have any of you read Mitchell Heisman’s suicide note? sociobiology/politics and nietzsche and just about everything else. i mean it hasn’t received any accreditation by modern philosophy because killing yourself to reinforce your thesis gets construed primarily as mental instability. but i was just wondering how important it was.
I read quite a bit of it (not the whole thing, of course) when Heisman’s story first came out. I don’t claim to have even begun to master the text, but I found it very entertaining, almost a page-turner. It certainly could never have been published by a university press or anything due to its controversialism; Heisman expresses his argument in language I couldn’t quote here given prevailing norms of decency. The following is what I remember. Heisman states, if I understand him, that world politics is now defined by the fallout of the Anglo-Norman conflict in the middle ages and early modern period; democracy was born in the English Civil War in the claims to moral supremacy of an aggrieved ethnic minority (the Anglos). Then in the forms of the British Empire and its American successor this minority managed to conquer the planet, while still basing its legitimacy on the idealistic “slave morality” of its victim status. This result then ensures that all its opponents will in turn deploy the same ideological method to assert their own freedom; hence, the only way to attain the moral high ground in politics today is to claim to be oppressed. This entails, according to Heisman, refusing the claims of science, because they would seem in their bio-reductionism to lead to inegalitarian social conclusions incompatible with Anglo freedom. Heisman goes on to claim that sociobiology is the ultimate refutation of the Anglo victim-complex because it is a transvaluation thereof: a materialist determinism that frankly worships power and sees power as inhering in certain heritable traits that may in turn be directed by scientific rationality. We therefore end up with the Gordian knot of modernity: you either have to don the false idealistic mantle of inherited victim status or to claim to have inherited (material) strength to attain power and legitimacy. In neither of these options is there room for the transformative power of reason, the Romantic Enlightenment desideratum barred by both versions of organicism, that of the “oppressed nation” and that of the “genetic elite.” Heisman was facing, then, the old dialectic of enlightenment: humanity develops reason to overcome nature but in discovering laws of nature resubmits itself to that which it wanted to overcome. The only evidence for true agency would thus be agency against life itself, since the life-instinct misleads reason to betray itself by forming the untenable political alibis of left and right. Heisman’s suicide is the cutting of the knot: it affirms against the idealistic victimologists the world-making power of reason (even if only in its negative world-killing guise), while it also refutes the bio-determinism of the fascists by demonstrating that the mind may assert independence in acting against its biological self-interest.
(That’s my reconstruction of the main line of the book after reading about half of it four years ago, so it may be entirely wrong. I can see the logic above is missing a few steps. Moreover, he employs a great deal of historical detail, and includes extended comments on Judaism and the Singularity [to the effect, I guess, that the God of the Hebrew Bible is a prolepsis of the Singularity] that went a bit over my head. In any case, I just don’t have time to read all 2000 pages! As with any interpretation, it reflects my own preoccupations. But—I say self-servingly—I rarely see anyone discussing Heisman’s thesis in full, so even false publicity may accrue to its benefit.)
I admired Heisman’s work for its fearless admission that certain “intellectual” problems are not actually soluble in thought but that their solutions in practice would be humanly intolerable. (Think what trouble we’d be spared if the Marxists would get this through their heads!) As a “poet” rather than a “philosopher,” I believe the way to deal with the intransigent problem that we seem to be free and not free at the same time is to try to capture the dilemma in spirit-dilating image-music complexes by writing something like Hamlet or Mrs Dalloway rather than either attempting to treatise it away via philosophy or else committing suicide* (or some other violent action: revolution, etc.)—and I can claim a Nietzschean warrant for that view via The Birth of Tragedy at least.
Because Heisman’s is a truly disturbing book, people will go on reading it, for better or for worse.
*Woolf is of course an imperfect example here, but what can you do?