“It is an ancient Mariner” (1.1); “The Night-mare Life-in-Death was she” (3.193); “ ‘There was a ship,’ quoth he” (1.10). Is the ship the Mariner first mentions to the Wedding Guest not his own ship, but her ship, the death ship? It would work in the structure we are elucidating here. The ship is presented in its sheer existence. Something about the terror, the urgency, with which the Mariner collars the Guest, as if the ship were all too present in his mind, causes the Guest to recoil. The Guest catches a glimpse of Life-in-Death in “his glittering eye” (1.13).
Her face, beautiful and eaten away. She lets bacteria feast on her flesh. Lévinas asserts that the ultimate demonstration of our utter responsibility for the other is maternity, which is a condition of allowing the other to eat you, from the inside, the ultimate host-parasite relationship. Life-in-Death is a perverse mother of us all, a leper woman who just comes alongside us on a floating ship, like the Mariner, the figure of the homeless man stopping one of three by the Bridegroom’s door. Two indigents: Lévinas argues that the face is always the face of indigence, always evoking a crushing responsibility on our part. Life-in-Death is utterly destitute, wedded to Death. She is a zero-degree conatus, less than a minimal will to live, more like a letting-the-other-feast-on-me.
Indeed, the mother of us all was “mitochondrial Eve,” a bacterium that hid out in protozoan single-celled organisms to survive the global ecological disaster called oxygen. And like DNA, Life-in-Death plays games of chance. And like DNA, and life forms in general, it becomes impossible to tell who is living off of whom. Is she Life-Despite-Death? Like weeds growing up after a bomb explodes? Or Life-as-Death, as tick-tock compulsion to repeat, meiosis? The liveliness of death? The deathliness of life? Coleridge’s pithy ballad form makes it wonderfully hard to tell.
If we are to survive the twenty-first century, we ecosocialists will need to revise our ideas of passivity, weakness, the uncanny, vulnerability, and gentleness.
A face that is far from a face of strength and power, far from a face at all. Red lips and free looks, and utter abjection within beauty, abjection as beauty, beauty as abjection. Language breaks down trying to evoke her. She’s like the woman sniper at the end of Full Metal Jacket, the horrifying shot of her writhing slowly on the floor whispering “Shoot me…shoot me.” Isn’t this why Life-in-Death is frightening? Not because she’s some Disney witch queen, but because she isn’t. “Her skin was white as leprosy”—isn’t it a shudder of compassion we feel here? Of course, it isn’t mediated through the usual condescending channels, and thus may feel more like revulsion.
Consider the Abrahamic traditions of caring for indigents and lepers.
The Mariner is an anti-Jesus (not perhaps an Antichrist), weighed down with the Albatross-cross, the weight of “it.” Now he’s faced with the frontal horror of it in the flesh, persecuting figures—yet even for these he is still responsible.
In one sense Life-in-Death is an allegorical figure, always not who she appears to be. But in another, can we ignore how vividly, uniquely realized she is? Would an allegorical reading (which would start by calling her “Life-in-Death,” the Mariner’s name) begin to tear us away from her collapsing face? Can we coexist with her and not suffer an allegorical-allergic reaction? Can we stay close to her even if our blood “thicks” with “cold”? If we can’t stay, isn’t our messing about in environmental boats just a boy’s game in an ultimately safe, antiseptic, order of the Same? A game of violently bootstrapping ourselves into Being? Into a world that, for all its sublime grandeur, is already paved with the concrete of essence? A place where we could feel at home, comfortable with all our gadgets handy, the golf course down the street, Nature over yonder, animals tolerated, even respected perhaps, sporting around our dwelling?* Where resoluteness in the face of death cocooned us against the vulnerability of life? Where we would finally have sanitized and smoothed over the queerness of the strange stranger, with her uncivilized and unnatural presence, her horrifying gentleness?
Our poem has gone overboard.
*I am quoting Shelley:
No longer now
He slays the beast that sports around his dwelling,
And horribly devours his mangled flesh.
(The Dæmon of the World, 2. )