After the death of Anthony Bourdain I’ve been hearing the word ‘suicide contagion’ being bandied around as if it were a Meme or a Gif. I don’t like the sound of it, no one does. Yet despite its shallow nature t does bring up some deep questions about human nature.
In the late 18th century the first case of copycat suicide plagued Europe. Known as ‘Werther Fever’ after the Goethe novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the main character shoots himself with a pistol after being rejected by the woman he loved. The book was subsequently banned in several countries because of the suicide trend it had inspired in youths.
Human beings are a social animal. And this is a Pandora’s Box of a gift and a curse. It has enabled us to create skyscraping cities and reach the edges of our solar system – but it leaves us susceptible to the malign influence of the society that cradles us. We are a copycat animal. If you are well-versed in the evolutionary psychology of our species you would find no mystery here.
What I do find mysterious, and challenging, is the question: are we doomed to our Fate? Are some people doomed to depression and suicide? Is there any hope for them?
The Ancient Greeks believed that the Sisters of Fate weaved the story of a human being’s life from an early age. This Fate was unbreakable. Not even the gods – except Zeus – could undo the machinations of Fate. Even Odysseus, whom Poseidon despised for killing his son, could not be stopped from returning home to Ithaca. Mighty Poseidon knew he couldn’t kill Odysseus, merely make his return journey a living hell.
Of course we now live in a different age. A secular, scientific age. We know fate is merely a construct of the human mind. And yet, is there some sort of predestination at work within us? Not in the threads of the Sisters of Fate – but in our genes? Are some of us more genetically disposed to being suicidal just as some of us are genetically predisposed to being tall or obnoxious?
I’m not enough of a geneticist to know the answer. But I think that even if geneticists were to tell us that, that people like Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade were genetically fated down the path of self-destruction, I wouldn’t feel utterly hopeless.
Imagine if some geneticist told you you are genetically predisposed to being fat. What would you do? Wallow in your inevitable obesity, give yourself up to your genetic fate until you’re the size of a small whale? Or, better yet, would you take care of your weight, exercise, and fight the threads woven to you by your genes? The news of your genetic predisposition should be an enlightenment.
Knowledge is power. Knowledge is a means of fighting the fight even the Greeks wouldn’t dare take on: the fight against Fate.
And for those of you out there fighting the fight against not just Fate, but loneliness, sadness, depression, all the evils of the Box, I would like to try to arm you for your fight with the only weapons I know: books. Literature, the dreams and aspirations of fellow minds, this is perhaps the hope left behind by Pandora in her box. And of course, remember, do reach out, you’re never as alone as your darkness would have you think.
Zorba the Greek
A novel set on a backward, idyllic Crete, dealing with the larger-than-life figure of Alexis Zorba. You’ve heard the soundtrack of Zorba. You’ve seen Anthony Quinn dancing to it on a black-and-white beach. You’ve heard his booming laugh. That is what Zorba the Greek is all about. A big, bastard laugh in the face of life. A novel full of ballsy happiness. Zorba is an Epicurean hero with Iggy Pop’s lust for life. And the story takes place on a tranquil beach where the simple pleasures of life, the wine, the bread, the sea and the mountains take centre stage. A book that makes you want to take on life head on.
Staying on the Greek sea, this time thousands of years ago. The first travel book. One of the oldest epics known to man. Essentially the foundation of Western civilization. The true Bible and origin story of the West. And an amazing travel story to boot; full of adventure, sea monsters, seductive nymphs, war and epic struggle. I loved this for it is a tour of the ancient Greek world, a world still teetering between the barbaric and the divine. It is full of the unharvestable sea and petty gods. It is an adventure that makes you see the world in its infancy.
The Old Capital
A calmer epic than the Odyssey. In fact, it’s not an epic at all. It’s a Japanese lullaby. Full of cherry blossoms, geishas, kimonos and temples. Reading this book is like falling asleep to a soft breeze with the sound of the waves surrounding you. A book full of innocence, tradition and simplicity in a rapidly changing metropolis of an existence. This book gives me hope that the calm life, free of excessive stress and constraints, is still possible.
Another Japanese master-class by the author of the sombre, horrifying Silence; Shusaku Endo. This Catholic author, the Graham Greene of Japan, here writes the story of four Japanese tourists on a pilgrimage in India. Each one is seeking some spiritual revelation. Each one is enthralled by the landscape, by the temerous nature of the Ganges and the people living along its banks and in its dirtied waters. A slow-moving, reflective journey that makes one feel introspective and, dare I say it, at peace.
The Better Angels of Our Nature
This isn’t a book that will make you feel hopeful in a tingly-tingly kind of way. This book is the culmination of what the Odyssey started. If the Odyssey chronicles the birth of Western civilization than Steven Pinker here celebrates that civilization’s manifold achievements. Harvard psychologist Pinker deserves a Nobel Prize for this book. A book that brazenly argues that we are living in the best era of human history. Wars are down, crime is down, global poverty on the whole is down, slavery is abolished, religion is tamed… and what is all this progress down to? Simple: reason.
A Moveable Feast
Paris is hope. Paris in the 1920’s is a nostalgic dream worth fighting for. “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.” This personal account of Hemignway’s days in Paris is full of exquisite writing of simple pleasures. Look how he writes about eating an oyster here. It makes it feel as grandiose as a Baroque cathedral. And yet, just eating an oyster takes away the emptiness and fills him with happiness. If that doesn’t excite one into the Parnassus of hope I don’t know what will.
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Not the most optimistic of titles, granted. But this magic-realist magnum opus by Gabriel Garcia Marquez has one of the most hopeful, touching and Romantic endings to any tale. If the ancient Greeks had been a bit more optimistic, this is the kind of myth they would have concocted.
“And how long do you think we can keep up this goddamn coming and
going?” he asked.
Florentino Ariza had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights.
“Forever,” he said.
After an entire novel, a lifetime, of the two lovers struggling to find each other, here they are, ending their life shunning everything except themselves, the river, and the boat. Forever sailing the Amazon together, as long as they lived. It makes it even more uplifting knowing that these two lovers weren’t teenagers – they were old-age romantics!
The Geography of Bliss
An unhappy man’s travels around the world to try and understand happiness. From India, to England, Moldova and Iceland; Eric Weiner seeks the different ways people find happiness, be it in eating, drinking, spirituality and history. A funny book, a good travelogue, and it offers a hedonistic new perspective on the nature of happiness.