(28 April 1967 – 24 November 2014)
My friendship with Dieter Mueller was brief, intense, and abstracted by his decision to end his life in the early hours of 24 November 2014.
We encountered each other in discussions on the Google Plus social media platform, and were drawn to one another by our mutual interest in debating what we saw as the big issues facing Western societies.
For two years we spurred each other on to inject serious essays and commentary into the shallow pools of endlessly re-shared, cutesy images, of idiotic fortune cookie one-liners posing as inspirational wisdom, and of the Silicon Valley hucksterism that passes as social media marketing nous.
It was our premiss that what was then a relatively new forum did not inevitably have to descend into a stagnant pool of spam and asinine crap.
We thought that talking about real issues in rational terms would connect a sufficient number of people willing to be thoughtful to carve out a sane corner in at least one social network. We were wrong. People online behave much as they do offline: politically apathetic, mean-spirited, willfully ignorant, and pathologically narcissistic. But it was a hell of a ride.
In those two years Dieter and I video conferenced once or twice a week, for hours at a time, to talk ideas and sketch out a programme of collaborative writing projects. Our inspiration in this was the school of pamphleteers arising in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and vanishing with the birth of what we now know as the ‘press’. The pamphleteers were writers – or polemicists, if you like – who empowered and mobilised largely illiterate but intensely interested and engaged audiences into giving birth to Western liberal democracy.
Something else happened as Dieter and I grew closer. It transpired that Dieter lived in München, the capital of the southern German state of Bavaria. A city in which I spent some part of my childhood between 1968 and 1974. A city in which Dieter and I might have met as young adults had I not become part of the perpetual German diaspora.
He lived within walking distance of my primary school, the Waldorf Rudolf Steiner school in Schwabing’s Leopoldstrasse. He knew all my old stomping grounds intimately. It was an odd kind of kinship that generated an intense nostalgia for me, and led me to re-examine the basis of my intellectual development, and how it differed from his. That was in itself a source of long and indescribably satisfying conversations that brought us together very closely for a time.
Where I was wedded to the British-born liberal tradition, and Westminster-style democratic ideals, he was an internationalist looking for more modern solutions, less tied to compromises of the past. Where I was university-indoctrinated, he was self-taught. Where I was a fatalist, he was an idealist. Where I was plodding and deliberate, he was nimble and intuitive. Not the kind of mix I would have expected to work very well. But the more we examined it, the more we realised that there was a significant overlap of fundamental principles in our views.
Our mutual rejection of the centuries-long but irrational simplification of most issues into bipolar opposites drove for us a process of synthesis capable of generating and cultivating more than one viable position on any given issue. In fact, it led me to the conclusion that all potentially workable approaches to any failure or problem should be pursued as a kind of parallel pluralism that eschews the silliness of conflict-based zero sum equations.
For me this was an exhilarating diversion from the intellectual void of everyday professional and social interactions. It was an opportunity to talk to someone about a breadth and depth of subjects at a level I have not encountered since my 20s. Here was a man who could not just absorb a vast territory of knowledge, but also connect disparate pieces of information from apparently unconnected disciplines to create new and enlightening perspectives. The definition of the kind of thinking education is supposed to foster, but hasn’t in a very long time. What a paradox that so many academically credentialed people are so much more dull and anodyne.
Our commentaries and essays took different routes to deconstruct and expose as sham the numbers-driven dehumanisation of Western societies, starting with industrialization, but finding its contemporary form in, first, the Rand Corporation’s Cold War game theories, morphing in the Reagan-Thatcher era to an accountant-driven cult of numbers, and finally, in the later 1990s and ever since, reaching for the religion of the algorithm. It appears bizarre that the grey, soulless, ignorant accountants, who are relentlessly dehumanising every aspect of economic activity, are so closely resembled by the idiot savants who drive the programmatic commodification of people as either worthless or ‘niche brands’. Two interlocking generations woefully badly educated, and unconsciously, but unconscionably, hostile to all that makes people human. Their universe is driven not by a notion of improving the lives of their children, and the children of others, but by narrowly self-serving efforts at creating a new and universal apartheid, based on race, gender, economic clout, and staggering ignorance. I have often called their group-think mentality a reductionist determinism, meaning that everything is reduced to numbers for their own sake, and that a small number of people have determined that all of humanity should be valued only according to those numbers. All without reflection on how the act of choosing specific numbers predetermines what they tell us. Well, actually, without any reflection at all.
I believe this recognition, obliquely referred to in several passages of Dieter’s last post, is what disheartened him about the prospect of changes capable of recapturing the Enlightenment ideals of rationality, knowledge for its own sake, and an egalitarianism that would not allow the poor and helpless to sink beneath waves of indifference and greed.
In life Dieter was generous to a fault. He donated considerably to targeted charities, believing that this was the best way he could actively participate in actually improving the world. I believe he also spent considerable sums on presents to friends. Money he could have spent on fancy cars, clothes, or a mansion as edifice to his ego.
By late 2012, the head of steam I thought we had built up on Google Plus dissipated. What was happening seemed to me to be a banal replay of what occurred on the usenet news groups. For those who do not remember, news groups were text-based forums for all kinds of interest communities in the 1980s and ‘90s. The usenet is still there, but so swamped by spam and malice that its purpose and utility is forfeit. That, too, is my prognosis for social media. All social media, not just Google Plus.
In 2013 I returned to the academy, and the frequency of communication, and collaboration between Dieter and me dwindled. At one stage I thought I had offended him, because he did not respond to my emails, and we did not speak to each other for the remainder of his life. I’m told by someone who was close to him in his final months that this was not the case, and that instead he was distancing himself from all the people who might try to interfere in his plans for ending his life on his own terms, or who might be hurt by this course of action.
I knew he found his professional life to be a struggle against the crushingly unthinking obstacles created by the grey accountants and IT workers I mentioned above. I don’t think I had fully appreciated just how much of a struggle that was for him.
Nor had I realised that at some stage Dieter became the fatalist, and I the idealist, though these positions were never really fixed.
I knew from our interactions that he felt things more deeply than most others. Dieter didn’t do drugs or alcohol. But when he was high, he was orbitally high, and when he was low, he wasn’t just staring into the abyss, he was right in it, looking back up into the souls of the idle spectators above.
He was more deeply affected by the great thinkers of Western civilisation than anyone else I know. If a reminder was needed of this side to him, it was the odd feeling of wanting to crack my forehead against a concrete wall when I read some of the comments on Google Plus following his death.
The worst were comments he would have predicted: completely asinine efforts to turn this into a social media event without understanding his take on social media. And then there were personal perspectives all but incomprehensible except as narcissism.
Still, I recognise, as did Dieter, that people left to ponder the absence of the dead will reach for answers that aren’t necessarily there.
Here is how I reach into the unknowable.
Dieter and I had some long conversations about death, dying, and those left behind. The incidence in the West of sudden death and rapid declines has been reduced significantly in the 20th century due to medical breakthroughs and intensive care treatment. Instead, what has become much more common is death by a steady decline as treatments prolong progressive organ failure, or the long, sad road into oblivion that is decrepitude and dementia in old age.
I relayed to him my perceptions that the dying are subjected to a daily dose of little indignities that add up to a monstrous dehumanisation. They become science experiments and pin cushions. Worse, the infantilising behaviour of some medical professionals implies that the dying person is regarded as no longer competent. This crushing outcome eventually becomes reality when a disease has progressed too far, or the medication and illness themselves have had too many wasting effects. I told Dieter that I regard this to be an ignominious end that I would want to avoid at all costs.
Worse still, I confided, the presence of people close to the dying person usually unfolds completely unnecessary and painful dramas. The odious term ‘loved ones’ does not preclude such people from being human and helpless in the face of death, leading most to become almost surreally irrational and self-centred about the end of days approaching. It has been my firm belief for some time that family and friends not willing to serve only as facilitators should stay away more often than not.
Dieter listened to my observations with interest and followed up with searching questions about what the dying might owe the living, and what duty of care the living have to the dying. In this, as in all other discussions I had with Dieter, we concluded together that it is a problem with only artificial boundaries and solutions, meaning that every circumstance must be thought of as unique and not amendable to bureaucratic process. Because bureaucratic process can never be that flexible, since it removes rather than facilitates human judgement and responsibility, it falls on the dying, and maybe one or two willing facilitators, to make decisions, and also to act on those decisions. This is the path of the Nietzschean Übermensch Dieter explicitly referenced in his farewell post.
I have no special knowledge of Dieter’s health and state of mind, and I must accept the same way as everyone else what he says about the lassitude of sleeplessness, and the ennui of his life. Most especially I acknowledge his concern that he not slip into a gradual, dehumanising, undignified decline. That is the only answer necessary to address the inevitable question about a notional suicide: why?
What do I mean by ‘notional’? To answer that I must make a detour into linguistics. It might not be clear to some that there is a significance in the fact that Dieter wrote his valediction in his characteristically sharp English, but entitled it in German: ‘Mein Freitod’. The word ‘mein’ is uncontroversially translatable as ‘my’. ‘Freitod’, however, is a concatenation of ‘Frei’ and ‘Tod’, where the first means ‘free’, and the second means ‘death’. It is a noun free from the necessary presupposition of any specific action. This is not adequately translated as ‘suicide’, a Latin-derived English noun that implies its causation as verb. The German term that most closely approximates ‘suicide’ is ‘Selbstmord’, another concatenation, where ‘selbst’ means self, and ‘mord’ means ‘murder’. There is an obvious pejorative tone to such a phrasing, probably traceable to the Catholic interdiction on taking one’s own life.
Dieter chose not to use the English ‘suicide’ or the German ‘Selbstmord’ to make the point that this was an intellectual decision. ‘Freitod’ is to be thought of here as ‘freely chosen death’, meaning free from coercion, duress, decrepitude, and likely also from law and prejudice. Dieter always chose his words carefully, and his decision to use German for the title of a post written in English signifies his intention to focus on the decision, not the method or means.
It is, again, the Nietzschean Übermensch, governed by will free from arbitrary constraints, and the determination to act on that will. And it is Stoic in the sense that irrational sentiment is removed from a calm deliberation of the issues at hand, and the options available. That is my interpretation of Dieter’s own passing explanation of the traditions he refers to. It means to me, too, that he expected people questioning the last exercise of his will to have read and understood at least some Cicero, Seneca, and Nietzsche. How very Dieter.
People speculating whether he was depressed, sick, morally deficient in some way, or any other kind of thing people look for as a cause for doubt or rebuke, should look instead to the unadorned clarity of his thought, and his unquestionable determination and power to command his own destiny. The fact that he did not just disappear, but instead let those who knew where to look know what he was about says to me that even at the end of his days he was deliberate and considerate of others.
That is the Dieter Mueller I will never forget. He will live on in my thoughts, arguing the alternatives with me every time I consider any serious issue, and for most of the trivial ones too.
Anytime I contemplate the emptiness left by Dieter’s absence from the universe, I will try to think instead that he has at last found the sleep denied to him for decades.