Eros and Thanatos in Philip Larkin’s Poetry

Sigmund Freud, in his book, Civilization and its Discontents, written after the catastrophic consequences of the first world war, postulated the antipode of the instinct which had hitherto been the cornerstone of his theory: as a retort to Eros, Thanatos seemed to be equally valid a statement — a statement of equal psychoanalytic significance. The negation of the  will-to-live came into existence as the psychological antimatter that could only happen to the culture-alienated animal: the  human animal. It is a form of being that oscillates between Eros and Thanatos, belonging to neither of these, and at the same  time being triggered by the impossibility of fully satisfying either.

The individual, being first and foremost the product of social realities, reflects in his art these social realities. The fallacy of individuality is never more obvious than when it comes to works of art and their relation to the time of their appearance. Of course, the above does not preclude the peculiarities and idiosyncraticities of a specific human character that may influence the creative process. What I try to get at is the impossibility of conceiving a unique psychological reality in isolation of a general social reality.

Philip Larkin lived in a time when former ideals and touchstones where falling apart. The Nietzschean concept of the “Death of God” in human consciousness, which still functioned as a moral fulcrum in proto-industrial times, had been the major catastrophe. The industrial revolution had been fully ensconced, successfully automating the human modes of existence. Capitalism had put an emphasis on individual effort and competition rather than cooperation, thus contributing to a distancing of one human being from the other. The dreariness of the post-industrial Northern European landscape, the extremities of urbanization, represent a concatenation of forces and events that alienate humans in further culturalization.

Larkin reflected the essence of his times in highly sarcastic tones, never deviating from the primal exigencies of everyday life. That is why he achieved such a state of popularity: his primary concern was life and its discontents in a the specific reality of post-industrial England. His ability to write in propria persona and still relate to other people’s psyche is unique.

An autobiographical poet as he was, it is hardly possible to understand his work without a knowledge of his life. We know that it was quite late in his youth that he managed to develop intimacy with the opposite sex. His inferiority complex, his inherent shyness, his interest in “high-culture” set him apart from his peers. But that didn’t mean that he had chosen his isolation as a matter of free will, as it transpires in many of his poems. Freud’s portrait of the artist as a frustrated introvert is quite apposite to Larkin. In Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud wrote:

An artist is once more in rudiments an introvert, not far removed from neurosis. He is oppressed by excessively powerful instinctual needs. He desires to win honour, power, wealth, fame and the love of women; but he lacks the means for achieving these satisfactions. Consequently, like any other unsatisfied man, he turns away from reality and transfers all his interest, and his libido too, to the wishful constructions of his life of phantasy, whence the path might lead to neurosis.

According to Freud, artistic activity was a sublimation of primary instincts, sublimation being the most important vicissitude which an instinct can undergo, so that what was originally a sexual instinct finds satisfaction in some
achievement that is no longer sexual but has a higher social or ethical valuation. Sublimation is thus a technique for fending off suffering with making oneself independent of the external world by seeking satisfaction in an internal, psychical processes.

Philip Larkin’s apparent misogynism and, in more general terms misanthropism and pessimism, is nothing but the expression of the pain caused by the inability to meaningfully relate to human beings. Hate for people is normally the outcome of an iconolatric love for people — a love that has been unwelcome. Thus, Larkin has not been “emotionally retarded” as some critics have suggested, but emotionally developed to such a degree that should he let himself go, he would have been annihilated by the sheer strength of his own feelings. As we know, people usually shy away from an unconditional expression of love as it denudes the other being exposing a deeper vulnerability.

His cynicism about the biological function of love is — paradoxically — fully compatible with a neo-romantic attitude that declares the impossibility of living without love. One can be both cynical and romantic. Or, perhaps, one becomes cynical because one is romantic. An instantiation of a higher emotional sensibility in Philip Larkin’s work I find in one of his most amazing minor poems, The Mower, in which he bemoans his carelessness after having killed a hedgehog with his mower:

we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time

Such an extreme expression of sensitivity and sympathy is indeed something one would not expect from a rampant pessimist and misanthropist. The structure of the poem, from the particular event that has nothing exceptional, and in different circumstances would be perceived as trivial, to the generalization in the last three times, is exactly the sort of jewel that only a craftsman like Larkin can create.

Another poem that exemplifies the turn from the cynical to the romantic, from bathos to pathos is Arundel Tomb. The concept of death is present here but will not be discussed at this stage. The irony and the cynicism is shown in the fact that the “earl and the countess” (probably not the ideal lovers in their lifetime) have come to be extremely “close” to each other in their common tomb:

The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon…

But the final line has an almost defamiliarizing effect, reversing our expectations of the potential endings. Instead of receiving another pungent line of grim cynicism we get one of the most oft-quoted lines Larkin ever wrote:

…what will survive of us is love.

Love here seems to turn the tables on death and only someone who has deeply experienced it can share this powerful feeling. However, I strongly believe that an issue of major importance concerning the artist’s motivation and the particular way in which the artist perceives his vocation is the omnipotent concept of death — it would hardly constitute a hyperbole to state that almost all serious literature can be explained as a desperate attempt to create the illusion of immortality through the double function of the work of art as an opiate and a means of posthumous fate. Indeed, Larkin proved to be very cautious with his posthumous reputation asking his friend a few days before his death to destroy his diaries.

Another response to Eros, which is neither a sublimation nor a fulfilment of it, and quite in keeping with the neo-Freudian contentions about creativity, is onanism. It should have been quite shocking for his times to write a poem with an overt reference to autoerotic practices, but it is there again where Larkin deals with life realistically and uninhibitetdly. His jealous frustration (a common experience) is channeled into the negation of the fundamental duality of the erotic — in solitude it becomes desamor, which signifies the condition of lack of love when love is urgently needed, or the despair of betrayal:

Love again: wanking at ten past three
(Surely he’s taken her home by now?)
…Someone else feeling her breasts and cunt
…And me supposed to be ignorant.

Repeated frustration of the normal erotic functions of a human being can lead to an apparent negation of life and embracing of death. Thanatos, in many instances, is nothing but the biological mechanism which disposes of an individual who is not sexually (procreatively) efficient. The rationale behind this is simple: an individual is valuable to its species only to the extent that he can ensure its rejuvenation. This is subtly reflected in The Trees, which stands as a metaphor for the eternal death and rebirth of everything alive. The triple repetition at the end puts the emphasis on rebirth, an unusually gay ending for Philip Larkin:

Last year is dead they seem to say
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

It is evident in Freud’s Essays on Psychoanalysis that not just all serious literature, but all thought, is born out of the instinct about death. The death instinct presupposes the smothering of the pleasure principle, it simmers somewhere underneath it, ready to erupt anytime. However, it can still be justified on grounds of “pleasure.” In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud writes:

But even when it emerges without any sexual purpose, in the blindest fury of destructiveness, we cannot fail to recognize that the satisfaction of the instinct is accompanied by an extraordinary high degree of narcissistic enjoyment, owing to its presenting the ego with a fulfilment of the latter’s old wishes for omnipotence.

One of the ways the fear of death can be repressed is through ‘elegant’ repression — if I may venture the neologism — wherein death is transcended by means of an ostrichal philosophical detachment which transcends temporal barriers and bestows the illusion of omnipotence:

Pour away that youth…
Walk with the dead
For fear of death.

A prose parallel could be drawn with Kierkegaard, one of the existentialist precursors to modern psychology, who applies the same technique:

The true philosopher is continually aeterno modo… this philosophy is to be recommended also to practical respects, for it has been victorious over the most dangerous enemy, death, for death is obviously tricked when it finds me dead beforehand.

What Kierkegaard means here by talking about experiencing life aeterno modo is abolishing the accepted temporality of the present and replacing it with the knowledge of all time as contemporaneous. T.S. Eliot’s “And all is always now” would be a motto that would equally please Soren Kierkegaard and Philip Larkin. But for how long can one be an ostrich? Inevitably, even though some people have art in order not to perish of the truth — they still “perish” of the truth.

Another way to explain the “virile” death instinct inherent in Larkin is by means of relating it to the process of sublimation. Freud always assumed that one of the chief aims of psychoanalytic theory is to replace repressions with sublimations. However, this is not a panacea as 1.) not all libido can be displaced; 2.) only a minority of people are capable of creative sublimation; and 3.) sublimations by virtue of their intrinsic nature are not capable of complete satisfaction. And we reach to the crux: “the dessexualisation intrinsic to all sublimation … involves a necessary component of dying to life of the body, and therefore cannot ever satisfy the life instinct.” (Freud, The Ego and the Id) Thus, what Larkin so insistently portrays is the reaction of his id to the stress it suffers through sublimation.

There could be no better example of the “narcissistic enjoyment” that is derived from the expression of the death instinct and its concomitant dessexualisation than the poem Wants:

Beyond all this the wish to be alone:
However the sky grows dark with invitation cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flagstaff -
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.

Beneath it all desire of oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,
The costly aversion of the eyes from death -
Beneath it all desire of oblivion runs.

The illusion of omnipotence, which is the only jouissance in the psychological state that gave rise to this poem, lies in the ability of the poet to openly negate life and bravely embrace death. This illusion is further enhanced by indirectly invoking death as something that should better be come to grips with rather than repressed (“The costly aversion of the eyes from death.”) The weariness and the futility of trying to escape are brought out by the use of unrhymed lines and repeated syntax suggesting lassitude (“however…,” “however…”) Also, each stanza is enclosed between a bare statement reinforcing the inevitability of any redeeming action. There is a mechanical, biologistic, view of sex (“printed directions of sex” and “tabled fertility rites”) which divests it from any romantic overtones. Human rituals as seen as a subterfuge for the truth which nobody wants to face. The attitude to all received pieties is iconoclastic. Hope, which has been treated in the poem, Next Please, does not exist at all in this poem, it has been already dispensed with as a liar that can only protract one’s sorrows; the only reward is the black ship of death. It is from that point that Wants begins.

In fact, we can draw a parallel here between loneliness and death. Each of these concepts serves as the topic sentence to each stanza. Psychoanalysis has shown us that depression or loneliness is, in a psychological reality, one of the most powerful ways that death can intimate itself to us, and that fear of death is nothing but the expression of the terror of loneliness. In absolute love, one fears not death, one has surpassed death. The romantics especially have grasped this concept that reached one of its many climaxes, for example, in Wagnerian music drama. Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde has become synonymous with the concept of Liebestod the amalgamation of the two German words for love and death.

But where Wants ends Aubadebegins. It is probably the last poem written by Larkin about death. In it there are many clichés, but it is still remarkable for the adroit and original way in which the bare clichéd ideas are combined. The themes already mentioned that relate to the attitude towards death recur; but this time in a synectic, cumulative way. Aubade stands for the song before morning of lovers who must part at first light. Larkin’s version becomes a meditation in the early hours of one who fears separation from what he most loves — life itself. Once again, the primordial archetype of Love and Death is evoked. Once again fear of death is alternated with the negation of the will-to-live. Once again one falls in love with what one must part with.

According to Albert Camus “one does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual for happiness.” Larkin found a “manual for happiness” in the Schopenhauerian justification of his pessimism:

…My fundamentally passive attitude to poetry (and life too, I suppose)…believes that the agent is always more deceived than the patient, because action comes from desire, and we all know that desire comes from wanting something we haven’t got, which may not make us any happier when we have it. On the other hand suffering — well, there is positively no deception about that. No one imagines their suffering.

Like Schopenhauer, he declared that satisfaction of desire is fundamentally a negative thing, but perhaps, after a psychoanalytic analysis of his life and work, we know that an element of “sour grapes” has been extremely influential in the development of his Weltanschauung.

2 thoughts on “Eros and Thanatos in Philip Larkin’s Poetry

  1. Pingback: Aubade by Philip Larkin « The Nightly Poem

  2. Pingback: On Civilised Progress and Barbaric Regress « Minimal ve Maksimal Yazılar

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