Suicide, like other matters fraught with moral and political energies, presents difficulties to the poet other than those which are mainly compositional or aesthetic. Unlike other tropes1, it places the poet in a moral territory whose gravity makes a subject of the trope. In the thick of the trope, the poet, it would seem, becomes compelled to take a moral stand—a duty that counters the obligation to challenge one’s judgments through art.
To a certain extent, the word “suicide” predetermines one’s position, so inextricable it is from the negative connotations supplied in part by the suffix “-cide.” (Think, for instance, of “pesticide.”) According to David Daube, the term suicide “came about as a way to avoid the accusing references to ‘murder’2,” suggesting that if suicide is murder, then it is so only in the litigious language game of the accusation. To put the question so simply as to ask “Is suicide wrong?” would merely invite opinion, not so much because we who are alive have no idea of what suicide is but because all we have of suicide is an idea.
Poems about suicide are poems about death, but death in suicide is premised on a decision. Its agent is not the body but belief. The great poet Fanny Howe writes that “suicide is usually a reaction to one’s own idea of a future”3—a sober and tolerant way to look at it. But to be less forgiving and political about the issue: if we think that an infinite number of responses can precede a single reaction, then suicide would be a moment in which a reaction is also a decision. When we flip that equivalence, we would see that through suicide, death acquires a semantic value. When it enters the historical language of poetry, the elegy, which by convention must end celebratorily, becomes oddly inappropriate to the task of response. Is suicide an event, a crime, an idea, a conclusion, a sin, the impatience of despair? Is it a word? Is it a trope?
Suicide’s ontological ambiguity lays bear a characteristic feature of suicide as it occurs in the circuit of our fictions, in the life we live as characters. Often, one “hears of” suicide—we receive it as information, and when the word is used in conversation, we are invited to imagine it while simultaneously being asked to doubt the claims of our imagination. Any articulation of suicide is mocked by the fact that our claims can neither be proved nor ratified. “Whereof one cannot speak,” Wittgenstein cautioned, “thereof one must be silent.” Frank Bidart’s “The Sacrifice” and Donald Justice’s “For the Suicides of 1962” are two poems of a great number of poems that offer a way to speak against our ignorance of those who have chosen to die.
1 OED: a trope is “a figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression.” The word was coined in the 16th century, via Latin, from Greek, meaning “way.”
2 In addition: The term appeared in 1651. Thomas Szasz: “The appearance of the noun ‘suicide,’ like the term ‘mind’ as a noun, is a seventeenth-century Western invention. Both terms reflect a major cultural-perceptual shift: from perceiving voluntary death as an act for which the actor is responsible, to perceiving it as a (perhaps) happening for which he may not be responsible; and from seeing persons as possessing souls and free will, to seeing them as possessing minds that may become ‘unbalanced,’ resulting in the loss of free will…. The transformation of soul into mind and self-murder into suicide marks the beginning of the great ideological transformation from religion to medicine.” Fatal Freedom: The Ethics and Politics of Suicide (Praeger Publishers, CT, 1999).
3 Howe’s essay, “Au Hasard Suicide,” appeared in 2003 in Brick, a journal published in Canada.
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