Fifteen Reasons to Live
- By Ray Robertson
- Biblioasis, 196 pages, $20
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SUICIDE may be the exit ramp from life's inconsolable problems for a select few, Ray Robertson admits. But for most of us, he allows, it's not just the wrong option, but an unenlightened one.
Robertson, a southwestern Ontario writer, is the author of six little-known novels and a prior collection of essays.
Soon after completing his sixth novel in 2008, he suffered a depression of suicidal intensity.
The fallout from that event, and his subsequent recovery, prompted the subject of this insightful book: What makes life worth living?
Although he discusses his brand of depression -- a particularly debilitating form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) -- and its bio-chemical origins, he underlines that his book isn't a memoir of illness and recovery. "This has been done, and done, and done, and usually from a retrospectively false sagacious point of view."
Rather, as the book's subtitle promises, it's essays on, if not quite literally 15 reasons to live, at least 15 things that give meaning or pleasure to human existence.
More general than the list Woody Allen came up with in his 1979 movie Manhattan, it's a kind of top-of-the-pops approach to life's big existential questions, with concurrent stabs at answers.
For the record (and without explication) his list is as follows: work, love, intoxication, art, the material world, individuality, humour, meaning, friendship, solitude, the critical mind, praise, duty, home and death.
Nor is he so presumptuous as to suggest his list is definitive. "Undoubtedly there are more; undoubtedly some of those I've chosen to celebrate in the following 15 essays won't resonate with every reader."
Robertson's forte is analysis that pairs pop and high culture, the contemporary and the classic, the mainstream and the academic.
The essay on intoxicants and drugs shifts from a consideration of first-century Greek poet Claudius Ptolemaeus of Alexandria to a just-as-profound reflection on the Grateful Dead, its late lead guitarist Jerry Garcia and the band's iconic American Beauty album.
The piece on individuality warms up with 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, but soon devolves into disquisitions on the careers of ex-Byrds lead singer Gene Clark and the Beach Boys' founder-composer Brian Wilson.
In the chapter on praise, the text moves from Walt Whitman to contemporary poet and critic Al Alvarez to French poet, novelist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau -- only to culminate with an account of Robertson and his wife attending a Bob Dylan concert in Niagara Falls.
And these segues from highbrow to lowbrow are always smooth, and nicely buttress his arguments.
For all his erudition, Robertson is aware intellect sometimes pales, and fails.
"Unfortunately, how we feel is a much more powerful indicator of what represents reality to us than what we think, and the glint of every good thing in my life was always shadowed by the depression my OCD had come to cloud me under."
Paradoxically, the one idea that offered some consolation, and crystallized a kind of remedy for him, was the notion of suicide itself. "Admitted as an option, suicide lost much of its ferocity as a solution," he writes.
By writing about suicide, pro and con, but mostly con, Robertson has, necessarily, applied himself to a wide variety of literary, philosophical, historical and sociopolitical themes.
The result is a learned, clear-sighted and occasionally funny collection of essays on why, in spite of all the negatives life throws at us, we should soldier on.
Maybe the highest compliment payable to this collection of essays is that they achieve what they set out to do: They're highly persuasive that living is the only smart thing to do.
Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.
Fifteen Reasons to Live
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