I’ll pick up today where I left off yesterday – with David Foster Wallace advising new college grads not to slip into their “default settings” in life and be stuck worshipping the surface rewards: fame, money … or to put it into a somewhat dated vernacular … sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.
Kurt Cobain died 17 years ago today, yet another in a long list of “default setting” successes/failures. Towards the end, Cobain said in an interview that “if you die you’re completely happy and your soul somewhere lives on. I’m not afraid of dying. Total peace after death, becoming someone else is the best hope I’ve got.”
Becoming someone else; what a curious thing for a rock star to wish for. Returning to the Kenyon College commencement speech, David Foster Wallace speaks of being stuck in a grocery store line, seeking out some kind of transcendence where everyone around him is virtuous, has good reason to be acting selfishly in that moment and is “on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.” He sought escape through his own fictionalized version of life.
Many music critics in the early 90s assumed that Kurt Cobain was a John Lennon-like musician, someone who plumbed the depths of his soul and sang about his personal experiences. Numerous reviews of “Nevermind,” mentioned “Something in the Way” in those terms, even though Cobain was never homeless, living underneath a bridge, living off of fish and the drippings of the ceiling. He saw his art as more of an escape: “I really haven’t had that exciting of a life. There are a lot of things I wish I would have done, instead of just sitting around and complaining about having a boring life. So I pretty much like to make it up. I’d rather tell a story about somebody else.”
Wallace and Cobain stand as an interesting contrast to the artists I highlighted in my “Introspection” essay. Notice how thinkers like Lennon, James Joyce, Walt Whitman and Marcel Proust found their transcendence: by digging deeply within, telling their own stories and finding there a universal that cannot be imagined or faked.
There’s nothing wrong with imagination and a style of art that allows you to step outside of yourself. I’m reminded of the conversation in the Coen brothers film “Barton Fink” between Fink and W.P. Mayhew, a William Faulkner inspired washed-up writer. Mayhew says “Ain’t writin’ peace?” Barton responds, “No, Bill, I’ve always found that writing comes from a great inner pain.” To which Mayhew shrugs and responds “I’ve always enjoyed just makin’ things up.”
There can be great joy in making things up. But it’s a very strange place to go looking for salvation, which puts me in mind of another movie quote, from “Stardust Memories” and Woody Allen’s alter ego: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it by not dying.”
There’s no one more famously afraid of death than Woody Allen. Yet even he has imagined his own demise by suicide, in his 1985 film “Hannah and Her Sisters.” This time the Woody Allen alter ego says: “Can I tell you something? A week ago I bought a rifle. If I had a tumor, I was going to kill myself. The only thing that might have stopped me – might have – is that my parents would have been devastated. I would have to shoot them too. And my aunt and uncle … it would have been a bloodbath.”
If you haven’t guessed already, the subject of this Montaigne essay is, once again, death and suicide. But unlike his last treatment of the subject – which seemed vaguely, morbidly pro-suicide, Montaigne in this chapter assays suicide from the perspective of the fear of death. To begin, he contends that fear of death is a form of egocentrism – which certainly seems to be the case for Woody Allen:
It appears to us that the whole universe in some way suffers when we are obliterated and that it feels compassion for our predicament, especially since our perception has been affected and sees things accordingly: as our vision fails we think that it is they which are failing: just as for those travelling by sea the mountains, fields, cities, sky and land all go by at the same speed as they do: We sail out of harbour and the land and its cities withdraw.
Montaigne then makes a very astute observation – that all forms of nostalgia hold a tinge of this egocentric fear of death:
Who has ever seen an old man who did not praise former times and condemn the present, loading on to the world the weight of his own wretchedness and on to the manners of men his own melancholy! The grand old ploughman shakes his head, contrasting the past with the present; he constantly praises his father’s good fortune and croaks on about folk in former days being overflowing with piety. We drag everything along with us.
Death is, literally for every human, the end of the world, and so it is hard to imagine the rest of humanity continuing on without you:
We reckon our death to be a great event, something which does not happen lightly nor without solemn consultations among the heavenly bodies: all those gods in a tumult over one capital punishment! And the higher we rate our worth the more we think that way. What! Should so much learning be lost, should so much harm be done, without the especial concern of the Fates! Can so rare, so model a soul as mine be killed as cheaply as a useless common one! Is such a life as mine, which is the mainstay of so many others, upon which so many others depend, which has activities giving employment to so many people and which occupies so many offices, to be displaced like a life which has no attachments save one single knot! None of us gives enough thought to his being only one.
This, in a strange way, returns me to Wallace and Cobain, because unlike Woody Allen, both of them seemed unusually comfortable with the idea that they are “only one.” Their lack of egocentrism made them appealing public personalities, but also heightened their fragility. If you don’t accept that you’re a rock star – would prefer that people “hate you for who you are” instead of loving you for who you aren’t, as Cobain said – the lifestyle is all pitfalls and no rewards.
Wallace too worried that he wasn’t capable of accomplishing the great things that he aspired to achieve. Combine Wallace’s ambition with crushing self-criticism and his own fear that worshipping your own thoughts and talents will make you feel like a fraud, and you have a person at-risk in this world.
What Montaigne wants to know about those who commit suicide is how thoroughly they thought the matter through – would these same people be willing to carry it out if the process were drawn out and painful, not swift and relatively painless?
Yet even in those more vigorous men who had made up their minds to carry it out, we must (I insist) look to see if it was to be by a blow which removed any possibility of their feeling its effect; for if they were to see their life dripping away drop by drop, with their body’s awareness mingling with that of their soul and offering them the means for a change of heart, it is a matter of conjecture whether we would find them stubborn and constant in so perilous an intent.
Montaigne and others in his day didn’t understand depression, so this kind of conjecture seems somewhat off the mark. But with a minor modification, I think most mental health professionals would agree with what he’s saying – even the most deeply depressed people can be prevented from committing suicide if their loved ones keep a very close watch and keep away the suicidal implements that would bring about a quick, easy death. Loved ones of suicide victims almost always have a deep sense of guilt about not doing more to keep the tools of suicide out of reach.
Returning to the more morbid themes of his previous essay on suicide, Montaigne then explains that in purely philosophical terms, Socrates’ death was the most glorious:
According to my standards there is nothing more glorious in the life of Socrates than his having had thirty whole days to chew over his death and his having digested it, all that time, with a most certain hope, without fuss, without alteration and with a line of conduct and conversation subdued and relaxed by the weight of that thought rather than heightened and tensed.
I want to add here that I’m glad that Montaigne sees Socrates’ death as the suicide that it really was and not an execution. A person given as many easy opportunities as Socrates to evade death chooses his principles over his life, which is a form of suicide, even if the definition makes us uneasy.
The mixing of martyrdom and suicide has always made me uneasy. I think our culture needs to find a way to draw a distinction between those who were driven to take a rash, impulsive act based on great inner torment (and often mental illness) and those who have chosen to die in the name of something … whether it’s a “suicide bomber” or a kamikaze pilot.
Mixing these two definitions leads to numerous offensive cultural judgments. Most disturbing to me are the scores of people who to this day criticize Kurt Cobain’s “weakness” in taking his own life. Even in this philosophy-fearing age, remnants of past beliefs linger. This know-nothing bastardization of Stoicism – featuring an indomitable human will capable of overcoming all human weakness, pain and suffering — is the one I find most disturbing. If Cobain and Wallace had a weakness, it was their inability to reach out and ask for help when they needed it most.
Montaigne closes his essay with bloody imagery, an examination of Cato the Younger’s demise:
There you have deaths which have been carefully prepared for and digested. But so that Cato alone should furnish a complete model of virtue it seems that his good Destiny gave him some trouble in the arm with which he dealt himself the blow, in order to afford him leisure to confront Death and to fall about its neck, strengthening his courage in that peril not weakening it. And if it had been up to me to portray him in his most exalted posture, it would have shown him all covered with blood and tearing out his entrails, rather than sword in hand as did the sculptors of his time. For that second murder was more ecstatic than the first.
Notice the use of the word “murder.” In his previous essay, Montaigne challenged the Christian conception of suicide as an offense against God, but here he seems to embrace it. The battle between Christianity and Stoicism continues for Montaigne. As for us, we live today in the shadow of a life cut short and music left unsung. Rest in peace, Kurt.