“THERE’S A PERCEPTION of our social role,” Margaret Atwood told the Associated Press in 1988, when discussing the lives of poets. “Someone once asked me when, not if, I would commit suicide. But I prefer to live, thank you very much.”
It is a truth of literature that a disproportionate number of its makers have chosen death — a phenomenon that psychologist James C. Kaufman dubbed the “Sylvia Plath effect.” Plath was joined on this unfortunate list by contemporaries Anne Sexton and John Berryman; other American suicides include David Foster Wallace, Ernest Hemingway, John Kennedy Toole, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In Japan, there is Yukio Mishima, Osamu Dazai, and Ryunosuke Akutagawa; France has Gérard de Nerval, while across the channel in England, Virginia Woolf and Sarah Kane spring to mind. The Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik has been nicknamed a Latin American Sylvia Plath, while in Pakistan, the poet Sara Shagufta is similarly typecast. One can name hundreds more.
Taiwanese novelist Qiu Miaojin wrote Last Words from Montmartre in 1995, shortly before her suicide in Paris at the age of 26. “If this book should be published,” reads the note at the beginning of the novel, “readers can begin anywhere. The only connection between the chapters is the time frame in which they were written.”
No beginning, no end. In the minds of some readers, the author suicide paradoxically exists in the same way, rendering its victims forever brilliant, suspended from the logic of aesthetics, location, or movement.
“Suicides have a special language,” begins a stanza in Anne Sexton’s “Wanting to Die.” “Like carpenters they want to know which tools. / They never ask why build.” In 2013, Vice magazine released a fashion editorial focused explicitly on the tools of suicide, not the why. The spread, entitled “Last Words,” appeared in their women writers’ issue and featured models dressed as fashion-forward reimaginings of famous author suicides, ranging from Woolf to Sanmao, a Chinese-born writer who hanged herself with a pair of silk stockings at the age of 47. Online reactions were, understandably, harsh, echoing Atwood’s words 25 years earlier: Is this all they thought of women writers? That their deaths were more interesting than their life’s works? Vice quickly removed the photos from their website, posting instead an apology for focusing “on the demise of a set of writers whose lives we very much wish weren’t cut tragically short, especially at their own hands.”
Both the Vice editorial and the ensuing outrage followed a familiar storyline, a narrative of depression and help lines and a hypocritical need to whisper platitudes concerning the tragedy of death while simultaneously fetishizing the details of its various manifestations. The Vice editorial, however intellectually lazy, was a crystallization of us, the “peanut-crunching crowd,” and our twinned reactions to suicide: we gawk, and then ignore.
I have a vivid memory from my undergraduate years of a tightly packed evening lecture, where we pored over Plath’s marginalia in her old copy of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse — a roomful of living girls fascinated by the inner workings of two brilliant women, both dead by their own hands. Plath, an alumna, was an object of particular obsession, and every Halloween there were rumors of séances held in her old dorm rooms, as though her poems were not conduit enough for us. We wanted to touch, to hold, to lick away at the intensity of her writing, the same intensity that we believed burned within us as well. “To thrust all that life under your tongue!” goes another line of Sexton’s “Wanting to Die,” and this might be the finest distillation of the appeal that so many of these writers hold for their audiences. They felt too much, and branded these feelings onto the page.
But this, too, is a romantic look at it, and many of these authors rightly bristled at rosy-hued interpretations of suicide. “The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself,” writes David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest, another book that means a certain something to a certain type of young person, “doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debts do not square …
The person in whom the invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. […] You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror beyond falling.
How much of the audience’s devotion to the suicidal author is play-acting, an illicit peek into the simultaneous inertia and fear-induced adrenaline that is the depressive mindset? How much of it is pure performance, a voyeur’s gaze that recoils when confronted with the truth at the heart of so many of these works? What drives this devotion in many cases is that “life, friends,” as Berryman’s “Dream Song 14” begins, “is boring. We must not say so.”
Then again, how many of these writers are performing for us? Even Voltaire, the 22-year-old Mikhail Sushkov wrote in his 1792 suicide note, hadn’t convinced him of the immortality of the soul. Sushkov left behind an autobiographical novel, The Russian Werther, and was the talk of the imperial court for months.
In its fragmentary, semiautobiographical intensity, Qiu Miaojin’s Last Words from Montmartre brings to mind Kafka’s famous directive that a book should “grieve us deeply […] like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide.” The novel, Qiu’s second, is at once a series of letters to the woman she loves, long gone, a fictionalized suicide note, and a meditation on the shadowy relationships between writing, death, and sex. It is a work that is at once so disturbing — how can she admit this? — and so honest — why build? — that the first time I read the English translation (by Ari Larissa Heinrich), I had to leave the book outside of my bedroom at night in order to fall asleep.
Qiu’s book argues that both love and suicide require a certain self-annihilation, a willingness to abandon oneself in the face of something more overwhelming, and the end of a love affair can bring about an abject refusal to reconstitute one’s individuality. “Yong,” Qiu writes to a friend in an early letter, “I don’t want to fabricate a perfect love anymore. […] I don’t like it that there’s so much wounding in the world. If there persists in being so much wounding in the world, then I don’t want to live in it.” Who amongst us hasn’t felt the same?
In writing so explicitly of her impending death, Qiu turns suicide into an aesthetic process, akin to drafting and redrafting a paragraph until finally striking it out altogether. As readers, we mirror this self-annihilative process. To read is in itself a form of death: every time we lose ourselves in a good book, we willingly abandon our existence for another’s. This explains the disorienting feeling that comes from finishing a story, the weird dizziness that signals our return to life. Every time we read, we are performing a resurrection.
But for Qiu, there is no return. “Suicide,” she writes in Letter 12 of Last Words from Montmartre, “I’ve chosen suicide with a clarity I’ve never possessed before, with a rational reserve and a sense of calm, in order to pursue the ultimate meaning of my life …
I take complete responsibility for my life, and even if my physical body disappears upon death, I don’t believe my spirit will disappear. As long as I have loved people fully in this world, loved life fully, then I can be content fading into “nothingness.”
But to leave a body of work behind, in place of one’s physical body, challenges that notion of nothingness. “Perfect purity is possible,” wrote the mid-century Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, who Qiu counted as an influence, “if you turn your life into a line of poetry written with a splash of blood.” Purity and nothingness are two states of absolution that mirror the creative process. The perfect sentence, ideally, appears effortless. Like the spirit, it simply exists. But the imperfect sentence must be edited and struck out. “The passion for destruction,” the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin once observed, “is also a creative passion.”
What makes Qiu’s work particularly unsettling is the way in which it argues that there’s freedom in the suicide. In recent years in the West, the right to die movement has made great strides in arguing for the legality of doctor-assisted suicide, but their arguments for the most part focus solely on the terminally ill. Who, really, has the right to die, then? Only in the Netherlands, Colombia, Luxembourg, and Belgium do the non-terminally ill have the right to petition for legal euthanasia, and in June 2015 The New Yorker examined the controversial case of Godelieva De Troyer of Belgium, who in 2012, following a lifetime of clinical depression, successfully died through doctor-assisted suicide. Some interpreted this as selfish — she left behind her grown children and her grandchildren — while some interpreted it as mad. Elsewhere in the article, the phrase “self-determination” was invoked. The “more sophisticated and rational a society becomes,” A. Alvarez observed in his study of suicide, The Savage God, “the further it travels from superstitious fears and the more easily suicide is tolerated.” Rationality and sophistication levels in today’s society have yet to be determined.
Or, to put it more beautifully: “Your neck, your throat, your heart are all so many ways of escaping from slavery,” wrote Seneca the Younger, forced to commit suicide by Emperor Nero as punishment for plotting his assassination. “Do you inquire the road to freedom? You shall find it in every vein of your body.”
If only it were that straightforward. What is death to those who crave it, what is freedom to those who have considered life and still choose death? For those of us on the outside, suicide appears to be madness; we can’t understand the appeal of self-destruction. But for those who find themselves trapped within the margins, boxed in by their own despair, it’s easy to mistake a knife for a pen. This is the joke: We bury our writers and construct mythologies out of them, telling ourselves that this is the key to self-invention. Every writer who chooses death does so for a different reason: misery, politics, boredom. Every fan of theirs chooses to read their work for the same reason: some small part of us considers life, and finds it somehow lacking.
Rhian Sasseen’s work has previously appeared in Aeon, Al Jazeera, and Salon. More can be found on her website, rhiansasseen.com.