Le mal du pays: Some Thoughts on Suicide

Like most other people, I have been left shocked and profoundly unsettled by the news of the suicide of Robin Williams. I can remember watching Mork and Mindy as a kid and graduating to Robin’s more adult humor by watching his standup routines and movies. I think I even went to see Robert Altman’s Popeye in the theaters when it was released in 1980. It wasn’t a great film and I haven’t seen it since. Nevertheless, Robin Williams went on from that film to become, in my opinion, the funniest man in the world. His appearances on Johnny Carson’s show are some of the greatest comedic bits of genius I have ever seen. Despite his problems with substance abuse and alcoholism, Robin seemed to be, for the most part, a happy and well-adjusted person. His mental illness, then, comes at an even greater shock to me when news of his death broke.

If anything good is to come out of Robin’s death, it should be a desire to look more deeply into the cause and effects of depression, as well as substance abuse. The questions surrounding these two topics are still more than a bit taboo in the United States. Mental illness, while more accepted, if still willfully misunderstood, has yet to be intellectually interrogated with the rigor and honesty it needs by the general public. I will leave these questions up to people with much more expertise than I can deliver, however. It is my intention here to explore suicide a bit more deeply, if not the concept, then the gesture of the act itself. What I am interested in here is the figure of the artist in particular. I use the artist to cover writers, musicians and composers, painters, and the like. What is it about the creative artist that lends itself to the act of suicide in such numbers?

I would like to join a growing chorus of voices and state that it’s time western society start re-thinking the gesture of suicide. We can start by decriminalizing the act itself. The social stigma that surrounds suicide will take much longer to erase, but its decriminalization is a start to re-thinking the gesture. People commit suicide for all sorts of reasons. I would argue that none of these reasons involve acts of cowardice. It takes guts to take one’s own life. Moreover, taking one’s own life is complicated. For example, if someone is suffering from lung cancer yet refuses to give up cigarettes, then is that person not committing a sort of suicide? If I’m a diabetic and know that sugar is bad for me, but I cannot put the sweets down, am I not just as guilty as the lonely sole who hangs himself from a tree in despair?

Shortly after the news of Robin’s death broke my wife and I had a discussion about illness. We both agreed that if we were struck with a debilitating illness that would leave us in a vegetative state that the other would see to it that the “plug was pulled.” Is this a suicide pact? Are we taking the “easy way out” if such an illness strikes us? I think not. I choose to die with dignity and not burden my family with the task of caring for me if I end up in such a state. This is a personal choice, and it by no means passes judgment on those who would not choose to end their lives. The point is that death should be a personal choice by those who contemplate the act. The fact that governments decide to leave it up to fate as to when and how we die is a slap in the face to human dignity. Of course, religion is the prime suspect in dictating how we feel about suicide. I’ve heard it said that since God gave us this wonderful gift of life (and let’s face it, it’s not as wonderful as it seems a lot of the time) it is a sin to end that life. I have never understood this line of irrational thought. Suicide is a personal choice and “God” has nothing to do with it. In fact, if God has given us the gift of life then it seems to me that He is equally responsible for the pain and suffering caused by the conditions of life. Therefore, I would like to extract God from the question of life. Our bodies are our own and they belong to no one, especially a deity who refuses to show up when it counts. Happiness is not the common denominator of being human, suffering is. To suffer is to be human, and the sooner we realize this the sooner we will be able to come to grips with what it means to be human.

Artists in the broadest sense of the term are notorious sufferers. Countless writers, musicians, painters, and the like have taken their lives. It’s hard to think of Ernest Hemingway without thinking of his suicide. His third wife, the underrated writer and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn also took her own life by swallowing a bottle of pills. Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath are two famous writers who took their own lives. Hunter S. Thompson and David Foster Wallace, along with Sandor Marai, Stefan Zweig, Frida Kahlo, and Vincent Van Gogh (although it took him two days to day following a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest) are figures of genius who took their own lives. For me, one of the saddest suicides of all is the Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, who managed to survive the horrors of a concentration camp, only decades later succumbing to the despondency of survival and throwing himself from the third floor apartment stairway on the Corso Re Umberto in Turin. His wife’s reaction? “He was so brave.” Fellow Holocaust survivor and torture victim Jean Amery also committed suicide. However, Amery’s suicide can be interpreted as the ultimate act of resistance against the Nazis, his “fuck you” to the torturers.

The act of suicide has been around as long as humans have been around and will continue. I think it may be time to start a serious discussion about just what is human in the act of suicide. What’s called for is a more humane treatment for those who are suffering and, ultimately, a deeper understanding of the why.

One last note:

On Saturday August 26, 1950 Cesare Pavese checked into the Hotel Roma in Turin. He was carrying a small suitcase that contained, among other things, a copy of his book Dialogues with Leucò, his work on Greek mythology. Sometime that afternoon he wrote on a page of the Dialogues: “I ask to forgive me and forgive all. All right? Don’t gossip too much about this.” Pavese swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills and never woke up. A member of the hotel’s staff found him the next day. What is especially sad about the suicide of Cesare Pavese is that it was still a shock even though he talked about it for years. Pavese, like his fellow Italian Leopardi, is the most melancholy of poets whose writing is haunted by his suffering. In one of his last poems he writes: “Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi.” The English translation reads: “Death will come and have your eyes.” The realization is that no matter what, or in what form, death will always come and have your eyes, and the dead are never reconciled with the living.

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