Paradoxes: On Suicide and Literature


Even unfinished, it is a brilliant work, an exploration of some of life’s deepest challenges, and an enterprise of extraordinary artistic daring. David set out to write a novel about some of the hardest subjects in the world—sadness and boredom—and to make that exploration nothing less than dramatic, funny, and deeply moving. Everyone who worked with David knows well how he resisted letting the world see work that was not refined to his exacting standard. But an unfinished novel is what we have and how can we not look? David, alas, isn’t here to stop us from reading or to forgive us for wanting to.

— Michael Pietsch, “Editor’s Note” to The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

Suicide’s reception in France has been deeply influenced by the circumstances of the author’s death. Although it is a fictional work, written in the second person about a friend of the narrator’s who had committed suicide twenty years earlier, its title and subject matter ensure that, despite reports that Levé did leave a suicide note, the present text is taken as a sort of literary explanation of his decision to die.

— Jan Steyn, “Afterward” to Suicide by Edouard Levé

An act, followed by a text, followed by an interpretation of both, of one through the other and back again: suicide has a great deal in common with literature.

Though the number of famous writer-suicides is staggering, writers do not kill themselves more often than other professionals. Statistically speaking, doctors have the highest suicide rates. Nonetheless, because of their special relationship with language, writers have a special relationship to death and therefore also with suicide.

In Literature and the Right to Death , Maurice Blanchot observes that through language humanity gives birth to the idea of death. Before language, there is only being. A tree, for instance, is merely a bit of undifferentiated matter when it is unnamed. Strictly speaking, it is inaccurate to say “tree” or even “undifferentiated matter” in this context, because the things I am referring to here, being before language, are beyond language, much as death is considered to be that which is beyond life. But when a tree comes to be represented in language, the thing-in-itself disappears forever — or at least until that distant moment when being will witness the disappearance of humanity and its individuating significations.

Before language, death was nothing more than a transition between states within being. After, it became a transition between two different ontological states. What was once nothing more than a change on the level of cutting one’s nails or hair, became with language, Death, the radical rupture on the level of genocide or extinction, as we know it today. “The meaning of speech, then, requires that before any word is spoken there must be a sort of immense hecatomb, a preliminary flood plunging all of creation into a total sea. God had created living things, but men had to annihilate them.”

On this description of the world, the writer—as a highly specialized, self-reflective user of language—is the person who is most alienated from the immediacy of being. “It is accurate to say that when I speak: death speaks in me,” Blanchot writes. “Clearly, in me, the power to speak is also linked to my absence from being.” The writer is the furthest from the real in time and in distance, and, insofar as he is also a creator of fictions, he occupies himself in imaginary worlds, which are, from the perspective of being, necropolises. For writers, to return to being requires a higher plunge than average. Should they choose to forgo perseverance, which can be extraordinarily painful, the means at their disposal are silence—the death of the writer in the person—or suicide—the death of the writer through the death of the person.

And so, Blanchot asks, “isn’t death the achievement of freedom—that is, the richest moment of meaning?” Only to answer, “But it is also only the empty point in that freedom, a manifestation of the fact that such a freedom is still abstract, ideal (literary), that it is only poverty and platitude.” This is the paradox that lies at the heart of both acts of suicide and acts of literature. Because of it, whatever the particular fates of individual writers, the two can never be wholly separated.

In America, suicide tends to be viewed as a psychological or sociological phenomenon, that is, in terms of concepts like depression, mental illness, anomie, egoism, social ostracism, self-consciousness, boredom. Whereas the French, even though they gave us Durkheim, are also capable of understanding the phenomenon metaphysically, in terms of being, representation, consciousness, absurdity, fate.

Each approach treats the word meaninglessness in the phrase meaninglessness of life differently. A psychological approach treats it normatively, as a question of value or significance, and is therefore relatively optimistic that individuals can change their condition, that the pain of living may be eradicated. A metaphysical approach, by contrast, treats meaninglessness purely in terms of signification. It is therefore pessimistic in so far as the relationship between human beings and language, and language and the world, are fixed aspects of la condition humaine. The conflation of these two senses of meaninglessness is what makes suicide, properly speaking, a philosophical problem — rather than merely a practical issue.

Regardless of the means (more or less violent, more or less stylized, etc.) and where it was performed (in the privacy of the home and which room, in public and which space) suicide never fails to interrogate that which is thought to be beyond question by refusing that which is thought to an unqualified good.

More than any other act, suicide stands in need of an explanation. Criminals have the details of their crimes extracted from them, and runaways often leave a letter, but suicide combines and transcends these, for it is perceived as both a crime and a kind of running away from home—though the escape (and therefore the crime) is metaphysical.

But suicide is precisely the gesture that causes problems for interpretation. Or rather, it reveals in extremisthe hermeneutical problems that are always already there. Only with a suicide is death truly an action, but it is the only act that removes its author from the space of reasons, from the possibility of further questioning. Can we really say of a suicide note that there is nothing outside the text? Can we really say with a straight face that the intentional fallacy applies here? Isn’t the suicide note the very text with which Roland Barthes’ “death of the author” thesis is playing a gruesome game of hermeneutic chicken?

A crumpled piece of paper with the words “I no longer wish to live and thus am taking my life” in apparently tormented handwriting is not a suicide note if its author is later found sipping tea in front of the television. But in that case, what is it? An infelicitous performance of a statement of intention? The action that would give these words meaning is precisely the act that makes it impossible to know what was really meant by them. No matter how long it is, a suicide note always seems to be one sentence too short; suicide notes are readerly texts, indeed the most readerly of all texts, which is what gives them their particular horror. A reader’s whys, like those of a toddler, are unquenchable: to satisfy them a suicide note would have to be infinitely long. Which in turn would make the suicide itself, not to mention the life it was supposed to end, impossible. (Which in turn would make it not a suicide note…) The person who is compelled to justify his life or his death with reasons is perhaps the least enviable of all, for he neither truly lives nor manages to kill himself.

These difficulties only multiply when the suicide happens to be a writer. Suicide itself may be a kind of literary genre, but it is not obvious which one.

In case of a note. Who is its author? The person who commits suicide or the writer in the person? After Nietzsche’s death — not by suicide, of course — a scrap of paper bearing the words “I have forgotten my umbrella” was discovered among his unpublished manuscripts. Does this simple sentence say what it seems to mean — in which case why was it written at all? — or is it one of Nietzsche’s aphorisms, one that merits inclusion, say, in The Will to Power? Was “I have forgotten my umbrella” written by Nietzsche, the man, or Nietzsche, the writer?

Compare the case of the actor: Richard Burbage is not suicidal, even if he says he is while playing Hamlet. But as the writer never steps on or off stage, there is no definitive way to classify his utterances through context, to separate or to fuse, once and for all, the writer and the man.

Which is why, in Spurs, Jacques Derrida concludes that the intentional status of “I have forgotten my umbrella” is ultimately undecidable. This is equally true of even the simplest of suicide notes, the one that says, “I no longer wish to live and thus am taking my life.” The possibility that this was intended instead as the first lines of a poem, aphorism, short story, or essay can never be entirely excluded, despite the execution of the act. To give just one example, there is no definitive reason why the “I” here should refer to the author, rather than being an utterance composed by author’s persona or even one of her fictional characters (as when Roland Barthes in Roland Barthes warns, “all this should be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel.”) That this could be a quotation rather than a statement, which is coincidentally also the author’s last words, remains a perpetual, agonizing possibility. The more elaborate the suicide note—wherein, beyond the mere statement of an intention, stories are told, reasons are given, fingers are pointed, requests are made—the more opportunities for these sorts of confusions to arise.

In the absence of a note. One is sought for anyway—in the writer’s work, upon which a dubious teleology is imposed that renders each sentence a potential suicide note, each word a tombstone resting on a potential clue. The corpus of the writer-in-the-suicide is examined by interpreters (intimates and strangers, amateurs and professionals) just as the corpse of the suicide is examined by the coroner at the morgue. As writer and suicide collapse so to do interpreter and coroner. Literary critics, in particular, have not been able to establish a statute of limitations on an intention. Is a portrayal of suicide by a writer at 20, say, still relevant to a suicide committed at 40? How different would our understanding of Werther be if Goethe had killed himself after writing the Marienbad Elegy? “He was always destined to die by his own hand from the failure of love,” we would have said, rightly and wrongly.

Suicide renders the idea that there is no meaning outside the text as well as the idea that the meaning of a writer’s words should be sought for in his or her biography insufficient and unpalatable. Whether we can resist the call to interpret a suicide depends as much on a gratuitous act of will that goes beyond rationality as suicide itself does. As long as we are living, it seems, we fail to leave it unanswered.