on September 28, 2004
It could be worse, like the hatchet job below that prompted me to write this. First things first: anyone who is pretentious/affectatious enough to quote Nietzsche solely in his original German- a quote that is all the more obscure for its reference to 'Seneca and his ilk,' (the title) and its borrowing of a Latin coin of phrase- has already demonstrated his bad faith. I'm talking about the next reviewer. You see; he's not assuming that you will posses a working knowledge of German so that you will catch his all-too-coy reference. He simply wants to intimidate you with his high and mighty linguistic flourishes. "I CAN QUOTE NIETZSCHE IN THE ORIGINAL AREN"T I SO FRIKKIN SMART NOW YOU HAVE TO SUBSCRIBE TO MY INTELLECTUAL OPINIONS!!! He seems to scream.
He comes not to discuss but to brag and condescend- he doesn't give an accurate rendering of Amery's book, he merely reveals the depths of his own extremely beknighted 'Weltanshaaung.' Here is the translation of said piece, from "The Joyful Science," (a wonderful book and one deserving of a better reader) It is the 34th song,
"They write and write their intolerably sagacious Larifari,
As if it 'gaelt primum scribere,
Deinde philosophari.' (meaning 'first to write then to philosophize.')
IMHO, the statement applies far more readily to the reviewer employing it than the book he reviews. Yes, Amery attempted suicide before writing this and then ended up succeeding some time after. Yes, Amery does employ a pseudo-existentialist vocabulary in order to make sense of his predicament. But he has no pretense that he speaks for mankind. He simply dislikes the various ways in which society seeks to make sense/marginalize/cure the phenomenon of suicide, and he espouses a different tact, in understanding it. He believes that the act is one a person can approach and commit with dignity and clear-mindedness. Make what you will of that. It calls to mind the opening chapter of Camus, "The Myth of Sisyphus," which is, at heart, another mediation on suicide, albeit from a different perspective again.
His suicide in no means destroys or stains his observations and ideas. I have all three of Amery's books, and I unhesitatingly recommend each one. I'm not planning on killing myself, and my feelings on the subject are ambivalent. Still, I find J. Amery to be refreshingly clear, immediate and concise. He avoids jargoneering and tendentiousness, and never stoops to pathos. He writes in a persuasive and at times subtly humorous fashion. He isn't trying to get the world to kill itself en masse, and he's not trying to get your child to put its head in an oven. He simply wants to discuss and examine, as objectively as possible (though he admits that it is not) the idea that life (under certain conditions) may not be worth living. This is one of the few books on suicide that actually had a great deal of profundity. Worth the read.
The third reviewer is also spot-on... I would also recommend A. Alvarez' "The Savage God," for a book that seeks to confront artistic self-destruction, among other things. "In Darkness," by James A. Wechsler is another book that approaches the phenomena from a familial point of view.
on March 17, 2013
I take the title of my review from the second essay in Jean Amery's decidedly non-academic treatise on suicide. Out of context it might sound like the title of an absurdist sketch, but in reality those five words encompass a lot. Amery uses the term to describe the cult of preoccupation the living have built around their own existences. This goes beyond simply being obsessed by or promoting their own physical life and health. Collectively, he argues, we impose a will on a small minority of people who seek death as an alternative to their own hopeless condition. As a means of constantly escaping from even the briefest thought of mortality, we punish the suicidal or post-suicidal person with freedom-stripping circumstances. We institutionalize rational melancholics in the same way we do those with psychoses. Essentially, we rob those who have chosen a different valuation of life-a total devaluation of it-because it is disagreeable to our own interests. The community of the busy, implicitly most people and extending to the greater psychiatric and psychological realms, meddles and infringes as a means of affirming its belief in the "logic of life." Our traditional disciplines cannot be counted on because they do not acknowledge the rejection of life as equally viable. They see illness instead of personal interiority. Amery argues that this interiority is often just the world perceived, not illness.
The French word "echec" is repeatedly used in the book, and while the impact in the original tongue is lost on me, it is emphasized as a term for setback, frustration, or lack of success. Amery provides examples from his own life, from Thomas Mann's fictional characters, from Freud's painful battle with cancer, each containing a specific echec or jumping off point that drives one toward the thought or act of suicide. He is careful to point out that there are only ridiculous or unacceptable reasons for voluntary death to the outsider. Over the course of the first sixty pages he references a story about a maid who becomes fixated on an entertainer she will never have. This evolves into her echec, and Amery treats it with just as much compassion as he does a tale of a military officer turned suicidal by demotion. Many readers will have a difficult time with the author's acceptance of varying reasons for committing that final act. But his point in all of this is that the misery exists in each mind as it is processed by that mind. Countering with what he calls the logic of death, Amery describes how in each case the prospect of one choice, that of nothingness, transcends.
This book does not, even for a second, encourage suicide. It does, however, take an approach to the act that is unconventional by our current standards. Of course we all know now that Amery took his own life. Certainly one could point to his internment in multiple concentration camps as his own echec, the beginning of a horrifying and hopeless exchange. Rather than detract from the book's reasoning though, that fact seems to point to this text as a most lucid journey along the tributaries of an insider's mind. We can go to a thousand sources for the utilitarian data, the numbers of deaths and in which countries they are more or less prevalent. What is rarer is something like this, a conversation with someone affected, all insight and few footnotes. Let's not all join in that community of the busy, where in order to appease ourselves we simplify or mechanize the suffering of others.
on December 19, 2005
There are other options, other possibilities. If you like this book, you will probably like the poetry of Sylvia Plath (I do) - although defined by her suicide attempts and her final "success" - it has meant that Plath's work has been mostly "defined" by her actions, rather than letting the work define itself - so this has limited the potential reading of her work and has limited the reader's perspectives of it , which is a real shame. If all roads lead to loss of life through choice, then you have not looked at other routes. I would urge readers to look at this as just an intellectual debate, rather than as a self justification for self-annihilation/destruction. Suicide is selfish, no matter how you dress it up. It is the ultimate selfish act. There is always hope, it is just sometimes very hard to see - something worth remembering when reading this book. Life is a choice and it is hard work - but there are benefits longer term. Don't give up, you are needed here - you might not really believe it but you are. You have yet more to achieve.