Death and Desire: Good Friday of the Lord's Passion

To get to Elysian Fields, a once elegant but now rather shabby row in the old quarter of New Orleans, one must take two street cars. The first is named “Desire.” The second is called “Cemeteries.” Tennessee Williams wasn’t being subtle. His play explores the bond that exists between death and desire.

The great critic Cleanth Brooks once insisted that no doctrine of the Christian faith finds more attestation in literature than that of Original Sin. Our best stories say that something is broken among us. Somewhere we have strayed. Desire itself has turned against us. It leads to death.

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After watching her drunk brother-in-law fling a radio out the window, Blanche chides her sister Stella for marrying a man “who acts like animal, has an animal’s habits! Eat like one, moves like one, talks like one!”

Stella defends her choice. “But there are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark—that sort of make everything else seem—unimportant” (509). Despite being pregnant, Stella herself suspects that her desire for Stanley is ordered towards death, not life. Stella has made her choice in a fallen world, to accept the sin because she cannot leave the sinner.

Blanche responds, “What you are talking about is brutal desire—just—Desire!—the name of that rattle trap street-car that bangs through the Quarter, up one narrow street and down another…”

But Blanche DuBois is herself a wounded soul.

He was a boy, just a boy, when I was a very young girl. When I was sixteen, I made the discovery—love. All at once and much, much too completely….There was something different about the boy, a nervousness, a softness and tenderness which wasn’t like a man’s, although he wasn’t’ the least bit effeminate looking—still—that thing was there…He came to me for help. I didn’t know that…He was in the quicksands and clutching at me—but I wasn’t holding him out, I was slipping with him (527).

 

The boy kills himself, because he cannot live with his desire, and Blanche is launched into what we would call a life of sin. Watching her family members die and her childhood home slip away, desire becomes her way of denying death. Blanche know this. She says, “Death—I used to sit here and she used to sit over there and death was as close as you are…We didn’t dare even admit we had ever heard of it.” She adds, “The opposite is desire.”

Like the rest of us, sin is born of her desire not to die, birthed from rebellion against death. The promiscuous know that death is coming, and lie to themselves, thinking that desire can keep it at bay. But desire can’t banish death. In a fallen world, it only masks it. A Streetcar Named Desire hustles us on toward death.

But today the ancient lover of our souls, the Bridegroom, carries desire, like a dagger, into the heart of death. In him, death does not seduce desire. In him, desire, the true love, which God implanted within us, destroys the dominion of sin. Love conquers death.

It was our infirmities that he bore,
our sufferings that he endured,
while we thought of him as stricken,
as one smitten by God and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our offenses,
crushed for our sins;
upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole,
by his stripes we were healed (Is 53: 4-5).

 

His male disciples will deny him for fear of death, but, as his chaste body is stripped, slashed by whips, and nailed to the cross, the Bridegroom does not falter in his love, in his resolve. Death will do its damnedest, but love will prevail over it, love will create a new way of living in a fallen world. How well Blanche herself put it when she said, “Sometimes—there’s God—so quickly!” (529).

Love pours itself utterly into death. From his side, blood will stream, and when it is exhausted water will flow. The Virgin Mary and the Virgin John stand beneath his cross, a new Adam and Eve purified in the Blood of the Lamb. They are the church, constituted by Baptism and Eucharist. Sacraments, sacred mysteries, by which Christ enters our lives, by which desire drowns death itself.

Isaiah 52: 13-53:12  Hebrews 4: 14-16, 5:7-9  John 18: 1: 19-42

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
William Rydberg
1 year 8 months ago
Amen...
Lisa Weber
1 year 7 months ago
Jesus did not condemn sexuality, he made it a private matter. The only thing he said about virgins is that some were wise and some were foolish. It would be nice if the church followed the teachings of Jesus and treated sexuality and sexual matters as private.

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