I have known suicide by virtue of proximity. More than just a few students, particularly military students, and seven or eight friends and acquaintances, some very close, volunteered to step off the stage; and a few others didn’t in particular “kill” themselves as much as they acted in such self-destructive ways that while officially it wasn’t suicide, their behavior certainly was. And much to the confusion of everyone who watched Loving Vincent, it is still my belief that the artist, whom I studied and have written about extensively, did himself in. And each one of them, from Bud Dwyer to Dave to Trish—dear, sweet Trish—to the rest, had trouble settling into some sort of acceptance of the way things should be for them, never depressed but never quite not; always cheerful but always marginally in denial of their chronic sadness. These people are impossible to distinguish from the rest of us until they are no longer with us and we can look back and note just how obvious it all was, their distance, their morose. They move nearly unnoticed amongst the alive. It is said that depressed people never pretend to be depressed, they pretend to not be.
We live for a while, and love, which offers some sense of purpose, I suppose, even if that purpose can often seem hazy, a murmur. And we all have moments of absolute clarity; moments in which we can see down the road and around the bend, when we understand, and know we are understood. And we all have occasions of despair, when, as Mr. Frost reminds us, “Life is too much like a pathless wood.” But so many suffer through stretches of time when hope has gradually eroded without a particular noticeable instant when we might have changed course. It is the slow slide through what seems like years watching everyone else, noticing the laughter and motion of everybody else.
Most of us spend the wide years of our lives in the middle somewhere, encouraged and discouraged in equal and fluctuating amounts in pleasantly spaced and pondered moments, and we talk about it with friends late at night on some porch drinking some drink, and we know with absolute triteness that “tomorrow will be better.” This is the crowd of humanity moving from start to finish like a march from Herald Square to Central Park in shoulder-to-shoulder pedestrian traffic on Fifth Avenue. This is and was and one can only assume will be for the vast majority of souls who have done their jobs to their best, raised families, picnicked, partied, celebrated, and vacationed, astutely playing their part in Whitman’s Powerful Play.
But there are some who rarely find themselves in that middle range of sweet and handsome middle-class, middle-aged moments—to swipe a phrase from Joni Mitchell. Yes, there are some who linger for the fat of their lives on the edges, bouncing from clarity to confusion. They can dominate and direct their desires one moment, and then the next might just as intently walk off into the wilderness never to be seen again. Either way; it’s all the same to them. Drastic extremes, opposing ambitions, if we can even call it ambition when it is not some internal drive that pushes those polar pursuits but a dramatic sense of combustion to keep themselves from what they see as the neuropathy of that middle-life spirit. They’d just as soon kill themselves one moment and the next declare their absolute passion for life and living and love. Again, they might say, either way; it’s all the same.
Van Gogh wrote of this, of his passion for life, of his hatred of suicide, and then in a letter perhaps a week later he questions the purpose of it all, the difficulties and debts, the indifference toward him and his art, and suggests not going on would be the truly humane thing to do for everyone. Then, just as abruptly, he swings back to his “lust for life.”
He wasn’t alone.
Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Eugene O’Neil, Beethoven, Tolstoy, Keats, Tennessee Williams, Isaac Newton, Plath, Churchill, Dickens, Michelangelo, Lionel Aldridge. Brian Wilson. Not all of these people committed suicide; but all stood on that precipice, glanced into that river that asked them for a kiss.
It’s a bit unnerving how many writers are on this list. Artists in general, but it makes sense. For many artists, it was write (or paint or compose or …) or drink the hemlock, suck down that “tall gall in the small seductive vial.”
What I find most interesting about these people, and, with very few exceptions, almost all the people I’ve known or read about with what society has labeled mental illness, is how deeply and extensively they have provided us with beauty, with some form of timeless contribution to the world. Their stories, their poetry that digs deep into our souls, their color and splashes of life on canvas and sculpture. Maybe they spent their lives screaming in despair in their own way—Darkness Visible, William Styron called it. Perhaps the closer one comes to humanity through art, the further from humanity they feel, forcing them to produce even more, which is, in their way, how they reach out for someone. “I wish he had just said something,” people will say as they walk through the gallery of his work, as they thumb through pages of her sonnets, as they listen to Sonata Number Eight in C Minor. “If only they had let us know.”
Never realizing, as they read the pages, as their eyes swell at a turn of phrase, they did say something.
Sit down. Inhale. Exhale.
The gun will wait. The lake will wait.
The tall gall in the small seductive vial
will wait will wait:
will wait a week: will wait through April.
You do not have to die this certain day.
Death will abide, will pamper your postponement.
I assure you death will wait. Death has
a lot of time. Death can
attend to you tomorrow. Or next week. Death is
just down the street; is most obliging neighbor;
can meet you any moment.
You need not die today.
Stay here–through pout or pain or peskyness.
Stay here. See what the news is going to be tomorrow.
Graves grow no green that you can use.
Remember, green’s your color. You are Spring.