Michael Godfrey, the first Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, appeared out of nowhere on the battlefield of Namur while the conflict was still raging. King William was, to harken back to older vocabulary, vexed at the sight of the civilian Godfrey and reasoned with him. His presence serviced no good purpose at all! Just as he reached the climax of his composite plea-and-demand that the banker take himself elsewhere and just as the brave banker replied that “I run no more hazard than your Majesty,” a cannon from the ramparts laid Godfrey dead at the King’s feet. This episode led to the cant phrase: “the fear of being godfreyed” (meaning not to expose oneself to needles dangers, when to do so is of no help to anyone).
Perhaps Vice Magazine should have kept in mind the phrase when they decided to do an extensive spread on female writers, their attempts and their successes in committing suicide. The article itself has now been replaced by a semi-apology. Enough to cover their ass but, practically speaking, ambiguous. Ironically, the criticism of the piece has the most pictures of it outside of the Vice print edition. Jezebel now provides us the pictures that, without their context, seem more titillating than ever. Luckily for us, however, Jezebel’s factitious criticisms (“conspicuously absent is any information about these authors’ works”) was not the only commentary. Harper’s Weekly also took up the mantle and, in practice, seems to obliquely rebut the reservations Jezebel’s caption writer had.
As writers smarter and more insightful than me have pointed out, writing about death has not only changed in quantity but also quality. Christopher Hitchens and John Updike round out an impressive list of writers. In that list I’d also include Tony Judt whose reflective Q&A book with Timothy Snyder flirts–if not actually crosses–the boundary between discussing the past and his losing struggle with LS. I have not had the time to read all of the books mentioned but after reading their descriptions I feel a slight itch. I am making my way to Seattle soon, for a brief foray into the city’s used bookstores. Perhaps, just perhaps, there will be a copy or two that will join this greedy squirrel’s collection. I can only hope.
I’ll quote the last paragraph.
Reading today’s secular literature of death one ultimately realizes that the medical language is a scrim: on the one hand, it’s purely descriptive, a way of “recording” the strange time of the hospital. But on the other hand, its foreignness is connotative. It subconsciously serves to express the author’s fundamental alienation from the fact that this is happening to his body, his wishful hope that this remain unreal even as he experiences it as total, an immersion in what Hitchens describes as living in “another country.” The dissonance here is that dying is not really like entering “another country.” As Sontag observed accurately, it is our country from birth: “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” But in a world that lacks an ethics of death, as ours does, we live estranged from this deeper knowledge. Perhaps because we must.
I appreciate the article’s distinction between secular writers and those who are not. Perhaps, one day, I’ll take another look at the subject. I am sure that it has been hacked to death by graduate students pursuing their dreams. For now it is enough to highlight the contrast. The religious can always declare, with Shakespearean significance, “I banish you… There is a world elsewhere” before, in fact, leaving for this “world elsewhere.” Is it more or less confusing, then, that it is in the established religions that we find the most sustained opposition to suicide?
In pre-Christian thought there is little sustained thinking about self-destruction. Aristotle believed that he must remain and die than leave. Others, like Arendt, would later use that single scene as the basis for Western morality. But alone it hardly provides, well, anything without religious exegesis provided by the medieval monks. Others, like Zygmunt Bauman, have pointed out how modern life has made people ‘unwitting’ secular executioners… of themselves. James Tabor has looked for historical examples, in Noble Death, for those who–arguably–killed themselves for a higher purpose. In the cases where the impetus is ‘areligious’ there is little connection between their actions and their philosophy. At the end of the day it is, truly, Albert Camus who provides the best and articulate discussion of suicide. Yet, as the Harper’s Weekly article points out, it is not terribly articulate. It is a giant ‘well, fuck you!’ to the universe. It seems a rather droll contemporary to Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘so it goes.’
More importantly, for all the talk of suicide in modern thought is it not a little suspect at the lack of a straightforward contemplation of suicide in secular literature? Stefan Zweig’s autobiography The World of Yesterday perhaps fit the bill but it nevertheless remains that ultimate taboo subject. We can talk about, well, dying itself but somehow the means of suicide seems a bit too peculiar for polite conversation. Or, for that matter, any conversation at all.