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Posts Tagged ‘Suicide’

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.

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During this Valentine’s Week survey of Romances, we’ve noticed that a lot of characters in literary romances kill themselves for love. So we’ve invited some of the most notable lover-suicides here today to discuss their choices, along with Lucy Moderatz, the main character of the 1995 film While You Were Sleeping, who does not kill herself for love but lives happily ever after. This discussion is open for anyone’s comments, but let’s begin by asking Emma Bovary, wife of a successful doctor in a quiet town—why? Why kill yourself?

Emma Bovary: Of course, my first thought was to kill Charles, but he’s so boring he probably wouldn’t have noticed, and then I’d still be stuck in that backwater Tostes with all that debt! Then I thought of killing Rodolphe, who wouldn’t give me any money—you’d think he’d owe me something, after what he did. Honestly, I thought of killing everyone—Leon, the priest, even the butcher—but I was really, really depressed at the time, and flat broke, so I just got tired of it all and took the arsenic. I mean, if Rodolphe had just eloped with me in the first place, like he said he would, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, so maybe you should ask Rodolphe why he killed me!

Isabelle Huppert as Emma Bovary

Lucy Moderatz: But why not just get a divorce, declare bankruptcy and move to Rouen? There must be lots of nice guys in Rouen.

Emma: Divorce? Not possible! Bankruptcy? And go to prison? This is 19th Century France, you nitwit!

Lucy: Hey!

Bookmarkzero: Anna, can you relate to Emma’s suicide? Were you motivated by the same concerns?

Anna Karenina: Of course, I can relate. When divorce is not possible, and you can’t express your true love—

Zero: But Anna, did you kill yourself because of Karenin’s refusal to grant a divorce, or because Vronsky was cheating on you?

Tatiana Samoilova as Anna Karenina.

Tatiana Samoilova as Anna Karenina.

Anna: First of all, there’s no proof that he actually was cheating on me. So there’s that. And it’s true, everything just got to be too much. I mean, even if I get a divorce, I’m out of society, and I’m done for. I couldn’t have gone to the balls or the races, I had no friends, and I obviously couldn’t hang around with peasants all day. It was horrible—if I had gotten the divorce and then Vronsky had left me, it would have been the end of me. I don’t know—I think the morphine was messing with my head, too, but I honestly didn’t see any way out.

Lucy: But what about your children, what about Seryozha and Annie? Didn’t you think of them?

Anna (stares at Lucy): Annie didn’t like me anyway, and Seryozha. . . well, obviously, I didn’t want things to work out like they did. I killed myself—I’m not proud of it!

Lucy: But why not just demand a divorce, get the alimony and take the kids to Moscow? You could get a job! What were you good at?

Anna (to moderator): Who is this bitch?

Zero: Let’s bring in Juliet Capulet, who killed herself at her dead lover’s side. Would you do it again, knowing what you know now?

Claire Danes as Juliet

Juliet: What do I know now? My one true love is still dead. What did I have to live for?

Emma: That totally makes sense to me. If Rodolphe had died in my arms, I would have killed myself, too.

Anna: Me, too. You go, Juliet!

Emma: Right, better to get it over with early. No offense, but if he had lived, Romeo would probably have turned into a jerk like every other man.

Juliet: What! Take that back, you fusty baggage!

Zero: All right, let’s keep this civil. Lucy, did you ever think of killing yourself for love?

Lucy: Well. . . (thinks). . . not really. I mean, it was sad that Peter was in that coma, and then when he woke up. . .and Jack found out about everything. I mean, I quit my job—does that count?

Anna (bewildered): Quit your job?

Emma: This bitch doesn’t know anything. She has a job, she can sleep with anybody she wants and nobody cares, she can have a kid by herself, get divorced and remarried and divorced. What the hell does she know about love?

Juliet: That’s right! My family would have slain me in an honor killing if I had slept with Romeo out of wedlock, and then they would have killed Romeo and half his family. Marriage and sex and fidelity obviously mean nothing to you!

Lucy: Hey, that’s not fair. All I ever wanted was to be married.

Sandra Bullock as Lucy Moderatz

Anna: Sure, but you have choices. You can vote. You can sleep with that guy down the hall and who cares? No one ostracizes you from society, if a peasant like you could be said to have a society.

Lucy: You know, just because you lived in different times, that doesn’t give you a right to judge my feelings. I feel just as deeply about love as all of you did.

Juliet: Oh yeah?  (withdraws a dagger from her skirts and offers it to Lucy) Prove it.

Emma: Yeah, prove it.

Lucy (recoils): But I’m not going to kill myself. I’m happily married.

Emma (to moderator): Why did you invite her? What does she know about anything? (turns to Juliet) Give me that dagger!

Lucy: I’m getting out of here! (jumps up and runs away, followed closely by Emma, Anna and Juliet)

Zero: I guess we’ll have to resume this discussion at another time. Until then, let me leave you with this final question: Would you kill yourself for love?

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