A Matter of Life and Death
By William Grice
The year 2004 was much concerned with the Olympics, and because they were held in Athens, there were several reminders of Greek mythology in the media. One in particular occurred to me as being directly relevant to the subject of life and death in a powerful way. I refer to that part of Homer’s Odyssey wherein Odysseus is being detained by Calypso on her paradise island. After a while (albeit presumably a very long while) Odysseus makes the sudden announcement to the very beautiful Calypso that he really ought to be getting back to his wife Penelope, who must be getting anxious.
Calypso expresses surprise; how can Odysseus possibly think of leaving such a perfect state of unending sensual satisfaction? After all, returning to his former life will only mean facing the prospect of the eventual ageing, sickening and the inevitable ending in death of himself, his wife, and all that he holds dear. Remaining with Calypso includes the prospect of immortality, to share and enjoy her paradise forever. On the face of it, this seems the easiest of choices; a real ‘no-brainer’ if ever there was one. For all that, Odysseus takes a considerable length of time to ponder, although perhaps ‘meditate’ is a more appropriate word. The understanding gradually becomes clear to him that it is the very fact that life is finite and temporal that imbues it with its meaning, form and zest. Take life out of its focusing timeframe and spread it thinly over infinity and it becomes as unexciting and featureless as the endless desert. And so Odysseus, a.k.a. Ulysses, took leave of Calypso. I suspect that many of us would think he also took leave of his senses. It is a modern-day preoccupation of the western world to strive for the everlasting life which he declined. We are bombarded from all sides by advertising offering us eternal youth if we just consume this pill or rub on this lotion. It only needs for sales jingles to take the form of ‘calypsos’ for the circle to be complete.
Come to think of it, this potty preoccupation only makes any sense so long as we don’t think about it. Death, that is. Our mortality. If we do think about it, as Homer across the millennia caused me to think on it, the ‘D’ word is perhaps not so bad after all. It is quite striking that those myths and legends from such a bygone age continue to have such relevance today. If you will pardon such present day vulgar terminology, even ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’ will pall eventually. Being surfeited, the appetite will sicken and so die.
The three heavenly messengers of the Buddha, the signs of decrepitude, ageing and death, are herein intertwined as the other side of the same coin. Just as Odysseus could not have it both ways, neither can we on our odyssey through life. There seems to me a beautiful ‘rightness’ about all this. The state of constant change that is the paradox of our earthly existence can serve as a reminder of the choice made by Odysseus — and why he made it.