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Flamethrowers

Sky on fire: 2014

Sky on fire: 2014

Of course, my parents exerted a massive influence upon me. My mother embodied an old-style theory of child-rearing which held that one of the best ways to strengthen the character of a boy was to treat him with contempt and derision. Caustic love – a design to temper the soul. My mother deployed an excellent but now antiquated vocabulary: for example, I was variously a ‘ninny’, ‘benighted’, a ‘wretched boy’ or a ‘popinjay’. My mother was a kind of emotional flamethrower and I had to construct my defences accordingly.

When she was widowed and nearing 80 years of age my mother decided that she’d had quite enough of this ‘bally’ life; she was fed up with living and told me that if she had the courage she would end it all, she would kill herself. A few weeks later she was dead.

I mention my mother (for whom I still guard astonishingly strong feelings of attachment) because I was reminded of her as I read Rachel Kushner’s novel ‘The flamethrowers’. Taking one’s own life was unexpectedly made salient – and made salient in a way that contrasts markedly with my late mother’s attitude towards suicide: one of the central characters in Rachel Kushner’s novel, a woman (I do not know her surname) who is both a performance artist, existential philosopher and waitress, asserts that in human conduct the three most cowardly acts are:

… to exhibit ambition, to become famous, or to kill yourself.

In the end I don’t think it’s easy to defend this claim (some fame, for example, is really recognition for a highly valued and worthwhile achievement) but I do like the way the proposition, in part, serves as an antithesis to the kind of culture we’ve brought into being.

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