WHY DO AUTHORS KILL THEMSELVES?
There have been many famous suicides in literature; Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, Brutus and Cassius, Othello, Ophelia, Aegeus, Ajax, Madame Bovary. Their deaths have formed some of the most poignant moments in world literature. Indeed , sometimes it is the very act of suicide itself which is the defining character trait we remember long after we finish the book or play.
But surely nothing is as poignant as when the master craftsmen, the novelists and playwrights themselves,commit suicide. Ever since 17 year old Thomas Chatterton took his life in 1770, seemingly through his damning estimation of society’s demise, a certain pathos has been linked to the writer who succumbed to the troubling broths of depression. Chatterton was held as an icon of an honourable death-and life-, by artists like Henry Wallis. Chatterton’s legacy was hijacked by the Bohemians as an example of the valour of nonconformity. The 18th and 19th centuries would be studded with the suicides of major and minor writers, seemingly caught up in notions of romanticism and honour.
Suicide was viewed as an honourable way out, perhaps the only way out for any serious writer worth their salt. After all, which poet would suffer the evils of old age and mediocrity, unseen and unsung, when a noble sword, swinging noose or rocky abyss could secure eternal commemoration? Certainly romantic notions of suicide seem encapsulated by this; that is, suicide as a means of securing the reputation of the writer; pathos-laden, dripping in honour and remorse; a statement, a reflection and accusation on those who remained, an immortal shaking hands with posterity and the canon of great writers.
Chatterton would not have wait too long to have his great minstrel banquet in the sky: Gerard de Nerval hung himself by an apron string in 1855; Vladimir Mayakovsky shot himself in 1930, Karen Boye took sleeping pills in 1941; the same year Virginia Woolf drowning herself in the River Ouse in 1941; Hemingway shot himself in 1961; Sylvia Plath gassing herself in the kitchen of her flat in Primrose Hill in 1963; John Berryman threw himself from his university building in 1972Paul Celan’s leaping into the Seine in 1970, the same year Mishima disemboweled himself; Primo Levi 1987, Hunter S Thompson 2005, David Foster Wallace 2008- the list is hardly complete.
Not all authors kill themselves for the same reasons but society’s attitude towards suicide has undoubtedly changed. No longer does Chatterton’s image hold true, anachronistic romanticism is long dead. In the 21st century, suicide as a gesture has lost its cogency. The hellish and private torments of any single author would be lost amongst the din and background noise of some many competing voices in a competing computerised world. -Modern day authors live in a society where we emphasise concepts of choice. With the myriad self-help voices yelling ‘no don’t do it’, one can imagine the decision of a modern author to commit suicide being translated as one of competing options, even ‘tagged’ with the vocabulary of ’Bad choice’-'in Facebook-land. ’The suicide of X, author of the best-selling Y’ would presumably be ‘debated’ in a host of likes and unlikes and electronic RIP’s- exit pursued by a HTML-induced one gigabyte silence.
And yet modern notions of suicide rest on something else too; suicide as an act of aggression. We live, after all, in a age of suicide bombers. Suicide writers would somehow attract less attention with their own quiet demise unless they’d wrapped some TNT around the lap on a bid to take out Amazon’s Kindle warehouse.-A writer’s suicide is a solitary thing; silent, repressed, dead- the act itself the only remnant of expression. Our modern mechanations of technology and 24-hour news would surely require a more gladitorial exit for it to be lodged in public memory like Hemingway’s or Plath’s deaths were.
All this is to say that suicide is no longer a silent gesture or a nod to romanticism. It would be expected of the modern-day author commiting suicide to externalise the gesture somehow. In the words of Alistair McCartney ‘David Foster Wallace killed himself in the wrong century’ And he’s right. We look back at the suicides of past centuries with rose-tinted glasses and attribute the romanticism which a modern suicide can not seem to muster. McCartney makes another fine point; that Wallace would have ‘gained’ more from his suicide ‘if he had hanged himself within a year of the release of Infinite Jest, published in 1996′.
With the trend in e-books bringing more and more titles to more and more people, there is undoubtedly more choice than ever before. In choosing the works of one author over another, many things might have happened- not least in the marketing departments of major publishers. Books are more about brands than authors’ surnames today- and there is a difference between the two. Suicide might have once been a means to capture that brand- think Kennedy Toole and a Confederacy of Dunces or Sylvia Plath and the Bell-Jar-but now suicide seems outdated, anachronistic, a terrible weapon of last resort in the armoury of a writer.
So, why do writers commit suicide? David Foster Wallace’s own verdict on suicide is starkly revealing
“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
With that beautiful, sadly prophetic verse from Foster Wallace here’s is an (incomplete) list of some famous suicides in literature.
LIST OF SOME FAMOUS LITERARY SUICIDES
Thomas Chatterton (20 November 1752 – 24 August 1770) arsenic poisoning.half-starved, and there is evidence to suggest that his sufferings were aggravated by a dose of gonorrhoea. On August 24, 1770, proud to the end, he poisoned himself by drinking arsenic in water.
Gerard de Nerval- May 22, 1808, Paris, France—died January 26, 1855, Paris. French Romantic poet who greatly influenced the Symbolists and Surrealists. Nerval was fabulously flamboyant, once taking his lobster for a walk in a Parisian park. He suffered endless mental traumas; hallucinations and nightmares. Nerval hanged himself from a lamppost in the rue de la Vieille Lanterne, Paris.
Vladimir Mayakovsky, 1893-1930: Soviet poet and pioneer of Russian Futurism.- he became heavily involved in the politics of the communist revolution. He lost faith in the Soviet cause however, and shot himself in 1930.
Virginia Woolf, 1882-1941: One of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century, renowned for her stream of consciousness style and lyrical beauty, Woolf’s personal life was a constant torment to her. The death of her parents and siblings caused a series of mental breakdown’s during her teens and twenties, and this poignancy infused the layered beauty of her writings which screamed with her sorrow and pain. Her most famous works include the novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), andOrlando (1928).Wolff was sexually abused as a child. Wolff was also a champion of feminism, and through novels such as A Room Of One’s Own, furthered the cause for political and educational concessions towards female advancement in society.Woolf was a sublime writer for all the personal chaos Her suicide involved her writing a loving valedictory letter to her husband, walking outside in her overcoat and filling her pockets with stones, and walked into the River Ouse and drowned. Her final letter to her husband read; “I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.
Karen Boye (October 26, 1900 – April 24, 1941)Swedish poet famed for founding magazine Spektrum, and spreading surrealism to her nationwide readership. Boye is perhaps most famous for her poems, of which the most well-known ought to be “Yes, of course it hurts” but her novel Kallocain was a utopian precursor to Orwell’s and Huxley’s later efforts- it inspired the 2002 film Equilibrium. As Bjorn Julen says; ’Karin Boye´s poetry is about quite simple things – how to live and how life should be lived. It is about the pain of imperfection when perfection is desired’. Boye died through swallowing sleeping pills on 23 April 1941. She was found curled up at a boulder on a hill.
Ernest Hemingway, 1899-1961: Hemingwa;y; the anem conjures up the warrior writer, economical with his prose as he was adventurous in real life- big game fishing, the bull fight, civil wars-Hemingway was a ‘proper’ writer; under the no-nonsense economy of his writings though Hemingway’s prose was a vehicle for real subtle compassion. Despite his great success, during his lifetime and through eternal posthumous celebration Hemingway committed suicide by putting the end of the barrel of his favorite shotgun into his mouth and pulling the trigger. He was by that time an alcoholic-he had drunk heavily throughout his lifetime. Medical records show that Hemingway was diagnosed with hemochromatosis, in which the inability to metabolize iron culminates in mental and physical deterioration. Hemingway, in his last years had become paranoid the CIA were trying to kill him.
Sylvia Plath, 1932-1963: Plath might be the most famous writer associated with suicide; a by-word for the neurotic in literature and its master craftsmen After a long struggle with depression and marital separation, Plath was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in the kitchen, with her head in the oven. Testament to her apparent calmness through the ordeal- she has sealed the kitchen with damp cloths to protect her children from the fumes. Her most notable work is The Bell Jar, a beautiful work on the loneliness of the long-distance isolated person. She married fellow poet Ted Hughes in 1956, forming a kind of celebrity literary marriage. She committed suicide shortly after its release.
John Kennedy Toole; (December 17, 1937 – March 26, 1969) Received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981, posthumously, for his acclaimed novel A Confederacy of Dunces. His novel was ignored during his lifetime which led to Toole’s plunge into manic paranoia and depression. He was only 31 when, on a road trip across the States, Toole stopped in Mississipi to end his life by running a garden hose in from the exhaust of his car to the cabin. Through the indefatigable persistence of his mother, the novel finally found a publisher and global success.
John Berryman; 1914-1972 Berryman was was a prolific poet; his 77 Dream Songs (1964), even landing him the Pulitzer Prize. Berryman’s style was chaotic, cryptic and elusive, he encouraged his readers to interpret his prose any way they chose – “these Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand.” he once said.Berryman, whose father committed suicide when he was only 12, was a lifelong alcoholic and depressive. On January 7, 1972, he jumped from the Washington Avenue Bridge, overlooking Minneapolis University’s campus where he’d taught literature since 1955.
Anne Sexton, 1928-1974: Another poet who struggled with demons of depression. n 1956, Sexton’s therapist recommended that she take up poetry as an outlet for her severe depression. She won the Pulitzer prize in 1967 for her book ‘Live or Die’. Sexton was known for her personalised verse, ‘confessional’ she called it, and she was cemented in the hearts of literary America with tales of everyday life. Sexton’s poetry concerned the local not the exotic, composing on themes like abortion, menstruation, and masturbation. She repeatedly made attempts on her own life. On October 4, 1974,Sexton took her own life through carbon monoxide poisoning- locking herself in her garage and starting the engine of her car.
Yukio Mishima 1925-1970 famous novelist and poet from Tokyo, Japan. Nurtured by aristocratic, overbearing grandparents, Mashima turned to literature to escape the cocoon of his earl years. Nominated three times for the Nobel Prize, Mishima won international acclaim for works like Sound of the Waves (1954). However, Mishima is as much remembered for his ritual suicide than his life’s works- he ended his life through the ritual of seppuku. Having failed to overthrow the government with a coup d’etat, in an attempt to reinstate the emperor, Mishima was bound by honor to kill himself. Seppuku is suicide by disembowelment;performed by stabbing a sword into the abdomen and then thrusting it around the stomach lining. After the disembowelment the subject is decapitated.
Richard Brautigan 1935-1984. Born into abysmal poverty, a string of father figures entered and exited Brautigan’s turbulent upbringing- his novel So The Wind Won’t Blow It Away loosely recounts the horrors of his early years. He was diagnosed in later life with clinical depression and paranoid schizophrenia. He is best known for his 1967 novel Trout Fishing in America (1967)l In October 1984, Brautigan’s month-dead body was found rotting in his home in Bolinas, California. A .44 Magnum bullet was found in his skull-Brautigan left a suicide note which simply ‘Messy, isn’t it?’
Primo Michele Levi ; July 31, 1919 – April 11, 1987) an Italian chemist and writer imprisoned at Auschwitz during the war.Levi never removed the number tattooed on his arm at Auschwitz; it was even engraved on his headstone. Levi claimed it was Auschwitz that ’turned me into a writer”:He was the author of two novels and several collections of short stories, essays, and poems, including If This Is A Man, The Sixth Day and The Periodic Table. He jumped from the third floor balcony of his house.
Steven “Jesse” Bernstein, 1950-1991: An icon to Seattle’s underground grunge music scene, Bernstein’s fought a long battle against substance abuse. He considered himself a poet before a novelist, a true bard opening for bands like Nirvana during the 80s. Bernstein stabbed himself in the throat in his home.
Jerzy Kosinski , June 14, 1933 – May 3, 1991, novelist, remembered for The Painted Bird (1965) and Being There (1971), latterly adapted into award-winning film. Kosinski, originally named Jozef Lewinkopf, evaded capture during WW2 through the help of a variety of resistance fighters, being disguised as an alter boy and working in a local parish. In 1957, Kosinski emigrated to the United States on a counterfeit passport, enrolling at Columbia University’s where he would receive literary acclaim. Accused of plagiarism, and fraud, Kosinki’s mental stability deteriorated during the 1980s-on May 3, 1991, his wife found his body in a half-filled bathtub, a suffocating plastic bag wrapped around his head. His suicide note read; “I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call it Eternity.”
Hunter S. Thompson, 1937-2005: . ‘Gonzo’ journalist Thompson was at the heart and soul of all his work. Immortalized through films like Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, Thompson took an impressive cargo of drugs on his adventures- even the dreaded ether. Ultimately, Thompson was a searcher searching for the elusive American Dream. His affinities always lay with the American people, and as such he was an active advocate for arms and drugs being retained as weapons for the common man against the oppressive forces of society. He shot himself in the head in 2005. In a typewriter in front of Thompson’s body, his children found a suicide note;, entitled Football Season is Over:“No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt“
David Foster Wallace (February 21, 1962 – September 12, 2008 Best known for his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, Wallace was found hanged on the patio of his California home. He had been suffering form depression and had been taking medication in the months before his death. Wallace was a champion of reading and writing and satirised the way computers were changing people’s reading habits. A posthumous piecing together of his unfinished The Pale King appeared in 2011.
and a faker………………..
Ken Kesey September 17, 1935 – November 10, 2001). Author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey was involved with the 60s counterculture, and, along with Aldous Huxley, was an advocate of acid and LSD’s decriminalisation. Kesey considered himself a link between the Beat poets and the hippies. He faked his own suicide in 1965, trying to outrun the police for a marijuana prosecution charge.