Monday, November 16, 2015
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE SAVAGE GOD – A Study of Suicide ” by A. Alvarez (first published 1971)
When I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s, everybody knew what a “campus favourite” was. It was a fashionable piece of extracurricular reading which was regarded as intellectual. To read it was to show everyone that you were a mature, thoughtful student, ready to take on the controversial and grown-up stuff. Strange as it seems to informed people now, that was a time when undergraduates still took seriously R.D. Laing’s psychological theories and Herbert Marcuse’s social commentary. The books of Laing and Marcuse were snapped up by students anxious to enhance their intellectual profile. They were perfect campus favourites.
Another campus favourite of the time was The Savage God, by A. [Alfred] Alvarez (born 1929). An international bestseller (and still the prolific English literary critic Alvarez’s best-known book), The Savage God was instantly attractive to undergraduates as it dealt with the subject of suicide. It was first published in 1971. When I pulled it off the shelf recently, I noted that my old Penguin copy (with a rock crystal skull on the cover) was printed in 1974. Ah, student days…..
Of course I wanted to see how it stood up to the blast of time, so here is my report [with all page reference to the 1974 Penguin edition].
Alvarez’s systematic study of suicide in Western culture, history and literature is sandwiched between two sections of personal confessions. The first is his long (36-page) account of the suicide of his friend the poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), which happened eight years before Alvarez wrote The Savage God. The second, at the end, is Alvarez’s account of his own thwarted attempt at suicide. As I think these two sections are the most questionable – and possibly objectionable – things about The Savage God, I will leave consideration of them until the end of this notice.
Between them, Alvarez pursues his theme of how suicide has been judged and interpreted since the Romans. In the section called “The Background”, he discourses on the absurdity, still practised in some countries when Alvarez was writing, of prosecuting (or even executing!) people who had attempted suicide unsuccessfully. This, says Alvarez, was a carry-over from the Christian abhorrence of suicide as imperilling the soul by throwing away God’s precious gift of life. But, argues Alvarez, such abhorrence was already prevalent in many pre-Christian forms of paganism. By contrast, Hinduism saw no sin in suttee (widows immolating themselves upon the death of their husbands); there were admired cases of “altruistic suicide” (Captain Oates walks to his death in the Antarctic winds to lighten the burden of Captain Scott’s party); and for the Japanese, suicide of a whole race was preferable to capture by enemies. Alvarez opines that:
“… the more sophisticated and rational a society becomes, the further it travels from superstitious fears and the more easily suicide is tolerated. Roman Stoicism would seem to be the ultimate example of this.” [Part Two: “The Background”, p.80]
He has some fun ridiculing early Christian martyrs as in fact being part of a suicide cult, and contrasts their attitudes with the purely rational one of Stoics and Epicureans. Nevertheless, he is balanced enough to note something unreal about the “Roman” attitude to suicide. Truly enough he remarks:
“The icy heroism of all this is admirable, even enviable, but it also seems, at least from our perspective, curiously unreal. It seems impossible that life and behaviour could ever be quite so rational and the will, at the moment of crisis, quite so dependable. That the Romans were able to act as though they were indicates an extraordinary inner discipline – a discipline of the soul they did not believe in. But it also says something about the monstrous civilization of which they were part…. Only comparatively recently has death ceased to be casual and public. In Imperial Rome the casualness reached that point of lunacy where the crowd, for its entertainment, would be satisfied with nothing less than death.” [Part Two: “The Background”, p.83]
Surprisingly, too, his gives a back-handed compliment to the traditional Christian view when he contrasts it with current “scientific” and humanitarian attitudes:
“ The Church’s condemnation of self-murder, however brutal, was based at least on concern for the suicide’s soul. In contrast, a great deal of modern scientific tolerance appears to be founded on human indifference. The act is removed from the realm of damnation only at the price of being transformed into an interesting but purely intellectual problem, beyond obloquy but also beyond tragedy and morality. There seems to be remarkably little gap between the idea of death as a fascinating, slightly erotic happening on a television screen and that of suicide as an abstract sociological problem.” [Part Two: “The Background”, p.92]
In the section called “The Closed World of Suicide”, Alvarez essays to examine fallacies, theories and feelings concerning suicide. Among fallacies, there is the one that says in the Western world, more young people than old people commit suicide. Not true, says Alvarez. More young people attempt suicide, but more older people carry the act through successfully. (Although Alvarez does admit that statistics are not always reliable, given that many suicides of young people are recorded discreetly as “accidents”.)
With regard to theories, Alvarez takes on and criticises the tendency of sociologists, from Durkheim on, to categorise suicide as a purely social phenomenon when in fact: “The real motives which impel a man to take his own life are elsewhere; they belong to the internal world, devious, contradictory, labyrinthine, and mostly out of sight.” [Part Three: “The Closed World of Suicide”, p.123]. From this he moves on to Freud’s concept of Thanatos (the “death instinct” or death wish) always at odds with Eros (or the pleasure principle). The theory says that the death wish – the desire to return to the oblivion of the womb – is as deeply embedded in the psyche as the urge to procreate.
Then comes his freer discourse on feelings about suicide. For some people, he says, suicide is virtually a vocation and the major aim of their lives. Suicide can also be a performance put on for others. Or the result of a failure to be “perfect”; or of a sense of rejection. Inevitably this leads Alvarez to consider the fashionable “cult” of suicide in the Romantic era, where many young people thought that “to cease upon the midnight with no pain” was a means of preserving forever their youth and beauty. “Thus early nineteenth-century Romanticism – as a pop phenomenon rather than as a serious creative movement – was dominated by the twin stars of Chatterton and Young Werther.” [Part Three: “The Closed World of Suicide”, p.156] Alvarez, writing after the psychedelic 1960s, equates this death wish with modern drug use (the quest for oblivion); but also says that drugs can be used to make literal suicide easier. He notes that “Dostoievsky’s Kirilov said that there were only two reasons why we do not kill ourselves: pain and the fear of the next world. We seem, more or less, to have got rid of both.” [Part Three: “The Closed World of Suicide”, p.160]
All this brings him to the book’s longest section and the one which I suspect Alvarez, as a literary critic, found easiest to write. This is the section called “Suicide and Literature”.
Alvarez attempts to combine a survey of literature with a review of how concepts of the person, and therefore attitudes to suicide, have changed. Roguishly, he interprets the medieval Dante’s very Christian condemnation of suicide in The Divine Comedy as evidence of the poet’s “mid-life crisis”, where Dante in fact found himself “in a dark wood” with an unclear path, and therefore attracted to death himself. [“Poppycock!”, say I to Alvarez’s smart-arse suggestion.] Moving on to the Renaissance, he notes that John Donne once wrote a treatise on suicide, Biathanatos, which he later rejected with righteous Christian piety. But, says Alvarez, in the Renaissance, with the rise of the concept of individualism, suicide was more frequently condoned than condemned, even if it was still under the ban of the church. For Alvarez, Donne’s frequent longings for a pious Christian death, expressed in his mature poetry, are a form of death wish and despair, and hence close to the suicide which officially he rejected. Likewise Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy does not advocate suicide, but does see it as the outcome of unbearable sorrow and hence as worthier of sympathy than condemnation.
By the 18th century, according to Alvarez, “melancholy”, a profound and troublesome condition, was replaced by the more superficial nervous condition of “spleen” as a subject for poets, and suicide was seen less sympathetically as a matter of foolish pique. Even so, in Augustan drama (such as Joseph Addison’s Cato), there was still an admiration for the severe Stoic concept of suicide. Alvarez takes seven whole pages reproducing the poet William Cowper’s account of his unsuccessful suicide and naturally moves on to the suicide of Thomas Chatterton, which he attributes [contrary to later interpretations] to Chatterton’s failure to make a living in literature. When he returns to the Romantic “fashion” for suicide, he makes it clear that while many Romantic writers died young of disease or misadventure (Keats, Shelley, Byron etc.) few of them, apart from Gerard de Nerval, actually killed themselves. Suicide was more a fashion and a literary concept in Romanticism than a reality.
Alvarez sees Dostoievsky as a bridge to 20th century attitudes towards suicide, with his view that without God, the ego is enthroned and therefore is free to make a final and untrammelled decision on the value of life, unanswerable to any higher power. These same concepts were most notably transferred into 20th century terms by Albert Camus.
According to Alvarez, much of 20th century art and literature has been an orgy of the death wish. For him, Dadaism (anti-God, anti-itself, anti-everything) was the ultimate suicide club and was only slightly restrained by surrealism. It was W. B. Yeats in the early 20th century who coined the term “the Savage God” when he surveyed the destructive nihilism of early 20th century art and literature.
As he comes up to the art of his own times, Alvarez sees it as haunted by the arbitrariness of death in a world without God, haunted by the sheer scale of industrialised death (the Holocaust, the Bomb etc.) and therefore haunted by the possibility of the immanent extinction of the human species. In this context, he chronicles the increased number of eminent writers (from Virginia Woolf to Sylvia Plath and John Berryman) who really have committed suicide.
And at this point he wanders somewhat off the topic of suicide to lecture us on what he regards as the most poignant, pungent and vital poetry of his own times – Lowell, Berryman, Plath, Ted Hughes and others whom he had already canonised in his popular 1962 Penguin anthology The New Poetry. But at least invocation of the name of Plath brings him back to the personal level and to what he presumably hoped would be his stunning personal confession.
As I hope you have picked up from this po-faced summary of the book, there is much of interest and much to admire in Alvarez’s survey. Certainly, in the section on literature, he tells many tales that are piquant and allusive. But the book shows its age somewhat when Alvarez lets rip on the things he does not like. Listen to him as he expatiates on the clash of Eros and Thanatos – pleasure principle and death wish – and how it is reflected in modern culture:
“The response of the arts has been to reduce the pleasure principle to its most archaic forms – manic, naked, beyond culture. The new strategy of aesthetic sophistication is primitivism: tribal rhythms on every radio, fertility rites on the stage, real or televised Gold Coast customs in the living-room, concrete poets grunting and oinking beyond language and beyond expression, avant-garde musicians exploring the possibilities of random noise, painters immortalising industrial waste, radical politicians modelling their behaviour on the clowns of a Roman saturnalia, and a youth culture devoted to the gradual, chronic suicide of drug addiction. As the pleasure principle becomes les pleasurable and more manic, so the death instinct becomes more powerful and ubiquitous….” [Part Three: “The Closed World of Suicide”, pp.138-139]
One assumes from this that Alvarez doesn’t like rock music, “experimental” poetry and art and too much sex-and-violence on the telly. And while I sympathise with him in these tastes, I do not think they are really signs of a death cult.
Again, hear him as he talks about the apparent obsession with sex in the arts:
“It may be objected that the arts are… about many other things, often belligerently so; for example, that they are preoccupied as never before with sex. But I wonder if sexual explicitness isn’t a diversion, almost a form of conservatism. After all, that particular battle was fought and won by Freud and Lawrence in the first quarter of this century. The old guard may grumble and occasionally sue, but in the society where Portnoy’s Complaint is a record-breaking best-seller, sexual permissiveness is no longer an issue. The real resistance now is to an art which forces its audience to recognise and accept imaginatively, in their nerve-ends, not the facts of life but the facts of death and violence: absurd, random, gratuitous, unjustified and inescapably part of the society we have created. ‘There is only one liberty,’ wrote Camus in his Notebooks, ‘to come to terms with death. After which, everything is possible.’ ” [Part Four, “Suicide and Literature”, pp.282-283]
This clearly was written by somebody before even more sexual explicitness became the norm on film, television and the ‘net, and also before Gay Liberation and various other later developments had happened.
These matters are, however, less of a weakness in The Savage God than are the very skewed Prologue and Epilogue, about which I have so far refrained from commenting.
First the thirty-six page Prologue on the death of Sylvia Plath. Alvarez (in his early 30s when Plath died and about 40 when he wrote this book) was a personal friend of Plath’s. His thesis is that Plath didn’t really mean to kill herself, but was acting out a sort of creative ritual of death, and in fact attempting to “exorcise" her death wish. Her poetry was enhanced by the proximity of this ritual. Alvarez claims:
“There was, indeed, no stopping it. Her poetry acted as a strange, powerful lens through which her extraordinary life was filtered and refigured with extraordinary intensity. Perhaps the elation that comes of writing well and often helped her to preserve that bright American façade she unfailingly presented to the world. In common with her other friends of that period, I chose to believe in this cheerfulness against all the evidence of the poems.” [Prologue p.42]
He describes her when he last saw her thus: “[Her hair] hung straight to her waist like a tent, giving her pale face and gaunt figure a curiously desolate, rapt air, like a priestess emptied out by the rites of her cult.” [Prologue, p.46]
Alvarez thus distinguishes Plath’s “accidental” death from her “real” suicide attempt ten years previously. If what Alvarez says is true, then Plath’s death was either the proverbial “cry for help” or was pure theatricality: a “show-off”, like something a performance poet would do. And if it was not a genuine suicide attempt, then there was something extraordinarily callous about it. Plath’s two children were in the flat when Plath put her head in the oven and gassed herself. The leakage of gas from her kitchen was such that an old man living downstairs was knocked out (but not killed) by it. Despite the note that was found in her hand (and by which Alvarez sets much store), which asked whoever found her to call a doctor, I am happiest to accept that Plath’s suicide was fully intentional. This would, of course, argue a truly disturbed and depressed mind, and is really a far more charitable diagnosis than the one Alvarez gives. I am of course aware that Ted Hughes (1930-1998) was still alive when Alvarez was writing, and Alvarez had to write diplomatically. But I think the chief immediate reason for Plath’s suicide is something that Alvarez mentions only once, and then fleetingly, thus:
“….when she and her husband [Hughes] separated, whether she was willing or not, she went through again the same piercing grief and bereavement she had felt as a child when her father, by his death, seemed to abandon her.” [Prologue, p.52]
If Plath’s death was pure performance or ritual, then it was a form of suicide as the ultimate rationalism and solipsism. It could be expressed thus: “In committing suicide, I am simply turning off a switch. Other people who will be left behind do not really exist as the thinking, feeling, suffering person I am. I am like nobody else.” This (very adolescent) concept may explain why Plath poems such as Lady Lazarus and Daddy are so popular with teenage girls.
But, as I say, I reject the idea that Plath’s death was such a cold piece of calculation, and I believe Alvarez’s interpretation ignores some of his own precepts. First, that the act of suicide is not a rational game such as the fabled Stoic Roman suicides. Second, that those who commit suicide often have quite unfathomable motives; to use Alvarez’s own formulation, “they belong to the internal world, devious, contradictory, labyrinthine, and mostly out of sight.” And third, that in writing about Plath’s suicide one should not bury the poet in the legend of her death. This, I believe, is exactly what Alvarez does as he proceeds to turn Plath into a “case”.
If Alvarez’s account of Sylvia Plath is questionable, his 17-page Epilogue on his own suicide attempt, at the age of 31, comes close to being bullshit. I am not saying that I do not sympathise with a man who was clearly suffering from great depression regarding his (first) failing marriage and his weak professional prospects, not to mention his heavy dependence on alcohol. But I am thinking that Alvarez was writing over a decade after the event, and he comes close to canonising himself as a member of the exclusive suicide club – as one who has come back from the dead and has much wisdom to impart to us. Consider the following sententious passage, which basically says “I have risen from the dead”:
“Certainly nothing has been quite the same since I discovered for myself, in my own body and on my own nerves, that death is simply an end, a dead-end, no more, no less. And I wonder if that piece of knowledge isn’t in itself a form of death. After all, the youth who swallowed the sleeping pills and the man who survived are so utterly different that someone or something must have died. Before the pills was another life, another person altogether, whom I scarcely recognise and don’t much like – although I suspect he was, in his priggish way, far more likeable than I ever could be. Meanwhile , his fury and despair seem improbable now, sad and oddly diminished.” [“Epilogue: Letting Go” p.306]
I must add a very snarky but very funny end-note to this dated “campus favourite”. In 1982, Alvarez was imprudent enough to write a book, drawing on personal experience, called Life After Marriage: Scenes from Divorce. He would probably have been disconcerted that the London Review of Books (3 June 1982) gave it to his ex-wife Ursula Creagh to review. Creagh had fun deconstructing the book’s techniques, saying they were essentially the same as those of his bestseller The Savage God. She claimed that Alvarez was always seeking to be identified with more illustrious literary figures. Of The Savage God, she remarked:
“The principal literary figure then in question was Sylvia Plath, a writer on whose work, and death, Alvarez became an authority. It was a very readable book and did much to awaken interest in Plath: but it also heralded the author’s addiction to plangent autobiography. Over the years of his critical career Alvarez has expressed the belief that, in this century, true art is produced by those on the edge of sanity, or under severe pressure. By airing his own abortive suicide attempt in The Savage God, he seemed to me to be making an effort to join the club.” [Emphasis added.]
I’m sure an ex-wife has her reasons to criticise her former husband, but on this one I think Creagh was on the button. It is the self-aggrandisement posing as heartfelt confession which flaws severely The Savage God. And I add that after all Alvarez’s intellectualising on the subject, I am still left with the impression that suicide is very personal, hardly ever rational, and mainly the outcome of severe unhappiness, depression or mental unbalance.