“The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men. As far as he is concerned he wipes out the world.”—G.K. Chesterton, “The Flag of the World,” Orthodoxy
The suicide is committing, from his or her terrible and terrifying and terrified point of view, genocide. Humanity-cide.
Martin Amis, in his memoir, Experience, paraphrases that quote and then contrasts it with a more nuanced and empathetic passage from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel The Eye:
I saw now […] how conventional were my former ideas on presuicidal preoccupations; a man who has decided upon self-destruction is far removed from mundane affairs, and to sit down and write his will would be, at that moment, an act just as absurd as winding up one’s watch, since, together with the man, the whole world is destroyed; the last letter is instantly reduced to dust and, with it, all the postmen; and like smoke, vanishes the estate bequeathed to a nonexistent progeny.
I am grateful that I am many years removed from any such moments of despair in my life, but I remember that I was not going to leave a note because a note was an act of a living man and I was already not among the living. An impending suicide attempt tints every mundane act with an unholy glow, an outsider’s perspective that one briefly, ruefully, wishes one had had “in life.” The simplest acts also acquire sarcastic, rueful, air quotes: “This is the ‘last time’ I will have to fight with this stupid broken shoelace.” Any step in the dance of the living—eating a sandwich, say, or washing a fork—feels like a betrayal to the mission, which is a stifled soul-sickness and grants everything an omnipresent green calm.
It can last a split-second or it can last years, and a shorter period of time does not make it easier, and is just as exhausting perhaps; I pray that I am the only person in the world who has felt it, but I know that I am not. I would not be writing anything today if I was not many years removed from it. A writer, as Nabokov reminds us in The Eye, is hyper-alive. Maybe make that simply, alive.
The twinned quotations in Experience about the saddest reality (Amis has many twins in his work) come in a chapter about expanding love and family: a woman with whom he had an affair in the 1970s had a daughter but never told Amis and subsequently committed suicide when the daughter was two. He knew about his lover’s death but not the girl and finally met her when she was 18.
Their mutual discovery is that love is not a zero-sum game, in which a loss is always balanced by a gain, that love instead can only increase, well, that discovery is a hard-won insight, the sort that only comes from a deep, shared loss. (If a terrible loss leads to a worthwhile insight, doesn’t that imply all of life really is a sort of zero-sum game?—My Imaginary Editor.) Their families increased in size and complexity but not complications, and the missing woman is a part of it all.
Love can only increase. Unlike hate, which can be remedied and is somehow itself always a zero-sum proposition, once love is felt, it leaves a permanent mark on the landscape. The inner landscape.
Most funerals are terrible, by definition, but some more so than others. A quarter-century ago, a co-worker of mine was shot and killed along with her mother by the father of my co-worker’s child, in front of the infant child. (It was an unobserved-by-CPS weekend custody handover. I hope people lost jobs over it.) A group of us went to the funeral service and were greeted at the door by an older man who looked like he was allergic to suits; he was thin and it looked like he had been consumed by this one suit all the way up to his neck and it was taking a rest before finishing him off.
Two twin coffins lay up front, closed from view, angled to fit in the small chapel.
I shook the man’s hand and he took my shoulder. His face was wet and unattended to by a handkerchief. Not knowing how to act or what to say to anyone, I solicitously asked who he was, assuming and hoping he was as distant as distant could be from the tragedy to ease my own sense of discomfort. I hoped he was someone who had been assigned the job of greeter to keep him out of everyone’s way. He wasn’t.
“I am the father and the husband,” he replied with a precise “the” for each lost one. “They’re watching over me together now.” He had the beautiful expression on his face of one who knew, not felt, knew that his dearest loves now loved him all the more completely from a different plane of existence.
I do not share that confidence, but I see its beauty.
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This column dates from October 2014.
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