"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Friday, July 29, 2022

The Dedalus Book of Literary Suicides: Dead Letters by Gary Lachman (2007)

          In looking for a trigger for [Rene] Crevel's suicide, we have several candidates: his failure to dissuade the communists to relent or to persuade Breton to apologize; his inability to reconcile his love for the Black Pope with his rejection of his politics; his repeated drug addictions; his homosexuality; the fact that on the day he committed suicide he had discovered that his tuberculosis, which he believed had been cured, had in actuality gotten worse and was spreading; his recent pitiful performance lecturing to workers who he realized saw him as "just a rich kid with problems, slumming;"29 or, underlining all the rest, what must have been the gruesomely traumatic memory of his father's death. Dali, who was a close friend, hearing about the Congress debacle, realized Crevel needed some support, and telephoned him, only to receive what must have seemed like a particularly surreal answer: an unfamiliar voice advised him to get a taxi and come at once, as Crevel was dying. When Dali arrived, he found a fire engine parked in front of Crevel's building, and firemen in his flat. "With the gluttony of a nursing baby," Dali wrote, "René was sucking oxygen. I never saw anyone cling so desperately to life."

     His attachment to it, sadly, was brief; he died in hospital that evening. Crevel's note, tied to his wrist, speaks of his self-hatred. It read, "René Crevel. Please cremate me. Disgust."

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The Dedalus Book of Literary Suicides: Dead Letters by Gary Lachman (2007)

surveys two millenia of the activity, from the the publication of Werther to the cult suicides of the 1990s. It also dips further back to Socrates and Seneca, but the focus is on the Romantic and post-Romantic writers who experienced

the fruits of bourgeois revolutions and the rosy dawn of imperialism.

Lachman does a good job of not letting his famous self-murdering writers the final word. Reasons for committing suicide are contradictory and testimony of its perpetrators is obviously untrustworthy. Testimony of survivors, likewise.

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     Within a few months of the novel's [Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werther] publication, Europe was in the grip of Werthermania, and Goethe became the most famous German writer in the world. As often happens with this kind of early success, Goethe spent much of his subsequent career trying to show he was more than 'the author of Werther'; even his masterpiece Faust, which is a classic on a par with Shakespeare and Dante, was less known in his lifetime. The 'Werther costume' – blue coat, buff waistcoat, breeches and riding boots – became de rigueur among the young set. There was a Werther tea, a Werther cologne, young people took to taking long walks in the woods, reciting Homer and Ossian (one of Werther's favourite poets), and torchlight processions made their way to Jerusalem's grave. Pilgrims from all over Europe flocked to the place, and the site was included in the travel guides of the time. Werther style poems, plays and novels were bought and read as fast as they could be published, most of an inferior literary quality which, as can be imagined, hardly mattered. There were Werther fireworks, Werther wax figures, Werther songs, Werther porcelain, and Werther jewelry. Questions posed by the novel were hotly debated: should Lotte have continued to see Werther after she and Albert were married? Romantic displays of solidarity with Werther were common. A group of Englishmen toasted Werther over Jerusalem's grave, drew their daggers, and made speeches, but evidence for the many Werther copy-cat suicides that remain part of the novel's myth is scant. As Michael Hulse remarks, although there are a few deaths linked to the book (and these in fact were women), reports of a 'suicide epidemic' are exaggerated and "the young men of Europe contented themselves with dressing in blue frock-coats and buff waistcoats, and sensibly preferred not to pull the trigger."5 But if Werther didn't send a generation to an early grave, as has been reported, it's popularity was dangerous in another, less drastic way. It was less as an endorsement of suicide, than in the way its many readers misunderstood Goethe's message, that the book was a danger. That the book was nevertheless banned in Leipzig, and that a Danish translation was aborted did little to stop the spread of the Romantic sensibility that Goethe had purged himself of by writing the book.

     From his creator's point of view, that Werther was a fool to commit suicide over a woman is clear, but that is not the extent of his foolishness. Goethe's younger contemporary Heinrich Heine pointed out that the social issues raised in the novel were as important as the romantic ones, and that if the book had been published in the 1800s, this would have been recognized. Werther's problem – which we can assume was Jerusalem's as well, and indeed Goethe's at one point – was that he did not 'fit' into society. He is intelligent, idealistic, poetic: valuable traits all, but not ones that guaranteed that he would be judged as an equal by his social betters. Lotte's rejection of his love is mirrored by the rejection he receives by the aristocratic society he encounters during his tenure as secretary to an ambassador, a position taken so that he could master his feelings toward Lotte. The ambassador himself he finds difficult to take. Werther finds him "extremely trying," "the most punctilious oaf imaginable, doing everything step by step, meticulous as a maiden aunt."6 Werther can't understand why he must "despair of my own powers, my own gifts, when others with paltry abilities and talents go showing off, smugly self-satisfied."7 "What people these are, whose entire souls are occupied with protocol and ceremony, who devote their devious creative energies, for years on end, to moving one place higher up at table!"8 Werther's own intelligence and energy is often too vital to suppress, and he frequently contradicts or corrects his employer, behaviour that earns him rebuke and the admonition to control his "hypersensitivity", and the advice that he must learn to "moderate it and divert it into areas where it can be put to proper use and produce its rightful powerful effect."9

     Werther tries to abide by these counsels, but something happens that makes him throw his position over. A count who appreciates his talents and is fond of him invites him to dine on the same evening that he held a regular soirée with his fellow nobles. Werther did not know that he, as a subordinate, should not be present, and so he lingered, although the turned up noses of the aristocrats were enough to make him flee. Then a young woman, Miss B., whom he had got to know and whom he felt had "retained a very natural manner amidst this inflexible life" and who accepted his request to call on her, arrived. Although his "heart always feels freer" the moment he sees her, he soon realizes that she was not as 'natural' with him then as she had been. "Can she too be like the rest of them?" he asks. Gradually the room fills and his presence becomes an issue. Eventually and apologetically, because he does truly like him, the count has to ask him to leave. Werther makes his exit, and drives to a hill to "watch the sun set and read that magnificent book in Homer where Odysseus enjoys the hospitality of the excellent swineherd."10 Later he discovers that his faux pas is the talk of the town, and he hears from Miss B. that she had been warned against keeping up an acquaintance with him. The idea that he is being talked about enrages him. "I wish someone would have the courage to mock me to my face, so that I might thrust my sword through his body …" But thoughts of suicide are not far behind either. "I have snatched up a knife a hundred times, meaning to relieve my sorely beset heart …" Like the "noble breed of horses that instinctively bite open a vein when they are exhausted and feverish," Werther too is "tempted to open a vein and so find eternal freedom."11

     But this humiliation is only the last in a series of unendurable conditions for Werther. "There is not a single instant when the heart is full," he cries, "not one single hour of bliss!" In the evenings he resolves "to enjoy the next day's sunrise, but I cannot quit my bed;" during the day "I look forward to the delights of moonlight, and then I stay in my room. I do not quite know why I rise or why I go to bed."12

     Werther's problem, however, is not that of social snobbery, or of the impossibility of having Lotte. It is more than this. As John Armstrong points out in his book Love, Life, Goethe, Werther's experience with Lotte, and with Miss B and the count, "seems to suggest something terrible about life." Werther "regards love as sacred – as the most important emotion. However, there is no guarantee that love, however ardent, will be returned: that the world will meet it and reward it. He feels as if the most valuable thing that he has is useless in the world as it is. Existence is perverse."

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Lachman opens his chapter on suicide and depression:

In a grimly fascinating book, Let Me Finish, the German academic Udo Grashoff put together an anthology of suicide notes, gathered from police records. Reading these, it's difficult to argue with A. Alvarez's assessment, quoted earlier, of the "shabby, confused, agonized crisis which is the common reality of suicide." The notes Grashoff collected suggest that the motivation for most suicides fall within a fairly limited purview: unrequited love, debt, shame, sickness, an intolerable domestic situation. They also confirm that the only thing to come of most suicides is a nasty mess for someone else to clean up….

The summation Lachman gives to experiments by the youthful Graham Greene injects some necessary sense and probity into the book's beginnings, before it fills with depressives, nihilists, surrealists, and those in political flight from Hitler and Stalin:

[....] [Graham] Greene's attempts to shock himself out of a spiritual lethargy [by playing Russian roulette as a teenager] are an example of "living dangerously," an ideal which Colin Wilson associates with many of his Outsiders. Wilson argues that there is a kind of "indifference threshold" in human consciousness. "There is, "he writes, "a certain margin of boredom or indifference when the human mind ceases to be stimulated by pleasure, but can still be stimulated by pain or discomfort." (Encyclopedia of Murder with Pat Pitman [Arthur Baker: London, 1961] p.22) Greene (and Coleridge), who could see but not feel beauty, had reached this threshold, and the prospect of blowing his brains out, and then discovering he hadn't, for a brief time galvanised his consciousness. In her account of Greene's experience, however, Kay Redfield Jamison fails to mention that his motive in playing Russian Roulette was to achieve a feeling of greater life, not to end his own.

          This is one of the problems with Jamison's book, which, as a study of manic-depression among writers and artists, is excellent, as far as it goes. But being a clinical psychologist, Jamison tends to see everything in terms of either mania or depression. One example she gives of 'manic' behaviour is Poe's short story "The Man of the Crowd." She quotes Poe's narrator remarking how, convalescing after months of illness, he finds himself in a London coffee house "in one of those happy moods which are so precisely the converse of ennui – moods of keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs … and the intellect, electrified, surpasses … its everyday condition." For Jamison this is an expression or confession of Poe's manic states, but it is clear that Poe is simply speaking of the poetic condition itself, the kind of clarity and acute sensual and psychic appreciation which reveals to the poet the poetic object. Psychologically speaking, Poe's narrator is having what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called a 'peak experience'. This isn't 'manic' at all, and is something, Maslow argued, experienced by most healthy people. This kind of 'peak' is shared by many of the depressives Jamison writes about, people like Coleridge, William James and others. But she fails to recognize it as such, and erroneously speaks of it as an indication of a pathology.

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Some of Lachman's suicides add insult to they injury they inflict on those they leave behind: not wanting to make a mess, they go to a hotel, or put rubber sheets on their bed. Both Mayakovsky and Cesare Pavese in their notes request "no gossip." 

Others just seemed to drift inexorably toward suicide, toying with the idea or joking about, and naturally writing about it.  Inexorably they found themselves painted into a corner and felt they had to do it: Walter Benjamin was an example of this type.

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Lachman's  footnotes are not without their black humor:

29  On 25 March 1969, Assia Wevill copied Sylvia Plath by gassing herself and her two year old daughter by Ted Hughes, Shura, in the kitchen of their flat. Although 'with' Assia at the time, Hughes was having an affair with yet another woman, Brenda Hedden. Hughes himself remarked, "All the women I have anything to do with seem to die." One wonders if he ever asked why that may have been….

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Dead Letters  includes a useful anthology of literary extracts at the end, and an index.


29 July 2022

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