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June 23, 1972 - Image 5

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Michigan Daily, 1972-06-23

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Friday, June 23, 1972


Poge Five

Friday June 23, 1972 THE MICHIGAN DAILY Page Five


Suicide Notes


A. Alvarez, The S a v a g e by
God: A Study of Suicide, S
Random House, $7.95. the
The Savage God is A. Alvarez' ist
book about suicide. One might str
almost say "round about" sui_ si
ide since Mr. Alvarez spends lon
chapter after chapter in circling de
his topic, testing and discarding "i
various historical and theoreti- for
cal perspectives, without ulti- ex
mately reaching center. The set
circles themselves are always at-_set
tractive-if they are at times syr
facile or infuriating-but after Z
140 pages of his 280-page Alv
volume, the author's purpose is the
still unresolved: dis
My subject is suicide and lit- av
erature, not suicide in litera- up,
ture. . . . No subject is less wh
precise, less easy to pin down: sty
it has to do not with specific Th
literary suicides, but with the ani
power the act has exerted dot
over the creative imagination. sin
With this statement, Alvarez Mcn
launches what is apparently the nt
apical segment of his "anatomy"'am
in q u e s t of "a tradition of dra
suicide, and of "quasi-literary wh
forces which might explain the to
death of poet Sy 1 v i a Plath- ge
whose suicide serves as prologue an
to the book. Yet, even as a study sav
of "literature and suicide," Al- va
varez' account is abbreviated, nat
casual, and incomplete. Dante hir
represents the literary evalua-
tion of suicide in the Middle ist
Ages - a period of Christian un
Orthodoxy, Alvarez reasons, pro- bet
duing an Orthodox abhorrence e
of the act. (Where, we might log
wonder, are the Medieval tales os
of Tristan and Isolde in Alvarez' ar
_ historical scheme?) Similarly, ret
John Donne serves as represent-
ative for the entire Renaissance, o
Cowper and Chatterton for the w
"Age of Reason" - only in the th
Nineteenth Century does the a
scope of the discussion begin to a
become a bit broader, the char- c
acterizations of zeit-geist and ti
Vietnam Veterans Against the
War, The Winter Soldier Inves-
tigation: An Inquiry into Amer-
ican War Crimes. Beacon, $2.43,
The Air War in Indochina,
edited by Raphael Littauer and
Norman Uphoff, Beacon, $3.95,
"We must face t49 likelihood
that the United States govern-
ment, if permitted, will continue
its invasion of Indochina for
another generation." T h e se
words, from Tom Hayden's new
book, The Love of Possessions is
a Disease With Them, are the
unwanted prophecy for which
two other recently published '
books provide the background
and documentation.s
The Winter Soldier Investiga-
tion: An Inquiry into-American
War Crimes contains selec-
tions from the almost 1,000 of centralized c o n tr o01 has esp
pages of verbatim transcript "created the opportunity for an as
from the Detroit hearings by the American President and the seg
Vietnam Veterans Against the state machinery.. to conduct str
War. Testimony is included by war with little reference to the sin
some 75 veterans, with opening wishes of the body politic at ers
and closing statements and sec- home." The reason is simple," dr
tions entitled "You Gotta Go to add editors Littauer and Up- mi
Vietnam, You've Gotta Kill the hoff "War from the air is not N
Gooks," "Torturing Is Just An- very tangible to the average de
other Way. . . ," and "I Call the American" cor
Time I Spent in Vietnam Dead For those wishing to alter this no
Time." regrettable situation, then, this tu
Veterans testified in panels easy-to-read academic study per
arranged by combat units and in provides a thoroughly docu- fie
chronological order of the time mented and highly-tangible of
served (May, 1963-Dec. 1970), background. The editors' find- I

shewing that the event of My itgs are compiled fron a variety the
Lai was not a single, isolated of relatively obscure sources, am
occurence. such as Aviation Week and it
The preface of the pioneer Space Technology, Armed Forces' me
study, The Air War in Indo- Journal, and the U.S. Senate era
china, contains the now-obvious Electronic Battlefield Subcom- in'
warning that the development of mittee Hearings (1970). Material cap
the air war to its present state from the study is quite useable, mi

-style a bit less dominated
cliche and "idee recue."
lome of Alvarez' analyses of
symbolic function of suicide,
a particular author and in a
rticular work, arq arresting-
t his "argument" for the ex-
ence of a literary tradition
ong enough to induce actual
cide remains unconvincing as
g as his substantiating evi-
rce remains so ad hoc. With
dividual talent," Alvarez has
ged his own "tradition;" his
amples do not test but are
ectpd because they support a
of a priori and perhaps idio-
rcratic assumptions.
The lack of rigor in much of
'arez' discussion seems to be
result of haste-he appears
satisfied with most of the
enues of approach he takes
and abandons them quickly
en they prove to not be the
le of explanation he seeks.
us, he gives us at best an
ecdotal history and an anec-
tal anthropology of suicide,
ce non-Western and Non-
'dern suicides do not really
erest him very much. His
pert testimony" on suicide
ong the Ancients is here
wn largely from Gibbon,
ile his anthropology appears
be based on neo-Franzierian
neralizations about the occult
d primitive qualities of the
'age mind." Nor do what Al-
rez calls "theoretical" expla-
tions of suicide truly interest
s-Sciological discussions of
cide are dismissed as mechan-
ic, and, what is almost worse,
graceful. Psychology fares
ter-perhaps because psycho-
ical abstractions have been
ig enough a part of the liter-
y domain to appear tame and
atively "concrete." But, even
psycho-analytic theories
fuicide prove, perhaps, only
hat was already obvious:
at the processes which lead
man to take his own life are
t least as complex and diffi-
ult as those by which he con-
nues to live. The theories

A. Alvarez


help untangle the intricacy of
motive and define the deep
ambiguity of the wish to die
but they say little about what
it means to be suicidal, and
how it feels.
Thus, it is in search of how it
"feels," that Alvarez turns first
to literature and ultimately, to
memoir. Indeed, one of Alvarez'
principal motives for writing
this study of suicide appears to
be his desire to wrest control
of the topic from "social engi-
neers" and return it to the care
of humanists (who will, pre-
sumably, treat it with appropri-
ate sensitivity and who, more-
over, write better prose. But for
all his distaste at the methods
and terminology of psychological
and, e sp e c ia 11 y, ,sociological
theory, Alvarez ow=. ,ocabularly
is often tainted.
Alvarez is quick to discover or-
thodox "symptoms" and psy-
chological determinants for most
of the "literary suicides" he
Chatterton was a genius-in
precociousness, if not in ac-
tual achievement-and there
is never any simple mechani-
cal explanation for that. All
I am suggesting is that the
need to resurrect his dead
father-to set him up, as the
psychoanalysts would say, in
his ego-might account for
some of the urgency and for-
wardness of his creative drive,
just as it accounts more ob-
viously for the overall plan of
the Rowley poems. It may also
have made the idea of suicide,
when the going got rough,
more than usually tempting.
As with Sylvia Plath, death
might have seemed less ter-
rible if it meant rejoining
someone loved and already
(Alvarez' failure, here and
throughout the book, to per-
ceive any duality in Plath's ex-
pressions of emotion about her
father, and about death itself,
is truly amazing.)
Most, if not all, of Alvarez'
examples of artistic responses to
the "existential horror" of secu-
lar death are drawn from Nine-
teenth Century authors. He even
attacks a twentieth century
movement like Dadaism for .not
treating suicide with "high
seriousness." Yet, the work of
Sylvia Plath-the major premise
of this book-is heavily sar-
donic; her own discussions of
suicide are written in what she
called "light verse." Indeed,
many of the better passages in
The Savage God are dependent
on a sense of "gallow's humor."
Alvarez cannot describe even
his own- attempted suicide with-
out a touch of flippancy, more
Dada than Dostoyevsky:
I spent most of the next day
weeping quietly and seeing
everything double. Two wom-
en doctors gently cross-
questioned me. Two chuncky
phsyiotherapists, with beauti-
ful, blooming, double complex-
ions, put me through exep-

cises-it seems my lungs were
still in a bad state. I got two
trays of uneatable food at a
time and tried, on and off
unsuccessfully, to do two
crossword puzzles. The war
was thronged with elderly
Ultimately, Alvarez is less in-
terested in suicide than in an
idealized symbolic act, which
may bear little resemblance to
most varieties of suicidal ex-
perience, including his own. The
"banal" suicide of the poor and
the imprisoned, the ghetto
death by drug overdose-unlike
the drunkard death of Behan
or Thomas-are not his domain.
It seems to me to be somehow
as much beyond social or psy-
chic prophylaxis as it Is be-
yond morality, a terrible but
utterly natural reaction to the
strained, narrow, unnatural
necessities we sometimes
create for ourselves.
For Alvarez, "suicide" is im-
portant 'only as a phenomenon
of the high culture: a tragic
necessity imposed upon the
"creative spirit" in a time of
They do not deny it like our
latter-day a e s t h e t e s, nor
drown it in the benign, warm
but profoundly muddied ocean
of hippie love and inarticu-
lateness. This determination
to confront the intimations
not of immortality but of
mortality itself, using every
imaginative resource and
technical skill to bring it
Today's Writers
Elizabeth Bruss is a doctoral
student in English who will be
teaching at Amherst College in
the fall.
David Houseman is on the
staff of the Interfaith Council
for Peace.
close, to understand it, ac-
cept it, control it, is finally
what distinguishes genuinely
advanced art from the fash-
ionable crowd of pseudo-
avant-gardes. . . . They sur-
vive morally by becoming, in
one way or another, an imita-
tion of death in which their
a udience can share. To
achieve this the artist, in his
role of scapegoat, finds him-
self testing out his own death
and vulnerability for and on
This creative tragedy or sa-
cred Arnoldian rite appears-
to me, at least-to be as great
an abstraction as ary of those
which Alvarez discards,however
dignified or cathartic it is as a
conception. Moreover, Alvarez
cannot sustain this perspective
himself, as is obvious from the
closing words of this deeply am-
bivalent book:
Perhaps I am no longer opti-
mistic enough. I assume now
that death, when it finally
comes, will probatly be nastier
than suicide, and certainly a
great deal less convenient.

recially in such illustrations
the imposition of a selected
ment of a Washington, D.C.
eet map on the coverage of a
gle mission of six B-52 bomb-
with' 150 tons of bombs
opped within a fraction of a
nute on 1/ square mile area.
What the study does not un-
rtake is an assessment of the
ntribution to air war tech-
logy by individuals and insti-
tions such as Honeywell's anti-
rsonnel weapons and classi-
d research at the University
Both the air war study and
e war crimes inquiry provide
rple information to show that
is, indeed, the U.S. govern-
ntal decision-makers of sev-
al administrations who have
waded Indochina and have
used atrocities to be com-
tted in the name of America.

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