Suicide is as ancient as humanity. It has its place in ethics, religion, literature, history and art. The newspapers apprise us that suicides are rather frequent. People all over the world kill themselves with an alarming rate and make suicides a major cause of death. Amazingly many times more is the figure of attempted suicides. Nevertheless, when we come to know of a suicide we are astonished anew and still more so when we find men possessing unusual creative intelligence and awareness turn hostile to everyday reality and finding themselves unable to adjust with it, kill themselves.
Thomas Chatterton is the most famous English literary suicide. At age seventeen he drank arsenic and ended his prodigiously gifted life. A victim of her own excessive sensitivity, Virginia Woolf made several suicide attempts before walking into the river Ouse next to her house with rocks into her pockets and drowned herself. Hart Crane devoted his energies to manage his chaotic life and finally thinking himself a failure jumped overboard a steamer into the Caribbean. Delmore Schwartz was found dead in a Manhattan hotel. Randell Jarrell killed himself. Dylan Thomas and F. Scott Fitzgerald drank themselves to death. Ernest Hemmingway shot himself. John Berryman was only eleven when his father committed suicide and later he jumped off from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis. Sylvia Plath sealed the doors and windows of her kitchen with towels and laid her head in oven. Her contemporary Anne Sexton made elaborate arrangements to kill herself: “She put on her mother’s old fur coat, removed all her rings, poured herself a glass of vodka, locked herself in her garage and started the engine of her car, ending her life by carbon monoxide poisoning.” Famous critic A Alvarez and the nineteenth century poet William Cowper both lovingly embraced Dame Death.
These are some of the well known evidences from literature about the suicidal wish of writers. Japan is perhaps the only country where suicide is legally and culturally accepted with the belief that if you cannot live with dignity you can die with dignity. The traditional Japanese suicide is called hara-kiri. A contemporary Japanese playwright, actor, novelist director and homosexual Yukio Mishima committed hara-kiri-. The suicidal phenomenon assumed an alarming proportion in the western culture on account of socio- psychological – technological variables. The loss of traditional values, stable background, disintegration of family system, broken marriages and romance contributed to high level of paranoia and finally suicides. Maurice Halbwachs, a French sociologist linked the immediate cause of suicide with the increasing isolation of the individual in the fast pace of urbanization in modern life. The writer living in the progressive society faces the inevitable complexity of the milieu and also his own peculiar problems arising from his refined sensibility. He values life and his own truth very high, so high that it is too much for him to be able to tolerate their utter perversion. Many fall with the falling values. Many survive the test but with great difficulty. If he is able to pin up his total belief in values he could then live to be as old as Tennyson, Frost, Pound and Robert Graves. But in either case he has to suffer an inner turmoil. Tolstoy who unwaveringly accepted life as of supreme value passed through a suicidal crisis. In MY CONFESSIONS he says: “The power which drew me away from life was stronger, fuller and more widespread than any mere wish. It was a force similar to the former striving to live, only in a contrary direction.” He tells us how he hid away a cord avoiding being tempted to hang himself by it to one of the pegs between the cupboards of study, where he undressed alone every evening, and ceased carrying a gun because it offered too easy a way of getting rid of his life.
For the young Romantics to kill oneself was the next best thing to being an artist. The Romantics believed that life is a corruption and for the fine sensibilities only the ‘white radiance of eternity’ is pure enough. Youth and poetry became synonymous:
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain…
These lines come from Keats who died at the age of twenty-five. Shelley who died at the age of twenty-nine was always in love with death –
I could lie down like a tired child, And weep away the life of care …. Till death like sleep might steal on me
In the 1830’s in France too, the poets, writers, dramatist and philosophers made suicide fashionable and it was practiced as one of the most elegant of sports. There were suicide clubs and suicide was considered a sure way to instant fame.
The complexity of external issues make many writers suffer from inner turmoil that explodes in the form of mental breakdown. Writers are by nature depressive. The inner negation and hopelessness are pushed to the surface by the social pressures but the fact remains that these forces already existed. Before writing THE WASTE LAND- an epic of modern life with collapsing traditional values and spiritual barrenness- T. S Eliot was under the treatment of Jung in Zurich. The deterioration of the New England tradition made Robert Lowell cry “my mind is not right.” He was in mental hospital off and on. So was Anne Sexton whose life was a painful struggle with survival:
Death’s a sad Bone; bruised, you’d say,
and yet she waits for me, year after year,
to so delicately undo an old wound,
to empty my breath from its bad prison.
Levertov said “We who are alive must make clear, as she could not, the distinction between creativity and self-distinction.”
For most of us depression often is healthy. We reorganize ourselves in sheer self defense. But with some this depression turns into quicksand that draws them into a vacuum of mental disorder with the possibility of suicide never far off. Randall Jarrell suffered from acute depression and when he was killed in a car crash people around him were not convinced that he died in the crash. A week after his death Robert Lowell in a letter to Elizabeth Bishop wrote “There is a small chance [that Jarrell’s death] was an accident…. I think it was a death and so does everyone else, who knew him well.” At a certain age of enlightenment, the futility of life becomes comic, said Jacques Vache who killed himself from an overdose of opium. The Biography of Hart Crane known as “self educated, self tortured, self destroyed, homosexual visionary” reveals his turbulent life-long struggle to escape from something in vain hope of finding something else. And as Montaigne tells us to extreme sickness extreme maladies. He jumped overboard a streamer. Author of ANATOMY OF MELENCHOLY Robert Burton is said to have hanged himself. Melancholy did take its toll.
Psychologists tell us about ‘death trend’ which can lead ultimately to self destruction. The tragic circumstances of individuals particularly those related to the parents cast gloomy shadows on their tender minds. Thomas Chatterton ‘s father had died before his birth. John Berryman and Sylvia Plath both had lost their fathers when they were children. Sylvia Plath lamented the loss of her happy childhood:
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
Ernest Hemingway shot himself dead in the manner of his father. Life is a battle where evil is strong and goodness weak. Artists try to express this tragedy in an art form. This work of art that gives vent to their pent up feelings serves as an alternative to suicide. When the outlet is blocked the destruction is all turned inwards which results in suffocation. In his last days Hemingway was struggling hard just to escape this situation. He telephoned his biographer A.E. Hotchner from the fashionable Mayo Clinic, “I can’t finish the bloody book. I ‘ve got it all and I know what I want it to be, but I can’t get it down.” Some months later a shot gun exploded in the house and he was found dead.
Writers perhaps treat the passion of destruction in the same way they treat the creative passion. Sylvia Plath who attempted suicide three time before becoming successful transformed suicide into art:
Is an art like everything else.
In 1926 Sergei Yasenin, a Russian poet cut his wrists and hanged himself. Vladimir Mayakovsky a poet, artist and actor condemned him:
In this life
it’s not difficult to die
To make life
is more difficult by far.
But live he himself could not. Five years later he left a brief suicide note “I don’t recommend it for others.”