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Posts Tagged ‘Sylvia Plath’

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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