By Barbara Falconer Newhall
Try this thought on for size: “It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late.”
And this: “I live only because it is in my power to die whenever I want; without the idea of suicide I would have killed myself a long time ago.”
Those are the words of Emil Mihai Cioran, a Romanian-born French writer whose somewhat obscure twentieth-century work got a reexamination by Joseph Bottum in a First Things article.
The article, “Words of Nectar and Cyanide,” notes that Cioran was an aphorist par excellence. To wit:
“If I had children, I would strangle them immediately.”
And, “I long to be free – desperately free. Free as the stillborn are free.”
Bottum, former editor of the conservative magazine First Things, is a braver soul than I. He seems to have emerged unscathed from his time spent with the downward-facing Cioran.
I’m not so tough-minded. I discourage easily. So I’m careful about the writers I allow to spend time in my psyche, rearranging the furniture. It was all I could to do read Bottum’s essay through to the end.
Reading Cioran – reading about Cioran – reminded me of a conversation I once had in the city room of the Oakland Tribune. It was with a colleague, Brenda Payton, who was writing a political column for the Trib at the time.
When I asked Brenda what she thought of a particular book that had come across my desk, she replied that she hadn’t read much by that writer.
“I don’t know whether I can entrust myself to her,” she said.
Is that what we do when we engage with a book – or a movie or a TV series, for that matter? Are we entrusting ourselves and our ever shape-shifting psyches to that writer? Or, in the case of a TV show, to that roomful of writers?
I think we do.
Right now Jon and I are watching the brutal Vietnam-era movie, “The Deer Hunter.” It paints a sorry picture of the human condition. But I’m letting it into my brain for a couple of days anyway. The same goes for the weeks I spent last season with a bunch of sad-sack twenty-somethings in the TV series, “Girls.” Ditto my recent read, Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson’s novel about a man abandoned as a boy by his father.
Sometimes the psychic furniture can do with a little rearranging. But in my case, not by Cioran.
PS: Changed my mind about “The Deer Hunter.” According to one AP reporter, the Russian roulette scenes in “The Deer Hunter” were “a bloody lie.” There were no known cases of North Vietnamese soldiers forcing captive enemy troops to play Russian roulette — so I’m suspending belief in that movie.
As for the girls of “Girls,” they can be kinda awful, but I’m suspending judgment till next season.
Petterson, on the other hand, is invited to pull up a chair and have a seat.