A Matter of Life and Death

A story of a poem, a novel, and a show; fantasy, philosophy, and a game of numerous lives.

Eliot The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.
Reads: "Do I dare disturb the universe?"

‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is one of the few poems of which I’m afraid. Very afraid. It speaks sagely and sensitively of what it means to be middle-aged and forever lost.

Prufrock is the man that time’s winged chariot has caught up and swept away. Now he’s nervous, self-conscious, forever second-guessing himself – a man whose confidence has long evaporated to the dark ether of age and loneliness.

Eliot’s poem spells out the true conundrum of finiteness. If we could go back in time and live our adult lives again, would we do anything differently? To me, Prufrock is identified as someone for whom nothing would change – he’s destined to make the same choices and end up where he is all over again.

Our behaviour is influenced, at least in part, by how we interpret what it means to live just once. Some of us tackle life progressively, determined to live every moment to the fullest. Some of us tread more defensively, determined to avoid mistakes that cannot be undone.

That we approach it so differently makes me ponder this question of finiteness – or, more interestingly, what would happen if that were to change.

Two remarkable stories I encountered during the autumn have given me much to think about when it comes to this perception of how our lives would play out a second, third, or umpteenth time around.

Everything Changes – Life after Life

Kate Atkinson’s remarkable novel Life after Life examines that very question of what might happen if you had the chance to live your life repeatedly until you ‘got it right’.

Though baby Ursula dies at birth before she can take her first breath, she also survives many more times and lives to tell the tale.

A promotional poster of the front cover of Kate Atkinson's Life after Life. Features a fox looking upwards.

The narrative resembles a choose-your-own adventure that explores what happens when certain key incidents or decisions in Ursula’s life pan out differently. When one route leads to an ending, the story rewinds back one move, or sometimes many more moves, to create a new direction.

Sometimes, there’s a rich crumb of comfort in going backwards. The life of the teenage Ursula gets turned upside down when she is raped by a friend of her brother. Later, in another reality, she punches the assailant, escaping the attack and the years of miserable aftermath.

But it’s not exactly erased. While Atkinson actively broaches the question of how we would respond given numerous lives, her protagonist is one that often relies upon the gift of foresight she gains from her past chances.

When the household maid, Bridget, returns from London with a deadly infection that sweeps through the family, the reborn Ursula realises that she has to take preventative measures. Several attempts to thwart Bridget follow, before increasingly desperate measures force a breakthrough.

‘Bridget went flying, toppling down the stairs in a great flurry of arms and legs. Ursula only just managed to stop herself from following in her wake. Practice makes perfect.’

It seems surprising, but in many cases, Ursula’s world of multiple fortunes remains remarkably small. In a brilliant twist of the narrative, several different life journeys end up at the same collapsed building, where only a different occupation happens to keep her out of harm’s way the final time around.

Atkinson’s negotiation with the question of numerous lives allows for subtle differences to Ursula’s story as well as major differences. Quite often, her fate is similar and even routine – a casualty, a luckless victim, or unidentified natural causes.

Yet, all of this is underpinned by the opening gambit, where she is shown to change history in a second. It’s a fabulous piece of choreographed storyboarding.

If we did get the chance to live repeatedly, who knows how far we could elicit the echoes from previous encounters? Who knows what we would choose to do differently, and how, and why? This is a wonderfully textured, ambitious exploration, with rich rewards for those who follow.

Nothing Changes – Death after Death

One of the most striking pieces of drama I’ve seen in a very long time is ‘Heaven Sent’, the penultimate episode of the latest series of Doctor Who. Its effect may have been heightened by my renewed attention to the life/death dichotomy, but its harrowing properties are evident for all to see.

The Doctor arrives inside a customised torture chamber, where he is constantly pursued by a wraith that can only be halted by confessions.

In ‘Heaven Sent’, the levels of the structure rotate upon each confession, allowing the Doctor to proceed further through the maze of traps. He puzzles over the skulls lining the bottom of the ocean, and then over the movement of the stars, calculating the time that has passed since his arrival.

It is only at the final encounter, when faced with a wall made of a substance harder than pure diamond, it dawns on him and the viewer that he is repeating the same journey he has taken hundreds of times before.

He resolves to maintain his most dangerous secret and to make no further confessions. After a few swipes at the wall, the wraith descends upon him with a fatal strike. The slow process of a Time Lord’s final demise gives the Doctor just enough energy to clamber back to the beginning and reset himself via the teleport by burning up his dying body.

He arrives anew, as if for the first time, and the cycle begins again.

It takes me back to the final stages of LeChuck’s Revenge, where the player must explore the catacombs and gather the components to make a voodoo doll while evading the pursuing ghost who blasts you with wave after wave of inexorable agony.

LeChuck's Revenge Conclusion

As the sequence replays itself faster and faster, it becomes evident that the Doctor, who recalls nothing of his previous encounters until the end, makes exactly the same choices every time.

The principle of finiteness is markedly different here, even by Doctor Who standards. But paradoxically, to the Doctor, it is the opposite. His fear of dying and fear that his current ‘life’ is his last gifts him the same sort of mortality as Prufrock.

But even so, it seems a remarkable thought that when faced with the same circumstances millions of times over, someone might never differ in their behaviour. That struck me as so unusual, and so contrary to the fictional world inhabited by Ursula and her numerous lives.

One can’t help but think it’s an insight into a character that continues to find ways to be unique: a determination never to waver, using perfect instinct, probability and unearthliness to treat a set of circumstances in exactly the same way.

Heaven Sent Peter Capaldi Promo

The Matter of Life and Death

Perhaps it is an integral part of being human that we contemplate the prospect of multiversity. We are beset with ideas, opportunity, regrets, and imagination – everything that anticipates the infinite number of alternatives foregone.

Life after Life is about… not just the reality of being English but also what we are in our own imaginations.’

Does it show a lack of those same qualities if one is fixed on a set pattern of behaviour every time the same circumstances are presented?

That might not be possible to answer. But what must be admired in these stories is the remarkable sense of endurance and the will to preserve life that makes them possible.

Maybe that, in a nutshell, is the central matter of life and death.

But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

2 thoughts on “A Matter of Life and Death

  1. I used the word ‘finiteness’ at school once, and accepted a classmate correcting me to ‘finity’. Thanks to your use of it, I feel vindicated.

    Ironically, your post doesn’t discuss the film A Matter of Life and Death, in which the main character challenges his fate – having quoted Marvell in the opening minutes. I would be pleased to hear your thoughts about it one day.

    1. That correction has the smell of misguided precocious genius. You never need any vindication from me, my good friend.

      Incidentally, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ came up at work recently. I was sparring by email with our resident legend, and the answer to one of my questions came back as ‘naff WWII movies’ – with this labelled as an exception. So yes, I shall definitely explore. If it turns out to be half as influential as the recommendation that inspired this piece, it will be time well spent!

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