The Savage God: A Study of Suicide
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"To write a beautiful book about suicide . . . to transform the subject into something beautiful―this is the forbidding task that A. Alvarez set for himself. . . . He has succeeded."―New York Times
"Suicide," writes the notes English poet and critic A. Alvarez, "has permeated Western culture like a dye that cannot be washed out." Although the aims of this compelling, compassionate work are broadly cultural and literary, the narrative is rooted in personal experience: it begins with a long memoir of Sylvia Plath, and ends with an account of the author's own suicide attempt. Within this dramatic framework, Alvarez launches his enquiry into the final taboo of human behavior, and traces changing attitudes towards suicide from the perspective of literature. He follows the black thread leading from Dante through Donne and the romantic agony, to the Savage God at the heart of modern literature.
civilization – as who should say, tell me your suicide-rate and I will tell you your cultural sophistication – for the simple reason that the act goes against the most basic of instincts, that of self-preservation. But it is not necessarily so. For example, the Tasmanian aborigines died out not just because they were hunted like kangaroos for an afternoon’s sport, but also because a world in which this could happen was intolerable to them; so they committed suicide as a race by refusing to breed.
Shakespeare: as in everything else, he remains neutral, a practising dramatist. Of all the many suicides in his plays – fourteen in eight works, says Fedden – only Ophelia, the least intentional, is subject to ecclesiastical disapproval. But the priest who denies her the full funeral rites is thrust aside by Laertes, passionately and with great conviction: I tell thee, churlish priest, A minist’ring angel shall my sister be, When thou liest howling. Another priest, Friar Lawrence, narrates the
de Vigny’s Chatterton, which was credited with doubling the annual suicide-rate in France between 1830 and 1840. But these epidemics of suicide à la mode had one belief in common: that the suicide himself would be present to witness the drama created by his death. ‘Our unconscious,’ said Freud, ‘… does not believe in its own death; it behaves as if it were immortal.’ Thus suicide as a gesture enhances a personality which magically survives. It is as much a literary affectation as was the fashion
dissatisfied with my years. Everything has been done in bouts: Bouts of awful labour at Shrewsbury and Bordeaux; bouts of amazing pleasure in the Pyrenees, and play at Craiglockhart; bouts of religion at Dunsden; bouts of horrible danger on the Somme; bouts of poetry always; of your affection always; of sympathy for the oppressed always. I go out of this year a Poet, my dear Mother, as which I did not enter it. I am held peer by the Georgians; I am a poet’s poet. I am started. The tugs have
more shocking than any ‘imaginative’ re-creation of the camps could ever have been. Similarly, Samuel Beckett began at the other end of the spectrum with an Irish genius for words, words, words and finished by creating a world of what Coleridge called ‘Life-in-Death’. His people lead posthumous, immobile lives, stripped of all personal qualities, appetites, possessions and hope. All that remains to them is language; they palliate their present sterility by dim, ritual invocations of a time when