Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Experiment in Nihilism: Suicide as ideology

Boston Globe

In the end, no one really knows what led Mitchell Heisman, an erudite, wry, handsome 35-year-old, to walk into Harvard Yard on the holiest day in his faith and fire one shot from a silver revolver into his right temple, on the top step of Memorial Church, where hundreds gathered to observe the Jewish Day of Atonement.

But if the 1,905-page suicide note he left is to be believed — a work he spent five years honing and that his family and others received in a posthumous e-mail after his suicide last Saturday morning on Yom Kippur — Heisman took his life as part of a philosophical exploration he called “an experiment in nihilism.’’

At the end of his note, a dense, scholarly work with 1,433 footnotes, a 20-page bibliography, and more than 1,700 references to God and 200 references to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Heisman sums up his experiment:

“Every word, every thought, and every emotion come back to one core problem: life is meaningless,’’ he wrote. “The experiment in nihilism is to seek out and expose every illusion and every myth, wherever it may lead, no matter what, even if it kills us.’’[...]


  1. As if we needed to be reminded -- no doubt, we do -- that philosophies are not just theory.

    Thx for posting. I copied it to friends in college campus svcs.

  2. "Tota philosophorum vita commentatio mortis est. [The whole life of philosophers is the meditation of death.]"
    Cicero, Tusculan Questions II.30.

    "Cicero says that 'To study philosophy is nothing but to prepare one's self to die' [ibid. I.31], the reason of which is, because study and contemplation do in some sort withdraw from us our soul, and employ it separately from the body, which is a kind of apprenticeship and a resemblance of death; or, else, because all the wisdom and reasoning in the world do in the end conclude in this point, to teach us not to fear to die."
    Montaigne, Essays (1588) I.xix.1 (ed. Hazlitt 1877)

  3. However perverse this young man's philosophical orientation, however wrongheaded his understanding of the relationship between philosophy & life, this much can be said in his favor: he obviously had true integrity.

    There is, in fact, an interpretation of Nietzsche (originating, I think, with Lou Salome) that he went mad for the sake of his philosophy, or, more pointedly, for the sake of its production--which is to say: he went mad so that his (sympathetic) readership would have no need to. As nihilism seems the ideology characterizing our time, the same may be proffered of this Mitchell Heisman; he would appear to have made himself a korban so that others might glean some kind of understanding from his opus.

  4. All of Heisman's writings should be deleted from the web. This would be more consistent with his philosophy of nihilism than keeping them up there.


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