In 1910, on October 16, Carlo Michelstaedter mailed his just-completed dissertation on rhetoric and persuasion to his adviser at the University of Florence. The next day he killed himself. Michelstaedter was only 23. The project, never defended, has circulated in something of a spectral afterlife ever since, with a translated edition published in 2004 by Yale University Press.
The phenomenon is rare but obviously not unique, and the relationship between artistic and intellectual production and suicide has been a subject of continuing interest. But where many such accounts hone in on the relationship between the mania that might simultaneously yield interesting or even brilliant work while also spiraling into madness, I’m more interested in cases where suicide comes across as an analytical or, if romantic, at least an intellectualized romantic gesture. These, while less frequent, were not as isolated as one might imagine.
Consider the young philosopher Otto Weininger, described in Alex Ross’ recent book, who in 1903 (at the age of 23) shot himself after writing his dissertation, Sex & Character. The incident made Weininger something of a celebrity since he chose as the location for his suicide the house where Beethoven had died. Sales of the dissertation book soared. Alban Berg devoured it, even annotating such apparent non sequiturs as “Everything purely aesthetic has no cultural value.” And when Wittgenstein later wrote that “ethics and aesthetics are one,” he was quoting Weininger.
One might easily expand the reach of these examples beyond philosophy, and into the wider domain of the arts, though this quickly leads to more ambiguous examples. The circumstances of Hart Crane’s young suicide at the age of 33 remain clouded, since we know that he killed himself (by jumping off the deck of the ship returning him to the United States from Mexico), but also know that his judgment was likely clouded by alcohol. Still, as Toíbín recently put it, “His myth as the poète maudit, the doomed, wild homosexual genius, America’s Rimbaud, had begun: his very name was a warning to the young about the dangers and delights of poetry. It was a myth that even the seriousness and slow force of his poems and the studious tone of many of his letters would do little to dispel.”
These suicidal episodes, whose logic has always seemed to me desperately unconvincing, are thought provoking nonetheless because they so radically challenge our sense of the book or painting or symphony as opening the space for conversation, or as gestures of invitation. Suicide converts the work into an act of final closure, a self-extinguishing gift even when the text or artwork survives. Guided by the Christian tradition, I tend to see such gestures as arrogant and grandiose and to agree with Alex Ross, who (speaking of this early twentieth century period and of Weininger in particular) has written that “The bourgeois worship of art had implanted in artists’ minds an attitude of infallibility, according to which the imagination made its own laws. That mentality made possible the extremes of modern art.” Taking such artworks seriously is made yet more difficult since they tend to be, if not juvenilia, then at least the products of young and still not fully formed intellects, and so the texts that survive can be easy to pick apart.
But one might more charitably try to work through the logic of the ‘final gift,’ perhaps reading the suicide as enacting the work rather than nullifying, erasing, or overshadowing it. This is, I admit, something of a hard case to make in the context of Weininger, whose Sex & Character indicted Europe as morally degenerate (he saw women and gays and Jews as markers of a fatal feminization of culture), where the cure was to come in the form of a redeeming Genius (who of course would be a macho man). The argument is riddled with racism and sexism and homophobia, but beyond all this it is hard to imagine how Otto’s suicide enacts or anticipates or prophetically announces (as did John the Baptist) or prompts the arrival of this savior.
Michelstaedter is perhaps a better example, since his dissertation indictment of contemporary culture might be read as leaving only suicide as a rational response. The thesis rereads (and I would say upends) the classical rhetorical tradition in redefining in an oppositional way persuasion and rhetoric, concepts more often understood synonymously than opposed. Persuasion, the favored term in Michelstaedter’s new binary, refers to the sense of deeply settled and authentic conviction that rests at the root of the genuinely human being, Rhetoric, the devil term, names the surface talk that whips audiences into behaviors that, if not dangerous, nonetheless fail to reflect their own true sense of themselves. Contemporary culture has been overtaken by the rhetoricians. Read against this position, and given that the characteristics of a life grounded in persuasion are by definition hard to make public or proselytize, perhaps only suicide makes authentic sense as a way of leading by example.
Here following Derrida, we might also speculate that perhaps only the gift of death (or to specify the point, the gift accompanied by death) can ever be finally authentic, for only the gift given under such circumstances renounces or forecloses even the implicit expectation of a response, refusing the imposition of a debt to be repaid by the ‘gift in return.’ The gift of death lies at the heart of Christian theology (and this was the starting point for Derrida’s lectures), because in the presence of God’s overpowering mystery only the act of self-immolation makes sense as a rational response (thus when one is baptized, as the New Testament writer Paul puts it, the Old Creation dies and a New Creation is born). And likewise, given the infinite insult of humanity’s accumulated sin, for Christians only the infinite gift of Jesus’ death is able to make full atonement.
Derrida, elaborating Levinas and Heidegger, sees the gift of dying for someone else as significant not because it achieves a utilitarian gain (after all, by killing myself I do not avert your eventual death) but rather because it embodies and conveys an act of uniquely individual goodness (unique because it is a gift only I can give, and an act of goodness because it is offered in the necessary absence of any knowledge that its recipient will provide recompense or make an appropriate response). Read this way, the gesture of suicide is transposed into an act of humility instead of arrogance.
Either way, the gift of death finally exceeds the capacity of rationalization, which of course is the very reason it is so conceptually central to the project of deconstruction. As Abraham is finally unable to make sense of God’s demand that he offer the gift of his son Isaac, we too are only finally able to tremble in inarticulate response when facing the suicidal gesture. A constituting paradox of New Testament (more precisely, Pauline) theology is the fact that the sacrificial gift that can never be repaid and which may never have expected a response is translated by Paul into a gift requiring endless and infinite restitution in the form of an impossibly pure response. Struggling to work through this finally impossible paradox in his own discipleship Paul can only despair and then surrender: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15, NRSV). Paul’s surrender, his concession that he cannot resolve his own behavior is, finally, a giving way to the impossible mystery of grace.
However one resolves the suicidal problematic, one returns nonetheless to what seems to me the finally failed gesture of attaching a note (a poem, a dissertation) to the unspeakable act, for such a ‘note’ can only fail as explanation or justification or gift card. And in the meantime, the unceasing collective impulse to talk these impossible constraints on the human condition through are deprived of their most sensitive and insightful contributing voices, silenced too soon.
SOURCES: The information on Weininger comes from Alex Ross’ wonderful book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007) at pages 38-39. The Hart Crane example was suggested by reading Colm Toíbín’s review of the Library of American edition Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters: Toíbín, “A Great American Visionary,” New York Review of Books (17 April 2008), 36-40. Cf., Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Carlo Michelstaedter, Persuasion and Rhetoric, trans. by Russell Scott Valentino, Cinzia Blum and David Depew (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).