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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Fingering the Rope

In Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, under the entry on suicide, Voltaire writes:

“I will make but very few reflections on the murder of oneself here; I will not examine if the late M. Chreech was right to write on the margin of his Lucretius: “n.b., when I have finished my book on Lucretius, I must kill myself”, and if he had done well to execute that resolution. I don’t want to pluck out the motives of my old prefect, P. Biennasses, a Jesuit, who told us farewell one evening, and the next moring, after having said mass and sealed some letters, three himself from the third story. Each has his own reasons in his conduct.”

I’m intrigued by this Bartleby like M. Chreech. I occasionally used stickem notes to remind myself to perform some task, but the note to remember to commit suicide is, well, a pretty cold blooded note. Voltaire’s works themselves were the occasion of a famous suicide in Russia. In 1793, a landowner, Ivan Opochinin, decided to kill himself. On the night before he did so, he spent his time translating Voltaire. In his note he wrote:

‘There is nothing after death!
Corresponding to the most truthful principle, this just argument… made me take a pistol into my hands. I had no reason for putting an end to my existence. Because of my position, the future presented me with a self-willed, pleasant existence. But the future would pass forthwith: in the end my aversion for Russian life was the incentive that compelled me to decide my fate in an act of self-will.
Oh, if only all unfortunate men had the courage to use sound reason…” [from Irena Papperno, Suicide as a Cultural Institution in Dostoevsky’s Russia]

Indeed. While I have been following up the traces of pessimism in the last couple of weeks, I have rather bracketed the frame of reference under which this work is being done, i.e. my triumph of happiness project. A reader of this blog asked me, a few days ago, what exactly the opposite of this pessimism is. This question abruptly brought me back to the whole point of my study. Traditionally, there is a link between a utopian ideal and the critical work of exposing a total social phenomenon. If that link is severed, then, like Opochinin, perhaps one is only left with a suicide note that appeals to all unfortunate men to use the courage of their sound reason. In a sense, Opanochin died of a disease that was well documented by the great Russian writers: the disease of rural idiocy. Stranded in the sticks, Opanochin had nobody to talk to. In his note, he asks for his library to be given to the flames. One suicide wasn’t enough for him – his isolation required at least two suicides:

‘Books, my beloved books! I do not know to whom I should leave them; I am sure no one needs them in this country. I humbly ask my heirs to consign them to the flames. They were my first treasure, they alone sustained me in life; but for them, my life would have been an uninterrupted affliction, and I would long since have abandoned this world with contempt.” [Kliuchevsky, A course in Russian History]

Ah, the third life, the one that sustains the other two! Voltaire’s mention of Chreech piqued my curiosity. It turns out to be a reference to Thomas Creech, about whom there is a macabre anecdote in Macdonald and Murphy’s book on suicide in early modern England: ‘One rumor going around was that before his suicide Creech had red Biathanotos [Donne’s book on suicide], fingering a rope as he turned the pages.”

Now, that’s the true philosophical spirit. And an inspiration to book reviewers everywhere. As I have pointed out at length, elsewhere, the early moderns were prone to talk about volupte, a concept they believed they got from Epicurus, and not happiness per se. Volupte has its risks, and one of them is that it can bring you face to face with your material self. Opanochin in his note called his body a ‘machine’ – shades of Le Mettrie – and willed it to the anatomists.

But the pessimists did not call on people to kill themselves – indeed, these philosophic suicides are all in the progressive line, materialists who, according to the pessimists, simply came to the logical conclusion of materialism.

This short note will lead us to the next round of posts on Maistre.

4 comments:

Scruggs said...

Roger, you sent me on a hunt with this post. I found the ebook edition of Voltaire's dictionary you mentioned.

roger said...

You shame me as a blogger, Mr. Scruggs. The links! The links! I can't forget the links!

Scruggs said...

You shame me as a blogger, Mr. Scruggs.

I wasn't trying to! I was fascinated. You're one of the few web writers whose leads always reward.

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