December 11, 2008

Gilbert Alter-Gilbert, Taedium Vitae - Farewell Notes of Japanese Literary Suicides

This post now resides on my other site 50 Watts:


  1. Just. Wow. Thanks, I think.

    That whole Japanese cultural attachment to (and ?romanticising of) suicide is perplexing at best and disturbingly perverse and banal at the other end of the continuum. So. Strange. Compelling yet repulsive, whether in national-historical or literary contexts. And of course, the tradition is alive and well on the internet too.

  2. Thanks peacay. Gilbert and I were joking that this post will keep the goth kids happy (and wait until they see Eberhardt's necrophilia story coming next week).

    Actually I feel a little evil for posting this in the winter (at least over here -- it snowed in New Orleans for the first time in 40 years yesterday -- and rained for 18 hours in Philly). I read Akutagawa's last two stories -- and suicide note -- one winter in my early 20s, the same winter I read Hans Henny Jahnn's bleak "Ship" and Hedayat's "Blind Owl." I wouldn't wish the mental aftermath of that reading experience on my worst enemy.

    Thinking of the post-Werther suicides in Germany, I wonder what would have happened if Goethe actually committed suicide after publishing Werther?

    (I'm afraid to investigate current Japanese literary suicides now that you point out it's still happening.)

  3. Oh I didn't mean literary is current (although it might be). I was just thinking how the literary was but one component of a larger cultural tradition; that whole historical Japanese fascination-obsession with suicide. One hears from time to time about teenage pacts and website support groups for those contemplating it. I mean, I know it occurs everywhere, in every country, to an extent; but in Japan it's almost an ethos, an element of the national psyche. I do say that with a distant westerner's ignorant point of view however, and it's quite possibly more related to me and my reaction to the bits and bobs I've come across in life and not necessarily a true reflection of fact (although, I still suspect it's at least a partially true observation)
    Do I the sense making be?

  4. I think you're right.

    I was surprised to learn from Gilbert's article that there are so many terms for/types of suicide in Japan... but not too surprised.

  5. Just about bought a book by Mishima the other day. Hadn't heard of him but it looked good. Remarkable coincidence this post. Must go back and buy it now.

  6. "while gokuraku-ojo is the death (of a woman) through prolonged sexual intercourse"

    Yikes. Can that actually happen?

    I thought it was interesting in the case of Dazai, that he had a partner with him in numerous suicide attempts. That finding someone to commit suicide with wasn't too difficult a thing to do.

    I remember reading Rashomon a while back. There is one illustration in the book of an old whithered women that I won't soon forget. That illustration was as morbid and sinister as the writing.

  7. Very interesting article, Thank you!

  8. I find the cultural embrace of and discourse on suicide very interesting and possibly quite healthy. It's obviously reflective of my anti-religious and anti-spiritual attitude about life and death, which allows plenty of room, in the end, for graceful and honorable and thoughtful self-termination. It's an attitude that is definitely more in line with a modern secular tradition like Japan's than with the American Christian stance which continues to cast a complete aura of taboo and irreparable shame around the notion of suicide.

    That being said, I haven't read much suicide literature, besides some big authors like Mishima. I need to check more of it out....but (as you mentioned) probably not in this winter! Not in Seattle anyway, where everyone fights off the crazies for a few gloomy months every year.

    Oh, and the bit about gokuraku-ojo also made me smile! Jarry's Le Surmale suddenly sprang to mind, though I can't locate my copy at the moment and I can't remember off the top of my head if, in his orgiastic display of virility at the end of the book he f-s his womenfolk to death or not. I thought he did? But then, I suppose that wouldn't quite be the same things as gokuraku-ojo....

  9. Haha, Amanda, Le Surmale is superb! Oh, I haven't read that book in ages! Thanks for reminding me.

    And Will, this blog is amazing. I must commend you for your efforts in providing a non-stop stream of awesome. And you're in Philly? Two of my best friends attend Penn (I'm a freshman at Princeton)... small world.

    Keep up the great work!

  10. Thanks for all the comments.

    I just came across an article in an old Believer about Mishima's suicide and Japan's reaction at the time. I'll add an excerpt from it asap. Apparently many people thought he was "forty years too late" -- which would make sense in light of the 1935 date on that Time article.

    Amanda, I'm still amused by a blog posting I saw about Supermale which used Ron Jeremy as an illustration.

    Mathieu, thanks for the compliment -- I envy your local record store, radio station, and Jarry archive.

  11. Where did you see this Ron Jeremy illustration?! That sounds amazing! What a perfect example. Haha.

  12. Mathieu & Amanda, here is the post on Jarry featuring a rather good photo of Ron.

    Also, here's the Princeton Jarry collection. If you ever make it there, Matheiu, find out something about the collector Charles K. Warner for us. He must have been an interesting guy. (Or boring as hell with a good book collection.)

  13. The intersection of Ron Jeremy and Jarry is too funny! Lordy.

  14. I shall do my part, Will. I will gladly inundate your fine site with all manner of obscure Jarry relics. Seriously, how can anyone not love this man?

    What do you want me to search for on M. Warner? Let me know! I'm definitely curious now!

  15. Matt, nothing in particular about Warner -- just wondering what led him to amass the collection and if he has any correspondence.

    If you find a photo of him, monocled and snarling and pimping his 'pataphysics collection, scan it!