Being of Irish descent, I think about death a lot. We can’t help it, really, it’s been bred into our blood by many long centuries of tragedy. I’m quite sure that our obsession with the Reaper is part of why G.K. Chesterton called us “the men whom God made mad”, and it’s gotta be a huge part of why Freud said that the Irish were “the only race impervious to psychoanalysis.”
And naturally, being Irish-American, in addition to death I also think a lot about poetry.
In his great poem, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”, William Butler Yeats displays the Emerald Isle’s tragic relationship with Thanatos with terrible beauty:
“I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
The reader is left with the haunting sadness that can only come from a life pointlessly sacrificed into the jaws of human depravity. Yeats wrote this poem during World War I, and one is pulled towards the thought: if Country and Continent and Ecclesia have been ripped apart, what else is there but Nihilism? Where else can meaning come from?
And naturally, the poem forces us to face the Irish Airman’s dilemma ourselves: are our own lives a “waste of breath”? If we cannot find anything to care about in this life, why should we bother delaying death? Is the only chance for “delight” to come from “this tumult in the clouds,” this embrace of the end?
Freud said that, in addition to Eros, the love drive, human beings also have Thanatos, the death drive…Thanatos is a longing to return to our original inorganic state, an irrepressible desire to meet our fate “Somewhere among the clouds above.” And indeed, if we look at our modern world, we see Thanatos on full display, in so much fuller a form than was even apparent in Yeats’ time. We see the embrace of Thanatos in abortion and euthanasia and drug abuse and war and capital punishment…what’s to keep us from counting it all “a waste of breath”?
Really, the only reason to deny Thanatos is another “tumult in the clouds”, one that St. Athanasius writes about:
“But the Lord came to overthrow the devil and to purify the air and to make ‘a way’ for us up to Heaven, as the apostle says, ‘through the veil, that is to say, His flesh.’ This had to be done through death, and by what other kind of death could it have been done, save by a death in the air, that is, on the cross? Here, again, you see how right and natural it was that the Lord should suffer thus; for being thus ‘lifted up’, He cleansed the air from all the evil influences of the enemy… it was we who needed it, we whom He Himself upbore in His own body–that body which He first offered to death on behalf of all, and then made through it a path to Heaven.”
You see, it was not Thanatos that drove Jesus to His death in the air, but purest Eros, a desire that our own deaths would not be meaningless, but would instead bring us to the Father. For it is written, “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints,” and they are made precious because the God-Man died “among the clouds” on our behalf. We now have an open path to Heaven that we are free to take, if we will leave behind the idea that there can be a “balance” between life and death: Life must be our all, for what do Existence and non-existence have in common?
In the end this is my choice, and this is also your choice: Nothing or Everything, Thanatos or Eros, Yeats or Athanasius, Love of Death… or Death by Love.