Norman N. Holland
Department of English
University of Florida
P. O. Box 117310
Gainesville FL 32611-7310 U.S.A.


Literary Suicide: A Question of Style*

Norman N. Holland

    So dazzling is the fact of suicide, particularly a writer's suicide, its headline blinds us to the finer print of retrospect. We forget how ready we are to explain other things writers do, and we settle for glamour phrases like suicide as the "savage god." Perhaps we can change our style and accept the idea that suicide. Even literary suicide, for all that we can invest in it of the sacred, is still a human act. It embodies a choice among alternatives made through the same principles of human motivation as other choices, even though this is a choice to end choice itself.

    The most basic lesson Freud taught us is the rationality of irrationality. The slip of the tongue, the neurotic symptom, the lapse of memory, even that most incoherent of human thinkings, the dream, has its inner logic. We cannot predict the end of the dream or the slip of the tongue, but once they are known one can learn how the seemingly irrational choices were, in fact, quite rational. The principle finds its fullest form as the adaptive hypothesis, Freud's legacy indeed, for it is more an idea that left for his heirs than one he used himself.

    According to this hypothesis or "metapsychological point of view," all behavior is adaptive or, more exactly, can be looked at usefully from the point of view of its function as an adaptation to reality. In Fenichel's relatively early phrasing, "Adaptation in a dynamic sense means finding [286] common solutions for the tasks represented by inner impulses and outer (inhibiting and threatening) stimuli." The American Psychoanalytic Association's Glossary says, "The adaptive point of view considers the intrapsychic changes and the modifications of the environment achievable through the ego's activity, necessary to bring about a harmonious relationship between instinctual drive forces, internalized restraints, and the requirements of the external world." In David Rapaport's synthesis of such principles, the adaptive point of view means simply that, among other causes, "All behavior is determined by reality."1

    If all behavior is adaptive, suicide, too, must be. The adaptive hypothesis is, however, only one among a group of principles for explaining human motivations. Robert Waelder synthesized them most exactly in his "principle of multiple function." A human will choose behavior which feels as though it satisfies as many as possible of the demands of inner and outer reality as economically as possible. These demands manifest themselves in four directions, as it were. In one, reality, itself constantly shifting, demands that the organism adapt itself in ever new ways to the changing world around it. Balancing this pressure for change is the deep conservatism of the instincts, the ancient inertia of all biological beings, that tells the organism to try again the solution that worked before. From a third direction comes the constant pressure to win pleasure by satisfying the permutations of love, aggression, and the body's modalities. Against these drives stands the internalized intimidation, originally of the mother, then the father, finally of the whole social environment, which threatens various losses as the price of unrestrained gratification.

    To repeat, to adapt, to gratify, to inhibit--the ego passively responds to all these demands. It also actively samples them and tests various solutions. half-consciously, but mostly unconsciously, the individual chooses what seem the best solutions, those, to abbreviate Waelder, which he or she perceives as yielding the least pain and most pleasure with minimum effort.

    From this adaptive point of view, any mental transaction, no matter how bizarre or dysfunctional from the outside, seems from inside, the ego's solution to these four tasks. Perversions, for example, even the more outré, like transvestism or fetishism, by acting out fantasies about the opposite sex, enable the ego to accept a defined and limited distortion of reality instead of a full-blown psychosis. Multiple personalities avoid psychosis by dividing into separately viable selves. Psychosis itself represents to the sufferer's ego a better solution than the overwhelming cataclysm of destruction feared by the schizophrenic or the massive takeover the paranoid wards off by a more defined delusional system. The strange fears of the victims of phobia stave off something they fear even more: their own hostility [287] toward someone they love and depend on. Often the physical symptoms of a conversion hysteria serve a similar purpose. As Freud remarked as early as 1910, "Neuroses have in fact their biological function as a protective contrivance and they have their social justification . . . . . Is there one of you (analysts] who has not at some time looked into the causation of a neurosis and had to allow that it was the mildest possible outcome of the situation.2

    Suicide then must also be such an alternative. Although the sacrifice of the very self doing the adapting necessarily stands at the uttermost edge of human motivation, nevertheless, it must still follow the same general principle of adaptation. Humans commits suicide when their egos find death a more satisfying solution to these four sets of demands than the other alternatives.

    These alternatives appear most clearly in the cases that lie between Durkheim's altruistic and anomic types--perhaps a better adjective would be the "commendable" suicides. "A Roman, by a Roman valiantly vanquished," exults Shakespeare's defeated Antony as he stabs himself. And Brutus resolves to die the same way:

Our enemies have beat us to the pit.
It is more worthy to leap in ourselves
Than tarry that they push us.

    Cleopatra, even though Egyptian, cheerfully decides to do "what's brave, what's noble . . . after the high Roman fashion, and make death proud to take us." And I cannot find it in my heart to wish that she should live to march in "th' imperious show of the full-fortuned Caesar," any more than I would want Socrates to escape the hemlock by bribing his jailers to let him sneak away.

    It was, of course, common among Romans and Vikings, less so with the Creeks, to praise suicide as the noblest form of death. By contrast, Christian thinkers condemned it unanimously and with abhorrence, although they praised martyrdom with commensurate fervor and consensus. Needless to say, the line between suicide and martyrdom can become a fine one indeed. As Eliot's Thomas à Becket puts it, "The last temptation is the greatest treason / To do the right thing"--give up one's life--"for the wrong reason."

    Our society no longer regards self-destruction as a crime. Like the Code of Justinian, we condemn only those suicides which are "without cause." A society is known as much by what it considers excuses as by what it considers crimes, and evidently we are a people who demand a certain pragmatic common sense in self-destruction. We accept political and [288] religious martyrs, but reluctantly, with a vague feeling they should have been able to work.rk it out better. We no longer praise as a matter of coarse self-destruction for reasons of honor or thwarted love or violated chastity--Lucrece and Juliet would not be heroines today, nor would Romeo and Werther be admired. About the only suicides we accept without question are those that occur on the battlefield or in emergencies. We admire. for example, the Resistance fighter who dies rather than betray his comrades or the man who gives up his own chances for life so that others can survive a disaster like the sinking of the Titanic. We applaud the soldier who accepts the dangerous mission--if he is on our side (but we spoke with horror of the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II). To some extent these justifications follow Durkheim's distinction between altruistic and anomic suicides, but the correspondence is not exact, and it varies so greatly from culture to culture as not to be useful.

     In all these situations, however, we recognize that suicide is a deliberate choice of death, because we see the alternatives as less praiseworthy. The suicides we call sick or mad or unnecessary are simply those in which we do not see that the victim gained something which was worth the price of life itself. I am thinking of Vatel, the great seventeenth century maitre d'. Having already run out of roasts for a banquet for Louis XIV, on learning he would not have enough fish for the morrow, he retired to his chamber and ran upon his sword--not until the third thrust was the wound fatal. More recently, in the 1960s, the chef of the Relais de Porquerolles, a Left Bank restaurant, when he learned that his establishment had lost both its Michelin stars, indeed had been dropped from the Guide entirely, simply shot himself. To me, gourmandism does not raise questions of honor and shame that make a death a possible alternative. The limits of my Anglo-American value system, however, do not change the general principle of adaptation one jot. If these men chose death. they did so because it felt like, to them, a better balance among the four forces on the ego than the alternatives they saw.

    One must understand a suicide from inside, as it were. Obviously this is not easy, and marry theorists have simply resorted to positing various motives from outside. For example, some suicidologists have asserted that the mere act of suicide provides sources of pleasure and therefore of motivation. To die is to be united with some primal mother or to find a Nirvana, a return to the womb. To kill oneself is to kill some introjected hostile person. The suicide may be acting out fantasies of revenge and control against those who will survive him--after I'm gone. then they'll be sorry. Other theorists have found motivations "from outside" by analyzing the ways suicide avoids pain. The man who chooses to kill himself may do so to avoid a more painful death by disease or to finish an [289] intolerable depression or to end his shame at failure before the ego ideal on which he depends for his feelings of worth. Certainly, suicides by actively taking their own lives escape a position of helplessness: they reverse into activity a passivity that, for some, may be worse than death itself.

    I know of no theorist so bold, however, as to suggest that any one of these factors must operate in all cases. What is a good to some, is not a good to all. The terrors that frighten one may leave another untouched. To understand why a person chooses death. one must understand the balance of pleasure and terror as that person saw it. In a case of suicide we particularly need to know what evil it was to which even death was preferable. We might call the idea of some particular ultimate evil that someone will sacrifice everything to avoid the Orwellian principle, for it is set forth (and demonstrated) with greatest clarity by the interrogator and torturer of 1984. "`The worst thing in the world,' said O'Brien, `varies from individual to individual.'"

"By itself," he said, "pain is not always enough. There are occasions when a human being will stand out against pain. even to the point of death. But for everyone there is something unendurable, something that cannot he contemplated. Courage and cowardice are not involved . . . . . It is merely an instinct which cannot be disobeyed."3

    In the light of the principle of multiple function and the adaptive point of view, however, it is not an instinct, but something that the individual's ego has been avoiding all through life. Precisely because it is so scrupulously avoided, it is something few humans, no matter how articulate they are, leave any record of. And it is just this silence about the inside story that makes theorists of suicide turn to inferences from outside about the reasons people choose death.

    We can, however, overcome the silence and infer the inside story of the "something unendurable" indirectly, particularly when a writer is involved. We can discover it from the second element in a modern psychoanalytic theory of motivation. I am thinking of the concept of character. The classic definition is Fenichel's: "the habitual mode of bringing into harmony the tasks presented by internal demands and by the external world." The key element here is habitual. "The term character stresses the habitual form of a given reaction, its relative constancy. Widely different stimuli produce similar reactions."4 In other words, the ego tends to choose in the same style over and over again as it seeks out a maximum of pleasure with a minimum of pain and effort. It adopts the same strategies over and over, and if we can identify the pattern in these strategies, we can infer from it the supreme joys the ego seeks and the ultimate terrors it avoids.

    "Character" is the classical psychoanalytic term. "Identity" or "ego [290] identity" are more recent. A still more precise term is Heinz Lichtenstein's "identity theme."5 He shows that the ego requires in the process of differentiating itself from the matrix of maternal care a particular consistency or sameness. The infant satisfies his needs through the person who mothers him, but that mother also makes the child the instrument for fulfilling the mother's unconscious needs. Thus, a mother actualizes in a child a specific way of being, namely being the child for this particular mother, responding to her individual and unique needs. What is thus established in the child is a kind of organizational principle, a "primary identity" from which the developing human being, as he meets the needs of the world within and without him, transforms ever new solutions to the four types of demands his ego faces. He creates, within the particular style of his ego's multiple functioning, ever new adaptations, much as a musician can play out infinite variations on a single theme of music or as a mathematician can work out infinite functions of one polynomial.

    Conversely, when I look at that person, I can infer from all the myriad behaviors I see a central, unifying theme. This "identity theme" is "in" me, not in him--my construct, not his innermost way of being. Moreover, my verbal construct can approximate but never coincide with his "primary identity," for that was laid down in a preverbal stage of life. Nevertheless, tentative and partial as it must be, like the theme of a literary work, it is a way I can center for myself and give a mutual relevance to all the various actions of that other person. In effect, I find in them a "style," and I can speak of that style (in a Chomskyan way) as recurring transformations of a characteristic theme or kernel or core of identity.

    It is in relation to these habitual ego styles and the ultimate goods and evils they navigate that the literary suicide tells us the "inside story" of his choosing death. The human who does not write leaves after his death little more than the surface, outside data of his life. To be sure, a spouse, children, friends, relatives, will remember the personality. but usually their knowledge is both unsystematic and unrecorded. We are left with a few mute facts, suitable only for the crude tools of statistical correlation. By contrast, the writer who destroys himself leaves in his works a long record of ego strategies and choices, a picture of his style in action large and clear enough for us to infer for him an identity theme (although it is interesting to remember that few writers produce more in a lifetime than the sum total of a talky patient's associations in five years of analysis). From the combination and interaction, then, of the life and works, especially choices of language, the writer permits us to infer an ego style and therefore the ultimate goods and evils sought on the one hand [291] and avoided on the other. Further. the writer provides a methodological check: if we have inferred his central myth, his lifestyle, correctly, we should be able to say how the mere fact of his writing as well as the nature of what he wrote. both its matter and its manner, expressed that identity theme.

    Finally, should he die by his own hand, one should be able to see how the manner of his suicide also expressed that lifestyle. An identity theme or lifestyle simply states the essence that pervades the long sequence of choices, the ultimate pleasures attempted and the ultimate terrors shunned. The method of suicide, by definition, is the last choice in the series--it should, if anything, show the essential pattern in extremis. More than any other kind of person. then, the literary suicide lets us infer how the choice of death felt on the inside. And, as before, it is the "commendable" suicide who most clearly shows that choice as a choice. Remember Seneca.6

    For later ages, he provides a model: the famous picture of the philosopher bidding his admiring friends a stoic and gentlemanly farewell as his life's blood ebbed away before him. His life, however, was more tormented than the death suggests. His writings to his mother reveal a marked admixture of hate in the love one would expect, and that he professed. Similarly, his youthful compliance with his father's rigid, puritanical ethic suggests another underlying resentment. His plays express in still more detail his sense of the external world as a place of murderous, uncontrolled forces of family, state, and cosmos, often directed to the killing of children. From such a worldview, the young Seneca developed his personal style of meeting the demands of inner and outer reality.

    Seneca turned away from the external world of uncontrollable pleasures and pains to a cool, clean world within that he had neutralized by projecting out of it his own deep resentments and ambivalence. Stated the other way around, by establishing total inner control Seneca avoided the incredible violence he projected into and therefore perceived in outer control (and for which, to be sure, the Rome of his day gave ample confirmation). Subjection to outer control became his "unendurable something."

    When Nero commanded him to take his own life, Seneca faced a choice that, in a deeper sense. was really no choice at all. Not to have given up his life would have left him an exile and fugitive, a man wholly at the mercy (of those outside pressures he saw as overwhelmingly dangerous. Further. those outside forces came together in an emperor who was his former student, thus the one man who combined in himself the ruler-father and the pupil-son, the parent punishing the child and the child revenging himself on the punishing parent. This was the very conflict [292] Seneca's whole lifestyle was designed to avoid. He chose death. therefore, and a death that demanded of him the greatest possible demonstration of the self-control he had spent his life achieving and justifying. He not only staved off the "something unendurable"-he crowned the pattern by which he had lived his life, welding himself forever to the self-control he lived and loved more than any parent or emperor.

    Like the "commendable" suicides, those Menninger calls the "chronic" suicides--the alcoholics, the drug addicts, the accident-prone--sometimes reveal the dynamism underlying the choice of death more clearly (than those who kill themselves once and for all. A writer like Poe, for example, shows a whole pattern of self-destroying choices rather than a single radical act.

    Looking at his life and works, I sense that, when his mother died, part of Poe's world and the part of him that was fused to it went with her. What remained to deal with the tasks and crises of growing up, was a much impoverished self, doubly weakened because any development of a full repertoire of adaptations was always undercut by the child's ultimate desire and defense: the fantasy of a reunion with the loved, lost and feared woman. Poe's lifestyle became the attempt to build a bridge from the functioning self of here and now to the lost reality and the part of himself that went with it.

    Over and over again, the writings state quite literally the wish to unite with the lost woman, and the raw, undisguised quality of Poe's fantasies testifies to the weakness of his defensive structures. Other stories state other psychic issues, but all leave this same blatancy, even the most outré nightmares of dismemberment, tyrannical fathers, doubled identities, returns from the dead, burial alive, world destruction. Always the literalness of the nightmare reveals how few resources Poe had in the here and now with which to bridge the basic split in his ego. To do so was the task of his life. To fail to cross that divide was the something he could not endure.

    His extreme aestheticism and his intellectual abilities to puzzle and puzzle out helped him rationalize his fantasies of deaths which were not deaths, mothers who were not mothers but daughters, second marriages which were first marriages, and all the bipolar structures of his literary imagination and his quest in reality for love and success. But these intellectual and aesthetic adaptations gave him only a precarious control over his violent swings between mania and depression. His destructive bouts with opium and alcohol suggest he found in them other ways to unite with his adult reality the lost, unreal world of infancy. His mounting despair as he moved through his thirties testifies to the disintegration of [293] his intellectual and aesthetic adaptations. They could not shore him up against what he perceived as the "unendurable something." "It was the horrible never-ending oscillation between hope and despair, which I could not have endured without the total loss of reason."

    His wife's death ended the uncertainty and oscillation, but it reenacted his original wound, increasing fatally his need to bridge the two poles of his ego. He tried to recapture lost loves but failed, and finally he also exhausted his intellectual resources in his megalomanic philosophical work: "I have no desire to live since I have done `Eureka.'" In effect, the oscillations (unlike the pendulum or the maelstrom of his stories) had passed beyond the controlling power of intellect and thus become too terrible to bear. "It is no use to reason with me now: I must die." The only `adaptation' he had to regain control and not lose contact with the lost world was to drink and drug himself to death. And so he did.

    F. Scott Fitzgerald was another writer whose life and works lack the "no exit" character of the single suicidal act but nevertheless show how a person chooses self-destruction as an alternative to something worse. One figure dominates Fitzgerald's fiction: a woman who promises infinitely but instead takes and keeps within herself. Such a promissory image need not be literally a woman; it can be riches, literary success, a diamond as big as the Ritz, publication, whisky, Hollywood, or all of Europe or America. It was as a woman, however, that Fitzgerald most saw her, Zelda having "all the youth and freshness that was in me," although in the nature of things, Zelda herself must have been only an avatar of some promising and withholding figure from earliest infancy.

    The Fitzgerald hero tries to unite himself to this source of "infinite possibilities," but must lose his identity as if to a vampire if he does. "I lived with a great dream," Fitzgerald wrote his daughter. "The dream grew and I learned how to speak of it and make people listen. Then the dream divided one day when I decided to marry your mother," just as Gatsby knew he could climb to "a secret place," "if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder." But also, "He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God."

    Rather than suffer that loss passively. The Fitzgerald hero may assume it actively, separating himself from that engulfing figure--hence the themes of violent speed and movement that pervade Fitzgerald's life and work: the peripatetic existence, the gadabout parties, hazardous automobile rides, dangerous dives off cliffs into the Mediterranean, the fatal auto accident in Gatsby, or Amory Blaine's credo, the "idea . . . that we've [294] got to go much faster." Having split himself off, the Fitzgerald hero recreates in himself the femme fatale, but in a manly way. He himself promises much and then does not deliver: Scott the schoolboy who fakes a fall so as to lose but not lose the race, the would-be footballer, the malingerer, the playboy, the ladies' man, but most of all the writer of adjectives like "infinite," "incomparable," "unutterable," words, by definition, no realistic fiction can possibly fulfill. Most of all, Fitzgerald enacted the promise withheld by being the "promising" writer who became a drunk, able to speak, as he said near the end, "with the authority of failure." And his failure was nothing if not authoritative, a relentless thrust toward self-defeat that in its inner meaning came close to being a sort of triumph. He almost mastered, at terrible cost, the legacy of that first, all-powerful promiser who somehow deeply failed him. He achieved a strange success by making himself, not the passive victim of the tease, but the active teaser, although the intrapsychic victory lay waste his extrapsychic life and work.

    The rhythm of Fitzgerald's ever-promising career feels different from Poe's--the earlier writer was weakest at the end, while Fitzgerald, I think, had recovered a measure of himself--but both writers show the same paradox: that self-destruction, despite its name, finally serves the needs of self, provided we can discover the "inside story" of the balance of joys and pains that defines those needs. Chronic suicides gain some pleasure from their self-destructive activities. After all, drink and drug have their charms. Even the commonplace cigarette smoker knows he is paying a statistical fraction of his life for the pleasures of tobacco.

    There may be many such attractions built into the more radical, single act of suicide: a feeling that one can magically control those who survive; the aggressive pleasure of destroying some hostile person felt as inside one's personality; the joy of joining some loved person who has died; a wish to "return to the womb"; a desire to pain and hurt one's survivors, and so on. Such pleasures, however, like those of alcohol and other drugs, seem unlikely to change in time, while, for the "acute" suicide, death has become a more satisfying alternative than life at some particular point in his life history. Such a sudden shift seems more likely to result from something unendurable becoming dangerously possible rather than death's suddenly increasing its attractiveness.

    Consider the case of Yukio Mishima. All his writings convey his feeling for the beauty, dignity, and attraction of death, yet as we look more closely, death takes on a specific meaning. "Surely one could achieve simultaneously," he wrote. "through death, both action--or what we call suicide--and the expression of the totality of life. The expression of that [295] supreme moment must await death." Death becomes a summum bonum because it takes on for him the ability to include everything in its scope. Perfection means inclusion. He tried always to reach for the elusive and indefinable, to "combine the blossom that disintegrates with the blossom that never will," hence to fuse in his works transitory action and eternal literary expression, classic and romantic, Eastern and Western. body and mind, and (in his homosexual themes) male and female. He draws on the narrative device of metempsychosis, combining three or four lives in one person. He brings politics into his work, making of his novels and his life a patriotic drama of the samurai and kamikaze, as a contrast to the anomie he saw in present-day Japan.

    In short, he tried to include more and more, and one could regard his last years as encompassing the perfect, traditional, and ritual tragedy of political failure followed by honorable suicide so central in Japanese self-perception. But one could also regard Mishima, who made his body a physical marvel, the living emblem of the perfection he wanted to include in himself. Yet he was forty-five, and knew that he must inevitably come to the decay of old age and death. One could regard his suicide as a positive quest for perfection or as a negative flight from the imperfection that all his life and works decry. As he said, dismissing his critics, "I am always right. I never admit that . . . I am wrong." "If I admit I am wrong even once, I shall never again be able to stand up against them." Acting out the perfect ritual death, then, whatever its long-term positive appeals, at the point when Mishima took his life, also warded off something unendurable, the inevitability of his own and his nation's imperfections, that is, their defusion and disintegration, their failure to combine everything in a total beautiful union. That would be a defeat he could not tolerate--and he did not.

    Hart Crane shows a similar coincidence of motives for suicide, a quest for pleasure that also prevented his suffering what would have been for him the intolerable. His lifestyle pivoted on the problem of finding an autonomous self separate from his ambivalent dependence on his mother. His alcoholism, his homosexual affairs, his long kitchen talks with his friends' wives, all these have obvious inherent satisfactions; but for Hart they also served as alternatives he had himself created to the feeding, drinking. and loving for which he would otherwise have depended on his mother Grace. Most important was his writing. For him the ability to form symbols meant the ability to integrate a self separate from that dangerous dependency. Conversely, to be a self (to have a "Hart"), he had to symbolize himself.

    He achieved a partial success along these lines, until, during the last [296] years of his life, his buried hatred of his mother began to surface and to interfere with his self- and symbol-making. From various forward moves toward a more autonomous creativity and a real relationship with a woman, he regressed into a state where he again felt self and symbols were one. The real-life failures of his Mexican trip took on larger-than-life symbolic values and convinced him he could never form--or be--either self or symbol. Failure to form symbols meant his self would be engulfed or devoured in that hostile dependency, and the last way he had for asserting that he still had some sort of a functioning being was to use self to destroy self. Confronted with loss of mother, loss of God, loss of love, loss of career--in that painfully overdetermined word, "disgraced"--he acted out the loss of all poetic and parental symbols with his very body. He dove into the sea where there was neither the bridge he had himself created nor the Life Savers his hither manufactured. In that last act, however, self finally created a symbolic self, an enduring figure for the poète maudit.

    Of all the poetic suicides, however, none tells us so much as Sylvia Plath. The energy of her achievement, the recency of her tragedy, the completeness of our knowledge, all combine to give a picture of suicide as the last creation in a single continuing lifestyle. I think of that style in two phases, a perception and a way of coping with what she perceived. Plath saw the world either as abandoning and rejecting her or as closing in and forcing her into a foreordained role; to both these possibilities she responded with murderous hate. She dealt with this view of the world by herself becoming that environing, parental matrix. Thus she avoided abandonment and she controlled the problem of self-definition--it was she who condemned herself or, alternatively, forced her definitions on others who only indirectly, at her bidding, reflected them back to herself. Her tragedy came from the rage with which she emptied herself into the outer world or filled herself from it, a hate derived from her original idea of the kind of experience she thought she had to deal with: "I believe," she wrote, "that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience . . . . . "

    At first, she identified by becoming the very model of a modern poetess: the poem published at eight, the brilliant school career, the prizes and scholarships, the guest editorship at Mademoiselle, the sponsoring professors, and all the outer paraphernalia of literary success belied by the inner collapse at twenty. Even later, in London, it is striking how often those who write of her describe not a woman but a role: the gifted poet's self-effacing spouse, the harried housewife, or the overworked [297] mother. As Plath wrote in a note on "Daddy," "She has to act out the awful little allegory once over before she is free of it." But, of course, one is never free of it, except perhaps in private acts of creation.

    It was through her poetry (that she was best able to work off the murder the world's demands implied to her and at the same time achieve what happinesses she found in her thirty years of life. At first, her poetry provided a way into the role she had accepted from outside, that of the university poet. Later, she was able to derive from Robert Lowell's Life Studies a poetic mode different from the meditative style of the fifties: a highly personal catharsis of the poet's most intimate problems. In such a style, her poems could act out the inner rage she felt. She read them, says A. Alvarez, in a flat, nasal accent, rapping them out as if she were angry: "At first hearing, the things seemed to be not so much poetry as assault and battery." The Bell Jar, her heroine rejected the supposedly feminine role of the "place and arrow [the husband] shoots off from." "I wanted . . . to shoot off in all directions myself, like the coloured arrow from a Fourth of July rocket." And she described words as axes whose cuts sent "Echoes travelling / Off from the center like horses."

    Shooting out in poetry became her crucial adaptation and defense: "It's like water or bread, or something absolutely essential to me. I find myself absolutely fulfilled when I have written a poem, when I'm writing one." Fulfillment, filling herself up, becomes one of the poles of her poetry, as when she imagined in The Bell Jar, "the way I'd feel if I ever visited Europe. I'd come home, and if I looked closely into the mirror I'd be able to make out a little white Alp at the back of my eye." The other pole was emptying herself out, making the objects of the physical world act out the psychodrama of her body and mind:

It is a terrible thing
To be so open; it is as if my heart
Put on a face and walked into the world . . . 7

    She describes that world in two contrasting modes. In one her own body parts mingle:

The flood jet is poetry
There is no stopping it.8

    The other world is a grey, papery flatness, and she decries such flat and empty abstractions. They can become positive for her only when they serve to shield her from an odious or painful intimacy, that is, a mingling she cannot control.

    Thus, she typically writes in a rhythm of two contrasting stanzas: one [298] brutally condensed and compressed, the shooting out and taking in; the other a relatively straightforward statement edging over into a hard machinelike irony. Usually, in both modes she vilifies in others what she dislikes in herself. Her tongue becomes a weapon--"Must it be cut out? / It has nine tails, it is dangerous."9

    While she was successfully working out her personal style in this intense, angry poetry, her patterns were failing in the demands of life. Of the few representations of people in her writing, only the psychiatrist, Dr. Nolan, seems to want to help her define herself, not impose a definition from without. Except for her, Plath seems to have sought in others repetitions of the crisis she perceived with her parents: to define them or be defined by them. She married her husband, she said, because "He was simply the only man I've ever met whom I could never boss." Quite impractically, she rented a former house of Yeats's in London. At the same time that she sought these external controls, she imposed control herself: keeping bees (on which her father had been expert) or riding a vigorous and challenging stallion (named Ariel). Until the very end, she submitted her poems with almost clerical meticulousness, always including the canonical stamped self-addressed envelope (which, like the bees, acted out her projection and return)--indeed, almost the last thing she did in life was borrow stamps.

    Her suicide came as time relentlessly pressed on her, notably by motherhood and the development of her children. In part of her identity, Plath wanted to be the baby before the death of her father or the birth of her younger brother, before the crisis of her definition by her parents. Thus, she describes hot baths as a mode of relaxation and purification, and after the bath, "I felt pure and sweet as a new baby." At the same time, firing off like a rocket could shoot her violently back to infancy: she describes a suicidal fantasy of skiing downhill through "the dark sides of a tunnel as I hurtled on to the still, bright point at the end of it . . . the white sweet baby cradled in its mother's belly." Having had babies meant she could no longer be one. Also, she had now to find satisfaction in her maternal role, enclosing and defining rather than being enclosed:

How long can my hands
Be a bandage to his hurt, and my words,
Bright birds in the sky, consoling, consoling?10

    The children began to define her rather than she them. She had put something forth from her body whose return she at first controlled but increasingly came back at her willy-nilly: "my baby a nail / Driven in, driven in." In "The Detective," her Sherlock Holmes concludes: "There [299] was no absence of lips, there were two children." "Can such innocence kill and kill? It milks my life." The child's "cries are hooks that catch and grate like cats." "Intolerable vowels enter my heart,"11 when the baby calls. She drew from motherhood astonishing and savage descriptions of diapers, feeding, cleaning, shopping, but these liberationist themes eventually become murderous hatred against the children: "I am the center of an atrocity." "I hate babies."

    Combined with this inexorable pressure refuting her pattern of defense was the longing to become a baby herself, to unite with that mathematical father so much given to definition and control:

I was ten when they buried you
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you . . . . .

I have done it again.
One year in every ten . . . . 12

I am only thirty . . . . .
This is number three
What a trash to annihilate each decade. 13

    Combining with the pressures of motherhood was this deadly timetable, one more kind of self-definition through others.

    To withstand these dangers she had her successful adaptation, poetry, and she began the astonishing burst of creative energy that marked the last year of her life, poised precisely against the demands of the children. A poem a day, "all written at about four in the morning, that still blue, almost eternal hour before the baby's cry, before the glassy music of the milkman, settling his bottles." But it could not hold, and the milk bottle became the final bell jar closing down on her.

    She was alert to methods of suicide, complaining in an early work, "it was just like a man to do it with a gun." She herself fantasized hurtling downhill on skis, and later she almost killed herself by driving off the side of the road:

And I
Am the arrow
The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.14

    But there was another mode, that of her more successful attempts, in [300] which she drew around her the environmental matrix which was both a process of definition she could control and a way she could be more intimately embraced in that matrix than by definition. At twenty, she hid in a tiny space between porch and cellar and swallowed sleeping pills. By chance, she was saved. At thirty, she lay down before an unlit oven and turned on the gas. By chance, she was not saved. It was, at the end of her life as at the end of one of her poems, "The upflight of the murderess into a heaven that loves her."

    One could re-examine many more self-destroying writers, but Plath illustrates with all the deadly beauty we need the principles at work. Suicide, like any other "deal" the ego makes (including such other pathological conditions as psychosis, perversion, multiple personality, phobia, or fugue), is an effort at the best possible adaptation under the circumstances to the demands of inner and outer reality. Even suicide aims at Zusammenpassung, the most efficient "fitting together" for this particular organism. From this point of view, each suicide is unique and one looks at statistical and categorical studies with a skeptical eye. Generalization from one suicide directly to another seems quite useless.

    At a higher level of abstraction, however, all suicides have the same essential dynamics. At a certain point, individuals arrive at a situation where their entire identities or lifestyles lead them (in efforts to "satisfice" the pleasures and pains from inner and outer demands) to choose death over any of the possibilities life offers. Cultural approval (as with Mishima) or cultural tolerance (as with Plath) may affect the balance. Death may hold out a continuing promise of pleasure (as it suggested completeness and inclusion to Mishima or offered union with a lost infancy to Plath or served as a self-mothering for Crane). These positive forces toward suicide tend to be stable over a long period of time. To be sure, they can change drastically, as by Nero's command to Seneca, but usually one must look to a changed apprehension of inner danger to explain a suicide at one particular time. Mishima feared the pluralistic imperfection that age and history were making inevitable. Crane's deep resentment of his mother had finally begun to break down his precarious adaptation through poetry and the bohemian life. The pressures of motherhood were forcing on Plath the external definition of self she feared in the deepest fibers of her being.

    In the last analysis, as with Hemingway, one may be drawing distinctions too fine in trying to separate the pleasurable possibilities in death from its defensive aspects. Both wish and defense are simply ways of looking at a single personality. For example, Hemingway, by his death, achieved the identification with his suicidal father that he had sought [301] all his life in dangerous situations. At the same time he removed the possibility of a final doddering helplessness that would have cancelled such a manly identification. In this sense, suicide becomes simply the final, inevitable, and logical expression of an individual's lifestyle confronted with a certain "inside story" of promise and threat.

    If suicide is so deeply rooted in lifestyle, can it be prevented? If we consider the choice of death as an ego transaction, that question becomes: can the balance of pressures on the ego that makes death the best solution for this person's character be reversed? Frankly, I think not where death attracts by the promise of some ultimate joy. It is hard to see how one could change that. On the other hand, that is not the usual situation. Usually, even in cultures that commend suicide, the balance tips against life and in favor of death because the adaptive side of the potential suicide's lifestyle has failed, allowing the specter of something unendurable, something special for each person which has deep infantile and unconscious roots, to rear up as a real possibility. Until that Orwellian point, the potential suicide's whole lifestyle, that is, all the choices that fulfilled his or her identity theme, have warded off that ultimate danger. To say that someone is near suicide means that person has reached a point of believing inwardly that death, rather than any previous will fend off what is a uniquely intolerable threat for that person.

    This analysis through identity theme and lifestyle suggests that people seeking to prevent a potential suicide can have many tactics but basically only two strategies at their disposal. They may have the emergency aids of a suicide prevention center. They may be able to impose drugs, electrotherapy or hospitalization on a relatively passive patient. They may be able to involve the potential suicide in psychotherapy or in rebuilding contacts with significant others and activities. But all these tactics have merit only to the extent they carry out one or both of two basic strategies.

    First, one can be supportive in the specific sense of trying to strengthen the patient's pre-existing adaptations. It is in this sense a therapist responds to the suicide attempt as a cry for help, help in making a lifestyle work that has worked up until that point. One allies oneself with the patient's former adaptations.

    Second, a therapist can try the longer, harder route of insight. In this mode, one must the patient to find out what is threatening, what this ultimate terror is in its unconscious meaning. Tactically, one has to try to help the patient see the difference between the present massive, global "something unendurable" of infantile fear, even though the one is the ancestor of the other. [302]

    In both these modes, support or insight, to formulate a tactic, one must discover the patient's identity theme before it is too late; and it is here the dreadful muteness of suicide takes its toll. Mostly, this change in the inner balance of adaptations takes place slowly and silently. In our culture, in our time, potential suicides may seek therapy. Certainly one who attempts suicide cries for help, and so serves notice that death has become a possible adaptation. But an inner inevitability is in the nature of the illness: a functioning person sees customary strategies fail and finds self-destruction the only solution. Perceived from within, this shift is slow, inexorable, relentless, and powerful, a narrowing and constricting noose, whose fateful consistency and intensification of a total lifestyle adds to the dispiriting dread that accompanies the change.

    The surest way out of such quicksand is the helping grip of another. For there to be such help, however, that other must have been able to pick up what is essentially an "inside story." This is the contribution the literary suicides make. They leave a record of the style the ego chose so as to gain pleasure but avoid the "unendurable something." They therefore reveal a pattern of variations on an identity theme that enables us to see from outside the deadly inner rationality of suicide. Unlike others who destroy themselves, writers leave in their lives and works visible evidence of the "inside story." As we pay homage to the beauty they create by interpreting it and making it our own, we become indebted to them another way. The same interpretation tells us a strategy for recognizing and preventing in others the solemn and tragic failure of adaptation that convinced these people they could sustain their true style only by choosing death.


*This article was originally published in Psychocultural Review 1 (1977): 285-303. Here, it has been lightly edited and the original page divisions are indicated in brackets in this text. It had been destined to appear, in a modified form, in an anthology on "literary suicides" edited by Professor Leonard F. Manheim with M. D. Faber and Harvey L. P. Resnik. Some of the essays from that volume were published in Psychocultural Review and some appeared in Hartford Studies in Literature, when it was edited by Professor Manheim. Return to main text

1 Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1945), p. 52. A Glossary of Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts, Burness E. Moore and Bernard D. Fine, eds. (New York: The American Psychoanalytic Association, 1967), s.v. "Metapsychology." David Rapaport, The Structure of Psychoanalytic Theory. A Systematizing Attempt, Psychological Issues 2 (2) (1960), Monograph 6 (New York: International Universities Press, 1960), p. 57. Return to main text

2 "The Future Prospects of Psycho-Analytic: Therapy" (1910), Standard Edition, 11: 150. [303] Return to main text

3 George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1949), pp. 286-287. Return to main text

4 Fenichel, p. 467. Return to main text

5 Heinz Lichtenstein, "Identity and Sexuality: A Study of Their Interrelationship in Man," Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 9 (1961): 179-260. Return to main text

6 In the rest of this essay, I shall draw on studies of particular authors prepared by a group of experts in literature and psychology: in particular, M. D. Faber on Seneca, Louis Fraiberg on Poe, William Wasserstrom on Fitzgerald, James T. Araki on Mishima, David Bleich on Crane, Christopher Bollas and Murray M. Schwartz on Plath, and Leslie Fiedler on Hemingway. My own essay and theirs were to appear in a volume on literary suicides edited by Leonard Manheim, H. L. P. Resnik, and M. D. Faber. Return to main text

7 "Three Women: A Poem for Three Voices" (1962), Winter Trees (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 60. Return to main text

8 "Kindness," Ariel (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), p. 82. Return to main text

9 "The Courage of Shutting Up," Winter Trees, p. 8. Return to main text

10 "Three Women," p. 60. Return to main text

11 "The Detective," Winter Trees, pp. 13-14. Return to main text

12 "Daddy," Ariel, p. 51. Return to main text

13 "Lady Lazarus," Ariel, p. 6. Return to main text

14 "Ariel," Ariel, p. 27. Return to main text