“The Right to Take Oneself Off”
A person who loses heart and hope through a personal bereavement is like a grain of sand on the seashore complaining that the tide has washed a neighboring grain out of reach. He is worse, for the bereaved grain cannot help itself; it has to be a grain of sand and play the game of tide, win or lose; whereas he can quit—by watching his opportunity can “quit a winner.” For sometimes we do beat “the man who keeps the table”—never in the long run, but infrequently and out of small stakes. But this is no time to “cash in” and go, for you can not take your little winning with you. The time to quit is when you have lost a big stake, your fool hope of eventual success, your fortitude and your love of the game. If you stay in the game, which you are not compelled to do, take your losses in good temper and do not whine about them. They are hard to bear, but that is no reason why you should be.
But we are told with tiresome iteration that we are “put here” for some purpose (not disclosed) and have no right to retire until summoned—it may be by small-pox, it may be by the bludgeon of a blackguard, it may be by the kick of a cow; the “summoning” Power (said to be the same as the “putting” Power) has not a nice taste in the choice of messengers. That “argument” is not worth attention, for it is unsupported by either evidence or anything remotely resembling evidence. “Put here.” Indeed! And by the keeper of the table who “runs” the “skin game.” We were put here by our parents—that is all anybody knows about it; and they had no more authority than we, and probably no more intention.
The notion that we have not the right to take our own lives comes of our consciousness that we have not the courage. It is the plea of the coward—his excuse for continuing to live when he has nothing to live for—or his provision against such a time in the future. If he were not egotist as well as coward he would need no excuse. To one who does not regard himself as the center of creation and his sorrow as the throes of the universe, life, if not worth living, is also not worth leaving. The ancient philosopher who was asked why he did not the if, as he taught, life was no better than death, replied: “Because death is no better than life.” We do not know that either proposition is true, but the matter is not worth bothering about, for both states are supportable—life despite its pleasures and death despite its repose.
It was Robert G. Ingersoll’s opinion that there is rather too little than too much suicide in the world—that people are so cowardly as to live on long after endurance has ceased to be a virtue. This view is but a return to the wisdom of the ancients, in whose splendid civilization suicide had as honorable place as any other courageous, reasonable and unselfish act. Antony, Brutus, Cato, Seneca—these were not of the kind of men to do deeds of cowardice and folly. The smug, self-righteous modern way of looking upon the act as that of a craven or a lunatic is the creation of priests, Philistines and women. If courage is manifest in endurance of profitless discomfort it is cowardice to warm oneself when cold, to cure oneself when ill, to drive away mosquitoes, to go in when it rains. The “pursuit of happiness,” then, is not an “inalienable right,” for that implies avoidance of pain. No principle is involved in this matter; suicide is justifiable or not, according to circumstances; each case is to be considered on its merits and he having the act under advisement is sole judge. To his decision, made with whatever light he may chance to have, all honest minds will bow. The appellant has no court to which to take his appeal. Nowhere is a jurisdiction so comprehensive as to embrace the right of condemning the wretched to life.
Suicide is always courageous. We call it courage in a soldier merely to face death—say to lead a forlorn hope—although he has a chance of life and a certainty of “glory.” But the suicide does more than face death; he incurs it, and with a certainty, not of glory, but of reproach. If that is not courage we must reform our vocabulary.
True, there may be a higher courage in living than in dying—a moral courage greater than physical. The courage of the suicide, like that of the pirate, is not incompatible with a selfish disregard of the rights and interests of others—a cruel recreancy to duty and decency. I have been asked: “Do you not think it cowardly when a man leaves his family unprovided for, to end his life, because he is dissatisfied with life in general?” No, I do not; I think it selfish and cruel. Is not that enough to say of it? Must we distort words from their true meaning in order more effectually to damn the act and cover its author with a greater infamy? A word means something; despite the maunderings of the lexicographers, it does not mean whatever you want it to mean. “Cowardice” means the fear of danger, not the shirking of duty. The writer who allows himself as much liberty in the use of words as he is allowed by the dictionary-maker and by popular consent is a bad writer. He can make no impression on his reader, and would do better service at the ribbon-counter.
The ethics of suicide is not a simple matter; one can not lay down laws of universal application, but each case is to be judged, if judged at all, with a full knowledge of all the circumstances, including the mental and moral make-up of the person taking his own life—an impossible qualification for judgment. One’s time, race and religion have much to do with it. Some people, like the ancient Romans and the modern Japanese, have considered suicide in certain circumstances honorable and obligatory; among ourselves it is held in disfavor. A man of sense will not give much attention to considerations of that kind, excepting in so far as they affect others, but in judging weak offenders they are to be taken into the account. Speaking generally, then, I should say that in our time and country the following persons (and some others) are justified in removing themselves, and that to some of them it is a duty:
One afflicted with a painful or loathsome and incurable disease.
One who is a heavy burden to his friends, with no prospect of their relief.
One threatened with permanent insanity.
One irreclaimably addicted to drunkenness or some similarly destructive or offensive habit.
One without friends, property, employment or hope.
One who has disgraced himself.
Why do we honor the valiant soldier, sailor, fireman? For obedience to duty? Not at all; that alone—without the peril—seldom elicits remark, never evokes enthusiasm. It is because he faced without flinching the risk of that supreme disaster—or what we feel to be such—death. But look you: the soldier braves the danger of death; the suicide braves death itself! The leader of the forlorn hope may not be struck. The sailor who voluntarily goes down with his ship may be picked up or cast ashore. It is not certain that the wall will topple until the fireman shall have descended with his precious burden. But the suicide—his is the foeman that never missed a mark, his the sea that gives nothing back; the wall that he mounts bears no man’s weight And his, at the end of it all, is the dishonored grave where the wild ass of public opinion “Stamps o’er his head but can not break his sleep.”
We tend to pathologize the ultimate no—suicide—as a shameful failure, the worst kind of failure. The shame of not having assimilated into normative culture, of not bootstrapping the self into a legible narrative of success. Of being merely unable. Melville’s Bartleby teaches us this lesson all too well. Those around Bartleby can’t read his preference to merely not be as such. They want to know why he doesn’t want to be a good bureaucrat. And they string him up for it. But saying no can be an assertion of power, freedom and will, as Bartelby teaches us. The choice to merely not be is simply that. It frustrates everyone around it because it defies the most naturalized assumption in existence: that consciousness is a gift, a privilege, a precious unit of time not to be squandered or frivolously wasted. We are urged to make good with life.
But this attitude comes with the privilege of choices. One who can say that things can be different, that one only need to work a bit harder, shift her perception, to “be the change she wishes to see in the world” doesn’t wake up on Skid Row every morning, is not black in Baltimore or Ferguson, does not live in a body policed by the law and popular culture. Moreover, this attitude assumes that whatever prevents this different life, where one doesn’t have to say no, is conquerable, fixable. Often, the sensation that things cannot be different appears insurmountable. Whatever is assaulting you cannot be removed with a simple shift in perception and attitude.
Such is the dilemma of Yeong-hye in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. The flap copy describes Yeong-hye’s turn towards vegetarianism as a decision, as does her tyrannical husband and everyone around her, but Yeong-hye’s plant-like turn is only a decision in the most technical sense. Yes, she does decide to become a vegetarian, but not because of preference, or political/ethical commitment. Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is vital; for her, vegetarianism is her only out from the violent misogyny that she has been born into. But to also say that she wants death and, in turn, that Kang’s novel is a reconfiguration of the normative narrative of suicide would be a double injustice. I know nothing of South Korean culture, and I can only speak confidently of the misogyny that frames The Vegetarian because it is terrifyingly normal in the mouths of its narrators; the first injustice is that I only know this misogyny through western narratives. The second, to assert that Yeong-hye wants death, falls into the trap of romanticizing suicide. None of Yeong-hye’s life is decision, or choice, or freedom, except her desire to become more plant-like—even that is a stretch to say it is a desire. For Yeong-hye, a plant-like existence approaches a state of supreme serenity and disaffection from her world – a position where she cannot be read as a sexual being and, in turn, under the hands of a violent culture. Vegetarianism hangs the human body and self between what we understand and project onto the outside world as life and death. Vegetarianism asymptotically kisses death.
Today, the Los Angeles Review of Books published an insightful essay by Tim Peters about David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon.”
“Good Old Neon” is (in my estimation) Wallace’s finest piece of sustained prose, and his most tortured exploration of the tension between authenticity and performance.
Peters’s essay also features a number of photographs from Wallace’s high school yearbook, which are interesting, sure, but they actually fit into the essay.
Breaking into the strands and allusions that feed “Good Old Neon” (including Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, and Hemingway), Peters’s essay has a riff-like quality (is that why I like it so much?), but there’s also a thesis here, one that I think actually answers alarmist/reactionary “death of the novel”/”end of literature” “think pieces” (how do you like that last clause for phrases in quotation marks?).
Then check out Peter’s essay. A sample of his analysis:
If you read “Good Old Neon” and then read D. T. Max’s biography of Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story (the epigraph of which is a line from “Neon”), you see one example after another of stuff from Wallace’s life that Neal says happened to him. Being raised by people “of high ideals and values, humanists”; making fun of his sister as a kid and pretending like she was obese and jumping out of the way when she passed him in the hallway; having a knack for mathematical logic and logical paradoxes; having “a killer G.P.A.”; playing a varsity sport; being a philanderer with women; being on the professional fast track by the time he was in his 20s; getting into religion and meditation as a way of dealing with his troubles; living in the vicinity of the cornfields of Illinois; committing suicide. At the end of the story, when Neal’s ghost is hovering over Wallace and their high school yearbook, and as the latter is thinking about how impossible it is to try and pass through the exterior image of a person and to enter into the realm of his psyche, you wonder if what’s really going on in this story is something more akin to what happens between Dorian Gray and his picture, or William Wilson and his double, or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk, or the two Tyler Durdens in Fight Club, or even between Martin Sheen and his reflection in the mirror in Hearts of Darkness, which is to say, you wonder if what’s going on here is a sort of a spiritual/philosophical death match, a duel between two opposite tendencies that are internal to a psyche but in the world of these stories are teased into two separate but similar-looking characters, into doubles or doppelgängers who both need each other and then perversely also try to destroy each other. And the dialectic that these characters are working out is Apollo v. Dionysus, the superego v. the id, the false self v. the true self, the rational civilized scientific order v. spontaneity and passion and a community of spirit. The drama that makes these stories interesting is that there’s no boring, middling, mediating ego term to calm things down and to make concessions and to prevent the dialectic from exploding. Hence: Dorian Gray stabs himself; William Wilson stabs himself; Mr. Hyde is either going to be executed or to commit suicide; The Hulk goes Smash; Tyler Durden shoots himself; Martin Sheen has a heart attack and has to be flown off the set of Apocalypse Now. And as for “Good Old Neon,” the struggle is between Neal, the golden child, against the “real, more enduring and sentimental” David Wallace who’s looking at their pictures in the high school yearbook. It’s the struggle between a nihilist who’s yet actively making the society function, and a believer who has a desire for solid, non-alienated, human relationships, but who’s quietly, sadly, sitting in a recliner and watching the nihilists run.
“A Sea of Troubles” by P.G. Wodehouse
Mr Meggs’s mind was made up. He was going to commit suicide.
There had been moments, in the interval which had elapsed between the first inception of the idea and his present state of fixed determination, when he had wavered. In these moments he had debated, with Hamlet, the question whether it was nobler in the mind to suffer, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. But all that was over now. He was resolved.
Mr Meggs’s point, the main plank, as it were, in his suicidal platform, was that with him it was beside the question whether or not it was nobler to suffer in the mind. The mind hardly entered into it at all. What he had to decide was whether it was worth while putting up any longer with the perfectly infernal pain in his stomach. For Mr Meggs was a martyr to indigestion. As he was also devoted to the pleasures of the table, life had become for him one long battle, in which, whatever happened, he always got the worst of it.
He was sick of it. He looked back down the vista of the years, and found therein no hope for the future. One after the other all the patent medicines in creation had failed him. Smith’s Supreme Digestive Pellets—he had given them a more than fair trial. Blenkinsop’s Liquid Life-Giver—he had drunk enough of it to float a ship. Perkins’s Premier Pain-Preventer, strongly recommended by the sword-swallowing lady at Barnum and Bailey’s—he had wallowed in it. And so on down the list. His interior organism had simply sneered at the lot of them.
‘Death, where is thy sting?’ thought Mr Meggs, and forthwith began to make his preparations. Continue reading ““A Sea of Troubles” — P.G. Wodehouse”
This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are ones that ﬂash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one split-second’s ﬂash of thoughts and connections, etc. — and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to use, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we’re thinking and to ﬁnd out what they’re thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it’s a charade and they’re just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant. The internal head-speed or whatever of these ideas, memories, realizations, emotions and so on is even faster, by the way — exponentially faster, unimaginably faster — when you’re dying, meaning during that vanishingly tiny nanosecond between when you technically die and when the next thing happens, so that in reality the cliché about people’s whole life ﬂashing before their eyes as they’re dying isn’t all that far off — although the whole life here isn’t really a sequential thing where ﬁrst you’re born and then you’re in the crib and then you’re up at the plate in Legion ball, etc., which it turns out that that’s what people usually mean when they say ‘my whole life,’ meaning a discrete, chronological series of moments that they add up and call their lifetime. It’s not really like that. The best way I can think of to try to say it is that it all happens at once, but that at once doesn’t really mean a ﬁnite moment of sequential time the way we think of time while we’re alive, plus that what turns out to be the meaning of the term my life isn’t even close to what we think we’re talking about when we say ‘my life.’ Words and chronological time create all these total misunderstandings of what’s really going on at the most basic level. And yet at the same time English is all we have to try to understand it and try to form anything larger or more meaningful and true with anybody else, which is yet another paradox.
From David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good Old Neon,” collected in Oblivion.
I read “Good Old Neon” first back when Oblivion came out in hardback. It was good then, but it seemed more poignant and deeper after Wallace’s suicide. I reread it again last night, and I’m convinced it’s his finest discrete piece, and rivals some of the strongest sections of Infinite Jest and The Pale King. Anyway, I encourage doubters to check it out if they haven’t read it.
I’ll close by suggesting that in some way I think the story works through an idea from Ludwig Wittgenstein:
Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits. (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.4311).
1. I finished Thomas Bernhard’s 1983 novel The Loser (English transl. Jack Dawson ’91) a few weeks ago and then picked over some of it again this week.
I’m not going to try to unpack all of The Loser here—it’s too thick, too loaded, too layered—its density is monochromatic, or monoglossic really, a monologue that threatens to drown the reader. One big paragraph.
2. The Loser is the second Bernhard novel I’ve read, after Correction, which is an even denser novel: Correction’s sentences are longer, its tone grimmer, its humor less readily apparent.
Correction is a novel about repetition. The Loser reads like a repetition of Correction: Like Correction, The Loser is one long uninterrupted monologue by an unnamed narrator who attempts to puzzle out the motives and meanings of a friend’s recent suicide. As in Correction, the suicide in The Loser (eponymous Wertheimer, whose name recalls Correction’s Roithamer) is a ridiculously wealthy man who obsesses almost incestuously over his sister, repressing her in the process. Like Correction, The Loser focuses on three friends. And like Correction, The Loser is ultimately about how idealism leads to breakdown, insanity, and suicide.
4. You might want a plot summary (always my least favorite business of a book review).
Here, straight from the text:
Wertheimer had wanted to compete with Glenn, I thought, to show his sister, to pay her back for everything by hanging himself only a hundred steps from her house in Zizers.
That’s more or less the plot: Our loser’s sister (whom he sought to control and constrain and confine) elopes to Switzerland to marry a Swiss millionaire. This is the proverbial last straw for Wertheimer, whose dream of being a great piano player was decimated the moment he heard Glenn Gould play piano years ago when they attended a conservatory together.
5. That’s like, the Glenn Gould of course—which is what our narrator calls him (that is, the).
Glenn Gould’s perfection—or rather the perfection Wertheimer (and the narrator, through whom Wertheimer lives (as a voice)) affords GG—stymies the pair forever:
Glenn is the victor, we are the failures
GG is their ideal, and the ideal shatters them:
. . . always Glenn Gould at the center, not Glenn but Glenn Gould, who destroyed us both, I thought.
. . . there’s nothing more terrible than to see a person so magnificent that his magnificence destroys us . . .
6. Glenn Gould has the gall to die of a stroke, upsetting Wertheimer to no end. (Wertheimer’s not upset that Glenn Gould has died—no, he can’t stand the perfection of Glenn Gould’s death)
7. Glenn Gould’s own idealism:
. . .to be the Steinway itself . . .
—an idealized self-erasure; a self that doesn’t think, that doesn’t theorize; a self that only acts.
8. Glenn Gould’s perfection shatters Wertheimer, but when his sister leaves him he starts to go insane:
We have an ideal sister for our needs and she leaves us at exactly the wrong moment . . .
9. More on our loser Wertheimer:
Do you think I could have become a great piano player? he asked me, naturally without waiting for an answer and laughing a dreadful Never! from deep inside.
. . . ultimately he was enamored of failure . . .
. . . he was addicted to people because he was addicted to unhappiness.
My constant curiosity got in the way of my suicide, so he said, I thought.
10. In that last example, we see the layering of The Loser’s narrative: “so he said, I thought.” The novel is entirely the narrator’s internal monologue, moving through time and space freely—yet Bernhard constantly anchors the monologue in these layered attributions. The effect is often jarring, as we experience the narrator move from memory to thought to observation on the present continuous world he is currently experiencing.
Here’s an example:
Parents know very well that they perpetuate their own unhappiness in their children, they go about it cruelly by having children and throwing them into the existence machine, he said, I thought, contemplating the restaurant.
We move from Wertheimer’s observation about throwing children into the “existence machine” to attribution of that thought to Wertheimer (“he”) to another layering of attribution (“I thought”) and then, bizarrely, to the narrator suggesting that he is “contemplating the restaurant” (the narrator’s concrete action for the first half of the book is entering an inn). The narrator simultaneously remembers and observes and contemplates—but there’s a deep anxiety here, I think, a refusal to slow down, to reflect.
11. Or perhaps this is just how “the existence machine”—consciousness—works.
12. More on “the existence machine”:
We exist, we don’t have any other choice, Glenn once said.
. . . we don’t exist, we get existed . . .
Wertheimer had to commit suicide, I told myself, he had no future left. He’d used himself up, had run out existence coupons.
13. If you do not find the citation above (re: “existence coupons”) particularly and absurdly and perhaps cruelly funny, it is likely that you will not enjoy The Loser, a book that I found hilarious.
14. Another humorous passage—our narrator, having entered his “deterioration process,” elects to give away his piano:
I knew I was giving up my expensive instrument to an absolutely worthless individual and precisely for that reason I had it delivered to the teacher. The teacher’s daughter took my instrument, one of the very best, one of the rarest and therefore most sought after and therefore also most expensive pianos in the world, and in the shortest period imaginable destroyed it, rendered it worthless.
15. The Loser, like Correction, is very much about destruction, about breaking down both objects and ideas into a pure, idealized zero.
Take Wertheimer’s book, which echoes the narrator’s piano (and Glenn Gould’s own will to remove himself from the process of playing, to be “the Steinway itself”):
He wanted to publish a book, but it never came to that, for he kept changing his manuscript, changing it so often and to such an extent that nothing was left of the manuscript, of which finally nothing remained except the title, The Loser.
The narrator too plans to write a book, his Glenn Essay:
. . . everything we write down, if we leave it for a while and start reading it from the beginning, naturally becomes unbearable and we won’t rest until we’ve destroyed it again, I thought. Next week I’ll be in Madrid again and the first thing I’ll do is destroy my Glenn Essay in order to start a new one, I thought, an even more intense, even more authentic one, I thought. For we always think we are authentic and in truth we are not.
This is how idealism plays out in The Loser: a process of correction that leads to fragmentation, deterioration, nullification.
The fight against getting existed.
16. The Loser’s narrator repeatedly brings up the clash between idealism (theory) and existence (practice):
In theory he mastered all the unpleasantness of life, all the degrees of desperation, the evil in the world that grinds us down, but in practice he was never up to it. And so he went to pot, completely at odds with his own theories, went all the way to suicide, I thought, all the way to Zizers, his ridiculous end of the line, I thought. In theory he had always spoken out against suicide, deemed me capable of it however without a second thought, always went to my funeral, in practice he killed himself and I went to his funeral. In theory he became one of the greatest piano virtuosos in the world, one of the most famous artists of all time (even if not as famous as Glenn Gould!), in practice he accomplished nothing at the piano, I thought.
There is something simultaneously absurdly hilarious and tragic in the idea that even in his theoretical ideal state, Wertheimer is still not as accomplished as Glenn Gould!
17. For the narrator of The Loser, the tragic space between theory and practice is a deeply existential problem, the problem of the individual consciousness’s relation to other people:
In theory we understand people, but in practice we can’t put up with them, I thought, deal with them for the most part reluctantly and always treat them from our own point of view. We should observe and treat people not from our own point of view but from all angles, I thought, associate with them in such a way that we can say we associate with them so to speak in a completely unbiased way, which however isn’t possible, since we actually are always biased against everybody.
18. Watching some beer-truck drivers in the inn, the narrator undertakes a thought experiment that highlights a will to belong, to relate to others, coupled with the immediate dismissal—the internalized abject rejection—of this idea:
Again and again we picture ourselves sitting together with the people we feel drawn to all our lives, precisely these so-called simple people, whom naturally we imagine much differently from the way they truly are, for if we actually sit down with them, we see that they aren’t the way we’ve pictured them and that we absolutely don’t belong with them, as we’ve talked ourselves into believing, and we get rejected at their table and in their midst as we logically should get after sitting down at their table and believing we belonged with them or we could sit with them for even the shortest time without being punished, which is the biggest mistake, I thought.
19. Note in the later passages of The Loser ( including the two I cite in points 17 and 18) the dominant use of the pronoun we. The narrator’s we might be a simple rhythmic projection, a generalization of the narrator’s own anxieties displaced onto others. At the same time, the narrator’s we seems to hold the ghosts of Glenn Gould and Wertheimer, who possess, haunt, and ventriloquize the narrator’s voice—which is the novel, of course.
20. The Loser seems like a great starting place for someone interested in reading Bernhard. I think it’s a more manageable introduction to his themes than Correction is: the humor is more accessible, the book’s ironies perhaps more apparent, and its sentences are far, far shorter. (I feel the need to clarify: None of these comments should be interpreted as a knock against Correction, which I thought brilliant; neither should these comments be interpreted as a knock against the intelligence and abilities of readers interested in Bernhard).
21. I still have two Bernhards in the stack—Yes and Concrete—but I’ll hold off for a while. Dude’s writing is rewarding but taxing.