Sunday, September 14, 2008

Say It Isn't So

"Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger."

David Foster Wallace, from his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. He died on September 12 of suicide at 46.

A question: Why is our society so much more tolerant of the suicides of artists, writers, and musicians than of those of ordinary folk? Suddenly, when confronted with the suicide of a great artist, people lose their judgmental or pathologizing tendencies and start to think about suicide rationally. (Except this asshole - surprise, he's Australian.)


  1. No disrespect intended to Mitchell.

    I hate Australians (excluding you), it's my only vice. Sorry brother.

  2. I think the public perception of high profile suicides (especially artists) is more often marked by a kind of extra-rational romantic absolution that people reserve for mythic figures. It might read as sympathy, but it is sympathy removed from the quotidian rhythm of things. The first comment that you cite strikes me as an exception. It is rational and empathic and true. It could apply to a departed friend, or an unknown obituary.

    Mitchell is Australian? Will they not let him out?

  3. At least you know it's a vice. Some of my best friends are Australian!

    I wonder why it was that Wallace killed himself. I can identify with creative people who are hindered by circumstance from getting their work done, and consider suicide just to end the frustration; but Wallace was published and successful. Perhaps he didn't respect his own work as much as other people did.

    Wikipedia lists over 200 writer-suicides.

  4. I don't know why. A great deal of his work deals with suicide and depression.

    I remember a study from several years back testing the idea that poets were more likely to commit suicide than novelists. Indeed, the study found a significant difference in incidence and age of suicide (poets do it younger) between famous novelists and famous poets.

    (One possible explanation was that it's much easier to become a famous poet younger, but still . . . )

    In my own experience, writing skill weirdly correlates with something like bipolar disorder. My boyfriend is a novelist (non-suicidal) and has a sub-clinical version of bipolar, undiagnosed but obvious (cyclothymia?). His claim is he would never want to be treated because that's where his stories come from, the way his brain works.

    And bipolar is the thing that's almost as good a predictor of suicide as a previous attempt, if statistics I've been seeing are to be believed.

  5. Why? It feels weird to speculate on why a stranger to me took his own life but one possible answer could be the combination of psych med withdrawal after being on them for over two decades and (a second round of) ECT. Lots of research coming out on the horrible effects of psychs meds and withdrawing from them...


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