Notes before Death, as the title suggests, begins with the author’s morbid musings on his own mortality:
I have been swept up in stirrings towards oblivion, which I had never before known. Until recently the contemplation of death had the more typical effect of instilling fear into my heart, causing me nothing more than thoroughgoing grief and terror. But now, I find that the terror has dissipated, and the concept of dying holds an immense appeal, not just for the psychological catharsis brought by the notion of taking a grand and decisive step
Having entertaining various kinds ‘hipster nihilism’ myself, the literary kind is perhaps the least destructive, as its purveyors seek to produce prose and flourish in a thematically-rich (read: morbid) context, in an art for art’s sake kind of way.
I’ve wondered whether there is a ‘type’ or psychological predisposition to indulging in existential examination. It seems that the ‘cool kids’ are just too busy being cool to worry about Kierkegaard or Sartre or the memoirs of any other eminent misfits. But depressive nihilist he is not, and I get the sense that at times he is in it more for the wordplay, in mixing literature with philosophy, although it’s quite possible that being an Existentialist, he is simply following the conventions of the genre.
The second part of the book focuses on sexuality. He goes on to detail the various stages of his consciousness, from happy childhood to his Edenic “fall” from which point everything changed:
But the changes that took place were in fact of no good whatsoever, in any familiar usage of the term. No… change was plainly bad in this case. I suspected such at the time, but was implored to believe otherwise by authoritative forces; thus, out of seemingly called-for deference to authority, I refrained from mourning what should properly have been mourned, and instead trusted in my elders, only finding out later what I had truly known all along: that my elders were either deluded by or compliant in the corruption I rightly espied lurking behind their smarmy smirks.
Echoing his previous work Confessions, Nowicki brings to light the inner turmoil faced by so many of us. Yet he does not accept the ‘stiff upper-lip’ proscription, but rather extrapolates and wrings-out, explains, whines and dines on the contradictions and circularity inherent in the coming-of-age process. In sub-chapters “Redbuffed” and “Flailure” we are treated with the awkwardness of his teenage alienation in a highly male-brain fashion, rejecting that the most ‘well meaning’ parental advice that what seems to be wrong with everything is ‘just in one’s head’.
There is a thematic consistency in Nowicki’s work and one of the things that stands out to me is his perceived need to be motivated to action in a pure and moral way. Just as he wished he could be immune from corruption and degradation of flesh, and its attendant social striving to become ‘wanted’ and a ‘fucker’, he would prefer not to try and please with his writing and express his himself without thought or reference to the readers of his writing:
..I wished to achieve a similar sort of integrity in my work, never asking the reader to meet me halfway, never making flattering unctuous overtures to him, never attempting to win him over to the “cause”, never trying to make him like me or feel in any particular way about what I was telling him. The notion of being a manipulator disgusted and repelled me, not simply because I thought it was the wrong way to approach others, but also because I felt it demeaned the artist, rendered him more of a mountebank than a soothesayer, more a prostitute than a prophet.
In this chapter deriding the crowd pleasing artist, in his insistence not to crowd-please or ‘be a fucker’, he doth protest too much. In forming and creating a voice that defines itself by not pleasing, in an act of conscious authenticity, one is acknowledging the crowd nonetheless, and is counter-signalling in an alternate way, whether it takes the form of a studied indifference or a bombastic guitar-solo.
As Nowicki is a kind of ‘acting moral conscience’ to the outrage-seeking white-nationalist fringe, (or as counter-signaling in the alt-right, you decide), I’m going to take a note out of his book and question his motivations. There is something distinctly American about the author’s constructed hyper-authenticity. He paints himself as the the awkward, unabashed loser. “Look at me, I’m not going to pretend sex and puberty isn’t awkward – I’ll even wear it on my sleeve!” with an all-knowing smile and glee when he gets reactions from the more easily agitated 1488ers – is he in fact the manipulator?
I offer the following general defence of the more vigorous defenders of the undefendable: When you reject social norms, take on the mantle as an outcast with regard to your understanding of history, politics, media, gender relations, demographics, the economy, the prevailing order in toto – liberalism – then there is bound to be a bit of fumbling in the dark as we attempt to articulate new answers, and a new lens with which to interpret and huge events. I’m inclined to be less harsh to wearers of Iron Crosses and ideological revisionists, since it’s a kind of ‘first stop’ of casting off the reigning ideology – adopting what you know holds immense power in a talisman-like way – that will cause superstitious wailing and absurd displays of faux-outrage, although at some point we need to ‘step over’ the baggage of 20th century conflicts.
In one of his teenage humiliations, he describes how while travelling on a bus with other high-school students, he got into an argument about whether sex was a ‘good thing’ or not (guess which side he was on). Predictably, everyone ganged up against him. But aha! I have a quote that sums up the entire point of it. He enjoys his self imposed alienation!
Though our debate no doubt had the effect of alienating me still further from my peers— who at the very least found my ideas somewhat freakish, and at worst thought me odious for attacking what to them was close to sacred— nevertheless, I felt pleased with the interaction, since it at least indicated a level of engagement with them, something I had felt very little acquainted with as a youngster, being, as I was, a general “eyesore in the architecture” at that time. Here, I was at least being noticed, and noted, rather than scrupulously avoided, as was more typical.
His attention seeking goes exactly to plan, and he gets to feel special all over again.
Despite (obviously) being a fan of Nowicki’s I nevertheless became exasperated with the unending navel-gazing in Notes before Death. His particular brand of florid prose is at times the self-indulgent literary equivalent of a grown man prancing around in a tutu. It all seems deliberate – to cause the reader to squirm with the superfluousness of his inquiry and heavily linked, premised and padded paragraphs. It is interesting to note the difference in style between the writing in theology compared to his flood of self-indulgence and then his fictional novels.
It’s certainly not a ‘pure expression’ (in the self indulgent parts) – it is highly self conscious, yet you want to keep reading because he explores questions most of us don’t want to – of our wretchedness and pathetic need for validation and human attention. Note that in all cases flesh (be a wanker not a fucker), fame, and mortality he can never get to where he wants to go – which by all accounts looks to be heaven. I think we should embrace our carnality, rather than ponder and moan about it. To look for the joy in the animal as life passes from it, into the eyes of the girl as she winces in pain and pleasure, in the fear and anxiety of the person seeking your approval.
At some point we come face to face with the baseness of our existence as violent, horny and hungry bipedal apes with a highly developed moral instinct that need be sublimated towards greatness, rather than navel gazing of the East or the self-flagellating, self-cuckolding of liberalism. There cannot be the passionate intensity without the hardship, the loyalty without adversaries. It’s not pretty it’s beautiful. Insert mishmafag quote.
In his essay on Christian theology and the Crucifixion, Nowicki attempts to reconciling the vengeful, jealous G-d of the Old testament with the more liberal and forgiving God of the New testament. As Nowicki soberly describes, the ancient Israelites, were like their modern descendants in their untrammeled sense of righteousness. Christian morality (or even liberal leftists) cannot provide a moral basis to support the biblical nor post-biblical crimes. But Talmudic Judaism has no difficulty with this because it’s good for the tribe.
The figure of Christ, whether you believe the story or not, has a powerful impact on the mind. The idea of existence outside of our ability to conceive of it could be profound or it could be just another tool of manipulation. The concept of ‘fully human and fully God’ is illogical, and this kind of Christian metaphysics is more complex than the kind of codified web of rules and laws that consist Talmudic Judaism. I’ve been interested in theology on an off during my school years, but I’m not going to say too much about this chapter. There’s Dugin quote from his Essay ‘Dostoyevsky and the Metaphysics of St. Petersburg that is relevant here.
“But let’s consider a Christian not in holiness, not in monkshood, not in asceticism and the hermitic life. Will the idea set by the Old Testament order be valid for him? No. He is christened, which means born from above, and consequently God is with him too. Inside, but not outside. Therefore, even being a sinner, the unworthy one too lives beyond the old man, in the new being, in the stream of the undeserved light of Grace. Observing or not observing Old Testament legislation has nothing to do with the intimate essence of the Christian existence.
Of course, it is more convenient for a society to have dealings with those who are obedient and observe rules. For a Christian society too. But all this doesn’t have any common measure with the Church sacrament, with the mystical life of a believer. Here the most interesting element begins. A Christian, by overstepping some Old Testament commandment, in fact demonstrates that he did not complete in himself the mysterious nature of the New Man, the potential personality cast by the Holy Spirit in the font of christening.”
It’s hard to believe the trope that ‘the best parts’ of Paganism and Judaism are what made Christianity. I’ve not seen this case made, only stated. I’ve also heard all sorts of other convoluted claims bouncing around the Alt-right, such as why Christians are in fact the opposite of Jews and why it’s more anti-Jew to be Christian than Pagan due the repudiation of their covenant, that Christians ‘improved’ their God and use their sacred text. I see it as a text that was compiled. The mystical power of the Holy spirit and the story of Christ, as explained later in his notes holds immense appeal, although the logical progression and end point of Christian weakness causes a lot of cognitive dissonance. Trying to shoe-horn tribalism and White Nationalism into Christianity clearly causes a lot of commotion, but I’m more tired of this kind of thing than anything else.
Catholicism or all mainline Christianity is a system. It is roughly coherent if you accept the premises but logically (within our human sense of ‘logic’) it comes apart on closer inspection. The convictions that I have or had may just be a product of my familiarity – or even superstition – I instinctively cross myself when I hear an ambulance or when I see a blind or disabled person – although there is a perversity to this also, a kind of ‘lucky me’. I can only reconcile life to God if he has very little to do with it. There’s a lot more about theology in the later part of the book, which I may write about in the future. For now, these are my somewhat disjointed and incomplete thoughts on the book.
Overall the thread of death loosely unites the series of essays in this book. It shows you the ‘different characters’ that the Nowicki plays when writing on theology, memoir and journalism. Now that I’m writing this conclusion several months after having read it, what stands out to me is the playful earnestness of the style in the first half, and the humour of the embarrasing stories. It’s a bit of a mescla of ideas, opinions, stories and theories, and some serious theology at the end. Have a read of it, and there’s likely to be some part that will interest you.