Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.
—Inspector Mortimer, in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori
What does our mania for bottled water have to do with memento mori? More than a little, I think. Stay with me, please, while I work this out.
Tomb in Arcadia. Illustration for manuscript by René d’Anjou (1457).
A bottle of one’s own is a token of our times. We are all hydrophiliacs now. It used to be that bottled water was the sensible alternative to tap in tourist meccas with precarious hygiene. Today, no one walks out the door to the library or the corner newsstand without their personal water bottle. Clothing, carry-alls, bikes, and belts come with loops, slings, pockets, or clips for your PBA-free, twenty-ounce promise of eternal life.
Gear junkies can even order a bottle for the terrier. Dogs need their ions charged, too. The trumpet call of perpetual hydration sounds for us all.
Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia ego (1638). Louvre, Paris.
On the subway not long ago, I sat catti-corner to a woman holding one of those ergonomically contoured, insulated, spill-proof bottles made for runners and jostled commuters. It was a Amphipod Hydraform Handheld Therma Lite, a full-service gizmo equipped with an expandable zipper pouch for an iPod, phone, energy bar, keys, and MetroCard. Essential whatnots.
This one had a lime green nipple. Its owner took a sip every so often. I could not take my eyes off her. Here was a grown woman with a nipple in her mouth. She was nursing her electrolytes, protecting the circuitry from drying out on the local between 86th Street and Grand Central. Analogies to infancy, regression, and enfeeblement rushed to mind. Self-absorption, too, raised its hand to be counted. So did consumerism.
But those commonplaces are ready-made for so many things nowadays that the words are almost as banal as their applications. None were up to the job of capturing just what it was about this particular grotesquerie that set it apart from its cousins. There must be something else.
Egon Schiele, Death and Man (1911). Leopold Museum, Vienna.
And there was. The analogy I was groping for leapfrogged over facile correspondences and headed straight to the heart of what Jean Mouroux termed “the miseries of matter.” It was this: Our obsession with methodical hydration is sign and symbol of a sidling, furtive apprehension that mortality is a peril.
If our toted water bottles can be said to reveal one hidden thing, one disguised tension, it is anxiety over the terrible truth that each of us is a frail cluster of cells poised for dispersion. The sorrow of our condition is felt in the carnal pull of mortality. The new mysticism of hydration keeps open the sphincters of denial.
What better badge, however cloaked, of our wayfaring state than bottled water, a thing we are accustomed to associating with travel. We are all earth-bound, all en route to a Final End that we know we must enter too soon. Always, too soon. And with no foretaste of the accounting required of us. In the instant I grasped that, the woman across from me with her hi-tech bottle transformed. Suddenly, she was no longer absurd, the bottle no longer grotesque. Something lifted. I saw only a fellow sojourner staving off the dark.
Note: Poussin’s painting, above, might be difficult to see in a small jpg. Three shepherds and a shepherdess examine a tombstone with the legend: Et in Arcadia, ego. Death announces itself even here, in the Arcadian paradise (no less than on the Lexington Avenue line). It is the pictorial equivalent, centuries earlier, of the words of Muriel Spark’s anonymous caller: Remember you must die.