Cutting straight to the chase without the usual preliminaries, in keeping with the spirit of WEP Lite...
Blind Mole in a Black Hole
To be or not to be, that is the question…
~ Hamlet, William Shakespeare.
Mistakes. Grave ones. Yes, the mind makes them. The shape-shifting wondrous and wondering mind, capable of morphing from a homing pigeon to grasshopper and bulldog, capable of holding the most unimaginable thoughts, the most inexplicable, avantgarde visions, the most speakable and unspeakable ideas – that exact same mind can summersault and do a strange blind-mole-in-black-hole on itself. The same mind, which can drive the body to achieve peak success, can also torment it and goad it to blow its brains out or immolate its living self on a pyre. It can, in one catastrophic, grave moment, destroy its own housing and so annihilate itself.
Suicide - it’s as old and as human as civilisation itself. The first recorded suicide note goes back to 1900 BCE to Ancient Egypt (even this started in Africa, why am I not surprised?) – it is housed in a museum in Berlin and its title translates as The Dispute with His Soul of One Who is Tired of Life. Attitudes to life and death and the taking of life, whether by own hand or by some other means, were different in antiquity – some would call it more callous, some fatalistic, some maybe relaxed. It was not abhorrent in many societies. The pagan world was generally less hassled about suicide than we are now.
For instance, some Ancient Greek states allowed citizens to end their own life with a state sponsored cup of hemlock, if the said citizen dotted the ‘i’s and crossed the ‘t’s correctly in the application form. In general, suicide was frowned upon if it was uneconomic for the society, such as slaves or criminals prior to trial (criminals forfeited their property to the state). But suicide was perfectly acceptable if the alternative was a dishonourable death.
In North Western India, Rajput women followed the practice of Jauhar, a ritual mass immolation, when defeat in battle became inevitable for their menfolk, so as not to be taken alive and abused by the enemy. The first Jauhar is said to date back to Alexander’s time when some north western tribes committed mass suicide to avoid certain capture by him. Similarly insurgent Jews in Masada committed mass suicide rather than face capture and enslavement by the Romans in 74 CE. Famous individual suicides from antiquity include Cleopatra VII and Seneca the Younger.
With the rise of Christianity, attitudes towards suicide hardened and the practice became unacceptable. Suicide became stigmatised. The church excommunicated those who attempted it and the bodies of successful suicides were not permitted burial on consecrated grounds. That started changing again during the Renaissance and by 18th/19th century the cause of suicide had stopped being perceived as sin and instead shifted to insanity, though it remained illegal in most of the world. Suicide was decriminalised in most countries in the 20th century. However, there is still much stigma attached to it.
It is better to burn out than to fade away.
~ Kurt Cobain.
Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, John William Godward, Mark Rothko, Robin Williams, Sushant Singh Rajput. Is there something within the artistic temperament that predisposes it to suicide? Does the creative brain come hardwired with the seeds of its own annihilation? There have been reams of studies out to prove or disprove this premise. No definitive answer, though. What has been established is a connection between mental health and suicidal behaviour. Our understanding of so called ‘insanity’ has deepened. But it has also become equally clear that mental disorders are not the only cause, the reasons are varied and many. We now know that there are signs of suicidal tendencies long before the person takes any definitive action to end life. Suicide prevention is possible if communities are sensitive - they listen and act proactively.
Worldwide, there are around 800,000 lives lost to suicide annually. These are only the recorded deaths, many are suppressed due to the stigma or to avoid legal issues, so likely the actual figures are much higher. A majority are males, it is estimated that twice as many men take their own lives as women. Not all have any history of mental health issues and/or substance abuse, although it is thought that in more than 50% of the cases depression/mental health/drugs have a role. Other causes of suicide include financial distress, romantic and academic/professional disappointments, terminal disease. In nearly all of the cases, the suicide is to avoid the resulting torment rather than to end life per se.
In the last decade or so, suicides among younger people have shown a disturbing, upward trend globally. The current pandemic has created its own horrific spike as well – in India for instance, suicides have risen among the youth in all segments due to job losses and academic uncertainties, for all that the public has been obsessed with the particular high profile suicide of Bollywood celebrity Sushant Singh Rajput recently.
In some ways, a suicide of this kind opens up a whole can of worms about the wider society it happens in. What it has revealed about Indian society is not pretty. What is even more regrettable is that there were hardly any serious conversations on any of the underlying issues, instead the whole spiralled into a misogynistic witch hunt, trial by social media and an avalanche of hashtags.
It is not just the suicidal mind that makes grave mistakes, unfortunately. The mindless public in many cases makes equally grave ones. A picking over of things in which all sense of privacy and decency are lost. Shameful!
Each one of us leaves an unfinished life.
~ Mary Oliver.
But that’s neither here nor there. Because this here is not about an error of the present, but one of the long ago past. A grave mistake that robbed the world of a genius. Whose mistake was it? And how did it come to be made? We still don’t know (WC 1000. FCA.)
...And clearly we still haven’t come to terms with the collective regret, that’s why we keep talking endlessly about it. More than 130 years after the suicide of a then unknown artist, it is still being pondered, researched and written about. There is a never ending stream of books and films and exhibitions, some going on even as you read this.
|Credit : Van Gogh Museum|
This is the last painting the artist did, he worked on it for the day, left it incomplete and shot himself. He died two days later in his room. A farmer found the gun in his field while tilling years later. And the exact spot where he sat painting on that fateful summer day was identified just this year from a postcard.
It is tempting to attribute both Vincent’s creative genius and his ultimate suicide to mental health issues. A climax of crises somehow led to his suicide after his breakdown in Arles. But this is an incomplete assessment. He was always a misfit, always a loner, unable to settle down anywhere – in his relationships with women, in a job, in a place. He was, by the standards of the contemporary 19th century society, a failure - unmarried, his work mostly unrecognised and unsold, dependent on his brother financially, isolated from the community by his nature, stigmatised and ostracised by his neighbours and avoided even by some friends, always apprehensive about the next breakdown.
There is a popularly held view that epilepsy or syphilis or schizophrenia was responsible for his particular artistic vision and frenzied output. This is simply incorrect. Vincent was methodical in his work, he trained painstakingly - from studying other artists' works, in Fernand Cormon's atelier in Paris, before that under his cousin Anton Mauve, a successful artist in the Hague. Most of his canvasses were the execution of well thought out concepts, meticulous in all details. They leave no doubt about his mastery of colours and brushwork. His so called 'madness' prevented him from working, it did not result in a spike in output. His art in most part owed to training and forethought, it had little to do with hallucinations resulting from any mental condition or substance abuse. It is complicated by the fact that mental illness itself was little understood during the 19th century and van Gogh was never conclusively diagnosed.
I feel – a failure – that’s it as regards me – I feel that’s the fate I’m accepting. And which won’t change anymore.
~ Letter to Theo and Jo. 24th May, 1890
Why did he shoot himself? Was it because of his changing relationship with Theo? Because the latter married and Vincent thought he would not be as financially available to support his brother's art as he had been? Or because Vincent was tired of the poverty, the hand-to-mouth existence, desperate at not being able to sell any paintings? Maybe because he felt a breakdown closing in on him again, preventing him from working? Perhaps a combination of all three. Was it an attack of depression? We can only conjecture. What is beyond doubt is that the signs were there, long before that July. The despair, the self harm, the restlessness. Could it have been prevented? Perhaps, if we knew then what we know now.
Thank you for your patience! Read the other entries here.