Suicide and Rhetoric


Carlo Michelstaedter probably didn't study the Buddhist texts. Had he have done so, he might have pulled a Schopenhauer and extracted some of their content to help his own case. Where the Buddha taught one to not even desire one's own extinction, Michelstaedter's philosophy, as outlined in Persuasion and Rhetoric, redresses the 'pure act' in Aristotle. All moments die and fall out from underneath us and tomorrow, also, is death. To be self-persuaded is to die. Michelstaedter took himself too literally and killed himself after writing the very book he claimed had been written countless times before in different forms. Were he to take the Buddha's advice he might have resolved himself to create a better pure act. The problem is that by resolving to kill himself, if we are to look at it strictly philosophically, which is really the only way we can, he treated the monadic pure act the same way he treated the people-as-objects rhetoric requires for self-affirmation. He required actions to be so pure that he could die happy after completing them. If he were to take his own thought further, perhaps he would have canceled his own need to perform such a purified act and been persuaded, quite simply, of that which is left even when the persuaded self is satisfied. In the end, Michelstaedter sought external refuge that he could internalize, thus concluding the value of his own life.

  Even further than the path of the Buddha is the path of Lao Tzu, who suggested that one does best to 'act without acting,' and likewise, to 'not act while acting,' suggesting both the inner stillness which one can assume even while in the midst of activity and likewise the subtle actions which occur unseen but which manifest outwardly. The pure act in this case then becomes the one which is animated precisely by the space of possibility (or emptiness where, paradoxically, limitless possibility can occur).

  The ancient mysteries granted options to those who were patient. Michelstaedter wasn't patient enough for his own self-persuasion. In his system, it must occur now because tomorrow is dead. To oppose to this an opposite example, perhaps, he could have gone the way of E.M. Cioran, who admitted on more than one occasion that he'd convinced himself and others not to commit suicide on the grounds that the option is always available to one later on, so why not just keep holding out to see what happens? This sort of being toward death, as Heidegger called it, then becomes an active feature of life which may lead to the pure act in an inverted, cumbersome form.

  Michelstaedter's work offers us an exciting example of what is possible in the realm of philosophical self-determination, while his life offers us a warning as to what lies at the end of the road when one reifies being to the extreme that it becomes an object to be possessed.

  Michelstaedter turned persuasion into rhetoric rather than rhetoric into persuasion, which is the whole subtle paradox off his existential formula.

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