February 2007

Jason B. Jones


On Love and Death by Patrick Süskind

That sex and death are perhaps connected is hardly a fresh observation; that sometimes death completes or heightens sexual excitement may be less frequently acknowledged, but is still more or less an open secret. In On Love and Death, Patrick Süskind tries to explain why this is so: Why, that is, that these two topics in particular should both be intertwined and inexhaustible. Though the essay is charming and light, almost a bagatelle compared with Perfume, Süskind's 1985 bestseller, its concerns are no less serious than the purpose of art and existence.

I should perhaps have said that the essay's tone is charming and light, for the range of references is as weighty as it is impressive: Plato, Wagner, Kleist, Goethe, Mann, Jesus, and Orpheus all merit at least some mention. Süskind focuses on one of the central artistic problems with respect to love: its nearly ineffable stupidity. Only look, he invites us, at "one's own love letters twenty or thirty years after writing them. A blush of shame rises in the face of such bleak documentation of foolishness, arrogance, impertinence and blindness. The content is banal, the style embarrassing." (I would suspect most of us don't need to wait anywhere near so long.) Or, look at any other person in love: "One look at the look of a lover looking at his beloved is enough to show that the lover's eyes are empty; he has surrendered himself entirely." And yet this surrender is honored as among the most meaningful human experiences; the most honored works of art invariably take such love for a subject. That this stupidity, madness, or insipidity in love is temporary (after all, we see now that the love letters were stupid) also accounts for the permanent appeal of love in art: How can we have been so blind?

In contrast to love, an insipid experience about which we cannot seem to stop talking, modern culture is more reticent about death, "the spirit of the eternal negative a spoilsport, literally a killjoy, and we want nothing to do with such characters today." The great exception to this reticence is the "erotic longing for death," which transforms it from a killjoy to joy's consummation. Süskind draws on Goethe and Kleist to develop this attraction, and if this section is somewhat familiar, it nonetheless well frames his interest in the nineteenth century's "love of death and love in death culminat[ing] in ecstasy." What seems to trouble Süskind is the certainty with which these artists pursue such longing, and their conviction that death can be erotically satisfying. To counter such a logic, Süskind closes his essay with a consideration of Orpheus. We are drawn to Orpheus, he says, because of his inability to balance love and death -- his inability, that is, to recognize that "the danger still threatening his venture... comes from within himself." Love and death force a confrontation with the failure of one's carefully constructed sense of self; it is when that sense of self fails that something like self-knowledge is possible.

The Rookery Press has chosen On Love and Death as their debut, and it is an auspicious one. In addition to the essay's intrinsic merits, it is attractively designed, and, at 76 pages, more or less perfectly transportable. (That its release anticipated slightly the widespread US release of Tom Twyker's adaptation of Perfume presumably won't hurt sales, either...) More like this would be splendid.

On Love and Death by Patrick Süskind
The Rookery Press
ISBN: 978-1-58567950-8
76 pages