Sample Essay from Brooker Prize Winner

 

 

 

Suicidal Writers and their Works

Patrick Earnest

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  Suicide is one of the most private acts that anyone can commit. Only the person committing suicide can know exactly why they really killed themselves. It is often something that remains inexplicable to the people around them as only one in five leave a suicide note. When they do, it often remains an inexplicable act, as the suicide note rarely contains any useful information, as the writers and the note often seem in some fundamental way to be disconnected to reality. As Marc Etkind writes in the introduction to his book of suicide notes, "If someone could think clearly enough to leave a cogent note, that person would probably be able to recognize that suicide was a bad idea." But the writings of authors when they are more clear, of depressed authors, of authors on the brink of suicide often are cogent, and they give us insights into the human condition, in both the inclusion and exclusion of what they write. Suicidal writers often treat us to skewed perspectives, where everything is out of place in the world, and only in the act of writing, in the reflection of fiction to reality does the funhouse mirror of perception cease to distort the perspective. But this most intimate of revealings, this sharing of perspective is a grim task, as it takes a great deal of pain to have knowledge of such a skewed perspective. To paraphrase Etkind, the suicide notes, suicide diaries, the novels and poems of depressive writers are all pornography, and we are but sadistic voyeurs who transform a writer's pain into a reader's pleasure.
But to leave it at that would be a mistake, because suicide is one of the most public acts that anyone can commit. Suicide was a public act even back in the time of the Greeks: Socrates committed suicide supposedly surrounded by many of his followers. Military leaders of the past have committed suicide in the presence of their loyal officers to prevent their capture. Even the Bible gives several accounts of very public suicides, from Samson to Saul to Judas. But writing about suicides is only a recent phenomenon. Suicide notes became popular once there was an outlet to read them in, namely newspapers. Yukio Mishima committed seppuku in a very public manner, giving his last words before a captive Japanese army. People try to send messages through their suicides and the manner in which they happen. These notes, these diaries, these suicidal writings are meant to be read: that is one of the reasons people write them.

 
 
 
   

The other reason people write is because it is an outlet for these suicidal urges and impulses, a safety valve of some sort. This has remained an area of intense personal interest to me, because as I entered a depressive and sometimes suicidal period in my life four years ago, the want - no, the need to write became ever more acute. It seems to me that there is something acutely wrong with someone who wants to write (and of course, I must include myself when I write this). And when one cannot write, one becomes even more despondent. For example, Ernest Hemingway seemed incapable of writing anymore, and many believe it directly lead to his suicide. So these writings are both what kept suicide at bay for some of these writers, and perhaps what lead them even closer (e.g. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton). After all, writers are ten to twenty times more likely to suffer depression or manic depression than others: but what came first, the writing or the depression? Either way, I collected most of the novels at various points in my life, mostly in Chattanooga and Chicago, only gaining an interest in making this a collection a year ago during my year off from college (which, coincidentally, I spent a good deal writing and a good deal working with books).

The focus of this collection is suicidal writers and their works, but in a way, it is an attempt to piece together exactly what suicide is in an artistic individual, for rarely is a writer's suicide not thought out in their writings. Most writers who commit suicide leave some kind of note, and often the clues are there in their writings. I find this is especially true of Japanese writers, although recent American poets also leave many clues. The focus of this collection is on writers who have committed suicide mainly in the 20th century, and the various studies of suicide this century. To be in this collection, I decided that the writer had to commit suicide, and any other works had to have some connection with the writer's suicide. Thus I also included the Durkheim book on Suicide as well as the Etkind book on suicide notes. The main reason I collect these books are the content of them: therefore there are few first editions among this collection. I do collect some because of how the writer committed sucide or how they lived (this is one reason why Yukio Mishima is of such interest to me). Attempting to collect the first editions of these writers would be an expensive proposition, as the prices of their books often go sharply up after their death. In part, the fame of a writer sometimes seems dependent on his or her suicide (John Kennedy Toole's The Confederacy of Dunces springs to mind). As Walker Percy commented, "You hate to think so, but suicide seems to help sell books." Indeed, one often finds distinct disparities between the promotional descriptions of an author before and after their suicide A volume of Anne's Sexton poetry that I saw in Atlanta typified this, praising her depressive poetry, in some way courting her depression-fed writing as it hoped for more. Later editions I found were not so sanguine. Prospects for cheap finds for this collection are slim: I refuse to keep a death watch for new writers to join my collection. Such a morbid occupation would be too gruesome to seriously contemplate. However, I do keep watch for writers that I have heard about that would fit into this collection, and occasionally I do find a deal here and there.

Other writers that I hope to add to this collection include Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Heinrich von Kleist, and Takeo Arishima. I am looking to enlarge my collection of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, as well as increase the depth of my Kawabata and Mishima collections. I am also looking for other serious studies on suicide and the literary mind, Maroru Iga's out of print book on suicide in Japan The Thorn in the Chrysanthemum foremost among them. There is also a book on Japanese weight lifters, titled Young Samurai, that Yukio Mishima wrote an introduction to that I have been saving up to acquire. There will probably never be a lack of other writers, and it will take quite a while before I exhaust the extant works of the writers in my collection.


Mr. Earnest won the 4th-year prize in 2001
for the collection described in the preceding essay.

His bibliography follows.

 

Reference Books

Etkind, Marc. ...Or Not To Be: A Collection of Suicide Notes. New York: Riverhead Books, 1997. 2nd printing. (The 1st Annotated Bibliography edition was a trade paperback edition).

     In fair condition, this book has been read several times. This came out the year after I entered the University of Chicago. I just happened by chance to be looking at it at my place of work (a Waldenbooks) and picked it up, reading some of it throughout the day. I later bought the book, and it has provided many a quote from the various suicide notes that it contains, along with many clues to other possible works to look for.

Durkheim, Emile. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Trans. by John A. Spaulding and George Simpson. Ed. by George Simpson. New York: The Free Press, 1951, 1979 (renewed).

     A copy of probably the most famous study of suicide, it is an otherwise fine remaindered paperback I picked up at Powell's with the intention of reading it.

Heijenoort, Jean van. From Frege to Gödel: A Source Book in Mathematical Logic, 1879-1931. New York: toExcel, 1967, 1999.

     Print on demand reprint of 1967 classic. This book is almost impossible to find in the first or second editions. One of two books that Heijenoort published, the print run was so small that most went to libraries. Since then, none were reprinted until Harvard College, which holds the copyright, entered into an agreement with toExcel to print on demand a number of their earlier works that were no longer in print. After two years of searching for a copy, I ordered a copy through the Seminary Coop in February. It came a month and a half later. There are two reasons why this book is interesting to me: the first it is in my professional field (I am a philosophy major and I study logic), the second is that Heijenoort was an extremely interesting individual who committed suicide later in his life. To the best of my knowledge, his life story was something like this: Heijenoort was a young mathematician studying in Denmark when he met Trotsky: utterly enamored of Trotsky, Heijenoort became his bodyguard for many years. In fact, Trotsky was killed in Mexico while Heijenoort was on a week long vacation in the U.S. He eventually went back to his mathematical life, joining the faculty at Harvard. He committed suicide some years later with his wife. They walked into a lake and drowned.

Japanese Authors

Akutagawa, Ryunosuke. Rashomon and other stories. Trans. Takashi Kojima. New York: Liveright, 1970. 1999 reissue paperback.

     This book has Akutagawa's most famous short story "Yabu no Naka" (In the Thicket) which became the famous Kurasawa movie "Rashomon." The suicide note he left has a distinctly un-Japanese feel to it: he does not romanticize his suicide. It is full of pain and hatred of the world. "At present I dislike everything, including myself." He died of an overdose of sleeping pills in 1927.

Dazai, Osamu. No Longer Human. Trans. Donald Keene. New York: New Directions Publishing Co., 1973. 6th printing.

     The Japanese title is actually Disqualified as a Human. A remaindered copy I purchased at Powell's, I bought it mainly for the blurb on the back. "His writing is in some ways reminiscent of Rimbaud, while he himself has often been called a forerunner of Yukio Mishima." Coincidentally, Dazai also committed suicide, succeeding on his third suicide attempt. In 1948, Dazai and his lover drowned themselves. He left an uncompleted novel titled Goodbye.

Kawabata, Yasunari. Thousand Cranes. Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1959.

     Very good American 1st ed. found last year at BLK Books in Chattanooga, TN, a former employer.

------. Snow Country. Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker. New York: Vintage International, 1996. Reprint of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1956 edition.

     Kawabata, in poor health, committed suicide on 16 April 1972 by gassing himself. He left no note. There is some speculation that he committed suicide after his friend (and some say lover) Yukio Mishima committed suicide. His suicide is somewhat ironic as he condemned suicide in his Nobel Prize for Literature Acceptance speech in 1968.

Mishima, Yukio. Spring Snow. Trans. Michael Gallagher. New York: Vintage International, 1990. Reprint of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1972 edition.

------. Runaway Horses. Trans. Michael Gallagher. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1973.

------. The Temple of Dawn. Trans. E. Dale Saunders and Cecilia Segawa Seigle. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1973.

------. The Decay of the Angel. Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker. New York: Vintage International, 1990. Reprint of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1974 edition.

     I am deeply entranced by both the story of Yukio Mishima and his style of writing. Mishima is one of the few Japanese authors I try to collect in their original first hardcovers (his books are relatively available and cheap--especially his tetralogy The Sea of Fertility). My first introduction to him was the copy of The Decay of the Angel I picked up at a used bookstore in Chattanooga. Later, my father found a very good first of The Temple of Dawn at an estate sale (which he gave me), and I found a near fine first of Runaway Horses at O'Gara and Wilson's. A few months ago I bought Spring Snow at 57th St. Books, completing the tetralogy. Mishima's suicide is of great interest to me, because it was an entirely public act, with both political and artistic implications. On 25 November 1970, Yukio Mishima finished The Decay of the Angel, then drove off to meet with a general of the Jieitai, the Japanese army. With a few loyal followers, Mishima kidnapped the general, ordered the troops of the Jieitai to assemble, and then addressed them, urging them to rise up and rebel. The troops heckled him mercilessly. He then fled into the building where they were holding the general and committed seppuku.

Western Authors

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. The Sorrows of Young Werther. Trans. Elizabeth Mayer and Louise Bogan. Forward by W. H. Auden. New York: Vintage Classics, 1990.

     Originally published in 1774, it occasioned a large number of following suicides (the police found a number of suicide victims with a copy of Sorrows next to them), which lead this copycat phenomenon to be called the Werther effect.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952.

     This is a well used paperback copy printed sometime after 1962. My father bought it while he was in college. It was the first book of Hemingway's that I read. I fell instantly in love with his writing.

-----. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1954.

     Another well used paperback Hemingway that my father bought while in college.

-----. The Dangerous Summer. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960. Paperback edition, 1997.

     Remaindered paperback I picked up in Powell's.

-----. The Short Stories. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. First paperback edition, 3rd printing.

     As a prolific short story writer, this collection has his first 49 short stories and was first released in 1938.

-----. To Have and Have Not. Paperback edition.

     I got this for Christmas two years ago and read it in 3 days. One curious thing to notice about all the Hemingway blurbs is that they just say "He died in 1961." There is no mention of his suicide, which is probably how his last wife, Mary, wanted it, after initially claiming his suicide was an accident, that he had been cleaning one of his shotguns and it went off. This figures prominently in the preface of the memoir of one of Hemingway's friends that I won in a contest during Hemingway's Centennial in 1999.

Hotchner, A.E. Papa Hemingway. New York: Caroll & Graf Publishers, Inc, 1999 edition. (Hemingway Centennial Edition - paperback.)

Plath, Sylvia. Ariel. New York: Perennial Classics, 1999.

     Paperback I bought earlier this year after reading a speculative article on the depression that led to Plath's death. Synonymous with the idea of a suicidal artist, I only started collecting her earlier this year.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. New York. Harcourt Brace & Co., 1989.

     This was a paperback that I bought for Western Civilization two years ago. A manic-depressive, she drowned herself in a river on 28 March 1941. In the suicide note she left to her husband, the cause of her death (her manic-depression) is clear: "I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times... If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been."