Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Authors and Suicide

In English, we are currently reading a book called No Longer Human (I can never remember these literary conventions- ought I to underline that instead? Whatever.) that protaganist of which is a severely messed-up, depressed, guilt-ridden young man. Nor does he snap out of it at any point. The book ends with his being committed to a mental institution and then let out, to mope some more about his miserableness. Fine.
Our prof informed us that the book was largely autobiographical and that the author himself had attempted suicide three times, and then finally succeeded in hanging himself from a bridge with his lover. He spoke about the reverence that the Japanese still have for the author, going to visit the river over which he hung himself on the aniversary of his death and having all sorts of tributes.
I discovered that upon hearing all this, my respect for the author and for the book plummeted abruptly. At first I felt rather guilty, like I ought to be judging the book solely on its merits irrelevant of the author's personal junk.
But on further reflection, I think that this attitude is entirely valid. Here's why. A book is not simply a story, it is also a trip into the author's mind, values, and way of viewing the world. By reading a book, I am trying to learn about new and hopefully better ways to see adn think about certain things.
In my view, a suicide is a defeat. Not that every person who commits suicide is a rotten person or a failure, but that suicide itself means that you have failed the greatest challenge out there, the challenge of coping with the world. If this suicide was a result of your particular philosophy, I would label the philosophy a failure as well, because it did not pass the ultimate test of being able to arbitrate between the world and the philosopher.
So why shouldn't I have less respect for a book when the ideas behind it just plain didn't work? When the author looked at reality in a certain way and his way wasn't good enough for him to be able to deal with the world. Reading a book of a mindset that leads to a suicide is like learning the tactics that lost the battle- useful only to learn another way that does not do the job.


e-kvetcher said...

The Japanese view suicide very differently than Judeo-Christians. Has to do with their concepts of re-incarnation as well as honor and duty.
It definitely is not viewed in terms that you describe.

Tobie said...

E-kvetcher- That's an excellent point. The one thing that I would say is that in this book, suicide was definitely a defeat. The main character was depressed, guilt-ridden and miserable and attempted to kill himself once without success. It certainly didn't seem like he was doing it out of any cultural ideas of honor or duty, but rather out of very Western-style angst, which led me to assume that the author's intentions were the same.
And suicide as angst definitely seems like a defeat to me.

e-kvetcher said...

The only thing is - depression can be a medical condition - a sign of mental illness. I used to think along the same lines until I met some people who told me what it's like. For some it's a chemical imbalance thing, like lack of insulin for diabetes. It's just when it is in your mind, you don't really know it is happening util it has happened.

Good Shabbos!

Tobie said...

It's possible, but certainly not the impression that I got from the book. Or at least from my prof's summary of the history, where he talked about how there was this trend of Japanese writing at the time to be this sort of very dark, very hopeless thing, where suicide seems to be a result of general dissatisfaction with life based on philosophy, etc.

Wikipedia has from the following summary:Dazai's works are characterized by a profound pessimism, not surprising from an author who, after several unsuccessful attempts, eventually killed himself days before he turned 39. In his novels the main characters similarly consider suicide as the only viable alternative to their hellish existence, yet (often) fail to kill themselves due to an equally savage apathy towards their own existence ie. the question of whether they live or not becomes comically trivial. However, there are exceptions -- the aforementioned "Melos, Run!" is a very positive story about the power of friendship with an unambiguously happy ending.

No Longer Human deals with a character hurtling headlong towards self-destruction, all the while despairing of the seeming impossibility of changing the course of his life. The novel is told in a brutally honest manner, devoid of all sentimentality. At the end the young protagonist becomes a semi-invalid isolated in a hut on the outskirts of Tokyo, in the care of an old woman who has "violated him in a curious manner" several times. This work is one of the seminal classics of Japanese literature.

e-kvetcher said...

I'll take your word for it. I am not familiar with the book.

Did you like the book before you discovered about the author?

Tobie said...

Well, I thought that it was morbid and suicidal. I just didn't realize how right I was.