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Let Us Now Praise Famous Suicides

Suicide has gotten a bad rap.  In our culture of endless imbecile optimism, the culture of self-help and medicated despair, we have lost respect for the suicide.  For my part, I have on a few bad nights thought of suicide but never seriously; more contemplatively, as in: death is of course the other half of our equation, a partner always growing stronger. I have a pistol here at home: how to use it effectively?  In the temple?  Or up through the palate, directly into the brain?  Coward thoughts because anodyne, without the context of real pain – you haven’t lived the long deaths of places like Iraq, the Congo, Colombia…the murmurings of one who’d like to have this balls-out vision of death and reflect on it as if it were cake.

Still, to call the suicide a coward is an insult. The suicide enters the greatest unknown in human history.  He steps willfully toward an abyss that the priests and philosophers build gossamer webs to conceal.  Schopenhauer writes that suicide is the last act of a free man. Such a freedom is not to be dismissed. The prison, the county jail, the merest municipal lock-up confiscates the tie and shoe-lace of the incarcerated to curb this final freedom – implicit in the lock-down of a man is that suicide is indeed his last act of full agency, therefore it must be thwarted.

Suicide as ultimate freedom is excised from the popular discussion. When Hemingway pointed a shotgun into his mouth, the observers demanded ‘What went wrong?’ and few asked what went right. Can we fault a man, such a man who has loved the joys of the body, for his despair at the failing of the body while the mind putters on, horrified at the situation? Hunter S. Thompson in 2005 also killed himself with a shotgun for similar reasons.  A hero of mine, a figure who was to me I.F. Stone and Lincoln Steffens on acid, someone to follow into the breach. And even among the publications that Thompson might once have been proud in which to publish there was the unspoken trope that here was a tragedy, darkness upon literary journalism, a moment for hesitation at the “irrationality” of the event.

Yet Thompson went with clear eyes.  “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67,” he wrote in a letter to his wife four days before he killed himself. “That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won’t hurt.”     The living presume so much about these dead, about the shape and meaning of a death whose math is incalculable and has no shape beyond our imaginings.  Death as circus act, or strip-tease, or blog.

My father is 69.  He demands, in subtle ways and never serious, that I shoot him in the head with one of our shared pistols if he gets to the vegetable point, drooling on himself, stuck to machines – to the point, that is, where he is no longer, as both of us understand it, a man of agency.  I tell him, “Dad, I can’t kill you.” (It’s against the law – goddamn, who makes these laws that say that I can’t kill my own father…if this is the thing to be done….)

My father imparted to me at a very young age the joyfulness and irreverence of atheism, which came with the caveat of a high moral order.  A moral fiber as intense as a lightning storm and based on nothing more than a social instinct, something like Kant’s categorical imperative without the thousands of pages of bullshit.  That is: I’m five years old and I steal double-A batteries from a hardware store in Brooklyn, and he quickly finds out and kicks the living shit out of me (not really – a spanking that felt like a kicking). Ditto when a year later I try to drop a flower pot on the head of a friend outside my window.  Message is clear: 1) no stealing; 2) don’t hurt other people.  The only two moments when my father physically struck me.

In that moral order from my father there was later developed, implicitly, the idea that at some point your body is no longer worth keeping to feed on the planet.  That death is final and should be embraced and accepted as such and may possibly be a good thing.  Someday, I hope to have the guts to kill myself, if it should come to that (I hope it doesn’t!).  I know several people who are slowly suiciding themselves through mortgages, home ownership, prescription drugs, monogamy, insomnia, alcohol, work, perversions of marriage (“ohhnlee yooo” as the song goes), the ressentiment of ambition, the silence of resignation.  Better to leap than to slouch thus toward Bethlehem.

CHRISTOPHER KETCHAM, a freelance writer, lives in Brooklyn and Moab, Utah. His work can be found at www.christopherketcham.com

 

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Christopher Ketcham is the author of the forthcoming “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West,” out in July 2019 from Viking-Penguin.  He can be reached at cketcham99@mindspring.com.

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