Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Savage God - Al Alvarez (Bloomsbury £9.99)

The old Penguin edition - the latest Bloomsbury paperback has a rather uninteresting illustrationless blue cover 

Al Alvarez’s book on suicide ‘The Savage God’ had a profound personal impact on me when I read it in the early 1980’s. The study was originally published in 1971 but has aged reasonably well for the most part. Alvarez’s discussion on what he calls the four great fallacies of suicide gives a flavour of the book; the fallacies being that the young are more prone to killing themselves than the old, that unrequited love is often a cause, that the weather somehow exerts a malign influence over the mind of the would be suicide and that certain countries make a national habit of doing away with themselves. On the fallacy of age he says “it used to be thought…that suicide was inextricably linked with young love. The paradigm was Romeo and Juliet – youthful, idealistic and passionate. Yet statistically, the chances of Romeo and Juliet succeeding in taking their own lives are far smaller than those of King Lear…..the incidence of successful suicide rises with age and reaches its peak between the ages of fifty-five and sixty-five.” He adds that suicide attempts peak between 25 and 45. As for “the suicidal great passion. It seems that those who die for love usually do so by mistake and ill luck. It is said that the London police can always distinguish, among the corpses fished out of the Thames, between those who have drowned themselves because of unhappy love affairs and those who drowned for debt. The fingers of the lovers are almost invariably lacerated by their attempts to save themselves by clinging to the piers of the bridges. In contrast, the debtors apparently go down like slabs of concrete, without struggle and without afterthought.” On the claim that “suicide is produced by bad weather” he quotes an early eighteenth century French novel that begins; ‘In the gloomy month of November, when the people of England hang and drown themselves.’” He points out that there are two annual peak in suicide rates; one is at Christmas (that period of forced jollity is enough to drive the most strong minded of us to seriously consider putting an end to it all) and the other is spring which does not always bring the expected improvement in mood hoped for by the depressed and despairing and leads some hopeless individuals to take their own lives. As for ‘suicide as a national habit,’ the French, as in the passage quoted above, regarded suicide (along with flagellation) as an English vice. In the early 1970’s when Alvarez was writing (and perhaps nothing much has changed with regard to this particular trope) we thought it was the Swedes who killed themselves in their thousands during their unending long winter nights. Alvarez points out that the highest national suicide rates, at the time, were in fact Hungary, Finland, Austria and Czechoslovakia.  In 2012, according to the World Health Organisation, Hungary had slipped to 16th in the world suicide rankings, Finland to 33rd, the Czech Republic to 42nd and Austria 54th. Today's suicide hot spots are Guyana, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, South Korea, and Sri Lanka. Poverty is cited for the high incidence in Guyana, the totalitarian regime in North Korea it (in South Korea the elderly kill themselves, not because of liberal democracy, but because of poverty and the breakdown of traditional family support) and in Sri Lanka the suicide rate is highest amongst the relatively young, 15-44 year olds. I suppose no one should be looking for a useful discussion of social trends in a 40 year old book. Alvarez’s examination of psychological theories is almost as redundant as his musings on the sociology of suicide. An entire, tedious, chapter is devoted to weighing up the pros and cons of Sigmund Freud’s and Melanie Klein’s versions of the death instinct; maybe my younger self found this stuff gripping but psychoanalytic theory now seems as outdated as alchemy.

The death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis - a perennially popular exhibit at Tate Britain

The book opens and closes with personal memoirs.  The opening is a rather harrowing account of the last days of Sylvia Plath; Alvarez knew both the American poet and her husband Ted Hughes and last saw Sylvia alive on Christmas Eve 1962. The events of that night are mired in controversy as Alvarez’s obvious feelings of guilt and vague explanation of “responsibilities I didn’t want” in relation to Plath have led to speculation that he either rejected sexual advances from her or accepted them – either way he is seen as being in some way implicated in her death. Ted Hughes was furious that Alvarez published details of Plath’s suicide but ultimately his account of her suicide, fascinating as it is, answers none of the questions that have been endlessly raked over since her death. The book closes with a revealing and thought provoking account of Alvarez’s own suicide attempt. Literature is Alvarez’s vocation and the best pages in the book, apart from the opening and closing memoirs, are his discussions on suicide in literature from the classic texts of Seneca and Cicero to his own generation of poets and their immediate forbears Robert Lowell and John Berryman. There is an excellent examination of suicidal themes in the work of John Donne (“For Donne, however, suicide seems not to have been a question of choice or action but of mood, something indistinct but pervasive, like rain. After a certain point, a kind of suicidal damp permeated his life”), and absorbing accounts of the suicide of Thomas Chatterton and the attempted suicide of William Cowper.

Highly recommended.

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