Recent Posts:

Mark Zero's books on Goodreads
Blood & Chocolate Blood & Chocolate
reviews: 2
ratings: 19 (avg rating 3.74)

Give the Drummer Some Give the Drummer Some
reviews: 5
ratings: 9 (avg rating 4.11)

The French Art of Stealing The French Art of Stealing
ratings: 6 (avg rating 4.50)

The Scarlet Dove The Scarlet Dove
reviews: 1
ratings: 2 (avg rating 5.00)

Need the Feed? (RSS)

1098283 visits.

A Brief Yet Helpful Guide to Literary Suicide

Wednesday, February 17, 2010 @ 02:02 PM  posted by Mark

The sheer wealth of material available for Dead Letters: The Dedalus Book of Literary Suicides suggests that writers are an unnaturally melancholy bunch, but why? Do writers draw inspiration from the waters of some specially poisoned well that sculptors, composers or, for that matter, pastry chefs know not to taste? To be sure, there are plenty of painters and actors who have offed themselves, as well, and the writers who choose not to kill themselves far outnumber those who do; but the roster of literary suicides is extensive, impressive and illustrious, so much so that the question is more than academic: what is it about literature that makes writers reach for their revolvers?

Author Gary Lachman’s exhaustive survey of writer-suicides manages a neat trick: witty without cruelty, sympathetic without becoming maudlin, serious without taking itself seriously, Dead Letters presents a taxonomy of self-destruction that allows the reader to meditate on the strangely circular relationships between reality and the written word, the written word and the writer, and the writer and the ungraspable phantasm of reality.

To call Dead Letters fun would be to diminish the gravity of its subject, but how else to describe the many bizarre suicide methods Lachman chronicles? The ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles jumped into an active volcano. Polish writer Jan Potocki, convinced he had become a werewolf, filed the silver handle of a sugar bowl down to the shape of a bullet, had it blessed by a priest, and then shot himself with it. French poet Gerard de Nerval, most famous for walking a lobster on a leash through the Palais-Royal in Paris, hanged himself with an apron tie that he claimed was the Queen of Sheba’s garter.

Lachman divides his writers by the motives for their suicides, rather than by literary genres or historical periods, allowing him to jump back and forth across times and cultures. He identifies Romantic, Manic-Depressive, Political, Existential and Surreal suicides as classes, and also serves up ambiguous, fake, unsuccessful and possibly ironic suicides for our consideration. For instance, Mary Wollstonecraft unsuccessfully attempted suicide twice before she died in childbirth, making her death a quixotic non-suicide; as a teen, Graham Greene played Russian Roulette to relieve his boredom but never triggered a live round, so he’s not a suicide and not really even an attempted suicide, per se. Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, who published under a variety of pseudonyms, caused one of his pseudonyms to commit suicide in print, though he himself lived on. And what of the many writers like Jack Kerouac, who drank or drugged themselves to death slowly—suicide or not?

All of the famous suicides you already know are here—Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter Thompson, John Kennedy Toole, Anne Sexton, Virginia Woolf, Jack London—plus innumerable examples of lesser known and obscure writers who all reached the same conclusion. Lachman also offers poetry and prose about suicide from a variety of authors, the production of which gave some of them enough consolation not to commit the act itself.

Dead Letters may be a special interest collection, but for those especially interested, it’s a gem.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

4 Responses to “A Brief Yet Helpful Guide to Literary Suicide”

  1. Raquelle says:

    Fascinating!

    What did the book say about Jack London? I remember reading about him and the fact that he had a morphine addiction. Did he overdose?

    I think Sylvia Plath’s suicide (and previous attempts) are the most “glamorous” and for me really interesting considering her suicidal tendencies were so much a part of her entire life and her poetry.

    • Mark says:

      Jack London is one of those borderline cases. He was indeed a morphine addict, and he did overdose, so it could have been accidental; but he often wrote about suicide and attempted it on several occasions, once by drinking great volumes of alcohol and then swimming far out to see, where he was serendipitously rescued by a fisherman.

  2. Isn’t it odd that Hunter Thompson and Hemingway both killed themselves the same way?

    And Sexton and Toole did too.

    Makes you wonder if they were inspired by each other’s writing and death.

    Toole also visited Flannery O’Connor’s house before killing himself. I imagine that had to either be very frightening or very satisfying – O’Connor’s house, that is. For 3 months after his disappearance, he carried on in the south. Road trip, perhaps? Maybe he visited other great southern writers’ playgrounds. Then offed himself near Biloxi. I like to think he was on his way to see the birthplace of Elvis, but that’s in Tupelo and too far north. Oh well, he didn’t miss anything.

    -Shannon

    • Mark says:

      A lot of the suicides are interesting in that way, the authors indulging odd inclinations before the final end. Many of the deaths seem like they could have been prevented if only the author had had the wherewithal to get away from his/her surroundings and do nothing for a little while and gain some perspective. Rule of thumb—when you’re feeling suicidal, always spend a month on a beach drinking fruity drinks and staring at the ocean first. Then, and only then, if you still want to off yourself, go ahead, but you might find a reason to live if you can just relax for a moment.


Leave a Reply