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On Pišťanek, Death, and Literature that Affirms Life

By Blog Admin, on 30 March 2015

Tim Beasley-Murray reflects on the recent death of one of Slovakia’s leading contemporary writers.

There is an old commonplace – one that goes back to Seneca and reemerges throughout Western culture, say, in Montaigne or Heidegger – that says that it is death that gives meaning to life. More specifically, as one version of this commonplace would have it: one can only understand the life of an individual in the light of the manner of his or her death.

To my mind, these sorts of ideas and the thanatocentrism that they represent are completely misplaced. How can life gain its meaning from the often banal, often painful, often violent means by which life comes or is put to an end? Here, I am with Nietzsche and his insistence that the meaning of life can only be sought within life itself. Conceptualizing life in terms of death, thanatocentrism does little more than justify the claims of death over life. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori…. Well, we know where such ideas lead us: to societies that are willing – as on the killing fields of the First World War – to sacrifice the living by their thousands and hundreds of thousands.

Nevertheless, there is a grain of truth to the thanatocentric commonplace. And, as so often, the German thinker and critic, Walter Benjamin, puts his finger elegantly on the spot:

“‘A man who dies at the age of thirty-five,’ Moritz Heinemann once said, ‘is at every point of his life a man who dies at the age of thirty-five.’ Nothing is more dubious than this sentence – but for the sole reason that the tense is wrong. A man – so says the truth that was meant here – who died at the age of thirty-five will appear to remembrance at every point of his life as a man who dies at the age of thirty-five. In other words, the statement that makes no sense for real life becomes indisputable for remembered life.”

Benjamin’s point is a simple one: it is not the manner of an individual’s death that makes sense of his life, but those who live on and remember that person will always do so in the shadow of his or her death. Their memories of that person will always be coloured or darkened by that shadow. If my friend has died at the age of thirty-five, I cannot look back and remember the joyous things that we did together without a certain colouring of those memories: that was the only time we were able to sit talking and looking out over the sunlit bay; he will never again have the chance to play with his children on a bright spring morning; and so on. The sunlight of memory under the shadow of death.

Benjamin’s twist on the thanatocentric commonplace has special relevance to writers and other characters in the long-running drama that is cultural-historical memory. The way that the writer dies, above all if that death is unusual, stains indelibly our reading of her or his work. (It does not matter how vociferously we claim today that we have liberated ourselves from the biographical fallacy that openly held sway over previous literary-critical eras.) Is it possible to read Silvia Plath without seeking out in her texts – even in her children’s stories – premonitions of suicide? Doesn’t Rupert Brooke’s death by blood-poisoning in the Eastern Mediterranean lend a septic note to his most Englishly healthy verses? Is not, in the way that we think about him now, the tragedy of Primo Levi not only the horror of the camps but also the fatal (accidental-on-purpose) fall down the stairs forty years later? And doesn’t even Pushkin’s poetry fail to escape what we know of the absurd cruelty of his death in the duel, and thereby itself become a little absurd? The list could go on: Nietzsche, the madness and agony of syphilis; Camus, the senseless accident and heroism of the sports car; Yukio Mishima, suppuku – all these deaths colour the work and our reading of it.

And now another writer joins this list. Last week, Peter Pišťanek, a writer whose voice was the most powerful, original and distinctive in Slovak literature, committed suicide. This is truly a great loss in so many ways. Since he burst onto the scene in the early 1990s, Pišťanek’s extraordinary writing, characterized by sheer exuberance and sheer excess, has been a revitalizing force, reinvigorating his readers, reinvigorating Slovak literature, reinvigorating literature full-stop. And it is here that I wish to resist thanatocentrism once again, even in the mnemonic variant proposed by Benjamin, and to continue to resist the biographical fallacy. Who knows the real reason for Pišťanek’s suicide? That suicide was the final act in a personal tragedy, albeit a tragedy that deeply affects so many others, his friends, his readers and admirers, in Slovakia and beyond. But let us keep that tragedy apart from the irrepressible comedy of Pišťanek’s writing, from the vital, life-affirming ‘yes’ that is his contribution to literature. Let us not read him under the shadow of death, but rather in the full light of day

 

Tim Beasley-Murray is Senior Lecturer in European Thought and Culture at UCL SSEES.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL