‘Relax, it won’t hurt’

Great literary minds have shown ordinary people the way to imagine, dream and hope. Their works have captured people’s way of life as well as influenced people’s thinking. Among those writers, surprisingly, many have lost hope and purpose of life, ultimately logging off from this world voluntarily. Shaikha Shuhada Panzeree explores a few such writers and endeavours to chisel out reasons behind their decisions.  

News report on Ernest Hemingway's death.

News report on Ernest Hemingway’s death.

AS I passed about two years as an English literature student at the university, my mother was certain that literature has driven me mad. It was not entirely the case. The comparatively open and accepting environment of the university had only made me more expressive. The case was that as an introvert teenager failing or unwilling to keep up with the cool kids, I used to confide in books way before I took literature as a subject of study. The madness started then.

I ate Humayun Ahmed, and swallowed Saratchandra, chewed everything else that came the way. The result — a girl divided in two centuries, who fancied herself to be Humayun’s Rupa, also fancied being Saratchandra’s Bijaya to Naren. In later days, I preferred being Martha the mad woman over Jane the angelic woman from Jane Eyre (Read The Madwoman in the Attic by Gilbert and Gubar if you want). But, for writers to create such worlds for readers, to present us with countless avenues of life to find, to hide or to grow ourselves in, how much of a toll does it take, what does it claim in return?

What if it claims life, it leaves them dead, or living dead? Over the ages, from the ancient to the modern era, hundreds of writers have taken their own lives. Depression has always been the one common thread in most of those suicides. Some have lost their belief in god, in society, in their nationalism, some simply got bored with the way of the world. Is it because they dived too deeply in? What if ignorance is really bliss in the truest sense, in the purest way? Does creativity cost one high? Research says it does! A study conducted by Karolinska Institute, a medical university at Sweden, with information of 1.2 million patients, presented a claim that writers with medical conditions as depression, alcohol abuse, schizophrenic disorder and suicidal tendencies are twice likely to commit suicide than regular patients of the same problems! Words weigh. Words weigh heavily.

Sylvia Plath with her husband Ted Hughes.

Sylvia Plath with her husband Ted Hughes.

We shall talk about a few enigmatic writers from those few hundreds, who, despite having it all as the world saw, despite leaving extraordinary words behind for generations to follow- they themselves lost the purpose of life.

‘The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.’

Ernest Hemingway                 

Leaving behind legendary literary works as The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms and many short stories, Hemingway was an enigmatic personality. Every American man’s the then idol, every woman’s man of dreams! His prosaic language was neatly expressive. He was one of those gifted writers who had no use for wordiness. Hemingway gave to us – love, war, nature!

His life was as colourful as it could be, at least to naked eyes. An adventure-loving, daring wild spirit who did everything from fighting a war to chugging alcohol to loving women, making use of life’s little pleasures to the fullest! Also, did I mention how ridiculously handsome of a man he was, even in his old age?

But, one morning, he woke up, made it to the storage room, picked a double-barrel shotgun which he used for shooting pigeons, and took a blow to his head. His then wife, Mary, was in such a shock by the event, that even months after, she could not come to terms with the suicide of her husband. She firmly believed it was an accident. It was only after the period of shock had ended that she confirmed the case of suicide.

Why though? Why such a perfect man with a perfect life would resort to death? To pick up some clues, one may take notice of the recurring theme of death, suicide, violence or destruction in his writings. It was evidently undeniable that Hemingway had an obsession with death, which has been the encouragement behind a lot of his writings. The obsession probably started with the suicide of his father Clarence, when Hemingway was a young man of 29. His old man shot himself in the head too, just like he did! People believe that his father’s suicide roughly impacted his psyche.

A mental unrest followed him throughout his life. He hated his mother and feared his disciplinarian father. Unstable friendships were common. He sunk consciously into nothingness. To quote Hemingway, ‘He knew he himself was nothing, and he knew death was nothing. He knew that truly, as truly as he knew anything.’

‘Lord, how unutterably disgusting life is! What dirty tricks it plays us, one moment free; the next, this. Here we are among the breadcrumbs and the stained napkins again.’

Virginia Woolf

Uncountable words, immeasurable depression, one Virginia Woolf. Her life is a story of loss and agony.

Not many female writers of her time penned so many works of fiction and nonfiction, not many men of her time did either. She was deeply moved by the surrounding. The First World War left her with a scar for a lifetime. The atrocities of human beings, failing social structure, failing human relationships affected her irreparably. While her contemporary writers showcased the modernist individualism and the fall of an ideal world, like that of Huxley’s Brave New World which depicts a dystopia, Woolf relentlessly believed in the need for goodness and harmony.

A goodwill ambassador for women’s education and freedom, she wrote A Room of One’s Own which explored the existence of women as writers and as characters in men’s fiction. She focused on the need for women’s space as writers in the male dominated writers’ arena. Her famous fiction works, To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway are taught at the universities as valuable pieces of literature till date.

But then verdict was given that this wonder woman put heavy stones in the pockets of her coat, and drowned herself in the River Ouse at Lewes. The gradual loss of dear ones, first her mother at the age of 13, then one of her half-brothers Thoby, then her father, the two world wars, her house being bombed by the Germans et cetera all over the span of her lifetime had fuelled the apparently unstoppable depression in her. Her husband Leonard’s immense love, support and care kept her going. Leonard, despite being a reason for her happiness, could not stop her from death. In her death note she claimed, ‘Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again… And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do.’

‘At each of the noon, one by one, the ideal men expire’ (এক-একটা দুপুরে একএকটা পরিপূর্ণ জীবন অতিবাহিত য়ে যায় যেন)

Jibanananda Das

The melancholy man, a Bengali poet and educationist who gifted his readers with simply too many treasures! Any Bengali person knows about Banalata Sen — peaceful sheltering eyes, intoxicating hair, an ancient Bengali beauty, not real yet no less than absolute reality, Jibanananda’s creation. She is an epitome of love, the long-awaited beloved a man keeps to be in continuous search for. This masterful player of words gave us poems like ‘Bodh’, ‘Akashneela’, ‘Kuri Bachhar Pare’ and many more masterpieces.

Suicide note of Virginia Woolf to her husband.

Suicide note of Virginia Woolf to her husband.

Jibanananda loved nature. Many of his poems, mainly from Dhusar Pandulipi, paint a surreal picture of it while referring to his wish of finding solace and shelter in nature. The flowing rivers, soothing breeze, setting sun were his constant company. Another naturalist one may say! More than any of that, he talked about death and about life, time and again, tirelessly. He looked for the meaning or the meaninglessness of either of them.

He was a poet all right, as much of a poet as one can be. His words can reach the very core of a lost soul, stir up emotions that no living person would be capable of fathoming. ‘Aat Bachhar Ager Ek Din’ has to be one such poem that ignites severe macabre thoughts in one. The poem talks of a man, with love, happiness and worldly fulfilment, to be dead. For the man, death was the desire, ‘A woman’s heart – love – children – home – are not all; | Not money, not success, not solvency – | Some perilous wonder | Plays within our blood: | It tires us | Tires – tires us | In the morgue | There’s no such tiredness; | So, in the morgue | He lies on his back on the table.’

Thus were the macabre thoughts of Jibanananda who only opened up with his words and not to people. This rather calm and collected man is believed to have committed suicide jumping under a moving a tram.

Writers as such, each of them, are bewildering stories. We have seen great minds like Walter Benjamin, an extraordinary literary critic and full-on Marxist to commit suicide. He experienced depressive phases as he had to flee from Germany, his own country, and live in exile in Paris, because he was a Jew and opposed Nazi ideology out loud. He swallowed enough morphine tablets to die from it. Depression or a sense of failure caused from such political issues resulted in death of quite a few writers. Yukio Mishima, considered to be one of the significant 20th century Japanese writers, committed seppuku – suicide by voluntary disembowelment. Mishima was a nationalist and failed to convince the soldiers with his speech after he invaded a section of Japan’s self-defence forces. Primo Levi and Vladimir Mayakovsky are on that list too!

And when it comes to women writers, in opposition to such a small number of them, their suicide rate is quite high. Sylvia Plath, the talented poet, who had potentials of going a long way, took her life at the age of 30. She was distraught by her overshadowing husband, poet and writer Ted Hughes, and also by his disloyalty to their marriage. Plath put her head into an oven and gassed herself. Years after, Hughes’ second wife after Plath, would commit suicide the same way.

Anne Sexton, a real pretty woman, more than that, a real brainy woman! She won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her book Live or Die. Bagging such huge achievement did not help with her mania and depression. She killed herself by carbon monoxide poisoning. Sara Shagufta, a Pakistani poet, was known for her powerful poems. Lifelong struggle with family background and marital life made Shagufta mentally ill which required staying at asylums. Shagufta is believed to have thrown herself under a train. She wrote in a poem, ‘My sorrows; thy name is child.’

Among the suicide notes that I got to read, one of the boldest and right directly on point was that by Hunter S. Thompson. He wrote, ‘No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. 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.’

These stories are endless. Becoming a writer or experiences that make someone a writer must take a high toll on these beautiful mechanics of the imaginary, philosophical or political world. After all, saying what we feel, or we truly believe, if opposed or unaccepted by convention, is a struggle and putting them into words makes it slightly bit easier.

Shaikha Shuhada Panzeree is a member of the New Age Youth team.

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