Title:The Savage God: A Study in Suicide.
Author: A. Alvarez.
Genre: Non-fiction, suicide, biography, psychology, literary criticism, psychiatry, philosophy, books, writing, poetry.
Publication Date: 1971.
Summary: Using the untimely death of the poet and friend, Sylvia Plath, as a point of departure, Alvarez confronts the controversial and often taboo area of human behaviour: suicide. The book explores the cultural attitudes, theories, truths and fallacies surrounding suicide, and refracts them through the windows of philosophy, and art and literature: following the black thread leading from Dante, through Donne, Chatterton and the Romantic Agony, to Dada and Pavese. Entwined within this sensitive study is the author's deeply personal account of his own unsuccessful suicide attempt, and together they form a meditation on the Savage God at the heart of human existence.
My rating: 8/10.
♥ ..Elliott Jaques has also interpreted the lines as a classic description of what he calls "the mid-life crisis", that long period of hopelessness and confusion, a kind of male menopause, which often occurs at some point in the thirties or early forties and marks the transition from youth to middle age. It is a crisis about death and the death instinct and, according to Professor Jaques, it comes at that moment when, with your own children growing up and your parents dead, you find yourself suddenly at the head of the queue. You have to come to terms with the fact that you too, are really going to die. You also begin painfully to recognize that you, too, have your share of destructiveness working away inside. It is too late for youthful optimism, too soon for acceptance.
For creative artists, this brings a new element, a new tone to their work. Some never negotiate the crisis. Professor Jaques points out that Mozart, Raphael, Chopin, Rimbaud, Purcell, Schubert and Watteau all died in their thirties. It is as though the intensity of their creative powers was such that they lived their whole lives in half the normal span. Others lapse into silence, like Sibelius or Rossini, HBO wrote no opera from the age of forty until his death at seventy-four. Some, like Wordsworth, drone on and on, vainly trying to recapture the inspiration of their youth. Others only begin in middle age, like Gauguin abandoning his family and his job in order to paint or Conrad changing from master-mariner to master-novelist. But for some of the greatest artists – Dante, Shakespeare, Bach, Dickens, Donatello, Beethoven – the mid-life crisis is the way through to their finest work, more profound, tragic, reflective and ultimately more serene than anything they have achieved before.
♥ Inevitably, the Christian has the last word. After Piero has said his say and the spendthrifts – whose ostentation has made them suicides of their worldly goods – have been hunted through the woods, another suicide speaks. He is an anonymous Florentine who has killed himself for no good reason that Dante cares to mention:
(I made a gibbet for myself of my own house.)
In other words, he has debased all propriety and all values: his name, his home, his family, his native city and his religion. For Dante, whose loyalty to Florence flourished even in Paradise, this style of wilful baseness is beyond contempt and excuse, certainly beyond redemption. He ends the canto with this line, as though to cauterize any trace of sympathy which his treatment of Piero might have suggested for nobler and apparently more justifiable suicides. In the end, a mortal sin is a mortal sin. What the Church condemns, no poetry can exonerate.
♥ It is the same with Shakespeare: as in everything else, he remains neutral, a practising dramatist. Of all the many suicides in his plays – fourteen in eight works, says Fedden – only Ophelia, the least intentional, is subject to ecclesiastical disapproval. But the priest who denies her the full funeral rites is thrust aside by Laertes, passionately and with great conviction:
A minist'ring angel shall my sister be,
When thou liest howling.
Another priest, Friar Lawrence, narrates the double suicide of Romeo and Juliet without a hint of condemnation, and even a good Venetian Catholic like Cassio takes Othello's suicide as a sign of his nobility: "This I did fear, but thought he had no weapon; For he was great of heart." This is the exact reversal if Dante's treatment of Piero delle Vigne: the sin of Othello's suicide weighs not at all; what matter is its tragic inevitability and the degree to which it heightens his heroic stature. Instead of damning him, his suicide confirms his nobility.
Not much can be deduced from this. Shakespeare's attitude to moral problems was basically the same as his attitude to his sources: pragmatic. The play's the thing. His own religious prejudices – whatever they might have been – were never allowed to subvert his instinct for practical dramatic effectiveness. Moreover, High Renaissance tastes in tragedy do not imply any new toleration for real suicide. The suffering of a tragic hero, distanced and ennobled by poetic drama, is literally a world apart from suicide off-stage, which is rarely tragic, never grandiose and most often sordid, depressing, muddled. There would have been no good reason why the body of a real-life Othello should not have been dragged through the streets behind a horse and buried at a crossroads with a stake through its heart. Even in the saintly Sir Thomas More's ideal republic, an unauthorized suicide would have been "case unburied into some stinkinge marrish".
♥ To put it another way, the essence of [Donne]'s poetry lay in what he himself called its "masculine, pervasive force", a restless, logical drive which made him argue each perception to its conclusion, impatiently and with contempt for the delays and timorousness of others. So each poem, however passionate, however tender, is also an argument complete in itself, a distinct distance travelled and a goal reached. Part of the energy of his early work comes from his own obvious enjoyment of his talents, of his sophistry as well as his sensuality, of his learning and his contempt. The essence of his despair is the opposite of all this: an overpowering sense of "impotencie" which came from his isolation from the stirring world of possibility, choice and action. When these outlets were denied him, his energy turned inwards, turned sour and seemed to annihilate him. In these circumstances, suicide began to seem the one definite act by which he might reaffirm his identity. I wonder if Biathanatos didn't begin as a prelude to self-destruction and finish as a substitute for it. That is, he set out to find precedents and reasons for killing himself whilst still remaining Christian – or, at least, without damning himself eternally. But the process of writing the book and marshalling his intricate learning and dialectical skill may have relieved the tension and helped to re-establish his sense of his self.
♥ Yet [Robert Burton]'s contribution to the debate on suicide is single and simple: sympathy. Although he quotes all the standard classical examples, he refuses the Stoic justification of suicide as an act of reasoned dignity and self-affirmation. Instead, he maintains a more obvious but less flattering truth: that suicide is neither rational, nor dignified, nor measured; people kill themselves because their lives have become intolerable: "These unhappy men are born to misery, past all hope of recovery, incurably sick; the longer they live, the worse they are; and death alone must ease them." The best they can hope for is God's mercy; judgement is His business, not ours. At the time, it was a brave point to make.
♥ All that is certain is that Donne and Burton, in their different ways, added a new element to what had previously been a cut-and-dried question. They moved it into the large dimension of doubt and uncertainty we inhabit now. Once, the suicide had been cast out as unclean, damned and degraded in sheer horror. Now he began, at least, to seem human: "It is his case; it may be thine."
♥ The key word is "absurd". For the eighteenth-century rationalists it was both absurd and presumptuous to inflate a trivial private act into a monstrous crime. "The life of a man," wrote David Hume, "is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster." Hume's great attack on the moral prejudice against suicide was written at least twenty years before his death but not published officially until 1777, the year after he died. It was promptly suppressed. Yet it summed up brilliantly the exasperation of the most intelligent men of his time with the craven old superstitions..
♥ Walpole's reply was fretful: "It is very provoking that people must always be hanging or drowning themselves or going mad..." That mixture of aristocratic boredom and irritation is the typical eighteenth-century note. However rationally suicide was justified, however grotesque the old laws now seemed and however tactfully they were ignored, by the prevailing standards of dandified propriety the act was thought to be tiresome, rather low.
♥ From Westminster [Cowper] went on to a solicitor's office and from there to the Middle Temple, where he studied law in an indolent, fashionable way; that is, he spent most of his time with the young wits-about-town talking literature, politics, literary politics and women, "giggling," he said, "and making giggle".
♥ "I cannot reconcile your behaviour to me," [Chatterton] wrote to Walpole while still trying to recover his papers, "with the notions I once entrained of you. I think myself injured, sir: and, did you not know my circumstances, you would not dare to treat me thus." Walpole called this "singularly impertinent", but it was also singularly accurate. The overflowing talent, the facility, appetite and obsessed ingenuity which Chatterton demonstrated in every piece of writing he turned his hand to were not enough to absolve him from the original sin of having been born into the wrong class. His pride, which had always been as large as his talent, was already exacerbated by the boring, unpaid drudgery of his apprenticeship and by his menial position in the scrivener's household, where he had to eat and live exclusively with the servants and share a bedroom with the footboy. Now it was rubbed raw by Walpole's contemptuous treatment. Life among the dim, high-handed, penny-pinching Bristol elders began to seem insupportably low.
..Chatterton's tragedy is one of waste, a terrible waste of talent, vitality and promise. But it is also a peculiarly eighteenth-century tragedy of stinginess and snobbery and exploitation, a product of the high Tory, port-steeped arrogance of a time which was willing to squander any talent for the sake of its prejudices.
♥ Why, pride apart, did he do it in the end? After all, pride is a superficial motive, an excuse you offer yourself for impulses you do not care to examine too closely.
♥ Part of the genius of the poem is in the curious, plangent realism with which Coleridge faces the complexities of his situation, the responsibilities of dejection. If afflictions bow him down now as they could not before, it is not simply because they are more powerful and he is older, but because he himself has co-operated in his own betrayal.
♥ Before the craze of Werther, suicide for reasons more high-minded than money was thought to be a lapse of taste; now it was more than exonerated, it was fashionable. The great burst of spontaneous high feeling, which erupted like a genie from a bottle at the close of the eighteenth century, was vindicated by its very excesses. It was precisely these that demonstrated the new freedom from the rational, gossipy, powdered restrictions of the classical period.
♥ Goethe, on the other hand, despite the vast success of Young Werther's tragedy, remained sceptical about the whole enterprise. He recounts how, in his youth, he had so admired the Emperor Otto, who had stabbed himself, that he finally decided that if he were not brave enough to die in the same manner, he wasn't brave enough to die at all:
By this conviction, I saved myself from the purpose, or indeed, more properly speaking, from the whim of suicide. Among a considerable collection of arms, I possessed a costly well-ground dagger. This I laid down nightly by my side, and, before extinguishing the light, I tried whether I could succeed in sending the sharp point an inch or two deep into my heart. But as I truly never could succeed, I at last took to laughing at myself, threw away these hypochondriacal crotchets, and determined to live.
However laughable the whim may have seemed to Goethe in his maturity, the fact remains that the Romantics thought of suicide when they went to bed at night, and thought of it again in the morning when they shared.
♥ In varying degrees, this was true of all the Romantics. Death was, literally, their fatal Cleopatra. But they conceived of death and suicide childishly: not as an end of everything but as the supreme, dramatic gesture of contempt towards a dull bourgeois world. Werther's progress was like that of the Indian Juggernaut; its triumph was measured by the number of suicides in its wake. It was the same with de Vigny's Chatterton, which was credited with doubling the annual suicide-rate in France between 1830 and 1840. But these epidemics of suicide à la mode had one belief in common: that the suicide himself would be present to witness the drama created by his death. "Our unconscious," said Freud, "...does not believe in its own death; it behaves as if it were immortal."
♥ Writing in 1840, a surgeon, Forbes Winslow, blamed the rising figures [of suicides] on socialism; there was, he said, a sudden increase after the publication of Tom Paine's Age of Reason. He also attributed it to "atmospherical moisture" and, of course, masturbation – "a certain secret vice which, we were afraid, is practised to an enormous extent in our public schools." As a cure for the French fever of suicide he recommended cold showers and laxatives – the Public-School answer to the ultimate question.
♥ As the nineteenth century wore on and Romanticism degenerated, the ideal of death degenerated also. In The Romantic Agony Mario Praz has shown how fatalism gradually came to mean fatal sex; the femme fatale replaced death as the supreme inspiration. "Le satanisme a gagné," said Baudelaire, "Satan s'est fait ingénu". Homosexuality, incest and sado-masochism took over where suicide left off, if only because they seemed at the time far more shocking. As the social, religious and legal taboos against suicide lost their poiwer, sexual taboos intensified. Fatal sex also had the added advantage of being safer and slower than suicide, an enhancement rather than the contradiction of a life dedicated to art.
♥ Once suicide was accepted as a common fact of society – not as a noble Roman alternative, nor as the mortal sin it had been in the Middle Ages, nor as a special cause to be pleaded or warned against – but simply as something people did, often and without much hesitation, like committing adultery, then it automatically became a common property of art. And because it threw a sharp, narrow, intensely dramatic light on life at its extreme moments, suicide became the preoccupation of certain kinds of post-Romantic writers, like Dostoievsky, who were forerunners of twentieth-century art.
At the core of the Romantic Revolution was the acceptance of a new responsibility. When, for example, the Augustans spoke of "the World" they meant their audience, polite society; "the World" flourished in certain salons in London and Paris, Bath and Versailles. For the Romantics, on the other hand, the world usually meant Nature – probably mountainous, certainly untamed – through which the poet moved in isolation, justified by the intensity of his unpremeditated responses – to the nightingale and the lark, the primrose and the rainbow. At first it was enough that these responses should be pure, fresh and his own, that the artist should be free from the iron conventions of classicism that had deterred him for more than a hundred years. But as the initial enthusiasm wore off it became clear that the revolution was more profound than it had first appeared. A radical reorientation had taken place: the artist was no longer responsible to polite society – on the contrary, he was at open war with it. Instead, his prime responsibility was towards his own consciousness.
♥ Despair was for Kierkegaard what grace was for the Puritans: a sign, if not of election, at least of spiritual potentiality. For Dostoievsky and most of the important artists since him, it is the one common quality that defines their whole creative effort. Although it seemed limiting, it became finally a way through to new areas, new norms and new ways of looking from which the traditional concepts of art – as a social grace and ornament, as an instrument of religion or even of Romantic humanitarian optimism – themselves appeared narrow and bounded. If the new concern of art was the self, then the ultimate concern of art was, inevitably, the end of self – that is, death.
♥ It is, then, on the question of suicide that Dostoievsky acts as a bridge between the nineteenth century and our own. As a novelist he can create characters who act out the drama of the spiritual life when it has gone beyond religion: so Kirilov, in full consciousness and by his own inescapable logic, kills himself triumphantly. But as an individual Dostoievsky himself refuses the logic and will not let go of his traditional beliefs. Christianity was, as it were, the excuse he gave himself for writing, fire continuing to celebrate the life that swarms in his books. But at the same time it was also the measure of his despair. Thus in his novels the greater the Christian love and charity, the more intense the guilt and duplicity. When the saintly Father Zosima dies, his body begins immediately to stink. It is as though somewhere Dostoievsky felt that his Christian yearnings stank in his own nostrils.
♥ But if God does not exist, then the very shape of death changes too. It ceases to be a human, or even superhuman, presence – macabre or god-like or seductive. It is neither the dancing skeleton of the Middle Ages, nor the shrewd, powerful adversary with whom John Donne fought, nor the fatal lover of the Romantics. It ceases even to be an extension of the dying man's personality: an entry into the after-life, or a moment of revelation which, hopefully, will explain everything. Without God, death becomes simply the end: brief, flat, final. The heart stops, the body decays, life continues elsewhere. This is "tomorrow's zero", which made Tolstoy, before his conversion, inveigh against "the meaningless absurdity of life".
..In a sense, the whole twentieth-century art has been dedicated to the service of this earthbound Savage God who, like the rest of his kind, has thrived on blood-sacrifice. As with modern warfare, enormous sophistication of theory and technique has gone into producing an art which is more extreme, more violent and, finally, more self-destructive than ever before.
♥ Vaché died according to his principles, comically and malignantly. "I object to being killed in the war," he had written from the front. "...I shall die when I want to die, and then I shall die with somebody else. To die alone is boring; I should prefer to die with one of my best friends." He did precisely that. In 1919, when he was twenty-three years old, he took an overdose of opium; at the same time, he administered the same lethal dose to two friends who had come along merely for the trip and had no suicidal intentions. It was the supreme Dada gesture, the ultimate psychopathic joke: suicide and double murder.
For the young Romantics at the height of the epidemic, to kill oneself was the next best thing to being a great artist. But for the pure Dadaist, his life and his death were his art. Hence Vaché's extraordinary influence on those who came after him, although almost nothing survives him except their memoirs and a volume of his letters. What he was mattered more than what he produced. Like his dandified din de siècle predecessors, he treated his life as an art-object; but, as a true Dadaist, he also treated art itself as worthless. In the last analysis, Tingueley's auto-destructive sculptures and the disposable art from the wilder shores of Pop descend directly from Vaché's suicide.
♥ Violence, shock, psychopathic humour and suicide, these are the rhythms of Dada. "Suiucide is a vocation," said Jacques Rigaut, whose own suicide in 1929 is said to have marked the end of the Dada epoch.
♥ The arts, that is, survive because artists continue to believe in the possibility of art in the teeth of everything that is anti-art. Dada on the other hand began by being anti-everything, including art, and ended, by the logic of caricature, by being anti-itself. Like so many of the Dadaists, Dada died by its own hand.
♥ To put it most simply: one of the most remarkable features of the arts in this century has been the sudden, sharp rise in the casualty-rate among the artists. Of the great premodernists, Rimbaud abandoned poetry at the age of twenty, Van Gogh killed himself, Strindberg went mad. Since then the toll has mounted steadily. In the first great flowering of modernism, Kafka wanted to turn his premature natural death from tuberculosis into artistic suicide by having all his writings destroyed. Virginia Woolf drowned herself, a victim of her own excessive sensitivity. Hart Crane devoted prodigious energy to aestheticizing his chaotic life – a desperate compound of homosexuality and alcoholism – and finally, thinking himself a failure, jumped overboard from a steamer in the Caribbean. Dylan Thomas and Brendan Behan drank themselves to death. Artaud spent years in lunatic asylums. Delmore Schwartz was found dead in a run-down Manhattan hotel. Malcolm Lowry and John Berryman were alcoholics who finally committed suicide. Cesare Pavese and Paul Celan, Randall Jarrell, and Sylvia Plath, Mayakovsky, Yesenin and Tsvetayeva killed themselves. Among the painters, the suicides include Modigliani, Arshile Gorki, Mark Gertler, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Spanning the generations was Hemingway, whose prose was modelled on a kind pf physical ethic of courage and the control necessary at the limits of endurance. He stropped his style to the bone in order to achieve the aesthetic corollary of physical grace – a matter of great economy, great precision, great tension under the appearance of ease. In such a perspective, the natural erosions of age – weakness, uncertainty, clumsiness, imprecision, an overall slackening of what had once been a highly tuned machine – would have seemed as unbearable as losing the ability to write. In the end, he followed the example of his father and shot himself.
Each of these deaths has its own inner logic and unrepeatable despair, and to do them justice would require a degree of detail beyond my purposes here. But a simple point emerges: before the twentieth century it is possible to discuss cases individually, since the artists who ki8lled themselves or were even seriously suicidal were rare exceptions. In the twentieth century the balance suddenly shifts: the better the artist the more vulnerable he seems to be.The Grand Old Men of literature have been both numerous and very grand: Eliot, Joyce, Valéry, Pound, Mann, Forster, Frost, Stevens, Ungaretti, Montale, Marianne Moore. Even so, the casualty-rate among the gifted seems out of all proportion, as though the nature of the artistic undertaking itself and the demands it makes had altered radically.
♥ But for the more serious artist experiment has not been a matter of merely tinkering with the machinery. Instead, it has provided a context in which he explores the perennial question, "What am I?", without benefit of moral, cultural or even technical securities. Since part of his gift is also a weird knack of sensing and expressing the strains of his time in advance of other people, the movement of the modern arts has been, with continual, minor diversions, towards a progressively more inward response to a progressively more intolerable sense of disaster. It is as though, by taking to its limits Conrad's dictum, "In the destructive element immerse", his whole role in society has changed; instead of being a Romantic hero and liberator, he has become a victim, a scapegoat.
♥ That numbness – beyond hope, despair, terror and, certainly, beyond heroics – is, I think, the final quantum to which all the modish forms of twentieth-century alienation are reduced. Under the energy, appetite, and constant diversity of the modern arts is this obdurate core of blankness and insentience which no amount of creative optimism and effort can wholly break down or remove. It is like, for a believer, the final, unbudgeable illumination that God is not good. Apsychiatristt has defined it, in more contemporary terms, as that "psychic numbing" which occurs in an overwhelming encounter with death. That is, when death is everywhere and on such a vast scale that it becomes indifferent, impersonal, inevitable and, finally, without meaning, the only way to survive, however briefly, is by shutting oneself off utterly from every feeling, so that one becomes invulnerable, not like an armoured animal; but like a stone..
♥ But that awareness of a ubiquitous, arbitrary death – which descends like a medieval plague on the just and unjust alike, without warning or reason – is, I think, central to our experience of the twentieth century. It began with the pointless slaughters of the First World War, continued through Nazi and Stalinist extermination camps, through a Second World War which culminated in two atomic explosions, and has survived with genocide in Tibet and Biafra, a senseless war in Vietnam, atomic testing which poisons the atmosphere, and the development of biological weapons which kill haphazardly and more or less without control; it ends with the possibility of the globe itself shadowed by nuclear weapons orbiting in outer space.
It is important not to exaggerate; after all, this sense of disaster is, for the moment, mercifully peripheral to the lives most of us lead. To harp on it like Cassandra is as foolish, and ultimately as boring, as to ignore it completely. Yet the fact remains that the context in which our arts, morals and securities are created has changed radically..
..In other words, that sense of chaos which, I suggested, is the driving force behind the restless experimentalism of the twentieth-century arts has two sources – one developing directly from the period before 1914, the other emerging for the first time during the First World War and growing increasingly stronger and more unavoidable as the century has gone on. Both, perhaps, are consequences of industrialism: the first is connected with the destruction of the old social relationships and the related structures of belief during the Industrial Revolution; the second is produced by the technology itself which, in the process of creating the wherewithal to make life easier than ever before, has perfected, as a kind pf lunatic spin-off, instruments to destroy life completely. More simply, just as the decay or religious authority in the nineteenth century made life seem absurd by depriving it of any ultimate coherence, so the growth of modern technology has made death itself absurd by reducing it to a random happening totally unconnected with the inner rhythms and logic of the lives destroyed.
♥ This ultimately is the pressure forcing the artist into the role of scapegoat. In order to evolve a language of mourning which will release all those backed-up guilts and obscure hostilities he shares with his audience, he puts himself at risk and explores his own vulnerability. It is as though he were testing out his own death in his imagination – symbolically, tentatively and with every escape hatch open. "Suicide," said Camus, "is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art." Increasingly, the corollary also seems to be true: under certain conditions of stress, a great work of art is a kind of suicide.
♥ Yet several others did, inf act, follow [Mayakovsky], apart from all those who, like Mandelstam and Babel, disappeared in the purges.
..What is certain is that they all suffered beyond description, to the point where suffering has become a mental sickness. And, as we bow in homage to their gifts and to their bright memory, we should bow compassionately before their suffering.
Pasternak writes, I think, with the poignancy of a man who has been there himself. This is not, in any way, to imply that he had considered taking his own life – a question which is none of our business – but simply that he had endured those conditions in which suicide becomes an unavoidable fact of society.
♥ In the mass of brilliant poems which poured in the last few months of her life [Sylvia Plath] took Lowell's example to its logical conclusion, systematically exploring the nexus of anger, guilt, rejection, love and destructiveness which made her finally take her own life. It is as though she had decided that, for her poetry to be valid, it must tackle head-on nothing nothing less serious than her own death, bringing to it a greater wealth of invention and sardonic energy than most poets manage in a lifetime of so-called affirmation.
If the road had seemed impassable, she proved that it wasn't. It was, however, one-way, and she went too far along it to be able, in the end, to turn back. Yet her actual suicide, like Berryman's or like Lowell's breakdowns or the private horrors of Hughes, is by the way; it adds nothing to her work and proves nothing about it. It was simply a risk she took in handling such volatile material. Indeed, what the Extremists have in common is not a style but a belief in the value, even the necessity, of risk. They do not deny it like our latter day aesthetes, nor drown it in the benign, warm but profoundly muddied ocean of hippy love and inarticulateness. This determination to confront the intimations not of immortality but of mortality itself, using every imaginative resource and technical skill to bring it close, understand it, accept it, control it, is finally what distinguishes genuinely advanced art from the fashionable crowd of pseudo-avant gardes.
♥ I am suggesting, in short, that the best modern artists have in fact done what that Hiroshima survivor thought impossible: out of their private tribulations they have invented a public "language which can comfort guinea pigs who do not know the cause of their death". That, I think, is the ultimate justification of the highbrow arts in an era in which they themselves seem less and less convinced of their claims to attention and even existence. They survive morally by becoming, in one way or another, an imitation of death in which their audience can share. To achieve this the artist, in his role of scapegoat, finds himself testing out his own death and vulnerability for and on himself.
It may be objected that the arts are also about many other things, often belligerently so; for example, that they are preoccupied as never before with sex. But I wonder if sexual explicitness isn't a diversion, almost a form of conservatism. After all, that particular battle was fought and won by Freud and Lawrence in the first quarter of this century. The old guard may grumble and occasionally sue, bu in a society where Portnoy's Complaint is a record-breaking best-seller sexual permissiveness is no longer an issue. The real resistance now is to an art which forces its audience to recognize and accept imaginatively, in their nerve-ends, not the facts of life but the facts of death and violence: absurd, random, gratuitous, unjustified, and inescapably part of the society we have created. "There is only one liberty," wrote Camus in his Notebooks, "to come to terms with death. After which, everything is possible."
♥ It is a dismal confession to make, since nothing, really, would seem to be easier than to take your own life. Seneca, the final authority on the subject, pointed out disdainfully that the exits are everywhere: each precipice and river, each branch of each tree, every vein in your body will set you free. But in the event, this isn't so. No one is promiscuous in his way of dying. A man who has decided to hang himself will never jump in front of a train. And the more sophisticated and painless the method, the greater the chance of failure. I can vouch, at least, for that. I built up to the act carefully and for a long time, with a kind of blank pertinacity. It was the one constant focus of my life, making everything else irrelevant, a diversion. Each sporadic burst of work, each minor success and disappointment, each moment of calm and relaxation, seemed merely a temporary halt on my steady descent through layer after layer of depression, like a lift stopping for a moment on the way down to the basement. At no point was there any question of getting off or of changing the direction of the journey. Yet, despite all that, I never quite made it.
♥ I was using her as an excuse for troubles that had their roots deep in the past. But mere intellectual recognition did no good and, anyway, my clear moments were few. My life felt so cluttered and obstructed that I could hardly breathe. I inhabited a closed, concentrated world, airless and without exits. I doubt if any of this was noticeable socially: I was simply tenser, more nervous than usual, and I drank more. But underneath I was going a bit mad. I had entered the closed world of suicide and my life was being loved for me by forces I couldn't control.
♥ So I loaded myself up with presents and climbed on a jet, dead drunk. I passed out as soon as I reached my seat and woke to a brilliant sunrise. There were dark islands below – the Hebrides, I suppose – and the eastern sea was on fire. From that altitude, the world looked calm and vivid and possible.
♥ It happened ten years ago now, and only gradually have I been able to piece together the facts from hints and snippets, revealed reluctantly and with apologies. Nobody wants to remind an attempted suicide of his folly, or to be reminded of it. Tact and taste forbid. Or is it the failure itself which is embarrassing? Certainly, a successful suicide inspires no delicacy at all; everybody is in on the act at once with his own exclusive inside story.
♥ By the time we parted, there was nothing left. Inevitably, I went through the expected motions of distress. But in my heart, I no longer cared.
The truth is, in some way I had died. The over-intensity, the tiresome excess of sensitivity and self-consciousness, of arrogance and idealism, which came in adolescence and stayed on and on beyond their due time, like some visiting bore, had not survived the coma. It was as though I had finally, and sadly late in the day, lost my innocence. Like all young people, I had been high-minded and apologetic, full of enthusiasms, I didn't quite mean and guilts I didn't understand. Because of them, I had forced my poor wife, who was far too young to know what was happening, into a spoiling, destructive role she had never sought. We had spent five years thrashing around in confusion, as drowning men pull each other under. Then I had lain for three days in abeyance, and woken to feel nothing but a faint revulsion from everything and everyone. My weakened body, my thick breath, the slightest flicker of emotion filled me with distaste. I wanted only to be left to myself. Then, as the months passed, I began gradually to stir into another style of life, less theoretical, less optimistic, less vulnerable. I was ready for an insentient middle age.
Above all, I was disappointed. Somehow, I felt, death had let me down; I had expected more of it. I had looked for something overwhelming, an experience which would clarify all my confusions. But it turned out to be simply a denial of experience. All I knew of death was the terrifying dreams which came later. Blame it, perhaps, on my delayed adolescence: adolescents always expect too much; they want solutions to be immediate and neat, instead of gradual and incomplete. Or blame it on the cinema: secretly, I had thought death would be like the last reel of one of those old Hitchcock thrillers, when the hero relives as an adult that traumatic moment in childhood when the horror and splitting-off took place: and thereby becomes free and at peace with himself. It is a well-established, much imitated and persuasive formula. Hitchcock does it best but he himself did not invent it; he was simply popularizing a new tradition of half-digested psycho-analytic talk about "abreaction", that crucial moment of cathartic truth when the complex is removed. Behind that is the old belief in last-moment revelations, death-bed conversions, and all those old wives' tales of the drowning man reliving his life as he goes down for the last time. Behind that again is an older tradition still: that of the Last Judgement and the after-life. We all expect something of death, even if it's only damnation.
But all I had got was oblivion. To all intents and purposes, I had died: my face had been blue, my pulse erratic, my breathing ineffectual; the doctors had given me up. I went to the edge and most of the way over; then gradually, unwillingly and despite everything, I inched my way back. And now I knew nothing at all about it. I felt cheated.
Why had I been so sure of finding some kind of answer?
..Months later, I began to understand that I had had my answer, after all. The despair that had led me to try to kill myself had been pure and unadulterated, like the final, unanswerable despair a child feels, with no before or after. And, childishly, I had expected death not merely to end it but also to explain it. Then, when death let me down, I gradually saw that I had been using the wrong language; I had translated the thing into Americanese. Too many movies, too many novels, too many trips to the States had switched my understanding into a hopeful, alien tongue. I no longer thought of myself as unhappy; instead, I had "problems". Which is an optimistic way of putting it, since problems imply solutions, whereas unhappiness is merely a condition of life which you must live with, like the weather. Once I had accepted that there weren't ever going to be any answers, even in death, I found to my surprise that I didn't much care whether I was happy or unhappy; "problems" and "the problem of problems" no longer existed. And that in itself is already the beginning of happiness.
♥ As Coriolanus said, "There is a world elsewhere."
As for suicide: the sociologists and psychologists who talk of it as a disease puzzle me now as much as the Catholics and Muslims who call it the most deadly of mortal sins. It seems to me to be somehow as much beyond social or psychic prophylaxis as it is beyond morality, a terrible but utterly natural reaction to the strained, narrow, unnatural necessities we sometimes create for ourselves. And it is not for me. Perhaps I am no longer optimistic enough. I assume now that death, when it finally comes, will probably be nastier than suicide, and certainly a great deal less convenient.