Heisman’s Nihilist Experiment

During Yom Kippur this year, Mitchell Heisman dressed in white, climbed the steps of Harvard Memorial Church, and killed himself as dozens of horrified spectators watched. His death drew attention to the 1900-page “Philosophy Book” he self-published. For a few days, until a spate of gay suicides wiped Heisman from the public consciousness, the early reviews of his book seemed positive. IvyGate said:

The document sketches Heisman’s dense, heavily-cited social, political, and ethical philosophy, and promotes his book, heretofore unpublished. Heisman worked in several bookstores throughout the area, and consulted with Harvard professors in the process of writing the document.

Most arresting of all: the note — tome, really — is probing, deeply researched, and often humorous. Heisman personality and erudition shine through every page, as he traces the philosophical steps that have led him to suicide: not really desperation or depression, but rather, intellectual curiosity, and a desire to test the limits of the unknown. After a quick read, comparisons to Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus” abound. All the more sad that such a deeply intelligent young man would choose to cut his scholarly output off at one, interesting book.

Commenters lauded the young man’s “brilliance”, and a few even speculated that the work would be studied in serious university courses for decades to come. Since I’m interested in many of the topics he discusses, I approached it with great interest soon after he died. It took me 3 days to finish the book.

Heisman’s primary goal in writing the book is to explain why suicide is the “ultimate experiment in nihilism”. Sadly, if Heisman had allowed anyone to peer-review his book before his experiment, he would still be alive today. His treatise would earn a solid failing grade in any philosophy, economics, history, or religion course I know.

In every field of study he employs, he cherry-picks citations that support his crackpot theories and seems to be ignorant of anything taught beyond undergraduate level. It’s a total train wreck. I’ve talked with many schizophrenics, and his obsessive proof-texting and conspiracy theorizing is sadly typical of mental disease.

His central argument is that nihilism is the only logical conclusion of materialistic naturalism. This is a slur normally leveled by Christians against atheists, so it’s ironic that this specious argument becomes the center piece of Heisman’s atheistic excuse to kill himself. Of course, some Christians still try to equate atheistic naturalism with nihilism, but it hasn’t been a strong argument for decades. Out of curiosity, I looked around, and the best current argument equating naturalism with nihilism seems to be “Ethical Naturalism Defeated” by Mark Linville. Like Heisman, Linville assumes that altruism could only arise as a fitness function, and doesn’t consider sexual selection. This oversimplified view of Darwinism completely undermines his argument.

It’s a terrible shame that someone would kill himself over a basic misunderstanding of evolutionary biology. If you’re going to pretend to believe in the theory, you ought to do it right. When lives are at stake (especially your own), one ought to have absolutely unimpeachable reasoning.

Several reviewers held up Heisman as a great example of postmodernist deconstructionism. But they clearly did not read his book. He might still be alive if he had even a passing familiarity with postmodernism. The only times he mentions postmodernism are when he equates it with sollipsism, and when he uses it in the same sentence as the word “deconstruction”. His multiple uses of the word “deconstruction” only prove that he hasn’t the slightest clue what that word means, which is tragic. If only he had thought to deconstruct concepts like “Jew”, “Anglo-Saxon”, and “Christian”. It’s especially ironic that he’s (mis)-using “deconstruction” in the context of “deposing the Mosaic order” and Jewish identity. It’s as if he read Sloterdijk’s “Derrida, An Egyptian” and got completely confused. Again, postmodernism is a wretched mess, but if you’re planning to use “deconstruction” in life-or-death decisions, you ought to at least do it properly.

Beneath all of the deplorable scholarship and sophistry, one discovers a young man who never recovered from the death of his father. Starting around page 1850, Heisman becomes abruptly autobiographical:

When my father died when I was twelve, I dealt with his death by interpreting him as a purely material phenomenon. In other words, I viewed my father as a material thing and his death as a material process. Well before my father died, I had interpreted my own emotions as material processes and my reaction to my father’s death was treated no differently.

The death of my father marked the beginning, or perhaps the acceleration, of a kind of moral collapse, because the total, materialization of the world from matter to humans to literal subjective experience went hand in hand with a nihilistic inability to believe in the worth of any goal. At one point when I was nineteen, after another descent into a psychological downward spiral, I had enough, and finally launched myself into a “program” of radical self transformation.

Ultimately, Heisman seems like a young man who was in a tremendous amount of emotional pain and wanted to die, but who felt compelled to protect those he loved by making his suicide appear rational, calculated, and even heroic.