Sunday, June 29, 2014

`Life's Loveliest Grace'

Already at age twenty-seven, Michael Oakeshott, like any serious person, is contemplating death. This is from September 1928 (Notebooks, 1922-86, Imprint-Academic, 2014): 

“Show how the whole of our life & activity & achievement is just an attempt to master death. All religion, all philosophy, learning, science, business, poetry, literature, art,--everything we do or think or make. Love, the family, communities, the state.” 

A familiar thought, youthfully grandiose but free of morbidity. This is death coolly considered, death as the driver of human accomplishment, death in life. It is peculiarly optimistic. What does it mean to “master” death? Forestall, transcend, understand? Later the same month, Oakeshott restates the thought in more personal terms: 

“I want to consider, to write about, life from the standpoint of death. Death is the greatest, the all-pervading fact of life; if we can understand death, all our questions about life are answered already. Here then, in these meditations upon mortality & upon death, is all that I have come to think about life & living.” 

This, too, is optimistic. Oakeshott is reading John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, a prose work published in 1624, from which he takes the notion that death was created not by God but by sinful man. Oakeshott is not a conventional believer but respects the Christian understanding of death: 

“Death is the creation of life—of sin. When there is no sin, death has no sting. And where there is no `mortality,’ there is no sin. But, somehow, death must be defeated, abolished without abolishing the moral world. And that is what Christianity offered—an abolition of death which did not entail the abolition of an ordered life [always a preoccupation of Oakeshott’s].” 

Oakeshott associates an “ordered life” with living up to one’s responsibilities, which he further associates with honesty and labor freely undertaken. He writes: “To assume complete responsibility for one’s life is itself a life work—enough to occupy a man’s whole energy & ingenuity. A man may engage upon all kinds of work besides this, but it will never be more than a mere by-product of his life. It breeds, also, a kind of superior attitude to life [Oakeshott is reading, of all things, D.H. Lawrence’s The White Peacock].” 

The theme of death and life, the pull of each on the other, continues to preoccupy him, and he writes with preternatural maturity: “No experience is perfect & complete: to know this & to understand it, to accept this as life’s loveliest grace is to have understood & to have accepted, & to have overcome death.” In response, I thought of a lesser-known poem by Philip Larkin, “Continuing to Live,” written when he was just four years older than Oakeshott. Larkin harbors no hope of understanding death or life: 

And what's the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear, may trace it home.
      But to confess,

“On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
      And that one dying.”

1 comment:

Cleanthess said...

On the topic of understanding death in order to experience grace:

But if they wished to waken a likeness in us, the endlessly dead,
perhaps they would point to the hazel’s empty catkins
that hang in the dry wind; or else the rain
that moistens earth’s dark soil in the early year.

And we, who think of happiness ascending,
would with consternation
know in a rapture that almost baffles us,
that happiness falls.