Amiri Baraka's 'Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note . . . .'

Cover of 'Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note . . . .'

Amiri Baraka’s Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note . . . . (1961) addresses writing in the context of suicidal fantasy. The title refers to a possible suicide note, one that emerges in concert with what may be a life’s work, manifested in twenty volumes. The voluminous, nearly encyclopedic note is projected into the future. “This is just the preface,” the title flirts. “Prefaces,” Derrida writes, “ [ … ] have always been written, it seems, in view of their own self-effacement.”[1] In Baraka’s Preface, self-effacement becomes a means of production and he brings to light something remarkable about suicidal fantasy: it can be one way to imagine a future, an outside, an immeasurably necessary potential.

The elliptical gesture of the title feels like both a threat to steer clear of and an invitation to follow. It suggests that a book, which is also not a book but a preface, has something to tell us about what it is to anticipate a foreclosed-upon future. Writing a preface locates readers in a time before the suicide note and engages us in its strange promise: this author could kill themselves and a life of writing towards this fantasy might be a chance to discover unboundedness. Baraka suggests that he could spend his whole life writing this note, that the fantasy itself might be a source for life and sustenance, and we might share this future because our ignorance about the future is shared.

This fantasy — the suicide note buttressed and hidden by a preface — portrays a cutting ambivalence. Baraka offers that we may never get the real text. The book’s title proposes that a desire to represent life and the desire to destroy it can emerge simultaneously, and writing keeps track of this unwieldy twinned birth by staging a relation to a nearly impossible divide: living in a murderous world and surviving repeated erasure and loss.

Another way of putting this is that Baraka’s book, by why of its title, does what Todd McGowan envisions “any political project genuinely concerned with freedom” does; it “orient[s] itself around loss,”[2] where loss is something we have a hand in, where the representation of self-effacement, by way of the invocation of self-murder, is something we must not turn away from, especially when it has given us more than we have understood.

1. Jacques Derrida, Dissemination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 9.

2. Todd McGowan, Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013), 22.