On Love and Death
On the subject of two ubiquitous and inevitable fundamental concepts and forces of (and in) life that bind and touch us all, Patrick Süskind endeavours to explicate the ineffable powers of love and death, and their connexion to one another in his inimitable style.
Süskind, known for his reclusive nature currently residing in Munich, is an acclaimed writer renowned for tackling philosophical and psychological themes in an unusual, novel and laudable way. His fictional writings – all diverse in nature – are three (uncanny) novels: the international bestseller Perfume, his first debut (1976); followed by The Pigeon (1988) and The Story of Mr Summer (1996), a collection of stories; Three Stories and a Reflection (1996); and a play entitled The Double-Bass (1987). On Love and Death is his fifth (and first nonfictional) book.
The little (in size) and short theoretical book is divided into three sections. The first discusses the nature of love – in somewhat of a bleak approach – and its varying views and kinds. The second delves into the subject of death and its correlation with love and their entwinement. Both sections enriched with citations from illustrious philosophers and writers (the latter known more to Europeans) from philosophical and literary classics. The third deals with contrasting characters – one mythical, Orpheus, and the second “biblical”, Jesus, – and their relation to love and death.
On Love and Death opens with St Augustine’s quote from Confessions,
If no one asks me about it, then I know what it is; but if someone asks me about it and I try to explain it to him, then I do not know what it is. (7)
What St Augustine says of time is equally true of love. The less we think about it, the more self-evident it seems, but if we begin reflecting on the subject we find ourselves deep in trouble. (9)
Broaching the concept of love in the first part of the book, after a brief introduction, Süskind dives into three examples, each illustrating three different kinds of love.
First, a young couple’s public display: animal love; second, a dinner in honour of a newly married couple: wild and delusional; and third, the Nobel Prize Laureate Thomas Mann’s forbidden love in his advanced years: idealistic and unrequited.
While Süskind draws three different conclusions from the three anecdotes, he also makes common deductions about all three,
…a considerable amount of stupidity is evident in love and infatuation. (33)
…yet it seems more appropriate to describe it as a temporary loss of intelligence induced by love. (33)
The reticent topic of death then ensues,
Death has fallen silent and commands our silence, and we are happy to comply…because death is the spirit of the eternal negative, a spoilsport, literally a killjoy, and we want nothing to do with such characters today. (39-40)
Eros (Greek god of love) and Thanatos (Greek personification of death) are alluded to here to embody the merging of the two,
…love in general is on easy terms with death. (42)
then followed by tales of suicidal and erotic longing for death, for love and in the name of love, by German writers predominantly Goethe and Kleist.
Where the two previous sections mostly entail the opinions of others, the third and last part is solely the opinion of the author.
Starting with Orpheus’s tale of regaining his love (Eurydice) and moving on to Jesus’s resurrection of Lazarus, he compares the two in their dealings with love and death specifically because they both dealt with death directly.
On Love and Death may leave some readers confounded and wanting more because the topic reads, to some degree, as incomplete with no definite conclusion, not that a topic of this nature can be addressed fully in a small book. It is only an essay. This may have been intentional leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.
Süskind’s tone can come across as derisive and it may leave some readers irked, worse still, that he compares an actual character (Jesus) – which might be debatable depending on who you ask – to a mythical one (Orpheus).
The author’s assessment of love is morbid, he expounds on love in terms of death, and relatively fictional, which again may flummox readers. However, having an understanding regarding the history of European writers, it is explicable.
Although the author’s analogies may be disagreeable, – everyone’s entitled to their opinion – and the content in some areas are explicit for religious and/or sensitive readers; nonetheless, it does not diminish the essence of the book.
If nothing else, it is an epigrammatic history lesson (old and modern) about European philosophers, philosophy, writers and stories vis-à-vis the theme. Especially as it seems the intended audience may have been readership in Europe, which is more of a reason to learn something new for readers who are unversed in the above-mentioned fields.
The writings of Patrick Süskind are exceptional and this one is no exception.
Though it is not as compelling as his other works, – it is a book of an acquired taste – On Love and Death still draws you in if only to read and fathom the author’s conception, insight and perspective on love and death.
Overlooking the author’s distaste for Jesus, deduced from his inclined preference to Orpheus, readers will get a glimpse into the mindset of an ingenious writer on a profound topic, and his portrayal of it.