In Which Death Still Haunts Us All

The Suicide List

by Alex Carnevale

Many were struck dumb by the news this month that Liam Rector, who was a professor at the New School while I was there, committed suicide by putting shotgun to his head. People have been circulating one of his poems in particular. This entire thing came as something of a surprise.

August 16, 2007 — Liam Rector, a critically acclaimed poet who taught at some of the nation’s top colleges, committed suicide yesterday in his Greenwich Village apartment, police said. Rector, 57, who had battled colon cancer and had a heart condition, put a shotgun to his head, police said. His wife, Tree Swenson, who is the director of the American Academy of Poets, was asleep when the tragedy occurred, police said.

Tree Swenson

When she awoke, she found his body and called cops to the apartment on West 12th Street.

Police said Rector left a suicide note, but they did not reveal its contents.

Friends were shocked at Rector’s death, saying he seemed happy and positive.

“He had an enormous appetite for life,” said Frank Bidart, a friend and fellow poet. “He survived terrible illnesses – colon cancer and a bad heart – and overcame both of them.”

Bidart said Rector was cheerful when he saw him two months ago.

His last book, “The Executive Director of the Fallen World,” which received good reviews, was about surviving disease and having new view on the world.

“The book was about overcoming his own skepticism and dark side,” Bidart said. “I’m completely floored by this.”

Lucie Brock-Broido, another poet who knew Rector well, called him “one of the most linguistically liquid and gifted poets of his generation.”

“He was the brother I never had,” she said.

In a biography he wrote for the Web site PoetryNet, Rector said: “I’ve been a rapt student of class and that which most defines class in America: money.”

“I’ve also been a student of music and film, and I think of life as that tragic and embarrassing thing that takes place between the poems, films, and the songs I inhabit.”

His marriage to Swenson, a top book designer, was his third.

The Remarkable Objectivity of Your Old Friends

by Liam Rector

We did right by your death and went out,
Right away, to a public place to drink,
To be with each other, to face it.

We called other friends – the ones
Your mother hadn’t called – and told them
What you had decided, and some said

What you did was right; it was the thing
You wanted and we’d just have to live
With that, that your life had been one

Long misery and they could see why you
Had chosen that, no matter what any of us
Thought about it, and anyway, one said,

Most of us abandoned each other a long
Time ago and we’d have to face that
If we had any hope of getting it right.

I have always found suicide a fascinating subject. It is true, though, that I have never thought really of killing myself. I have never taken any steps in this direction. I can only think it in terms of how it would affect others, not in how it would affect myself. And since I know there would be no self, it’s hard to take it very seriously. If I was that close to the edge, I’d change my life completely. I would subsist purely on that which gives me that pleasure, and I would eliminate that which gives me pain.

The world as it is now, even though suicide is rising, is ultimately less likely to faciliate suicide than the world of the past. The problem is that we are an increasingly atheistic people, and for a non-religious people, suicide is going to be a part of life’s theater of events.

Of course, anyone should be permitted to take their own life. Suicide prevention is noble enough, but it’s the making of an argument, not the argument itself.

The ability to end ourselves if we wish to is what separates us from the animals. We can make the choice to end existence, each day that we live we come to the opposite conclusion: that life is worth living. I can think of plenty of lives I would not want to live, but I do wish to live this one.

It has been somewhat assumed Walter Benjamin killed himself on the run from the Nazis. This is now largely believed to be undertrue, with the theory that Stalin’s people murdered him seeming far more likely. While often people do kill themselves after overcoming trauma, this did not smack of Walter anyway. The great tragedy was this:

One further mystery remains. As Benjamin fled he was hugging a manuscript. The American writer Jay Parini has suggested this was the masterwork he had been working on in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. But the briefcase was entrusted to a fellow refugee who lost it on a train from Barcelona to Madrid.

Hart Crane’s suicide inspired several Jasper Johns paintings:

While on a Guggenheim Fellowship in Mexico in 1931-32, his drinking continued while he suffered from bouts of alternating depression and elation. His only heterosexual affair—with Peggy Cowley, the wife of his friend Malcolm Cowley—was one of the few bright spots, and “The Broken Tower,” one of his last published poems, emerges from that affair. Crane still felt himself a failure, though, in part because he recommenced homosexual activity despite his relationship with Cowley. Just before noon on April 27, 1932, on a steamship passage back to New York from Mexico—right after he was beaten up for making sexual advances to a male crewmember, which may have appeared to confirm his idea that one could not be happy as a homosexual—he committed suicide by jumping into the Gulf of Mexico. Although he had been drinking heavily and left no suicide note, witnesses believed Crane’s intentions to be suicidal, as several reported that he exclaimed “Goodbye, everybody!” before throwing himself overboard.

Periscope, by Jasper Johns.

Mark Rothko killed himself too, he took a shitload of meds and cut his arms open.

“I Don’t Wanna Die Anymore” — The New Radicals (mp3)

A gunshot is a very writerly thing to do. It’s what Hunter S. Thompson did, after all. Hunter also let his suicide note out which I find very brave. It was sort of always coming with him.

Thompson’s son (Juan), daughter-in-law (Jennifer Winkel Thompson) and grandson (Will Thompson) were visiting for the weekend at the time of his suicide. Will and Jennifer were in the adjacent room when they heard the gunshot, though the gunshot was mistaken for a book falling, and so they continued with their activities for a few minutes before checking on him: “Winkel Thompson continued playing 20 questions with Will, Juan Thompson continued taking a photo.” Thompson was sitting at his typewriter with the word “counselor” written in the center of the page.[24]

They reported to the press that they do not believe his suicide was out of desperation, but was a well-thought out act resulting from Thompson’s many painful medical conditions. Thompson’s wife, Anita, who was at a gym at the time of her husband’s death, was on the phone with Thompson when he ended his life.

What family and police describe as a suicide note was delivered to his wife 4 days before his death and later published by Rolling Stone Magazine. Entitled “Football Season Is Over”, it read:

“No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt”

Thompson may be more of a case of a guy doing so many drugs, he had to crack sometime. But I actually didn’t think he would ever do it himself; it’s no surprise the main motivating factor was serious health problems.

Liam Rector himself had recovered from colon cancer, and a heart scare.

Anne Sexton had lunch with Maxine Kumin and then locked herself in her garage and died in the most humane way I can think of, carbon monoxide poisoning. She was bipolar all her life.

Last year set the record for Army suicides.

Goethe’s story The Sorrow of Young Werther inspired a series of suicides in Germany. Talking about suicide, it would appear, only leads more people to consider the possibility.

And yet suicide seems least glorious for the perpetrator. It is interesting that women, including many of the world’s finest, have taken suicide up. (Men are still more likely to commit suicide by a 4 to 1 margin, while women report that they have tried to kill themselves more than three times as often.) Suicide, for the most part, is not violent. It is simply cathartic. It ends the line of thought quicker, sooner, more completely, and the world left to the rest of us is what suffers, or is aided.

Rector’s observation about the perpetrator in his poem is certainly haunting. It appears he may have convinced himself, against plenty of information to the contrary, that suicide would be inexplicable for him. And thus he had to contemplate that inexplicable, to see if it was his path. This is lunacy, but for a man who survived something, it could be the most freeing expression of his existence that he knew.

Mere speculation, but for those of us who did not know him well, it is all there is.

“Zip Mouth Angel” — The Rolling Stones (mp3)

Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima gave a speech and then had friends pull off the old seppuku, cutting out his intestines and then beheading him.

“In the Time We’ve Got” — The One AM Radio (mp3)

Virginia Woolf went a little batshit:

On March 28, 1941, Virginia Woolf placed a large stone in her pocket and walked into the River Ouse in Sussex, England. It was widely believed that her suicide was related to her distress over World War II, but that was not the case. The true cause is revealed to her husband, Leonard, in her suicide note:

I have the feeling I shall go mad. I hear voices and cannot concentrate on my work. I have fought against it, but cannot fight any longer. You have been so perfectly good. I cannot go on and spoil your life.

Virginia Woolf’s life had been riddled with illness and nervous breakdowns. Scholars believe that she feared this latest episode would be permanent. Leonard Woolf had been “perfectly good” to his wife. He cared for her during her illnesses and did his best to prevent future breakdowns, but, clearly, Virginia felt guilty for requiring so much care and attention. I imagine, however, that her husband was happy to comfort her and would have preferred that she live. Her assumption of her own lack of worth took away Leonard’s ability to help her.

Emma Bovary swallows arsenic. We should all be so lucky. Van Gogh could barely get the job done.

This lovely couple kept a murder-suicide pact. How lovely.

Strangely, it’s a myth that the most amount of suicides occurs in the winter. The spring is the number one culprit.

Hemingway and his granddaughter both killed themselves, by gunshot and Klonopin, respectively.

Suicide is the middle ground–it’s actually, in most cases, a choice between two extremes–too insanity, and total sanity (forever more defined as realizing there are consequences for your actions).

Suicide is the middle ground after it happens, too. Sometimes families just want it reported as a suicide to cover up a messier cause of death, and sometimes suicide seems a shame that contradicts a life lived.

The beautiful Dorothy Dandridge:

How many people of my generation will even know who Dorothy Dandridge is?

Elliott Smith of course was a drug addict, he was a great songwriter, his stepfather most probably abused him sexually or at least Elliott thought he did, and he killed himself via the stab wound. I remember the day it happened.

Usually the attempt is a cry for help. The successful attempt is the desire to end pain, no matter where that pain originated from.

Gang Lu shot up the U of Iowa; he had story turned into a movie called Dark Matter. You can read JoAnn Beard’s essay on this subject, titled The Fourth State of Matter here–it’s incredible.

“On a Plain (live)” — Nirvana (mp3)

Top UK suicide spot:

I never knew Freud killed himself. I guess actually he had someone kill him:

A heavy cigar smoker, Freud endured more than 30 operations during his life due to mouth cancer. In September 1939 he prevailed on his doctor and friend Max Schur to assist him in suicide. After reading Balzac‘s La Peau de chagrin in a single sitting he said, “My dear Schur, you certainly remember our first talk. You promised me then not to forsake me when my time comes. Now it is nothing but torture and makes no sense any more.” Schur administered three doses of morphine over many hours that resulted in Freud’s death on September 23, 1939.

“Lightning Fires” — Grant McLennan (mp3)

“The Dark Side of Town” — Grant McLennan (mp3)

Intermission‘s Pitchfork review.

“Easy Come Easy Go” — Grant McLennan (mp3)

Grant McLennan didn’t kill himself. He died of a heart attack right before a party. He said he didn’t feel well, went upstairs to lie down. He died peacefully.

The Aim Of Life - Henry Miller Black and White Magnet

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7 thoughts on “In Which Death Still Haunts Us All

  1. i’m not fully qualified to comment on this, but i don’t think it’s accurate to say the story of benjamin’s suicide at port bou is “largely” believed to be untrue. that guardian story you’ve linked seems to be no more than one writer’s conjecture. did i not read carefully enough or is there no positive evidence to support this claim? from what i recall the port bou suicide story has been corroborated by people who were traveling with WB, who were able to cross the border the day after he died.

    anyway, WB’s death is one of my top tragedies of the 20th century. as for that “lost work,” its notes have survived (and they might be the real “work”).

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