Death’s Other Kingdom

With Covid-19 reshaping our lives there is a lot more time to think. I find my thoughts drifting to the modernist poets. We were always taught that the driving force behind the modernists grim vision of the world was brought on by the horrors of World War I. The trench warfare, the chemical and biological weapons, and the overall massive loss of human life fighting over what amounted to square inches of land. The modernist looked at the death and horrors of war and thought that these must surely be the end times.

What wasn’t mentioned is that immediately following the most horrific conflict in human history there was a world wide pandemic that infected a quarter of the world’s population and killed 50 million of them. Add this on top of the horrors of World War I and it is easy to see why the modernists believed they were living in the end times.

T.S. Eliot is the premiere modernist poet. Even if you haven’t read Eliot you have likely heard him quoted. Especially with what is happening in the world right now. As when I had children I gained additional perspective on poems and songs about affection living through Covid-19 has given me additional perspective on the modernists coming to grips with the horrors of their world.

Read the opening stanza of Eliot’s 1925 poem The Hollow Men and tell me it doesn’t relate to our current situation.

  We are the hollow men
    We are the stuffed men
    Leaning together
    Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
    Our dried voices, when
    We whisper together
    Are quiet and meaningless
    As wind in dry grass
    Or rats’ feet over broken glass
    In our dry cellar

Is this not an apt description of both ourselves and our leaders. Both interpretations are available. Here we are, the average everyday folks, meaningless and useless to stop the spreading destruction. Then there are our leaders, “Headpiece filled with straw,” unwilling or unable to take the necessary steps to fight off Covid-19. And aren’t our voices meaningless? We tell people to shelter in place, to stay at home, not to gather in crowds, and yet people are throwing Covid-19 parties and licking produce in the grocery store. This is a disease spread by the ignorant but infects everyone.

And what is it that we owe the dead. Those that lay in hospital beds. Slowly slipping away. Eventually placed in a medically induced coma and allowed to expire. Eliot continues;

Those who have crossed
    With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
    Remember us-if at all-not as lost
    Violent souls, but only
    As the hollow men
    The stuffed men.

Eliot asks the dead to remember us the meaningless and useless creatures that we are. The ones that didn’t take the necessary steps. The ones that never did enough. Faced with the horrors of war and then the ravages of pestilence the end times were accepted and humanity wasn’t lost violent souls but merely hollow men unwilling to fight back.

The second part of the poem is a more personal lament. It isn’t the overarching criticism of humanity as hollow men, but it is the description of a personal dream. Eliot talks about eyes he dares not meet in dreams, but they are not in death’s dream kingdom. There the eyes are different. There is a feeling of both fear and longing highlighted by the end of the first stanza of the second part;

  There, is a tree swinging
    And voices are
    In the wind’s singing
    More distant and more solemn
    Than a fading star.

It is a lament for the passing of more innocent times. Times before war and pestilence. Times when we did not view the world on the edge of collapse. A tree swing and voices singing, but they are distant and solemn. That world of innocence is good and lost.

Fear is a powerful emotion. It is one of our most primal. Strip a man down to nothing but their biological basics and the only emotions left are anger and fear. Fight or flight. Eliot’s vision of death’s dream kingdom continues with his description of his fear;

Let me be no nearer
    In death’s dream kingdom
    Let me also wear
    Such deliberate disguises
    Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
    In a field
    Behaving as the wind behaves
    No nearer-
   
    Not that final meeting
    In the twilight kingdom

He will disguise himself to escape his past, his fear, his shame. He will behave as the winds, as the fading voices, and he will come no nearer. And how is it that we would act towards those we let down. There is a Facebook post making the rounds asking if you had to inform everyone you came in contact with over the last 14 days that you had Covid-19 could you do so with pride or will you say you were in a large crowd or put others at unnecessary risk. Would you wish to wear a disguise in death’s dream kingdom?

The third part of the poem describes the cactus land, death’s other kingdom, where there are stone images and they receive, “The supplication of a dead man’s hand / under the twinkle of a fading star.”

 Is it like this
    In death’s other kingdom
    Waking alone
    At the hour when we are
    Trembling with tenderness
    Lips that would kiss
    Form prayers to broken stone.

“Lips that would kiss / form prayers from broken stone,” Lips that would kiss. A display of affection not given. The lips that would kiss. the lips that would give affection are instead used to form prayers to broken stone. To fallen idols. Human beings are social creatures. We enjoy gathering. Baseball’s Opening Day was yesterday and stadiums around the country sat empty. We did not gather, we did not show our camaraderie in cheering on our local teams. Gathering with friends in sports bars to discuss the outcome of the games. So much of our lives are on pause. There are no sports, no concerts, no movies, no dining out. “Lips that would kiss / form prayers to broken stone.”

As we move into the fourth part Eliot’s vision deepens. His decent into the wasteland of the modern world continues;

The eyes are not here
    There are no eyes here
    In this valley of dying stars
    In this hollow valley
    This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
   
    In this last of meeting places
    We grope together
    And avoid speech
    Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

The eyes that followed him before, “Sunlight on a broken column,” are not here. This is a kingdom of darkness, a hollow valley, the broken jaw of our lost kingdoms. It is a description of society unraveling, coming apart, and what remains of humanity finds one last meeting place. Gathered on the beach on the other side of the land of the dead, and we are left to wonder are we waiting to cross or are we there to apologize to those we let cross prematurely. There is no answer given. The eyes reappear as the star from Dante’s inferno rises representing the hope of empty men. A star rising in hell, giving the sightless sight for a brief period of time, would certainly be the hope of empty men. Much like a moderate bounce to the stock market while the death toll around the world rises and more and more businesses fade away.

And now we come to the famous final scene. Ending the poem with some of the most haunting and quoted lyrics in American literature;

This is the way the world ends
    Not with a bang but a whimper.

But before we get there we need to complete the journey through Eliot’s vision. The fifth and final part of Eliot’s poem begins with a callback to innocence. To the nursery rhyme Here we go Round the Mulberry Bush, but mulberry bush is changed to prickly pear. Before this it was alluded that we are bouncing between Death’s kingdoms. Viewing dreams, death, and desolation. We are, after all, the hollow men. The empty headed creatures that let the world slip into disarray and despair either through powerlessness or inaction, but either way we are all hollow men.

 Between the idea
    And the reality
    Between the motion
    And the act
    Falls the Shadow
                                   For Thine is the Kingdom
   
    Between the conception
    And the creation
    Between the emotion
    And the response
    Falls the Shadow
                                   Life is very long
   
    Between the desire
    And the spasm
    Between the potency
    And the existence
    Between the essence
    And the descent
    Falls the Shadow
                                   For Thine is the Kingdom
   
    For Thine is
    Life is
    For Thine is the

And as we see a children’s nursery rhyme isn’t the only poem Eliot echoes. Interlaced throughout the final part of Hollow Men is the allusion to the Lord’s Prayer. Even more important than that is the concept Eliot concludes his poem with. A poem about inaction and uselessness. A poem about men’s failings in the face of devastation. Between all the concepts listed there is a shadow. Whether that is Jung’s shadow self or the shadow of the infinite possibilities of an idea and reality, a motion and action, conception and creation, emotion and response, existence and essence, etc is unknown, but either way it is an explanation on the inaction of men. When faced with a chance to change the world, the course of history, through our actions we hesitate. We would rather let go. Trust in our faith, and let god handle it, “For thine is the kingdom.” It is nothing but a cop-out.

World War I was followed by the Spanish Flu. The world is devastated, crippled, and modernists like Eliot look around and know the end times are surely upon us, and why has man failed to act? Because acting is hard. Between the motion and the act falls the shadow. The shadow of either negative consequences or infinite possibilities, but a shadow none the less. A shadow that is enough to give us pause, delay our actions, and in the end we give in to inaction and excuse it as a show of faith. As trusting in god’s plan. And this is why the world will not end in a bang but a whimper. Because a bang requires action, and letting the world slowly expire in a whimper requires empty headed meaningless hollow men do nothing.

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