“The Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan … manages to raise some interesting and subtle concerns about …notions relating to the question of what’s really bad about death, including this one: Why do we regard no longer existing (post-mortem nonexistence) as worse than not having existed before our births (prenatal nonexistence)? And are we wrong to do so?”
“The Opinionator,” New York Times, May 16, 2012.
I love this question. I have thought of it before, and it gives me comfort. For it makes perfect sense to me. I wonder if Mr. Kagan is aware of the Yeats’ poem, “Before the World was Made.” I would imagine he is. I know I thought of it right away when I read the article.
Before the World was Made
If I make the lashes dark
And the eyes more bright
And the lips more scarlet,
Or ask if all be right
From mirror after mirror,
No vanity’s displayed:
I’m looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.
What if I look upon a man
As though on my beloved,
And my blood be cold the while
And my heart unmoved?
Why should he think me cruel
Or that he is betrayed?
I’d have him love the thing that was
Before the world was made.
For here, Yeats too is looking at what Kagan calls “prenatal nonexistence”–though Yeats prefers to think of it as “prenatal existence.”
Now Yeats is working in a spiritual cosmology quite different from that which the Yale philosopher is dealing with. Yeats was always susceptible to spirituality and spiritualism…mysticism and the occult. (Adrienne Rich famously called him a “table-rattling fascist.” Click here for Evan Boland’s essays on literary antagonisms.) Nevertheless, he was very much interested in concepts of a soul. He believed–through a complicated mythology of his own making, explicated in his book The Vision–in an individual, social, and civilization-wide reincarnation or continuance of the soul. And so through this series of Yeatsian cycles we have it: a “pre-natal” AND “post-mortem” existence, as the philosopher says.
And yet, there is also something else going on in the poem that is not as deep, not as cosmic, not as “philosophical.” This is not a cosmic dance taking place in front of the mirror. It is that old familiar dance of seduction and romance. For who is the speaker sitting in front of her vanity? Has Yeats returned to musings on his old beloved Maude Gonne? Is he thinking of her daughter–to whom he once proposed having been rejected for the umpteenth time by Gonne? The poem was published in 1933 when Yeats was 68 years old. The following year Yeats had the Steinach operation performed–a procedure of inserting animal glands into the body in order to increase testosterone production. Good old Yeats–he was now 68–was not giving up on this existence…and at this time was carrying on several romantic affairs with much younger women.
The poem itself appeared in the collection, The Winding Stair, and was one of twelve poems included in a section called “A Woman Young and Old.” If the speaker is a woman where does she fit in that continuum? Is this a young woman relatively new at the game? Or a more experienced woman, who could look on any man “as though on my beloved”?
And what is it she would have him love? What existed “before the world was made”? For the philosopher Kagan, the answer is nothing. For Yeats it is something large, something essential.
As an aside, I knew that Van Morrison had recorded a song version of the poem. I also knew that Mike Scott and the Waterboys had just put out an album, An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, on which the poem appeard. But I just learned that Carla Bruni–the former first lady of France–had also recorded the song. I don’t know why, but I find that amusing. Anyway, here’s Van the Man’s performance of Yeats’ “Before the World Was Made.”