On Voluntary Death

Or selbsmort or mate whakamomori or freitod or suicide… I just finished reading Jean Améry’s quite wonderful short book of essays titled “On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death”, which could also be titled “A Defence of Voluntary Death”, since that’s what it is. But it is much more besides. For one thing, it’s perhaps the closest you could ever get to reading a treatise on suicide by a suicide. Améry, a Holocaust survivor (barely!), attempted suicide in 1974, wrote these essays in 1976, and in 1978, did take his own life. I found my way to this book after reading, first, his “At The Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities,” then “On Aging: Revolt and Resignation.” To me, Améry is a

Amery_suicide-coverphilosopher of the 20th Century Continental non-Anglophone analytic variety, an Existentialist you might say, a literary reader-writer-thinker type. And he writes so beautifully.

I’ve been looking for this book for quite a few years. By that I mean, a book about suicide that, as the translator John Barlow writes in his introduction, tries to “understand those who take their lives ‘from the standpoint of their own world’ … rather than from that of conventions practiced and observations made.”

It’s always struck me amid the wringing of hands and tearing of hair about suicide — and here I refer to society not to individuals who have lost someone close to them — that none of it ever really does that. None of it tries to pull back even the first layer of platitudes to seek any acknowledgement or understanding of the almost impossible absurdities of being human, the “burden of being” if you will, that we all face and variously find ways to avoid confronting. Instead, it’s mental health services this, and poverty that, and bullying the other. Yes, all worthy, all important, all necessary, but all built on a foundation of an unquestioning (because we aren’t allowed to question it) collective condemnation of suicide. Perhaps it’s right that, as a society, we agree that suicide is always and everywhere to be condemned without debate. I don’t know the answer to that. But if we do impose such a blanket condemnation, we also preclude discussions like Améry’s, we rule out all the ways suicide and everything that goes with it are windows onto the human condition, perhaps even an understandable response to that condition. Continue reading


Some More Book Reviews

A few more of my recent book reviews from here and there…

Mariano Sigman’s  The Secret Life of the Mind: How our brain thinks, feels and decides. Listener. 5 August 2017. (No link yet.)

A review of The Whole Intimate Mess: Motherhood, politics and women’s writing. Scoop Review of Books. 14 July 2017

Clive Hamilton’s Defiant Earth: The fate of humans in the AnthropoceneListener. 3 June 2017.

Roger Scruton’s On Human NatureListener. 6 May 2017.

A Q&A with Prue Hyman about her book Hopes Dashed: The economics of gender inequality. Scoop Review of Books. 24 March 2017.

A review (plus a bit of a rant) of another Freerange Press collection, this one on the news media, titled Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. Scoop Review of Books. 21 February 2017.

Shortlist: Fiction in TranslationThe New York Times Book Review. 17 February 2017.

All my book reviews (well, since starting this blog) are gathered together here and here. Also, I help run Scoop Review of Books. Do let me know if you are keen to review New Zealand titles. Uh, because we’re an all volunteer outfit, I’m afraid the only payment we can offer is a review copy of the book…

Laughing in the Dark

Are we the only self-hating species? The only species that commits suicide? Are we the only species that laughs? Have you noticed how little humour there is in mass extinction and environmental destruction? That this secular end of days is the source of hardly any comedy?

It’s unseemly — profane even — to laugh out loud about the anthropocene. Unless it’s that grim, knowing, gritted-teeth kind of laughter in which we marvel at being part of a civilisation more concerned with counting calories than carbon. (If only we could harness vanity in the service of ecological repair); in which we mutter, “well, you gotta laugh because what else can you do?” or “if I didn’t laugh, I’d be weeping”.

Yes, there’s a lot of Weeping in the Dark, but not much laughing. Which is also surprising, because we often laugh at tragedy. Think war (Black Adder Goes Forth, Waugh’s Scoop); racism and red-neckerism (All in the Family); religion, which is a tragedy only to some of us (The Life of Brian, Religulous, the Bible); humanity (where to start? Perhaps Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, or the Bible, again.)

If Henri Bergson is right and laughter doesn’t exist outside the pale of what is strictly human; and if, as he says, its natural environment is society, then shouldn’t this be a time of rolling in the aisles clutching our stomachs in uncontrollable mirth? Because what could be more human than this human-all-too-human epoch?

Continue reading

‘The Thief…’: Investigating PND

So I spent a good chunk of 2016 working on a series of articles about postnatal depression (aka postnatal distress), which finally went ‘live’ at Scoop.co.nz on Friday 21 October. The research and writing were funded by the Scoop Foundation for Public Interest Journalism. (Thanks!) You can support the Scoop Foundation’s efforts here.

Here are links to the articles, anyways:

  1. The Thief that Steals Motherhood
  2. But I’m not Depressed
  3. Finding Someone Who ‘Gets It’
  4. Quick Facts and Links
  5. Rough-cut audio of women telling their stories

And there was an interview with Kim Hill on RNZ, Saturday 22 October.

Thanks so much to the women to talked to me about their experiences. I’m very grateful. And everyone else who helped in lots of ways. It’s a big complicated important (I think) issue that remains (like so much to do with women’s reproductive lives) stigmatised and hidden. I know there are a lot of people doing a lot of great work, some of it funded by the public health system, a lot of it not.

There were lots of ‘take-aways’ for me from all this. One was: there are undoubtedly a lot of women out there suffering from what can be a very scary illness who aren’t getting help — help that could really go a long way toward getting them well. Another was: getting help can be a bit of a crap-shoot, depending on where you live, who your midwife or Plunket/Tamariki Ora nurse is, how confident you are about asking for help, how confident your whānau is about asking for help — or even realising you might need it…and so on and so on…

But PND is coming out into the open, thanks to the mums and the people who are their champions. Kia kaha!

We Are What We Read

Having largely cut corporate media from my information diet (more on the food analogy below), I’ve had time to read more books. Recently: for review, at Scoop Review of Books, Barbara Brookes’ epic A History of Women in New Zealand, Paul Moon’s Ka Ngaro Te Reo: Māori language under siege in the 19th Century (plus Why English? Confronting the Hydra, a rather depressing collection about the global dominance of English); in The Listener, Susan Faludi’s memoir about her parent, In the Darkroom; and, a few months ago, some first novels for The New York Times. I’m working on reading, and hopefully writing about, The Struggle for Māori Fishing Rights, by Brian Bargh (Huia), and I just got my hands on Vincent O’Malley’s The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000 (Bridget Williams Books).

bwb8126_the-great-war-for-new-zealand_lrVincent foreshadowed this book in his 2014 collection Beyond the Imperial Frontier: The contest for colonial New Zealand, in which he had a chapter on the Waikato wars that included some of his new research. (My review is here. Yeah, sorry for all the self-linking, but if I don’t do it, no one will.) I don’t remember hearing a whole lot about that book back then (I might have missed it), but this new one seems to be attracting a lot more attention. Thankfully.

There’s definitely a growing momentum for more (any? some?) recognition of the wars fought on this land, particularly since 2014, which was when we really got to see clearly how much media and government attention was lavished on foreign wars (well, mostly the Gallipoli battle) compared with those fought here. It was 100 years since the former, and 150 years since several major battles of the latter. (I researched and wrote about that pretty extensively back then.)

Not for review (by me!), I’m up to volume two of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six (yes six) volume memoir, My Struggle. I can’t really explain why (so far) I love this book (does it count as “a book”?) But I’m thinking about it. Meanwhile, am a bit stuck at around the one-third mark in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Actually, there are quite a few books I’m stuck in the middle of… And, no, I have never been able to finish Infinite Jest.

But still moving along is another epic on the state of the bloody media, in the form of a collection titled Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand, put out by Freerange Press (who do some very cool stuff). Which brings me to the media and food.

We Are What We Eat, uh Read

We need to start treating the “news” more like we (try to) treat food: Eat healthy, stay away from junk. It’s up to us to get these people to stop pumping out sugary crap (aka clickbait etc. etc.) by not “consuming” it. I haven’t taken this so far as to come up with particular news diet fads (what would be the news equivalent of Atkins, or mediterranean, or high-protein, or low fat diets?). But we all know crap when we see/taste it, and I suspect we all know we should be avoiding it.

I’m actually not a food dieter, so it took a bit of trial end error to work out how to change my news eating habits. My findings: Start out with a fast of at least a day and up to a week. That means no mainstream corporate news/junk food at all. Not even headlines. I predict not only will you feel less depressed and annoyed, you will actually be better informed. (I know, it sounds counterintuitive, but don’t forget, you won’t be under the misapprehension that the most important issue facing humanity/Aotearoa NZ society is All Black sex.) After the fasting period, slowly introduce the healthy stuff – longform, serious, non-clickbait content that has some substance to it, and books. And, yes, if you relapse and find yourself clicking on that sugary shit, you must atone by consuming something serious. And, yes, you should feel guilty, as guilty as if you’d scarfed down a giant bottle of fizzy drink. (If you fall off the wagon, another quick fast should get you back on track.)

I think you’ll find that almost nothing of what our for-profit media are pumping out is stuff you need to know. Which brings me to a premature conclusion from having not quite finished Don’t Dream It’s Over: People, it already is over. Time to put them out of their misery, because as with sugar, they’re doing us way more harm than good.

‘Breaking News’, NZH Style

No comment necessary, really.

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It’s Exhibition Time

Update: Oh, and there was this coverage in the BOP Times, before the exhibition. After I insisted I was not the right person to talk about raranga, Whaea Bibbins, our kaiako (that’s her in the poster, top right, with fellow tauira Ngawai) promptly instructed me to do so, together with Whetukiaterangi Te Arihi (“Tuki”). Tuki, alongside Whaea Bibbins and everyone else in the class, taught me a whole lot about … a whole lot. I will be forever in the debt of every member of ‘Ngāti Raranga’, past, present, and future. Iti noa ana he pito mata.