Issue #41, December 1998
Our heroes have killed themselves, or are killing themselves.
— Henry Miller
I was sitting in my cubicle writing when my boss came to the door. My chair faces away so I had to turn around to see what she wanted, but she didn't say anything. She just stood there looking down and after awhile she lifted her head and she looked at me. Her face was sad and sickly, like she'd had cancer diagnosed. I fondled a black Papermate. "Come in my office," she said at last. Feeling like my stomach had been dropped several feet in free fall, I stood up, stuck the pen behind my ear and followed her towards the corner of the building. I felt a little better when I saw that she was calling the other managers and directors in with us.
She sat with her fingers laced and her elbows on the desk in front of her. "I've got some very bad news." One of our association's members and very good friend of hers had "shot himself to death."
A week later we were in Sun Valley, Idaho, the beautiful resort where Ernest Hemingway shot himself in the head. It was a business convention and one of the main topics of conversation not being debated in the board meetings, but rather being whispered in the halls, was why had this member of our association, a respected man, killed himself. Why'd he do it? Some people were saddened, some were sickened and others were openly, even gleefully, fascinated. I know I was a little bit of all three.
My thoughts on the subject were, judging by the hushed, shocked conversations I overhead, a little more philosophical than most. Or perhaps they weren't, because, after all, who knows what's going on in another person's thoughtscape; they might even be thinking about, well, killing themselves. The first thing I got to thinking about was...
Someone who kills himself with a gun has got to have a thing for guns. Sure, they want to die or think they want to die, but they must also want to touch the metal orifice of the pistol (or shotgun) with their lips or press it under their chin or force it against their eye or their temple. Regardless of where they stick it, the feel of gunmetal must stir something deep inside. It is clear that the gun is a fetish object and not only one that is legitimized through popular culture, folklore and the National Rifle Association, but also one of extreme historical significance. Guns are intimately tied to the progression of American history. The first replaceable parts, pre-Fordism, were gun parts. America fought the first all-out technological free-for-all war against itself with tons of these newfangled guns. Guns, to invoke the old cliché, are as American as apple pie. And some people like to eat them. Perhaps they stir the self-shooter as a knife stirs others. I once knew a man who collected knives and displayed them, of all places, on the tank of his toilet.
I myself used to carry a razorblade in my wallet, in case I ever wanted to kill myself. I did this mostly to impress other people with the depth of my depression (not that anyone was impressed), but I was, on some level, serious. Furthermore, I loved the razorblade. It had a single edge and came in a cardstock sheath, so that I didn't have to risk cutting myself when I fingered around for it.
Any tool can be loved for its use-value — Hammers pound, whistles blow, guns kill — but to love something that kills because it kills you is, well, problematic. Assuming an infinite selection of murderous devices, a self-murderer would probably choose the method most near and dear to him. A gun nut would shoot, an addict would shoot up and a cutter would slice and dice. The problem is that after you've used the tool on yourself, you can no longer enjoy it. This is the central problem of suicide, there's no going back. To paraphrase Schopenhauer, suicide is the ultimate experiment, i.e. to find out what it beyond death, but it is a failure as true science, because it destroys the observer.
However, to, as Kurt Cobain put it, "look on the bright side of suicide," if what you want is to use a killing tool to kill, then killing yourself relieves some of the moral burden. You can enjoy the killing, if you're killing only yourself. This is probably not something that the suicide can consciously enjoy. I could be wrong, but somehow I don't imagine that a person fucked-up enough to be sawing on their own sorry veins is enjoying much of anything. But self-destruction has to be desirable on some level.
Death is always important to society and the cause of death is perhaps even more important than the death itself. Infant mortality, degenerative disease, stranger murder, kid killers. These are all ways for a society to evaluate itself. Suicide is the ninth leading cause of death in the United States. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, in the U.S. you can expect a self removal rate of 11.9%. That does not bode well for our psychological well being. Not only are more than 30,000 people killing themselves every year, but we have to deal with the psychological consequences of these 30,000 friends, lovers, parents, siblings, children and acquaintances dying by their own hands (not to mention all the people who try to die, sometimes again and again). And the more well known a person is who puts himself out, the greater the number of people who have to deal with it.
Around the time Kurt Cobain killed himself, there was a joke, passed off as a rumor, that Nirvana was going to release a compilation, a 'best of' album in fact, which they were going to title "Splatter Your Matter." This is an example of how people deal with their idols killing themselves. They make fun of them. But they also ask questions. As in Sun Valley, there is always a lot of "why" floating around. People are searching for causes and answers and often blame, for instance "Courtney made him do it," or better yet "Courtney did it to him," as at least one website, the book Who Killed Kurt Cobain? and Nick Broomfield's shockumentary Kurt and Courtney make copious efforts to prove. Something always has to be blamed, when our friends or idols kill themselves. When Ernest Hemingway shot himself in Sun Valley it was because he was going mad. When Van Gogh shot himself it was also blamed on madness.
Madness is a convenient excuse. Oh, so-and-so was just crazy. Depressed. In other words, it was reasonless suicide. We don't have to feel bad, because the blame falls squarely on the victim. But Artaud made an interesting point about Van Gogh's madness; one that we can apply more generally, I think. He said that Van Gogh's madness and hence his suicide was caused by his contemporaries — society 'suicided' him. Suiciding might be a strange neologism, but the shoe fits. Kafka — who did not kill himself, although he wrote his own death over and over again in his diaries in meticulous detail — was, according to his obituary, "a man condemned to regard the world with such blinding clarity that he found it unbearable and went to his death." That I think is what Artaud meant by society suiciding people. But despite the truth of societal complicity in every act of self murder, it isn't a satisfactory answer. It's one that we can apply readily, but it's too simple. When people ask their questions, they want details, they want...
Places, personas and personal history
In the streets of Prague a great number of stands sell T-shirts to tourists. In 1994 they were selling T-shirts with pictures of Kafka on them beside T-shirts with picture of Jesus. The Jesus shirt said, "Kill your idols," which isn't only the germ for the title of this article, but can be a profoundly illogical statement, especially if your idol killed himself. Really the slogan is a sarcastic attempt to say free yourself from dogma, but it is of course itself a kind of dogma. Unless we take it seriously, like a stalker.
There was an episode of Saturday Night Live that featured the meeting of a fan club. During the meeting several suggestions were raised about how to approach the idol of their worship, until finally the late Chris Farley leapt up and suggested with his usual mania, "Let's kill him!" The club then took a vote, as they had for all of the other suggestions, as if killing your idol was just one of the things that fans consider reasonable, humor which demonstrates just how seemingly common the phenomena of star stalking has become. I suppose the desire to kill idols stems from the desire for them to remain perfect. Once the idol is dead they can't fuck up anymore, they can't ever be dragged down from the dizzy heights at which they have been placed. They remain in the mind like a diamond, their lives growing more perfectly crystalline over time.
Kurt Cobain killed himself in Seattle. This becomes in retrospect an important statement for grunge fans. Seattle is the "birthplace of grunge" (at least according to an in-flight magazine I read recently on my way to San Diego). With Cobain dying there, it also becomes Grunge's literal death bed. By dying in Seattle, he rubber stamped the city with import. Kurt Cobain, lived, became famous and died in Seattle. People can take whatever meaning from his life that they want, but they have a nice bit of synchronicity to bolster their theories.
In Amsterdam, there is a wall with four of Van Gogh's paintings. This wall is in the Van Gogh museum and well guarded. The museum is just behind the Rijksmuseum, where Rembrandt's Nightwatchhas a place of honor. If you took the Nightwatch down and put in a window, it would point right at the Van Gogh museum. You wouldn't want to do this, though, because the Van Gogh museum is in one of the ugliest of postmodern architecture's buildings. These four paintings are the last four he painted. As the audio tour will happily, if grimly, inform you, there is a predominance of dark in the paintings. Dark trees, dark birds. There is also a predominance of open spaces. The audio tour insists this is because Van Gogh was building up to suicide.
But Van Gogh captured something out of life, not death, in the jagged, dried globs of hardened ooze. The paintings are so blurry — I don't have a better word — they almost seem sloppy. As though he were clinging desperately to his attention, his focus, in the mad rush of schizophrenia. Yet there can be no slop in them. They are too perfect a termination for his work begun with the Starry Night. What he's done is paint the wind.
There is something in the windswept Sawtooth vistas of Sun Valley, where Hemingway met his end, that reminded me of Van Gogh's paintings. The tall weeds rave under rushes of wind that swoop and slam against the ski slope carved mountain. It was there that I first began these thoughts of suicidal idols. Once I could take the pressure of the business convention no longer, I wandered away in search of a Hemingway memorial that was rumored to be down the highway a ways.
It wasn't long before I found myself alone on a lonely stretch of Saddle Road and maddeningly it reminded me of the first scene in My Own Private Idaho. Although, I knew the resort was less than a mile away, there was nothing to be seen in all directions. I felt I should be looking through the circle of my hand like Gus Van Sant's camera and making illogical statements, maybe falling into a narcoleptic sleep. The only sign of human habitation, beyond the road itself, was a distant ski slope. And, my head whirling with thoughts of bullets and brains, I was thinking about Hemingway out in the lonely hills fiddling with his guns. I imagine he had more than one gun, and had to make a selection (hmmm ... this one, that one?). Every once in a while he must have spared a glance at the mountains and perhaps he talked to himself. "No," he might have said, "look at these beautiful mountains, these windswept vistas," (the same thing I imagine Van Gogh saying with his painting), "surely they at least are worth living for. Surely I can overcome insanity for their sake." I was just wondering if he killed himself in summer or winter when — BANG! — a shot was fired, and this one not in my mind.
Two steps later down the hot dusty road into that Van Gogh painted vista and the air was suddenly filled with gunfire. I looked around to make sure that I wasn't about to be shot, listened for bullets, but there wasn't any whizzing, and decided that I probably wasn't the target of a deranged gunman. A few paces later, I noticed a sign on a fence that had emerged from the trees across the street; the sign said "Shooting Range — Keep Out." I didn't realize just exactly how inappropriate it was to have a shooting range out there until I reached Hemingway's memorial, which is his head mounted on a six or seven foot slender pyramid. Yes, bad taste, but it's not like the monument says how he died. Quite the opposite, it quotes his love for nature instead. Sure he loved nature, but isn't his suicide more important? At very least, wasn't it a rallying cry for assisted suicide? I mean, he was going crazy, he wanted to die, why should he have to go through it alone? And even if that wasn't the point, doesn't suicide always make some point? Isn't it, in fact, an act of...
It's a stretch to say that Hemingway has become a martyr for assisted suicide. Probably more accurate to say he's best remembered as the literary equivalent of a leper for his far-too-accurate depictions of his own and other's racism and sexism. But that does not mean that others have not been elevated to the status of a martyr thanks to their enticing self-induced ending. Van Gogh is a prime example of this hagiography, this saint worship. He is the martyr for madness and artistic individuality in his time. As has been pointed out by the film Basquiat, "No one wants to be part of a generation that ignores another Van Gogh."
As with the real Catholic saints, the process of suicide victims' hagiography fetishizes not only the good deeds of the victims, in Van Gogh's case the art that he created, but also the method of their demise. Who doesn't know that Van Gogh held a shotgun in a field at the end? He's famous for it. Fame cannot be ignored, because fame is what makes suicide important, although suicide — like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence that represents a life — can often catapult to fame. Think of those Buddhists who lit themselves on fire to protest the Diem regime in Vietnam. Who were they before their self-immolation?
In her "anthropology of admiration," The Glory of Van Gogh, Nathalie Heinich makes the point that suicide had a lot to do with Van Gogh's fame. As is well known, Van Gogh only managed to sell one painting in his life and only appeared cursorily in one article. If he hadn't killed himself he might not have been noted so strenuously. Van Gogh's death becomes a tragedy that makes the critics pay particular attention to him. Heinich points out that it was the scandal of his suicide that made him generally popular as versus popular among only the painters. "Thus, through a curious inversion, the premature death he inflicted upon himself gave rise, to the 'Van Gogh Scandal.'" As Kim Deal eloquently put it in a Breeders song, "If you're so special, why aren't you dead?" or more precisely, why haven't you killed yourself yet?
Every single one of us has toyed with the idea of self-a-cide in our more depressed moments, probably not taking it very seriously. Even if we would never have dreamt of such a dastardly sin, it's thrust upon us as an option by a thousand narratives (it makes a good ending) and, as statistics illustrate, it happens all the time. But most of us have decided that it just wasn't worth it. My mom gave me her reason against suicide when I was fifteen: "Every time I think about killing myself, I remember the next ice cream Sunday I won't be eating and that's that." Having decided that we don't want to die just yet, we want to know why it was that someone killed themselves. When it's someone famous, my god, it seems incomprehensible to us. How could he kill himself, he's got everything. And so the circling of questioning vultures begins and we all want to know...
Some deny when a suicide has taken place, out of shame or embarrassment. When the association member killed himself, it was I who wrote his obituary and my instructions were to say only that he had died suddenly. And this is not the only time I've seen this reflex play itself out. Instead of dealing with the cause of the death, it has been my experience that people will claim instead that the victim died "suddenly." If you're told that someone died suddenly, then you know without being told that it was suicide. Which leads me to believe that the first stage of suicide awareness is denial. With idols this can lead to some interesting complications. Jack London's biography reports that he poisoned himself. Visit his grave, however, and you will discover that his death certificate attributes his passing to complications of the liver. (Incidentally, the same memorial claims that he was never really a socialist.) So, to this day, there is a discrepancy about his death. It is clear to some that he committed suicide, others are loath to admit it.
The second stage of coping, as I've said, is curiosity, and the third stage is blame. The final stage, if it is obtained, is fetishization. When I was in London, England you could buy a T-shirt with a picture of Sid Vicious shooting heroin, exactly what he did to kill himself, that said "One way ticket to hell!" And anyone who would wear such a shirt, is not saying, "Sid Vicious is bad," they're saying, "He bought a one way ticket to hell and that's why I love him."
I returned from a trip to Costa Rica, my Dad picked me up at the airport and we were driving along in his sky blue Dodge Dart, when he said to me, casual as can be, "Oh, did you hear? Kurt Cobain killed himself." I wasn't particularly shocked, but, you know, it did kind of suck, and later I learned to feel betrayed, as do a lot of his fans because he'd done it before we got a chance to see him in concert. As I was contemplating this article one day at work, I put my head against the window and looked out across the ugly spread of Oakland. I was feeling down. Well, I thought, maybe I should be happy for Kurt, I mean, he doesn't have to be here anymore and we're all killing ourselves anyway, pumping up an environmental apocalypse like a steroid injecting muscle monster looking to win Mr. Universe but just about to give his liver a meltdown.
I started to form my own little narrative of his life at that point. In my depression, Cobain's suicide became a little message to me about the bleak realities that I live amongst. He was saying that the end result of looking the zeitgeist in the eye was the choice to die. 'I got to get out of this place, if it's the last thing I ever do,' was the essence of the message.
The bottom line is that suicide it a communicative act. It means something. Whoever you are, you're making a statement when you kill yourself. More often than not, the statement is a simple, ironic cry for help: Save me from myself. But, even if you kill yourself and nobody ever knows why, you've said something.
Suicide is like a brick through a window with a note tied to it. In fact, more often than not, suicide entails a note. The note may only say, "Goodbye cruel world," but then you've said that the world is cruel and you've said it loud and clear. In high school I wrote a short story that was an extended suicide note addressed to the world. In my note I compared this particular act of teen suicide that I was imagining to the film Amazing Grace and Chuck. In the film this kid, Chuck, gives up his greatest talent, which happens to be pitching for a little league baseball team, in order to protest nuclear missiles. I'll never pitch again, he says, unless they enact a no nukes policy. Right on, I say. But in the story, my narrator had no special talents, nothing that anyone would pay attention to. Hence, his decision to kill himself to protest a cruel world. That was the bright side of suicide for him.
The ur-example of a political suicide is Socrates. He killed himself with many profound words leaving his lips even as the hemlock entered them. It also happens that, since he was sentenced to suicide, he was also literally suicided. If you question whether or not he died by choice, just remember, he could have escaped, even the prosecution was willing to let him slip out the back, but he chose instead to martyr himself. The failure of his suicide is that he couldn't make the point himself. Plato made it for him. Like Schopenhauer's mockery of scientific suicide, political suicide is a problem because you can't control the message. You're dead and whatever you meant by your suicide is up to other people to decide.
And decide they do. Suicidal idols become, for their fetishists, the chillingly important source of many waking thoughts. They answer all sorts of questions for people, whispering advice from the grave. Who can tell what a fan might learn from Marilyn Monroe's overdose or Sylvia Plath's head in the oven? Ever think about what it does to a kid when a parent strangles from a rafter? Ever think about what it means to come in and find those bulging eyes, that purple-bruised face, or even only imagine that you did? Our idols are a little like our parents and how they die is something we think about a lot, something by which we form the boundaries of our ideological framework. Suicide is loud.
Jeremy Russell is a freelance writer and has published recent articles in The San Francisco Bay Guardianand New York Press. Also a cartoonist, Jeremy regularly contributes Ingrate to Bad Subjects. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.