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The Doomed in Their Sinking

Suicide

by Jacques Choron
Scribner’s, 182 pp., $7.95

Crane went sudden as a springboard. The Gulf gave nothing back. My mother, I remember, took her time. She held the house around her as she held her bathrobe, safely doorpinned down its floorlength, the metal threads glinting like those gay gold loops which close the coat of a grenadier, though there were gaps of course…unseemly as sometimes a door is on a chain…so that to urinate she had to hoist the whole thing like a skirt, collecting the cloth in fat pleats with her fingers, wads which soon out-oozed her fists and sprang slowly away…one consequence…so that she felt she had to hover above the hole, the seat (clouds don’t care about their aim), unsteadily…necessarily…more and more so as the nighttime days drew on, so that the robe grew damp the way the sweater on a long drink grows, soggy from edge to center, until I found I cared with what success she peed when what she swallowed was herself and what streamed out of her in consequence seemed me.

Though Hart shed his bathrobe frugally before he jumped, my mother, also saving, would have worn hers like the medal on a hussar straight through living room and loony bin, every nursing home and needle house we put her in, if those points hadn’t had to come out (they confiscate your pins, belts, buckles, jewelry, teeth, and they’d take the air, too, if it had an edge, because the crazy can garrote themselves with a length of breath, their thoughts are open razors, their eyes go off like guns), though there was naturally no danger in these baubles to herself, for my mother was living the long death, her whole life passing before her as she went, the way those who drown themselves are said to have theirs pass…a consequence, yes…her own ocean like a message in a bottle, so that she sank slowly somewhere as a stone sill sinks beneath the shoes of pilgrims and tourists, not like Plath with pills, or Crane or Woolf with water, Plath again by gas, or Berryman from a bridge, but, I now believe, in the best way possible, because the long death is much more painful and punishing than even disembowelment or bleach, and it inflicts your dying on those you are blaming for it better than burning or blowing up—during an exquisitely extended stretch—since the same substance which poisons you, preserves, you both have and eat, enjoy and suffer your revenges together, as well as the illusion that you can always change your mind.

Yet my mother wasn’t what we call a suicide, even though she died as though she’d cut her throat when the vessels burst there finally, and my father, who clenched his teeth till neither knees nor elbows would unfist, dying of his own murderous wishes like the scorpion who’s supposed to sting itself to death—no—he wasn’t one either: both had a terribly tenacious grip on life…so that some suicides will survive anything, and many who court death have no desire to wed her…it mixes us up….

Should suicide be regarded as the last stage of a series of small acts against the self, since the murderer who arsenics his wife little by little is still a murderer though she takes a decade dying; or does this confuse kinds of hostility in a serious way, because harsh words aren’t the same as blows or their bruises, desire isn’t adultery whatever Jesus preached, not even a degree of it? Cigarettes shorten our life, but the alcoholic’s fuddle mimics death (departure) in a way the smoker’s never does. What can we make of that? We shall manage something.

My mother managed. She was what we call a dedicated passive…liquidly acquiescent…supinely on the go. Still, she went in her own way—the way, for instance, her robe was fastened.

Socrates acquiesced to his own execution, others demand theirs. The Kamikaze pilot intends his death, but does not desire it. Malcolm Lowry, who choked on his vomit, evidently desired his, but did not intend it. Soldiers charging the guns at Verdun neither wished for death nor were bent on it, though death was what they expected. My mother accepted.

I used to think my father was the actively aggressive one because while he sat, temporized, bided and waited, he growled, swore, and made horrible faces.

Definitions of suicide, like definitions of adultery, are invariably normative, and frequently do little more than reflect the shallowest social attitudes, embody the most parochial perspectives. Above all (Alvarez stresses this even more strongly than Choron), these attitudes are for the most part deeply irrational. Failures may be executed, for example, while the corpses of successes are assaulted. Studies of suicide, including these two, are soon elaborately confused about desire, intention, deed, and consequence, ownership and responsibility (whether we belong to ourselves, society, or God); neglect the difference between act and action; refuse to decide whether to include deaths of soul (Rimbaud?) as well as deaths of body, since holy living may indeed be holy dying, so that physical and metaphysical murders become hopelessly intertwined; and they are content to record, with a tourist’s widened eyes, the sweet, sour, wise, or benighted opinions of nearly everyone.

If we are to call suicide every self-taken way out of the world, then even the Platonic pursuit of knowledge, involving as it does the separation of reason from passion and appetite, is suicidal…as are, of course, the search for ecstatic states, and longings for mystical union. It is the habit of such examinations to mess up these matters as if they were so many paints whose purpose was purely to give pleasure to the fingers.

Nowadays the significance of a suicide for the suicide and the significance of that suicide for society are seldom the same. If, according to the social workers’ comforting cliché, they are often a cry for help, they’re just as frequently a solemn vow of silence. Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine circumstances under which some of our conventional kinds of suicide would be impossible—impossible because we would simply refuse to recognize them. The liver fails. The veins collapse. Sleep seizes the wheel. No suicide there. Suppose that starving yourself were a “going-home-to-God”—no suicide there—while slashing your wrists were a “cowardly-copping-out.” In order to speak your piece properly you might have to shoot, hang, or poison yourself. The liberated woman must do something manly, shotgun herself at the very least, avoid sleeping pills like the devil—that soothing syrup of the oppressed sex. If you don’t want the manner of your dying to be a message to mankind, if your aim is just to get the hell out, then you will have to be as clever at disarming symbols as Mallarmé. Alas, the way we think and write about suicides would provide many with still another motive, an additional despair, were they alive again and mercilessly aware.

Breeding is not out of place even here. Petronius, the critics say, had class. Cato has consistently had a good press. And we write cheery loving thank-you notes; we put our affairs in order; we do not leap on top of people, run in front of cars owned by innocent strangers, bleed in public, allow the least hint of indecision, ambiguity, or failure to spoil our aim, and avoid every form of vulgar display. The ledge-huggers want to be coaxed, for instance. That’s a suicide for shopgirls. My favorites are rather theatrical. Choron tells us how Arria, the wife of a Roman senator who’d been caught plotting, in order to stimulate her husband to his duty, plunged a sword into her breast and then handed it to him with the words: Paete, non dolet (It does not hurt). Others seek the third rail; swallow combs, crosses, safety pins, fountain pens, needles, nails; they blow up the planes they are riding in, smother themselves in plastic baggies, or simply find a wall and dash out their brains. Though methods, motives, meanings differ (“Whose head is hanging from the swollen strap?” asked Crane), most can be expected to mess up their deaths exactly as they’ve messed up their lives. Poor folks. Poor ways.

Never mind. If you pay with your life you get a ticket to the tent: martyrs, daredevils, the accident-prone, those who cheat “justice” as Hannibal did, or are condemned by it as Seneca was; those who would die rather than surrender, even en masse, as the Jews died at Massada; those too poor, too rich, too proud, too ineffably wicked; all addicts, Cleopatras, all desolate Didos, mystics, faddists, young sorrowful Werthers; the fundamentally frigid, who cannot allow life to give them any pleasure; the incurably ill, the mad, the metaphysically gloomy; widows who go up with the rest of the property, and all those who from disgust or rage protest this life with emblematic ignitions and ritual sacrifice…it’s like cataloguing books according to the color of their covers…the mourners, the divided selves (not just Cartesians, severed into bum and bicycle as Beckett’s men are, but those who are cut up into competing personalities as vicious as sisters in some Cinderella); then the downright stupid, the inept and careless, the sublimely heroic, the totally disgraced…the color may be significant (the blue cover of Ulysses is), but it is scarcely a mode of classification which carves reality at the joints…those whom guilt feeds on as if they were already carrion; the Virginia Woolfs, too, who enter their own imagery, and the ones for whom death is a deer park, a convent, a place in outer space; also the impotent, ugly, acned, lonely; the inadvertently pregnant, and otherwise those who embrace their assassins, or who have felt only the hold of their own hand, thus to come and go finally in the same way…everyone welcome.

Lost in lists, in the surveyor’s sweepings, borne along on conjecture like gutter water, the same act can signify anything you like, depending on the system—even the mood or the line of the eye—which gives it meaning: I cock my head one way and it appears to me that my mother was murdered; I cock it another and she seems a specially vindictive suicide; while if I face firmly forward as one in military ranks she seems to have been overcome by a rather complex illness, a chronic and progressively worsening disease. Simply examining “suicides” is like trying to establish a science of—let’s say—sallescape, which we can imagine contains the whys and wherefores of room-leaving. The word confers an imaginary unity upon a rabble of factors, and the ironic thing about suicide itself, intrinsically considered (and what my little litanies have been designed to demonstrate), is that it is a wholly empty act. It is—more than Rigaut, the Dada hero, was—an empty suitcase.

And if the suicide believes his final gesture, like the last line of an obscure poem, will unite, clarify, and give meaning to all that has gone before; or if actual poems have held offhand hints

The news from Spain got worse. The President of my Form
at South Kent turned up at Clare, one of the last let out of Madrid.
He designed the Chapel the School later built
& killed himself, I never
heard why
or just how, it was something to do with a bridge.
(Berryman: “Transit”)

or seemed like chilling scenarios—

We have come so far, it is over.
Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little
Pitcher of milk, now empty.
(Plath: “Edge”)

so that the line between literature and life appears underdrawn (before she killed herself, Sylvia Plath put out two mugs of milk for her children); or if he has fallen for a romantic comparison like Camus’s “An act like this is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art,” then at least he will suffer no further disappointment dead, because, of course, acts aren’t language, and there’s no poetry at all in suicide, only in some accounts of it…significance, value in this sense, belongs solely to sentences. Actions, and other similar events, have meaning only secondarily, as we impute it to them, and so may mean many things to many people. Words are acts only secondarily. They principally exist in the systems which establish and define them (as numbers do in mathematics), so while feasting may mean one thing to a Jew and quite another to a Samoan, the word “Traum,” uttered anywhere by anybody, remains irrevocably German.

Death will not fill up an empty life and in a line of verse it occupies only five letters of space.

Choron’s readable little handbook, with its capsule summaries of speculation, its few tables of statistics, brief histories of opinions, merely provokes its questions, instead of asking them, and touches so lightly on all its subjects, they never feel it. Totally porous, the data are simply slowed down a trifle in seeping through. It resembles Choron’s earlier Death and Modern Man in being a kind of easy introductory text.

Alvarez, observing the immense diversity of his material, wisely offers no solutions. Yet because he does not rigorously differentiate sorts, define terms, regulate interpretations, exclude kinds, but is content to report, reflect, admonish, and look on, his “study” turns out to be gossipy and anecdotal, though sometimes splendidly so, as his account of the suicide of Sylvia Plath is, because Alvarez is sensitive and sympathetic, knows how to handle a text, and writes with conscience and skill about a subject which is close enough to his own personal concerns (he is himself a “failed” suicide) that one could reasonably expect it to shake both skill and conscience as though they were rags in a gale.

It must have seemed like a good idea to sandwich his historical and literary studies of suicide between two kinds of direct acquaintance with it, all the more so when Alvarez’s dissatisfaction with most theoretical investigations lies in their natural lack of contact with inner feeling, although much the same might be said of the physical laws for falling bodies, especially when the falling body is your own. The result of this division has not been entirely happy, however. Natural reticence, moral restraint, and simple lack of knowledge make his accounts of suicide from the inside-side seriously deficient in essential data, and therefore reduce them to sensitively told and frequently moving stories, although with less excuse Choron manages to make even the expounding of a theory sound like gossip (in effect: “Do you know what Plato said? Well—you won’t believe this—but he said…”).

Throughout The Savage God, too, again because it has no ruling principle, details fly out like sparks from every point that’s struck, to fade without a purpose. The conditions surrounding Chatterton’s suicide, for example, are certainly interesting, and Alvarez recites them nicely enough, but which ones really count, and which ones don’t, and how do they count if they do, and if they do by how much? Vivid details, picturesque circumstances…my mother’s copter-like bathroom posture, her gap-pinned robe, miscolored toes…well, their relevance isn’t clear. Perhaps they have mainly a vaudeville function—to enliven without enlightening. Throughout, my mention of my mother merely mimics the problem.

The value of The Savage God, and it is high, lies mainly in the humanity of the mind which composed it, in the literary excellence of its composition, and the suggestiveness of many of its passages—the moment by moment thoughtfulness of its author as a reader.

The world of the suicidal is, in a certain sense (for all its familiar elements: pain, grief, confusion, failure, loss…) a private and impenetrable one, hence the frustration of those who are trying to help, and whose offers to do so, as raps on the glass disturb fish, often simply insult the suicide immersed in his situation. It is a consciousness trapped, enclosed by a bell jar, in the image which encloses Plath’s novel, and Alvarez’s book should do a great deal to correct the sentimentalist’s happy thought that art is a kind of therapy for the sick and world-weary, and that, through it, deep personal problems get worked out.

Rilke sometimes took this attitude toward the writing of Malte Laurids Brigge, but if writing kept him sane, as he thought, it was one of the chief sources of his misery as well. Plath’s last poems, considered in this way, are announcements and warnings; they are promises; and their very excellence was a threat to the existence of their author, a woman whom success had always vanquished, and who was certainly vanquished without it. Not only does the effort of creation often cultivate our problems at their roots, as Alvarez notes, the rich eloquence of their eventual formulation may give to some “solutions” an allure that is abnormal, one that art confers, not life. Malcolm Lowry, that eminent drunk, perhaps put Plath’s particular case best when he wrote:

When the doomed are most elo- quent in their sinking,
It seems that then we are least strong to save….

Writing. Not writing. Twin terrors. Putting one’s mother into words…. It may have been easier to put her in her grave.

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