Saturday, December 7, 2013

Dim Sum of Despair

Updated March 30:

Welcome back David Brooks!
Wait wait, is Kathyrn Jean being kind of witty here, or transgressively ironic? Risking an inversion of the kind of tiresome and morally obnoxious cliché you'd expect her to be using, about suffering turning into wisdom: as in that's why God gives people, say, stomach cancer, so they can achieve wisdom, impressing friends and family in their last months with the depth of their understanding and serenity. Is she turning it around for some blackly comical purpose? Is she, God help us, doing a Shorter David Brooks?
Hundred-corner shrimp balls. Via The Gourmet Project.

In a word, no.

Brooks is very, very tired. I have the funniest feeling he hasn't written that book, whether it was on humility, or Big Data, or neuroscience. He is sick to death of politics; on his return from "book leave" to biweekly panditry on Tuesday he wrote
I figure that unless you are in the business of politics, covering it or columnizing about it, politics should take up maybe a tenth corner of a good citizen’s mind. The rest should be philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture and fun.
Leaving aside the mathematically problematic concept of the "tenth corner" (is he analogizing the citizen's mind to one of those Chinese deep-fried shrimp balls known poetically as "hundred-cornered"?), the trouble with this antique-Roman detachment for Brooks is that he just has nothing to say about the nonpolitical topics; unaided by talking points from the Heritage Foundation and Enterprise Institute, he is reduced to combing through the Kindle for newish nonfiction books with first chapters he can despoil for his 800 words, in return for giving them some immensely valuable publicity.

Thus for Friday's column he turns to Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It by Jennifer Michael Hecht, a poet and cultural historian who lost a couple of friends to suicide not long ago, wanted understandably to stop people from killing themselves ever again, realized that she didn't know any good nonreligious arguments against it, and wrote this long essay in a kind of Baroque spirit like that of Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), who combated his own depression by writing an encyclopedic account of depression, in three vast volumes.
Chive dumplings from Neo-Asia, Raleigh.
Brooks follows his usual practice of culling random facts from the introductory chapter* for his first six paragraphs before he gets around to mentioning Hecht's book, making it look as if he had run across the book in the middle of doing his own research rather than done a bit of his own research in the course of appropriating somebody else's. There's a ghost of an interesting thought that might well be his in the narratological aside:
people don’t kill themselves in bundles. They kill themselves, for the most part, one by one. People who attempt suicide are always subject to sociological risk factors, but they need an idea or story to bring them to the edge of suicide and to justify their act. If you want to prevent suicide, of course, you want to reduce unemployment and isolation, but you also want to attack the ideas and stories that seem to justify it.
But he doesn't follow it up, turning instead to the direct appeal to Hecht and her two major theses: that suicide is wrong because it is "delayed homicide", bringing about further suicides (apparently people do kill themselves in bundles after all!); and because it is a treachery against your future self:
Suicide is an act of chronological arrogance, the assumption that the impulse of the moment has a right to dictate the judgment of future decades.
It seems to me that both of these are flawed in fairly obvious ways. The first is a classic case of mistaking correlation for cause: the fact that suicides may come in a cluster doesn't necessarily mean that the first is the cause of the others**, but that it is just the one from a set of shared causes (things that Brooks of course doesn't like to address, like PTSD or the hopelessness bred by profound social inequities). The second is philosophically incoherent, since that future self is just annihilated by the act; it's the duplicate of the stupidest argument against abortion, that your fetus might grow up to be Albert Schweitzer.
Hot, sweet, and spicy chicken feet by Peachez of New Orleans, via Maangchi.
The best secular arguments against "despair suicide" would be, I think, pretty simple and intuitive. First, as everybody knows, it's a terrible thing to do to family and friends, and if you think you're punishing them for the horrible things they've done to you, you need to be warned: they will feel really sad, perhaps even suicidal, and maybe guilty, but they will never feel the kind of guilt you might be hoping for, because that's entirely in your mind; the dominant phases are not guilt but anger and eventually resignation.  Second, and this is really the most powerful for me, we just have bad judgment when we're depressed: any big decision we make is likely to be a bad one. You shouldn't get married when you're depressed, either, or storm off to write a book for which you haven't got any ideas. We need help, and as Brooks himself notes, it is available:
We’ve made some progress in understanding mental illnesses over the past few decades, and even come up with drugs to help ameliorate their effects.
Brooks winds up with one more paragraph of his own, suggesting that suicide is "ironical", because if we take our lives as a way of dealing with feelings of powerlessness, we are abdicating a real power:
A person enters the situation amid feelings of powerlessness and despair, but once in the situation the potential suicide has the power to make a series of big points before the world. By deciding to live, a person in a suicidal situation can prove*** that life isn’t just about racking up pleasure points; it is a vale of soul-making, and suffering can be turned into wisdom.
Oh, that's where Kathryn Jean comes in. She just showed up to cheerlead, as ever, for orthodoctrine, and in this case that good old canon fix'd by the Everlasting 'gainst self-slaughter, and got so excited that she just twisted her quote inside out. Never mind.

*Not entirely: the Anne Sexton quote (attributed to "Annie Sexton" in the print edition, corrected online) comes from chapter 9. The citation of Milton's sonnet On his Blindness, saved for Brooks's peroration, is from chapter 5. The pseudo-statistic about auto accidents reflects facts well known enough to have been on television; Hecht cited it in the 2010 blog post from which her book grew, and I suppose it's mentioned in the book as well, but I lost interest in looking. Incidentally, though, there's a statistical glitch in there in that some car accidents are suicides and there's no way of saying for sure how big the overlap is.

**The Romantic story of a suicide is another matter; it was the reports of Marilyn Monroe's death that caused a wave of suicides, not the death itself, just like Goethe's young Werther's, which didn't in fact take place, since it occurred in a work of fiction.

***The real irony is that the decision to live isn't taken "before the world"—it's very private. If you run around telling people how you decided not to kill yourself in order to provide people with a teachable moment, they will start wishing you ill.
Pan-fried radish cake from the Steam Room chain, Malaysia.
Update 3/30/14:

I never read Hecht's book, and I still don't care much for the blog post. Or the book's title either ("the philosophies against it" sounds like a six-pack of assorted perspectives—a simple lager, an IPA, a stout—that it wouldn't be healthy or aesthetically gratifying to take all together). But I just heard her doing the Krista Tippett interview phenomenon, which shows up on my radio Sunday mornings at 7:00, and I want to put it on the record what should have been obvious: that she has, after all, written a real book, with plenty of real research and real thinking and feeling, and her ideas are a lot more worth attention than Brooks's lazy-ass digest.

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