Monday, July 23, 2007

A Strange Place

**Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, RI, Photo by husband Dave

"He laid down his hat and stick and climbed the carpetless stairs to his room. When he entered it he had the shock of feeling himself in a strange place; it did not seem like anything he had ever seen before. Then, one by one, all the old stale usual things in it confronted him, and he longed with a sick intensity to be in a place that was really strange."

That quote is from Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country. It describes the state of mind of Ralph Marvell--failed writer, betrayed husband, ruined scion of an Old New York family--in the moments just before he blows his brains out. There are a lot of memorable suicides in fiction, and lord knows Wharton was fond of dispatching characters that way, but I think Ralph Marvell's is one of the most heartbreaking. He's a delicate soul shredded by the world, not a personality bent on self-destruction. Wharton makes it easy for us to imagine a different fate for him. She was a very cruel writer.

Everyone wants to talk about the "why" of suicide, and there are always plenty of motives on which to speculate: anger, despair, grief, guilt, failure, fear of age and decline--any negative emotion is a plausible culprit. All of which is valid enough, but the trouble with thinking about the cause of a suicide is that it obscures an understanding of what it's actually like to be suicidal. A person about to kill herself--really about to kill herself, with gun bought or pills hoarded--isn't generally tangled up with all those emotions that keep us tied to the world. She may have been pushed into detachment by emotional pain, but she's made a decision to leave that pain behind.

I admire that passage above because I think it captures very accurately the existential state of someone moving toward suicide. At its root, the suicidal impulse is a profound desire to be elsewhere. The suicidal person says, "Anywhere but here, anything but this." She's stating a fierce refusal of what the world offers. But she's also embracing the unknown, and, in a curious way, committing an act of faith. She is consumed with that yearning for strangeness Wharton describes. Humans have an innate desire to see what is over the next hill. Sometimes the hills run out or we go blind to them in this life, and the place of supreme strangeness begins calling to us. That's why it's futile to try to talk someone out of killing herself by telling her how much she's loved, or how this life will get better. She can't hear comforting words. She's listening to something else.


Members of the perfume community will know that I was inspired to write this because of the recent death of Theresa Duncan, who, among other things, was a widely admired perfume writer. But, as the ever-insightful Leopoldo said elsewhere, the suicidal impulse is ordinary. I am intimately acquainted with it, as I suspect many of you are. I'm not trying to analyze Duncan or pass judgment on the manner of her death. I'm just trying to get a grip, however uncertain, on the mystery of self-destruction as I have known it and observed it. I'm sure some of my thinking is shaped by A. Alvarez's The Savage God, which I read as a teenager, but only vaguely remember. Time to revisit it, I think.

**Swan Point Cemetery is a very beautiful old graveyard and arboretum in Providence. If you are ever in that city, it is well worth a visit. There are some pictures on the website I linked to, but they really don't do the place justice. Dave took some much nicer ones which I'll post one of these days.


chayaruchama said...

Wharton is a cruel creature.

The photo is soothing, in direct contrast to the questions and emotions raised by suicide.

I doubt that anyone will ever have all the facts regarding the beautiful and unfortunate Ms. Duncan.

There is an unwritten subtext in our culture that suggests only the unloved, untalented, and unbeautiful ought to do themselves in.

That denies most vigorously how global, and commonplace mental illness truly is, and how incapacitating, in any form.

Less cruel than Ms. Wharton ?

Anonymous said...

Wise words all round.

Love to you.

Juvy Santos said...

"That's why it's futile to try to talk someone out of killing herself by telling her how much she's loved, or how this life will get better. She can't hear comforting words. She's listening to something else."

how true...

Anonymous said...

Exactly. I liken the profoundly suicidal person to one who suffers from a chronic and fatal disease. The suicidal impulse is a constant and implacable reality in her life-- it is a way of living, frankly. It can be resisted, but it is tricky: it lies in wait for those who are not alert to its ways and wiles and have not made advance plans to resist it.

Resistance must be established at times when one is not actively suicidal, of course. When the impulse is raging, there is no reasoning with it. Plans must be made in advance for automatic responses when the impulse overwhelms.

Oddysseus was not immune to the siren's song, which in many ways is what suicide is, but he had an ingrained default position to tie himself to the mast. Suicidal people need such default positions, steps they have trained themselves to take automatically when the impulse cannot otherwise be contained: call your doctor, go to the ER, tell yourself that you will not die where a friend or loved one will find you and then don't leave the house, throw your car keys out the door, fall to the floor, pound your head, do something besides kill yourself-- that is, have some default position which requires you to do something active besides killing yourself.

Suicide is an ACT, and you may be able to subsitute a different act for it if you have advance default plans. When suicide is close, there is no point in the victim trying to reason her way out of it-- she won't want to try, she'll want to go-- but there can be a behavioral fail-safe which will substitute for the act. That action alone may be enough to buy you the time to get your feet under you.

It is interesting that, although many profoundly suicidal persons attempt suicide multiple times, and the greatest predicter of suicide is a prior attempt, there is anectdotal evidence to suggest that an unsuccessful suicide attempt may help the victim rid herself of the compulsion, to satisfy the urge and the longing of it.

So don't look for a reason not to kill yourself. There's not one, as far as I'm concerned. But make your default plans to resist it for the simple reason that life is irreducible and, just maybe, it's worthy sticking around to see how it turns out.

BitterGrace said...

Quoth Chaya: "There is an unwritten subtext in our culture that suggests only the unloved, untalented, and unbeautiful ought to do themselves in."
So true! I never unpacked it that way, but you are exactly right--that's the flip side of 'you have everything to live for.'

Bozo, you sound as if you've been there. Leo's right, as usual. Who hasn't been touched by this at some point?

I think what you say is wise--a lot of people put it into practice unconsciously. I could make a good case that feeding the birds saved my life, but I never went about it with that intent.

Anonymous said...

Been there, tried that. :-D

Excellent advice, bozo!

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled onto your blog for the first time via Perfume Shrine and I am totally blown away by your writing and your insight. I will be coming back frequently.

This event shocked me profoundly, and your thoughts on her death are very insightful. Such a complicated thing, the human mind, and we never really know what is going on in someone else's head, especially when they are being pursued by the demons only they can see.

BitterGrace said...

Thank you, Flora. It's nice to hear from you. Helg's blog is so good--makes me wonder why I ever bother writing about perfume.

I think TD's death only gets sadder as more things come to light. She did indeed have a lot of demons, it seems.