On Love and Death: Regarding Some Lines From Eliot’s Prufrock

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

– T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Dear Shannon,

The identification of death and love has taken on many forms. Usually we see ‘death as loss of love’ illustrated; more rarely, we will see ‘death as necessary for love.’ The latter grouping will involve the celebrated ‘love requires sacrifice’ theme, and also the rarest of all inquiries – the idea that the unity of love is indeed the death of an individual, or individuals.

We hate that last notion. Utterly despise it. But in this world where the tension between freedom and love is at a crisis point precisely because so many believe the two so easily go hand-in-hand, that notion has been more visible to me.

One time I was watching Cowboy Bebop, and in that anime, a character named Jet returned to a place where a now ex-girlfriend just walked out on him. He wanted to know why, and at the end of the episode, was told that he was too much there for her, doing everything for her. As a result, she couldn’t make any decisions she was comfortable with, and didn’t feel she was living her own life.

Naturally, he was being told this at the end of an episode where she was harboring a fugitive the whole time. The fugitive had killed people who wanted her business to pay protection. Her independence had come at the cost not just of one lover, but also another man’s innocence.

It seems weird to bring death, love and freedom together – the last term doesn’t have the weight of the other two. Death means freedom of necessity must end. Love defines and shapes freedom to the point where freedom becomes obligation.

But it is precisely because “freedom” is a limited term that we can see the finality of death and love as creating an illusory parallel. Death and love are not the same thing, not at all.

It is because freedom isn’t a good in-and-of itself strictly that we can see the pettiness behind a will to control. Some people’s freedom costs far too much – they are more than willing to strip everyone else of their own freedom, or their good.

And freedom’s limitations mean that Death can be better addressed by love. Unity seems to be the death of freedom, but to consider it a trade for love? It is not hard to conceive of people who could care less about glory thereafter, or if they’re remembered, or if they have a large family, or even if they’re happy individually. Maybe they just want to make one other person happy as long as they can.

It’s a siren song to think love conquers all, yes. And it’s a siren song which takes us wholly by surprise, because we’ve set up the surprise. “I don’t think I’ll be loved” is the attitude we use to make our self-pity leap at the mere possibility there might be love. That leap could be a leap beyond all this, or a leap into the ocean headfirst.

I don’t think it’s a siren song when one is clear about independence and its limits. If one is serious about freedom, one has to see that it resolves into a respect for the mere fact we love. Such love tries to sidestep Death by trying to make the most out of moments. It isn’t much, it seems.

But it is quite remarkable how well we remember those who tried.


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