Archives for posts with tag: Suicide

‘I probably set out to pay homage to Lucile, to give her a coffin made of paper – for these seem the most beautiful of all to me – and a destiny as a character. But I know too that I am using my writing as a way of looking for the origin of her suffering…’

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Lucile is the narrator’s mother, who commits suicide at the age of 61. From the first page, we are catapulted into the heartbreaking theme that overshadows the book:

‘My mother was blue, a pale blue mixed with the colour of ashes. Strangely, when I found her at home that January morning, her hands were darker than her face. Her knuckles looked as though they had been splashed with ink.

My mother had been dead for several days.’

The book is an exploration of Lucile’s life, a childhood overshadowed (and ‘disappeared’) by death, and an adult existence (for at times it reads as such, a non-being in the world), which was interrupted and disrupted by manic depression. It is also the story of what it was like for the narrator and her sister growing up in such an environment:

‘I am writing about Lucile through the eyes of a child who grew up too fast, writing about the mystery she always was to me, simultaneously so present and so distant, and who, after I was ten, never hugged me again.’

Shortly after discovering her mother’s dead body, the narrator, a writer, decided on perhaps the most intuitive way for her to confront and to explore the demons in her past and in her mother’s:

‘And then, like dozens of authors before me, I attempted to write my mother.’

‘Initially, once I had finally accepted that I would write this book after a long, silent negotiation with myself, I thought I would have no difficulty introducing fiction and no qualms about filling in the gaps…Instead of which, I am unable to alter anything…Unable to free myself completely from reality, I am involuntarily producing fiction; I’m looking for an angle which will allow me to come closer and closer still; I’m looking for a place which is neither truth nor fable, but both at once.’

Although the writing resulted in a ‘setting free’ of sorts, through the process ‘I grew a little further from Lucile in wanting to get closer to her.’

There are many serious and tragic themes throughout the book, including abuse, anorexia, and loss, both physical as the result of death through accidents and suicides, but also profound loss within enduring relationships.

Lucile seemed to gradually and progressively retreat from the world. A diagnosis of cancer provided the final challenge she could not face. The sentiments expressed in her final letter reminded me of an e.e.cummings phrase ‘Unbeing dead isn’t being alive’.

‘Lucile died the way she wanted to: while still alive.’

It is unclear from the book, and from interviews with the author, to what extent the story is autobiographical. It appears to be a combination of both fact and fiction. It matters little. This is a deeply affecting novel, and one which made me consider the stories into which we are all born, and the extent to which they can be rewritten.

CQ

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While walking to work on Monday, I heard an interview with the rapper Professor Green on the morning news. The singer’s father committed suicide six years ago, an event that he is still trying to come to terms with. Professor Green hosts a BBC Radio 1 documentary programme on suicide survivors, which commenced this week (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03q0xdx).

In the BBC news interview, Professor Green spoke of the impact his father’s suicide has had on him, and the range of emotions he has experienced in its aftermath. Initially angry with his father, he now realises the complexity of the issues surrounding suicide and suicide attempts, and concludes that:

‘I don’t want to get too wrapped up in trying to understand why Dad did what he did. To hold on to that would be detrimental to me.’

Suicide is indeed complex – and individual – on every level, and its aftermath can be devastating for those affected. I have known people who have committed suicide, work colleagues who I was friendly with although not close to, and I found each event deeply distressing. I have no moral contentions with suicide. As with most decisions humans have the right to make, suicide is for me is an exclusively personal decision, and one that is the prerogative of the sufferer. Although the aftermath of the event will inevitably ripple and devastate far, this consequence is rarely something that those contemplating suicide can actually register within their own overwhelming distress.

A few months ago I was in the front carriage of a tube that came to a sudden stop just outside a station. Someone had jumped in front of the train. Shortly afterwards, we were ushered off the train through the driver’s carriage, acutely aware that a body lay just beneath us. I have no idea who that person was or why he/she decided to commit suicide. Nonetheless, I walked away from that train station distressed and profoundly sad, and also burdened by the disturbing realisation that we must have known about the death of someone unknown to us before relatives had been informed.

I have been reading Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note and this week came across Virginia Woolf’s letter to her husband Leonard written on the day she committed suicide.

Woolf’s final act appears to have been a very deliberate and thought-through one. She had already attempted suicide just a few days before she succeeded. The letter that she left for her husband feels considered, almost rational in its conclusion that death was the only conceivable option:

‘I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel certain that we can’t go through another of those terrible times.’

‘So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.’

The letter also attempts to unburden Leonard of any consequent guilt:

‘What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you.’

‘I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.’

Not surprisingly, guilt is something that is often expressed by those close to suicide victims. The poet Peter Porter refers to it in his collection The Cost of Seriousness, whose ‘controlling theme is a lament for my first wife, Jannice’, who killed herself in 1974:

‘Though you are five months dead, I see

You in guilt’s iconography’

‘The words and faces proper to

My misery are private’ (from An Exequy)

Words from those who are about to commit suicide, and those who suffer in its aftermath, speak to the complexity of the trauma and distress that surrounds the issue. Its very ‘unknowingness’ as well our inevitable resorting to ‘what if’ questions point to our need to understand, and of course to prevent, where possible, the act.

Perhaps Professor Green’s documentary on the subject will shed some light…

CQ

Japan is a country famous for suicide (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/06/24/130624fa_fact_macfarquhar). Its many suicide spots have become tourist attractions, including the Aokigahara forest, the Sea of Trees at the foot of Mt. Fuji, where bodies can lie undiscovered for months, and where tourists come to photograph corpses and to scavenge.

There is no religious issue about suicide in Japan, unlike in the West. On the contrary, the act of suicide is usually seen to restore honour, and is viewed more as a constructive than a destructive act.

A Japanese Buddhist monk, Ittetsu Nemoto, has set himself the task of confronting his country’s suicide culture. He conducts death workshops for the suicidal, where those affected are encouraged to imagine how they might feel if they were unexpectedly given a cancer diagnosis, with only three months, one month, one week, or minutes, to live. Within this imagined scenario, participants are challenged to consider how they might spend the limited time remaining in their lives. This approach, which encourages a shift of focus away from the desire to end life to a consideration of the act of living, appears to be both cathartic and therapeutic.

Nemoto did his training in a Rinzai Zen monastery, which was particularly rigorous and harsh – ‘Apprentice monks are treated like slaves on a brutal plantation’ – and seems to have had all the components of both extreme physical and psychological suffering. Few trainees manage to complete the programme. The aim of the training process is to eventually achieve a throwing away of the self, thereby ultimately discovering who you really are:

‘A well trained monk, it is said, lives as though he were already dead: free from attachment, from indecision, from confusion, he moves with no barrier between his will and his act.’

Nemoto is now abbott of a temple that is much less austere. Priests drink, smoke and marry, a deliberate move to ensure that they are not distancing themselves from their community.

In his work with those who feel suicidal, Nemoto advocates confronting rather than avoiding the fact of death. He has succeeded in opening up talking about dying, in a country where so many choose to kill themselves, and where notions of ‘talking therapies’ are far from commonplace. Nemoto has learned much about his own suffering since he embarked on this project. Initially, through his practice of Zen listening, he found that he became overly involved, and was deeply affected and distressed by every story he heard. He felt responsible for all those whose suffering he witnessed. He became seriously ill, with heart disease, and had to temporarily withdraw from the project. He was deeply shocked when his followers appeared to have no interest in his ill health, and persisted in seeking his help for their own needs, rather than enquiring about his. Nemoto felt he was dying, and that nobody cared, despite all that he had given of himself.

However, through this period of personal suffering, Nemoto discovered another truth: too much should not be weighted on the act of helping others; rather than it being something special or significant, helping others should be something one naturally does in the course of one’s life.

Today, following his recovery from illness, Nemoto only reaches out to those whom he physically meets. He no longer communicates by mail or email. As a result, those affected often have to travel very long distances, and need to be very committed, to seek him out in his temple. He interacts with fewer people, but Nemoto feels he achieves more. He also takes notes when listening to those who come to see him, an approach that has allowed him, he believes, to distance himself sufficiently from their distress and suffering. He also believes that such distancing has facilitated greater resolution for those he attends.

Nemoto ‘believes in suffering, because it shows you who you really are.’ I believe that to live, to truly exist, is to suffer, not in a penitential sense such as Nemoto might have experienced in his training, but in the sense that personal suffering, however one likes to interpret it (and it is a subjective experience in the end), is inextricably linked to living and to humanness.

Taking on the suffering of others, as Nemoto learned, can be a destructive and not altogether helpful act. Empathy, and the capacity for being there for the other, does not necessitate such…

CQ

I have spoken about Rothko before, both here and elsewhere (http://www.thenewwolf.co.uk/tag/rothko/). Today we heard that the repair needed to restore Black on Maroon, which was defaced during a graffiti attack at Tate Modern in October this year, could take at least 18 months. The reason for this, is that the ink from the pen used in the act leaked deeper than first realised. In addition, as Rothko’s technique was that of painting layer upon layer, the damaged portion will need to be stripped and restored in the same manner.

Just last week, another painting of Rothko’s, No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue), was sold at Sotheby’s New York for $75.1 million, the second-highest price ever paid for a Rothko piece. The anticipated sale figure had been $35 to $50 million.

Whether the graffiti episode influenced the eventual sale price, I have no idea. The man responsible for the defacement at the time claimed that his actions had added value to Black on Maroon

Re-reading Simon Schama on Rothko (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/powerofart/rothko.shtml), I have been similarly transfixed by the artist’s works. Schama, on the Seagram paintings:

‘Rothko said his paintings begin an unknown adventure into an unknown space… Everything Rothko did to these paintings – the column-like forms suggested rather than drawn and the loose stainings – were all meant to make the surface ambiguous, porous, perhaps softly penetrable. A space that might be where we came from or where we will end up.

They’re not meant to keep us out, but to embrace us; from an artist whose highest compliment was to call you a human being.’

Rothko committed suicide in 1970. We will never know, or cannot even speculate, what he would have thought of the current events that surround his legacy, his art.

CQ

I just saw this independent debut film by director/screenwriter Scott Graham. A gem, it is beautiful, thought-provoking, and deeply melancholic.

Set in the remote Scottish Highlands, Shell is both contemporary and timeless. The story revolves around a seventeen year old girl, Shell, who lives in a garage with her dad, in the middle of nowhere. At times a week might go by without seeing another person.

Shell’s mother left when she was four, a loss which is central to the narrative. Her relationship with her dad is close, and complex, and ultimately tragic.

The film moves slowly – at times perhaps too ponderously – punctuated by many silences and against a background of empty roads and a magnificant landscape. It is about broken and unfixable cars, and about people who are beyond, or so it appears to themselves, repair.

At times the symbolism jarred and felt overly contrived – the name Shell and its inevitable association with oil, the bloodied deer and blood on the hands, and thunderous and threatening trucks… But this is a minor quibble.

A Q&A followed with the director and the actor Chloe Pirrie (Shell, very impressive debut on the big screen). I mentioned another film with a similar setting, the wonderful Irish film Garage, which, though thematically very different, also uses the iconic garage in the middle of nowhere as a backdrop. Such symbols are now something of the past, perhaps less so in the Highlands, but, as Graham pointed out in his response to my comment, the stories that emanate from what they represent transcend the symbolism, and are not necessarily rooted in a past, or perhaps even a present.

A treat…

 

CQ

I first saw the French actress Sandrine Kiberlain in Mademoiselle Chambon (2009), and was much impressed by her understated and nuanced performance.

Thus, I looked forward to seeing Yves Caumon’s current release The Bird, in which Kiberlain plays the central role.

Kiberlain’s character is that of a single woman, who lives alone and appears detached from her co-workers and from society in general. A melancholic film, Kiberlain again delivers an understated and moving performance, a finely tuned balance between depersonalisation and almost palpable sadness. We gradually learn of the loss that has transported her to this so very alone and solitary place.

A bird befriends her, both a distraction and a projection of her loss.

But, beautiful as the movie is, there is at times a sense of melancholy and sadness overdone, and even contrived…the pathetic fallacy of rain, the reenactment of Virginia Woolf and stones in the river, the heavy symbolism of the bird, and ashes, and scattering. And the difficult to believe ending…

Perhaps plausibility is not the point here. Kiberlain is an amazing actress and adds so much depth to the role, and the cinematography is wonderful.

I remain glad that I experienced it.

CQ

July 11, 2012

The Timothy Taylor Gallery in London is currently hosting an exhibition of 32 of Diane Arbus’s photographs, many of which have never been seen in the UK before. The title, Affinities, alludes to Arbus’s continual exploration throughout her life and through her work of what it is that people share, or do not, and what may or may not connect them.

Diane Arbus was born in New York City in 1923, and rarely left her home city throughout her relatively short life. Whenever she did, she yearned to return. She discovered photography in the 1940s, which became her all-consuming passion. She believed that photography was ‘born perfect’ (Patricia Bosworth, Diane Arbus: A Biography, London: Vintage, 2005, p.189), and she was tenacious, and often reckless, in her pursuit of the ultimate image. Everything she saw, and captured through her lens, was extraordinary to her. Photographs allowed choices, and an exploration of aspects of life, and lives, that were usually considered taboo, forbidden, distasteful: ‘I want to photograph what is evil.’ (Bosworth, p.130). Reprimanded as a child for staring at those who were different, ‘freaks’, as an artist she chose to unscrupulously focus on those on the periphery of society, demanding in turn that we also bear witness.

Arbus too was on the periphery, continually feeling alone and separate, and terrified by an unshakeable sense of aloneness. She suffered from recurring bouts of depression, as did her mother and brother. She committed suicide in 1971, at the age of 48. A year after her death, her work was selected for the Venice Biennale, the first American photographer to have been so honoured.

I have seen Arbus’s work before, but this current exhibition encapsulates an intriguing thematic approach to a significant body of her work. The accompanying notes quote Arbus:

‘…Every difference is a likeness too.’

Thus, affinities here means not just what is shared or similar, but also that which differentiates.

Take for example, Triplets in their bedroom, N.J. (1963), which shows identical sisters sitting in a row. At first glance, they look ‘the same’, but on closer viewing, the photograph subtly differentiates the girls, so that the image we see challenges the notion of identical. Arbus herself described this image as both ‘flat and extraordinary’, the sisters reminding her of her own adolescence – daughter, sister and bad girl (Bosworth, p.217).

Arbus’s great skill was that of creating something real in her photographic representations. Of A blind couple in their bedroom, Queens, N.Y . (1971), Arbus spoke of the relative ease when photographing the blind – there is no mask (Bosworth, p.164). Many of her photographs, not just that of the blind couple, do seem to unmask the subject, to present an image of something authentic. This was not an accident.  Arbus was known for her dogged persistence, her perfectionism when it came to her art, as she relentlessly and tirelessly pursued and froze each image just as it really was.

The exhibition includes photographs of ‘look-alikes’, for example Winston Churchill and Elizabeth Taylor, two girls in matching bathing suits, two girls in identical raincoats…we are told that they are look-alikes, yet the photographs leave you with the sense that the same can also be very different.

The exhibition also includes Russian midget friends in a living room on 100th Street, N.Y.C. (1963), part of her ‘freaks’ series, which was much inspired by Tod Browning’s film of the same name.

There are moments of sublime tenderness, as portrayed in Girl sitting in bed with her boyfriend, N.Y.C. (1966). The series of photographs where Arbus captured her subjects through their mirror reflections are also very moving. I have wondered since why this is. Perhaps, as I looked at the subject looking at the subject, it felt as if Arbus had somehow positioned me where she had been, so that I had an acute sense of her original perspective being frozen in time.

In Arbus’s own personal life, there was an extraordinary symbiotic closeness, and affinity, between the artist and her husband Allan, who she met as a teenager. The couple were often described as resembling a sister and brother, even twins, even in physical appearance: ‘same mournful, watchful expression.’ (Bosworth, p.158). For Allan, the connection did not last, and although they continued to be friends throughout her life, Arbus never appeared to recover from the failure of the marriage and its consequent loneliness.

This exhibition coincides with a major touring exhibition of Arbus’s work, which has been in Paris, is currently in Berlin, and will end in Amsterdam in the autumn, where I hope to see it. I will report back…

Diane Arbus: Affinities

Timothy Taylor Gallery

15 Carlos Place

London W1K 2EX

26 June – 17 August 2012

Sunday, June 17, 2011

The artist Keith Vaughan wrote his last diary entry on November 4, 1977, the day he committed suicide. He had just taken the capsules and whisky:

‘I am ready for death though I fear it.’

’65 was long enough for me’

When he commenced the diary, at the age of 27 in 1939, he felt alone and with ‘no great liking for life’, yet with a ‘mule-like persistence in continuing the struggle.’

The diary entries over the next 38 years or so document this personal struggle, the written record growing out of a sense of ‘failure to live my life.’

Vaughan’s eventual suicide is perhaps not so unexpected, as death is a prominent and recurring theme in his writings. Throughout, he feels under the sentence of death, his heart ‘beating like a metronome in a coffin.’ His role in life, he judged, was to survive, belonging to the Survivors group, whose energy has been exhausted by the struggle of surviving, leaving in its wake an ‘apathetic existence’. Even before he entered the ‘Cancer Era’ in 1975, he mused on voluntary extermination camps, for those who have just had enough…Yet, with the cancer diagnosis, the proximity of death seems to take on a calmer, less threatening significance for Vaughan.

Though death and mortality feature prominently in Vaughan’s writings, there is also much more. Particularly in the earlier postwar years, up to 1965, Vaughan’s poetic prose allows the reader to see the art, even before it happened. His exquisite descriptions of both (male) strangers and of landscape shows what an observer he was, perhaps proving his own view of himself as one of life’s spectators rather than participants. He describes wartime London, and the arrival of sand, imagining how it must increase the weight of the city…and Hampstead Heath, near where he lived all his life, ‘blighted by a plaque of bull-dozers, their grinning steel faces burrowing into the sand like diabolical ostriches.’

Art, to some extent, equilibrated his life. It commenced as an escape from life itself, then functioned to sublimate ‘sexual energy.’ Later, as he struggled to create and to paint, he blamed his decreasing libido, which left nothing any longer to sublimate…He mused on what art does to its creator. Does it destroy him? Or is creating an alternative for those who are otherwise disqualified from life?

Vaughan has much to say about war. He was a conscientious objector, joined the St John Ambulance, and later was a translator in a POW camp. For him, war was an abomination, a tragedy:

‘Just call at the office and sign your name and immediately you’re somebody instead of nobody. The diabolical deception of war.’

He was profoundly affected by war, and it left him with a deep sense of death’s decay, amongst many other emotions. It also left him with the sadness of partings, the many friends he made during the war, and also the death of his brother Dick.

Vaughan read widely, and deliberated much on what affected him. Thus, his diaries share his thoughts on Rimbaud, Freud, Laing, and many others.

He was also aware that he was repeating himself. He re-read his diaries, and was struck mainly by two recurring themes: firstly, the mismatch between his creative outpourings and ‘success’, and his overwhelming and persistent sense of personal frustration, emptiness and creative lethargy; and secondly, the ‘blanket of depression and boredom’ that enveloped him and that featured so prominently throughout.

Life, to Vaughan, at least in a biological sense, was overvalued. It was also a cheat, and a game that was impossible to win: as you climbed further up the ladder of success, you look down and see how much you have lost.

Keith Vaughan, Journals, 1939-1977. London: Faber & Faber, 2010 (Kindle edition 2012).

Next, the art…

CQ