Dr Seuss on the Juice (as performed by Dr. John)

 

 

When I read Kafka

I get wasted on Vodka,

 

Though Mr. William Faulkner

Go better with Johnnie Walker.

 

Can’t do Proust

With no gin in my juice.

 

Obviously, Guinness be the choice

When I open up my Joyce.

 

(Finnegan’s Wake sober

Mean a walloping hangover).

 

Never do Virginia Woolf

Unless the bottle say 100 proof.

 

Nobel Laureate TS Eliot

Requires an even stronger inebriant.

 

And remember,

if you want to stay alive,

Don’t read and drive.

 

 

 

Six Most Exquisite Literary Suicides

One concept I attempt to convey to students when I teach tragedy is that when tragedy works, it exhilarates rather than depresses the audience. Much depends on the protagonist; he or she must outstrip us in stature, or as my translation of Aristotle puts it, be “better” than we are, i.e., more profoundly human, capable of greater deeds (and greater misdeeds).

However, Aristotle is not my man when it comes to tragedy. My man is Richard Sewell whose The Tragic Vision offers a brilliant description and analysis of the tragic landscape, that bleak Darwinian plain of pre-Christian darkness, an elemental shriek-filled darkness that hearkens to that time in human history before we had mastered fire.

Or, as Yeats puts it, when

The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy.

Faulkner possessed this tragic vision, and Addie Bundren in As I Lay Dying beautifully articulates it:

And then [husband Anse] died. He did not know that he was dead. I would lie by him in the dark, hearing the dark land talking of God’s love and His beauty and His sin: hearing the dark voicelessness in which the words are the deeds, and the other words that are not the deeds, that are just the gaps in people’s lacks, coming down like the cries of the geese out of the wild darkness in the old terrible nights.

asilay_0What has set my mind to such dark contemplations is the penultimate episode of Season 1 of the HBO series Treme, and in the unlikely event if, like me, you’re four years behind and still on Season 1, you might not want to read any further, but then again, a careful viewer would already have noted the not-very-subtle foreshadowings of the character Creighton Bernette’s impending suicide.

Bernette, played by John Goodman, is an English professor at Tulane struggling with his beloved New Orlean’s destruction after Katrina and with the paralysis of writer’s block. Even though he has a loving wife, an early teen-aged daughter, and an intact, lovely house in the city, he pulls a Harte Crane and jumps off a ferry into the Mississippi River and drowns himself. Notably, he had just finished teaching Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, whose protagonist Edna Pontellier, also a New Orleans citizen, drowns herself over a failed extra-marital affair and in essence because marriage and motherhood don’t offer her enough satisfaction — despite the fact she has servants to do housework for her.

These two, Creighton and Edna, fail the tragedy test — they’re merely pathetic, i.e., worthy of pity — but there’s nothing exhilarating about their copping out over problems that pale compared to those of the wretches who follow below — my top six literary suicides, which I catalog in chronological order.

Jocasta

Sophocles oedipus_photopresents us with a perverse and terrible vision of life. The drama takes place in a universe governed by malevolent deities who rain horror upon the otherwise innocent offspring of evil doers (Yes, Oedipus suffers from hubris but is the epitome of integrity and about as well-meaning as any tragic hero out there. He, his wife/mother, half-sisters/daughters and half-brother/sons don’t deserve their fates).

Near the close of the play, his wife and mother Jocasta stands on the stage mutely listening as Oedipus bullies an old shepherd in telling him the truth of Oedipus’s origins.

As he undergoes his anagnorisis, the agonizing recognition of his horrible situation, Jocasta runs off stage to hang herself.

Someone called “Second Messenger” fills us in in Dudley Fitts’ and Robert Fitzgerald’s translation:

When she had left us,
In passionate silence, passing through the court,
She ran to her apartment in the house,
Her hair clutched by the fingers of both hands.
She closed the doors behind her; then, by that bed
Where long ago the fatal son was conceived—
That son who should bring about his father’s death–
We heard her call upon [Oedipus’s father]Laius, dead so many years,
And heard her wail for the double fruit of her marriage,
A husband by her husband, children by her child [. . .]

[. . .] For with a dreadful cry
[Oedipus] hurled his weight, as though wrenched out of himself,
At the twin doors: the bolts gave, and he rushed in.
And there we saw her hanging, her body swaying
From the cruel cord she had noosed about her neck.
A great sob broke from him, heartbreaking to hear,
As he loosed the rope and lowered her to the ground.

I would blot out from my mind what happened next!
For the King ripped from her gown the golden brooches
That were her ornament, and raised them, and
plunged them down
Straight into his own eyeballs, crying, “No more.
No more shall you look on the misery about me,
The horrors of my own doing! Too long you have known
The faces of those whom I should never have seen,
Too long been blind to those whom I was searching!
From this hour, go in darkness!” And as he spoke.
He struck at his eyes—not once, but many times;
And the blood spattered his beard.
Bursting from his ruined sockets like red hail.

Othello

Of course, in Shakespeare we have several suicides from which to choose — Romeo and Juliet, Ophelia, Cleopatra — but I opt for Othello, who has just strangled to death his innocent bride Desdemona after having been cruelly convinced by the sociopath Iago that Desdemona had been unfaithful with Othello’s friend and confidant Cassio.

Here’s Othello’s great suicide speech.

Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.
[Stabs himself].

Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina

mqdefaultEmma Bovary and Anna Karenina might be considered the great-great grandmothers of Edna Pontellier, but they’re so much more alive, so much richer creations that their suicides, the first by poisoning herself, the second by throwing herself in front of a train, move us more — and they are certainly more terrible.

Here’s Emma’s in Paul De Man’s translation:

Suddenly from the pavement outside came the loud noise of wooden shoes and the clattering of a stick; and a voice rose — a raucous voice — that sang

Often the heat of a summer’s day
Makes a young girl dream her heart away.

Emma raised herself like a galvanized corpse, her hair streaming, her eyes fixed staring.

To gather up all the new-cut stalks
Of wheat left by the scythe’s cold swing.
Nanette bends over as she walks
Toward the furrows from whence they spring.

“The blind man!” she cried.

And Emma began to laugh, an atrocious, frantic, desperate laugh, thinking she saw the hideous face of the poor wretch loom out of the eternal darkness like a menace.

The wind blew very hard that day
It blew her petticoat away.

A final spasm threw her back on the mattress. They all drew near. She had ceased to exist.

Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov

drawing by Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin

drawing by Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin

Of course, with its happy ending, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is not a tragedy. However, its supposed villain Svidrigailov’s suicide near the end of the narrative is so incredibly cool it makes my top six.

Svidrigailov has reached hedonism’s dead end, has been rejected by Dounia, the protagonist’s sister, and finds himself in a mouse-infested flop house suffering through one of the greatest nightmares ever conceived and rendered.(Here, Henry James’s admonition, “Tell a dream, lose a reader,” is proven false).

A description of Svidrigailov’s last few minutes from Constance Garnet’s translation:

“I’ve had nightmare all night!” He got up angrily, feeling utterly shattered; his bones ached. There was a thick mist outside and he could see nothing. It was nearly five. He had overslept himself! He got up, put on his still damp jacket and overcoat. Feeling the revolver in his pocket, he took it out and then he sat down, took a notebook out of his pocket and in the most conspicuous place on the title page wrote a few lines in large letters. Reading them over, he sank into thought with his elbows on the table. The revolver and the notebook lay beside him. Some flies woke up and settled on the untouched veal, which was still on the table. He stared at them and at last with his free right hand began trying to catch one. He tried till he was tired, but could not catch it. At last, realising that he was engaged in this interesting pursuit, he started, got up and walked resolutely out of the room. A minute later he was in the street.

“What do you want here?” [a soldier] said, without moving or changing his position.
“Nothing, brother, good morning,” answered Svidrigailov.
“This isn’t the place.”
“I am going to foreign parts, brother.”
“To foreign parts?”
“To America.”
“America.”
Svidrigailov took out the revolver and cocked it. Achilles raised his eyebrows.
“I say, this is not the place for such jokes!”
“Why shouldn’t it be the place?”
“Because it isn’t.”
“Well, brother, I don’t mind that. It’s a good place. When you are asked, you just say he was going, he said, to America.”
He put the revolver to his right temple.
“You can’t do it here, it’s not the place,” cried Achilles, rousing himself, his eyes growing bigger and bigger.
Svidrigailov pulled the trigger.

Quentin Compson

Too bad Treme’s Creighton Bernette wasn’t teaching The Sound and the Fury instead of The Awakening because pathetic, doomed Quentin Compson’s self-drowning would add some literary heft to Bernette’s own pathetic situation. Interestingly enough, although fictional, Quentin has a commemorative plaque on the Anderson Bridge over the Charles River that reads

186868_m“QUENTIN COMPSON
Drowned in the odour of honeysuckle.
1891-1910”

Here’s the first paragraph of the Quentin Section:

When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight oclock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciatingly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.

This is Quentin’s last day. He wrenches the hands from this watch that once belonged to General Compson, CSA, but the watch keeps ticking.

Here is the last paragraph:

The last note sounded. At last it stopped vibrating and the darkness was still again. I entered the sitting room and turned on the light. I put my vest on. The gasoline was faint now, barely noticeable, and in the mirror the stain didn’t show. Not like my eye did, anyway. I put on my coat. Shreve’s letter crackled through the cloth and I took it out and examined the address, and put it in my side pocket. Then I carried the watch into Shreve’s room and put it in his drawer and went to my room and got a fresh handkerchief and went to the door and put my hand on the light switch. Then I remembered I hadn’t brushed my teeth, so I had to open the bag again. I found my toothbrush and got some of Shreve’s paste and went out and brushed my teeth. I squeezed the brush as dry as I could and put it back in the bag and shut it, and went to the door again. Before I snapped the light out I looked around to see if there was anything else, then I saw that I had forgotten my hat. I’d have to go by the postoffice and I’d be sure to meet some of them, and they’d think I was a Harvard Square student making like he was a senior. I had forgotten to brush it too, but Shreve had a brush, so I didn’t have to open the bag any more.

Lots of, if not most, people try to avoid tragic works because of the reasonable idea that the world is so full of woe — ISIS, Ebola, tornadoes, head-on collisions, etc. However, in great tragedies like Oedipus and Lear we can take solace in our shared humanity with these great figures, our shared woe. Antigone is my sister and Hamlet my brother. After hanging out with them, I can agree with Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god!

 

Bang Endings

Barry-White-Soul-SeductionA while back, I posted a piece called “First Impressions,” which celebrated killer opening sentences from various novels like [cue Barry White] this here delicious, obsessive echo chamber of a love song from Mr Baddass himself, Влади́мир Влади́мирович Набо́ков:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

However, as Franz Kafka once told me, “Starten eines Roman ist eine verdammt viel einfacher, als Abschluss einer“* so I decided to lay 5 of my favorite closing lines on you, lines that rat-a-tat-tat the novels’ themes in sound and sense. (BTW, the actual quotes themselves should be read aloud).

*Starting a novel is a helluva lot easier than finishing one.


1. The Sound and the Fury: “The broken flower drooped over Ben’s fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene again as cornice and façade flowed smoothly once more from left to right, post and tree, window and doorway and signboard each in its ordered place.”

If Mr. Faulkner were employed by SparkNotes, he might “summarize” that last sentence like this: A description of Benjy — christened Maury — Compson, idiot grandson of the Confederate General patriarch of that fallen family, the drooping and broken flower an emblem of Ben’s beloved lost sister’s honor, Maury/Benjamin just having gone apeshit because the black tween servant Luster had swung the wagon bearing the family on their ritualistic visit to the grave of General Compson’s alcoholic son Jason Sr. to the left of the monument, provoking sounds of ”horror; shock; agony eyeless, tongueless, just sound,” from the that thirty-three-year-old with the mind-of-a-three-year-old, bellowing until the “only sane” Compson brother, Jason Jr., catches the reins to swing the horse Queenie in the opposite direction, calming Benjy, the sentence itself capsuling the fall of the House of Compson, the disappearance of the Old South, its doomed fetish for tradition.

joyce mainUlysses: O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down Jo me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Riding the rapids of Mrs. Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness as she contemplates her hubby Leopold, heroic cuckold, who has come home again, home again, jiggedy jig, and who lies in bed next to her, his feet facing the headboard and his head facing the footboard, and what can you say to the life-affirming ending of that concluding sentence but yes sir ree bob tail– Yes!

Y’all ready now for a slow dance?

The portrait of Abert Camus by Haeree Choi

The portrait of Abert Camus by Haeree Choi

3. The Stranger: For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.

Mon Dieu, is smoking a cigarette during the absurd ritual of sitting up all night with your mother’s corpse or having casual sex the night after her funeral so wrong? How absurd! These acts by our narrator Meursault seem to shock his all-white Algerian jury more than the offing of a mere native (which in Colonial Africa is tantamount to jaywalking).  You might say that Meursault’s jail sentence has been a Godsend – i.e., you might say that if he didn’t exist in an arid, godless abyss of a universe — but the good news is that in the fleeting ever disappearing now in which he types the concluding paragraph, he has discovered that he and the indifferent universe are one. OM.

4. The Sun Also Rises: A taxi came up the street, the waiter hanging out at the side. I tipped him and told the driver where to drive, and got in beside Brett. The driver started up the street. I settled back. Brett moved close to me. We sat close against each other. I put my arm around her and she rested against me comfortably. It was very hot and bright, and the houses looked sharply white. We turned out onto the Gran Via.

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”fiesta-sun-also-rises-ernest-hemingway-paperback-cover-art

Who knows if Viagra would have worked on narrator Jake Barnes. Did his war injury render him a gelding or sever his penis? No crisp declarative sentences answer those questions. Certainly, as a man Jake is the opposite of what the vulgar call “dickless.”  Whatever, all I really care about is that mounted policeman raising his baton is an invaluable tool in convincing skeptical students that phallic symbols aren’t perverse illusions engendered by English teachers’ diseased minds .

5. “Midnight Rambler”: I’ll stick my knife right down your throat, baby, and it hurts!

Okay, as Condoleezza Rice’s and Colonel Kurtz’s lovechild might say, “Strictly speaking, ‘Midnight Rambler’ isn’t exactly a novel, but it is a narrative, sort of, and this post is getting too long, and goddammit, that last line of the Stones’ classic absolutely nails the sound and sense of the sort of narrative, and it‘s literally “killer”, so fuck you and your rigid mind-forged manacles.”  

Let_it_Bleed