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Details redux

February 23, 2012

See my earlier post for part 1.

I have been reading The Lifespan of a Fact, which is a record of the e-mails between an author John D’Agata (U. Iowa) and his fact checker, Jim Fingal, then of the Believer magazine, regarding an essay by D’Agata (the essay is included in the volume).  It is a fascinating work.

It lacks any sort introduction (except a brief “From the Editor:  I’ve got a fun assignment for somebody.  We just received a new piece from John D’Agata that needs to be fact-checked, thoroughly.  Apparently he’s taken some liberties, which he’s admitted to, but I want to know to what extent.  So whoever’s up for it will need to comb through this, marking anything and everything that you can confirm as true, as well as whatever you think is questionable.  I’ll buy you a pack of red pens if necessary.  Thanks!”) – so the main context is provided by the back cover which states:

How negotiable is a fact in nonfiction?

In 2003, an essay by John D’Agata was rejected by the magazine that commissioned it due to factual inaccuracies.  That essay – which eventually became the foundation of D’Agata’s critically acclaimed About a Mountain – was accepted by another magazine, but not before they handed it to their own fact-checker, Jim Fingal.  What resulted from that assignment was seven years of arguments, negotiations, and revisions as D’Agata and Fingal struggled to navigate the boundaries of literary nonfiction.  What emerges is a brilliant and eye-opening meditation on the relationship between “truth” and “accuracy,” and a penetrating conversation about whether it is a appropriate for a writer to substitute one for the other.

“This is a profound, comic, and ultimately elegiac experiment in collaborative prose.  Both the author and the fact-checker come off as brilliant, obsessive, brave, stubborn, rigorous, principled, and messianic.  A febrile intensity rises off the pages:  two dudes, locked together in a heady plot, their mutual adventure offering a debonair suspense, like Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief or Strangers on a Train.  Will the doppelgangers slay each other?  Will imagination triumph over pedestrian reality.  Why are facts so hard to fit into a lyric sentence?”

— Wayne Koestenbaum

“A singularly important meditation on fact and fiction, the imagination and life, fidelity and freedom.  Provocative, maddening, and compulsively readable, The Lifespan of a Fact pulses through a forest of detail to illuminate high-stakes, age-old questions about art and ethics – questions to which the book (blessedly!) provides no easy answers.”

— Maggie Nelson

“Ever since his first book, John D’Agata has been a crucial articulator of the possibilities of the essay.  In his new book, The Lifespan of a Fact – which is by far his funniest, most furious, most unfettered, and possibly his most indispensible – D’Agata conveys more fully than he ever has before his vision of the slippery nature of existence, the deep unknowability of things, the beautiful facticity of ‘nonfiction,’ and the fictionality of ‘fact.’  Anyone who cares about the nature and the future of the essay should read this book.”

— David Shields

I want to focus on a brief section of the essay that discusses translation of the word “suicide” and religious attitudes towards suicide.  The essay in the middle of a discussion between Clark County former coroner Ron Flud and John D’Agata (the book teems with vulgar expressions, almost entirely from D’Agata – I have visually bleeped them out, although the original book spells them out in full):

Original Text:  Indeed Ron Flud was the only official in Greater Las Vegas who agreed to talk about suicide. […]  There was no word for it in the ancient Greek language.  There was never one in Hebrew, never one in Latin, no word for it in English.

FINGAL:  In Greek and Latin, there were definitely terms for suicide; there just weren’t any root words for them.  I emailed a friend of mine who is a graduate student in linguistics at Harvard, and he sent me the following explanation:  “That writer you’re quoting is technically right, because both classical languages have only transparent compounds or transparent verbal phrases with a reflexive pronoun – so a standard Latin example would be:  mihi mortem consisco, ‘incur death to myself,’ or in Greek:  apotassomai toi bioi, ‘set [oneself] apart from life.’  Additionally, Greek also has only nominal compounds that can be construed with ‘oneself’:  autokheir, which literally means ‘having one’s own hands to oneself.’  So my point is, yes, technically speaking, both classical idioms lack a root with the basic meaning of ‘suicide’ (whereby of course it should be mentioned that suicide, being a Latin LW, was a compound in Latin ‘to kill oneself,’ sui + caedo.  But nevertheless, it would still be a misstatement to say that Latin and Greek have ‘no words’ for suicide.  Romans and Greeks could certainly express the idea if they wanted to.”  In addition to that explanation, according to the website Etymology Online, there is indeed a word for suicide in modern Church Latin:  suicidium, which means “deliberate killing of oneself.”  which derives from the Proto-Indo-European s(w)e, which means “one’s self” and cidium, which means “a killing.”  In addition the use of another term, felo-de-se, dates back to 1728 and literally means “one guilty concerning himself,” and was frequently used to describe suicide.  So the point is that there were words for suicide.  John, can you clarify what you’re meaning by there being “no words” for suicide?

D’AGATA:  Well, first of all, “Church Latin,” as you call it, is Vulgate Latin, and Vulgate Latin is bulls***.  It emerged a bout a thousand years after the Romans of antiquity existed.  But I’m not sure what your point is anyway, because according to your Harvard buddy, I’m correct.

FINGAL:  Moving on:  For Chinese, there are also issues.  Presumably John’s talking about Mandarin here?  Chinese is a language family, so there is no single “Chinese language.”  Rather “Chinese” is a family of closely related but for the most part mutually unintelligible languages, of which Mandarin, or “Modern Standard Chinese,” is the most common, and what people are often referring to when they talk about “Chinese.”  This is from an email from Matt Rutherford, another buddy who was a grad student at the big H in Middle Eastern Studies:  “Dear Jiminy, The word for suicide in Chinese (Mandarin) is zi-sha – two characters.  zi means ‘to oneself’ (i.e.: reflexive) and sha means ‘to kill.’  So, zi-sha means to ‘kill oneself.’  Now, technically it is true that there is no single character that means ‘suicide.’  Chinese has to say it reflexively, like Greek.  However, I’m not sure it’s correct to read things into this.  Chinese has lots of words that can only be represented with combinations of characters.   You could argue that the Chinese word for hanging (i.e.: as a form of punishment) is gua-si, literally meaning ‘hang-death,’ and since there is no inherent single word for hanging as a punishment then the Chinese don’t believe in capital punishment.  But that would be patently untrue, of course, as C/hina kills more prisoners than any other country in the world.  So zi-sha (suicide) is a perfectly common grammatical formulation in Chinese, and this reflexive form is seen in many other instances.  The fact that there isn’t a single character to express the meaning is true, but any cultural inferences from this would be wrong.  Still, if the guy wants to infer, let him infer.  Poetic license and all.  however, I just want to make it clear that there is a common word for suicide in Chinese, and that suicide has been around in China for thousands of years.  (Emperors were known to hang themselves from trees when their dynasties were about to be defeated by invading hordes, for example.)”  But as far as Hebrew goes, I’m not so certain.  John, any source for this?  I consulted a number of dictionaries and wasn’t able to find it, and I also couldn’t get a response from any of my Harvard linguistics buddies on this one.

D’AGATA:  Hmm, not sure.  Maybe somebody at Yale knows.  Or Dartmouth?  Did you try Dartmouth?

FINGAL:  All right, whatever.

Original text:  And until three hundred years ago, there wasn’t one in English either.

FINGAL:  According to Etymology Online, the English use of the word “suicide” dates back to 1651, which is more than three hundred fifty years ago.

Original text:  “I think that’s because suicide is the most threatening thing that we can encounter as a culture,” Ron said.

FINGAL:  Again I couldn’t find this statement in John’s notes.  However, the sentiment does seem to follow Flud’s other comments about suicide in the local papers.  But, there is a problem with the causation that’s implied here between language influencing how people think, and vice versa.  For example, if “that’s because” (in the first line of Flud’s statement) refers to the linguistics point, this treading on unsteady ground.  It’s an invocation of some sort of reverse form of linguistic determination (i.e., something like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the theory that “there is a systematic relationship between the grammatical categories of the language a person speaks and how that person both understands the world and behaves in it”), going either from the structure of language to the way people think or the way people think to the structure of language.  This is shaky at best, especially given that the languages we’ve talked about clearly do have concepts of and terms for suicide.  And making broad conclusions about a group of people based on the structure of their language is pretty suspect.  It’s still something that is under debate by linguists, and there are theories that support both sides, but even with that aside, this kind of general statement ignores the massive and complex cultural baggage – positive and negative – that suicide has attached to it in other eras and in other cultures.  The point that Flud allegedly makes (that people are ashamed of suicide-as-disorder) seems limited to suicides by the depressed vs. the Hellenistic or East Asian warrior traditions of suicide as an honorable way to surrender, or even other cultural uses for suicide, such as suicide as atonement, or suicide as an act of protest, or as a philosophical statement, or as the noble self-destructive act of a terminally ill person.  So, source for this idea, John?

D’AGATA:  Wow, Jim, your p**** must be so much bigger than mine.

FINGAL:  Excuse me?

D’AGATA:  Your job is to fact-check me, Jim, not my subjects.

FINGAL:  No need to get juvenile, John.  I’m just trying to point out that what he’s saying is logically flawed.

D’AGATA:  Then let it be flawed.  The quote is helping my characterize the subject by offering his take on the cultural phenomenon of suicide.  And that’s its only point.  Whether he’s “right” or “wrong” or logically virtuous isn’t the point.  We would in fact be presenting an inaccurate picture of him if we started correcting his “logic.”

FINGAL:  All right, then could we at least verify that you two actually spoke.  Because I still can’t even find this quote in your notes.

D’AGATA:  I don’t know where those notes would be.  I gave you what I had.  He and I talked a couple times.

Original text:  In 533, at the Second Council of Orléans, Catholic cardinals actually voted to “outlaw suicide.

FINGAL:  I found the following in an essay that included a historical profile on attitudes toward suicide.  The second Roman Catholic Council of Orléans (AD533) expressed the first official disapproval of suicide, considering it (ambiguously) as either the Devil’s work or an expression of mental insanity” (“Suicide:  Historical, Descriptive, and Epidemiological considerations” by Leonardo Tondo M.D., and Ross J. Baldessarini, M.D.,, March 15, 2001).  While my very Catholic mother dissents that cardinals can’t “vote to outlaw” things, it actually seems like a reasonable gloss to refer to the Church’s institutional disapproval as “outlawing.”  However there is still a complicated semantic issue here.  It is more accurate to say that the Council of Orléans was attended by bishops, not cardinals, because being a a “cardinal” means that you have an honorary title and that you are an advisor to the Pope and are part of the Pope’s electorate.  However, in the early Middle Ages, the term referred to any priest permanently attached to a church (“every clericus, either intitulatus or incardinatus”) – so there were cardinal-priests, cardinal-deacons, and cardinal-bishops.  While technically the twenty-five bishops who attended the Council of Orléans were also cardinals, within the Church, and within documentation about the Church, the attendees of these early meetings are referred to as “bishops,” to disambiguate their official hierarchical positions.  (Source:  articles on the “Councils of Orléans” and “Cardinal” in the Catholic Encyclopedia on  I would recommend that John change this therefore to “bishops.”

D’AGATA:  Jim, seriously.  Chill the f*** out.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 23, 2012 5:34 pm

    Wow. What an exchange. Fingal seems at first patient, but I like his passive aggressive snarkiness (“All right, whatever.”) but even more his cool erudition.

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