Quietus of the Hero: Suicide as Rhetoric

William Nickell, University of California, Santa Cruz

On October 17, 1910, the day that he completed a dissertation entitled Persuasion and Rhetoric, the Italian artist, poet and philosopher Carlo Michelstaedter shot himself, effectively reconciling the dichotomy of theory and practice he described in his work. One month later, in Russia, Lev Tolstoy clipped for his notebook a newspaper article on the successive suicides of three of Moscow’s young “beautiful people:” a millionaire, a rich young woman, and an actor, connected to one another romantically and, apparently, by links of morbid despair. Within days interest in these suicides would be subsumed by the story of Tolstoy’s own death, one of the most dramatic in Russian history. The paper uses these three stories as a means to explore the poetics of death narratives in early 20th century Russian and European modernist culture, paying particular attention to the function of suicide. It examines the emergence of suicide as an existential necessity in post-Romantic philosophy, briefly tracing the compromises with this idea made by Dostoevsky (whose Kirillov posits an ethos predicated upon his authority to end his own life) and Tolstoy (whose Confession is in essence an apology for his failure to take Schopenhauer’s path of “honor and strength” to end his own experience of the fruitless striving of the will). It then considers the role of death as a Modernist love-object, and explores efforts to articulate and interpret this phenomenon. It focuses on the discussion of death as the prime mover of the younger Russian intelligentsia in the epoch-defining 1909 anthology Landmarks, contextualizing this argument in the literary and artistic culture of the period. It also briefly considers the work of Georg Lukács, Georg Simmel, and Sigmund Freud regarding the function of death in structuring human action. The paper closes by questioning how death and suicide likewise structure narrative, arguing that the public reading of Tolstoy’s death was an expression of collective resistance to the abundance of suicide narratives of the time.