changing, flexible with a tremendous capacity for transformation. With it comes an awakening and without it eternal despair. Praneshacharya’s morality too is one of ambiguity. The onset of plague is symptomatic of the moral chaos within and the material chaos in the outer landscape. He may not continue in his old avatar, but in accepting his responsibility, he becomes a man.    

We look around us and find ourselves full of apprehension, helpless, clueless, inapt, inadequate, and unable to face either of the two – COVID and the Cyclone Amphan. Pandemic has led to a pandemonium in 2020. A lot of anger is simmering within all of us, at the injustice around us. We often complain that life has been unfair to us, people have cheated us. We have expressed disgust and disillusionment through our actions, words, and thoughts without realizing the harm it does to humanity, to the world around us, to our surroundings, our neighbours, our enemies, our mates, our family and all those who come in contact with us. It is the same with a pandemic or nature’s fury. Do we not see it as a sign of disgust and disillusionment of nature towards us for failing in our obligations to this environment by repeatedly thrashing it, corroding it, and destroying it? Our relentless human greed and our blatant arrogance have over centuries denied respect and reverence to the forces which help us sustain life on this earth. 

The rich are comfortable and it is easy for them to practice social distancing. The poor live huddled with bowls of rice and daal at fixed hours. The gap between the rich and the poor has never been so shamelessly wide. Both the pandemic and the cyclone have decentred, dislocated, disturbed, and disinherited us from our zone of comfort and pride. 

Books not only bring us close to life but also heighten our emotional sensibility. An interesting example I can think of is that of the young neuroscientist and surgeon Paul Kalanithi whose moving memoir When Breath Becomes Air gives us an insight into the enigma of life and the impending death. Kalanithi died of lung cancer in March 2015. He was only thirty-six. Kalanithi revokes the order of Sartrean anguish, “to be dead is to be a prey for living.” I believe, he continues to inspire even in death. We forget “ki maut jab aati hai to ghar se bulaa kar bhi le jati hai.” It is a comforting thought that despite the onslaught of the virus people will survive. 

The practice of reading links one with the chain of human consciousness. Whatever happens affects us all – that means we are one. It is time we practice the art of soothing and not burning, the art of listening and not just hearing before we begin to start judging. Before we start closing our hearts, we must adopt the art of opening our hearts. No house would be a prison and no man would be our enemy, then. 

Note: A section of a talk delivered to three colleges in West Bengal on May 30, 2020.

Photo: Princeton University

Ranu Uniyal is Professor and Head, Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow, Lucknow, India.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: