A spectacle unto the world, and to angels.
Corinthians (IV, 9) in the title and Proverbs (XXX, 18, 19) as the first statement are first and foremost meant to be sequences of a slightly awkward captatio benevolentiae. But there is more to them than that; they actually reflect our fascination for this fifth world wonder: Artistic Creativity. In the following we will meet with poets, men and women whose life was indeed "a spectacle unto the world" but whose (autolytic) death was, in terms of every religion, "a spectacle" to devils rather than "to angels." There was this price they had to pay for their grandeur, psychopathology was in a way, and I am not being ironical, the normal condition of their existential situation. How else might we explain the incidence of severe psychiatric illnesses in each and every case?
Sappho (7th century BC) depressive disorder
Lucan (11/3/39AD-4/30/65AD) depressive disorder
Thomas Chatterton (11/20/1752-8/24/1770) plagiarism, severe melancholia
Heinrich von Kleist (10/18/1777-11/21/1811) depressive disorder
Daniil Scavinski (1795-11/8/1837) hypocondria, depressive disorder
Thomas Lovell Beddoes (6/30/1803-1/26/1849) homosexuality, severe melancholia
Gerard de Nerval (5/22/1808-1/26/1855) duplicity, alcohol abuse, severe melancholia
John Davidson (4/11/1857-3/23/1909) claustrophobia, neurasthenia, manic-depressive illness
Dimitrie Anghel (7/16/1872-11/13/1914) adultery, manic-depressive illness
Vachel Lindsay (11/10/1879-12/3/1931) schizophrenia, epilepsy, paranoia, depressed mood
Sara Teasdale (8/8/1884-1/30/1933) depressed mood
Georg Trakl (2/3/1887-11/3/1914) schizophrenia, incest, alcohol abuse, depressive mood
Marina Tsvetayeva (10/8/1892-8/13/1941) manic-depressive illness
Vladimir Mayakovsky (7/19/1893-4/14/1930) manic-depressive illness
Sergey Esenin (10/3/1895-12/27/1925) alcohol abuse, bigamy, depressive disorder
Benjamin Fondane (11/14/1898-10/3/1944) split personality, depressive disorder
Hart Crane (7/21/1899-4/27/1932) alcohol abuse, homosexuality, paranoia, depressive disorder
Cesare Favese (9/9/1908-8/27/1950) depressive disorder
Randall Jarrell (5/6/1914-10/14/1965) manic depressive illness
Gherasim Luca (7/23/1913-2/9/1994) depressive disorder
Paul Celan (11/23/1920-5/1/1970) paranoia, plagiarism, depressed mood
John Berryman (10/25/1924-1/7/1972) alcohol, drug abuse, epilepsy, depressed mood
Anne Sexton (11/9/1928-10/4/1973) substance abuse, hysteric neurosis, depressive disorder
Sylvia Plath (10/27/1932-2/11/1963) manic-depressive illness
Ion Stratan (10/1/1955-10/19/2005) schizophrenia, drug abuse, depressed mood
Irina Andone (1/10/1968-11/30/1998) manic-depressive illness
George Vasilievici (6/3/1978-4/10/2010) schizophrenia, drug abuse, depressed mood
No comment apart from what follows is needful at this point--or perhaps the interesting occurrence, in two cases (Thomas Chatterton and Paul Celan), of strong suspicions of plagiarism (criminality), reminding us again that creativity and criminality are based on the same mental process ... only that criminality's is presumed to be superior!
But psychopathology was far from being exhausted by the poets proper. Their next-of-kin population was plentifully "blest" with it, as well. Dimitrie Anghel's brother was hospitalized in a psychiatric clinic, and so were John Davidson's brother, Anne Sexton's paternal grandfather and her maternal great aunt. John Berryman's paternal aunt committed suicide and so did his father.
The methods used:
poisoning (Thomas Chatterton, Daniil Scavinski, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Vachel Lindsay, Cesare Favese, Sara Teasdale, Georg Trakl)
hanging (Gerard de Nerval, Marina Tsvetayeva, Sergey Esenin, Irina Andone, George Vasilievici)
shooting (Heinrich von Kleist, Dimitrie Anghel, Vladimir Mayakovsky)
drowning (Sappho, John Davidson, Paul Celan, Hart Crane, Gherasim Luca)
jumping in front of car (Randall Jarrell, John Berryman)
opening veins (Lucan)
stabbing (Ion Stratan)
inhaling domestic gas (Sylvia Plath)
inhaling car exhaust (Anne Sexton)
inhaling cyanide in concentration camp (Benjamin Fondane)
and the prior attempts:
severing a leg artery at 45 (Thomas Lovell Beddoes), poisoning at 8 and shooting in the head at 27 (Georg Trakl), cutting wrists at 16 and poisoning at 32 (Hart Crane), slashing wrists at 41 (Randall Jarrell), jumping in front of train at 16 (John Berryman), taking several overdoses (Anne Sexton), poisoning at 20 (Sylvia Plath)
that are often quoted for sexist commentaries (women would rather have a less harmful, or painful, death; attempted suicide is most common in women, who are not brave enough to go all the way) seem to have no support--which is why I won't go for an alpha bias, assuming that women and men are different in this respect. And neither will this bias work under the sexist circumstances women generally write, finding it more difficult, for example, to get editors and to be given a fair, rather than luke-warm, review by critics and audiences.
married--John Davidson, Dimitrie Anghel, Vachel Lindsay, Marina Tsvetayeva, Benjamin Fondane, John Berryman; divorced--Sara Teasdale, Anne Sexton, Ion Stratan; separated--Sylvia Plath; single--Thomas Chatterton, Heinrich von Kleist, Gerard de Nerval, Georg Trakl, Hart Crane, Cesare Pavese, Irina Andone, George Vasilievici.
John Davidson-2, Vachel Lindsay-2, Marina Tsvetayeva-2, Sergey Esenin-3, John Berryman-2, Anne Sexton-2, Sylvia Plath-2
also show an almost "normal" distribution, by Chi square standards, of men and women, mention having to be made that marriage, unless nonexistent, was in serious trouble.
Four of the suicides were first-borns (Randall Jarrell 1st of 2, John Berryman 1st of 2, Sylvia Plath 1st of 2, Irina Andone 1st of 2), five of them were middle-borns (Heinrich von Kleist 5th of 7, Dimitrie Anghel 3rd of 4, Vachel Lindsay 2nd of 6, Georg Trakl 5th of 6, Benjamin Fondane 2nd of 3), six of them were last-borns (Thomas Chatterton 3rd of 3, John Davidson 4th of 4, Sara Teasdale 4th of 4, Cesare Pavese 2nd of 2, Anne Sexton 3rd of 3, George Vasilievici 2nd of 2), three of them (Gerard de Nerval, Hart Crane, Paul Celan) were only children.
The "birthday blues" phenomenon (dying within weeks of the birthday):
Vachel Lindsay: November 10th--December 3rd the "holiday blues" (dying within days of a national/religious holiday):
Sergey Esenin--December 27th; John Berryman--January 7th; Paul Celan--May 1st; Irina Andone--November 30th.
and, finally, parental death:
Thomas Chatterton losing his father before being born, Thomas Lovell Beddoes losing his father at 5, Gerard de Nerval losing his mother at 2, Dimitrie Anghel losing his mother at 7 and his father at 16, Marina Tsvetayeva losing her mother at 14, Vladimir Mayakovsky losing his father at 13, Cesare Pavese losing his father at 6, Gherasim Luca losing his father at 1, Paul Celan losing his parents in concentration camp, John Berryman losing his father at 11 (suicide), Sylvia Plath losing her father at 8.
help us do away with another prejudice, namely that poets, and artists in general, being of a more sensitive nature than the general population, are symmetrically more liable to negatively experience what is less than dramatically experienced by the general population.
The case of Paul Celan, however, might just as well contradict me. His guilt about his parents' death was mainly caused by the following: 1) he had once a strong argument with them, trying to convince them to leave their house, sensing the danger of staying there anymore; 2) that very day of the argument they were arrested in situ and deported, himself having gone just in time to stay at a different location--so he came to blame himself firstly for not having had the power to convince them then, and secondly for the fact that later he did not do enough to save them.
Another bad case in point is Heinrich von Kleist who experienced many disillusionments in life. Among these the following were crucial: 1) discontent with the military career which he never chose for himself, but was forced on him (he spent seven years in the army); 2) loss of faith in reason, knowledge and man's perceptual and intellectual capacity to reach truth, after reading Immanuel Kant--hence the war between reason and emotion in him lying at the heart of his creative works; 3) expulsion from France, in the context of his attempt to volunteer for the French army; 4) imprisonment for six months by the French on being accused of being a spy; 5) lack of recognition for his works. In this context--which for him was a solid platform for the unfolding of what criticism saw as his "demoniac genius," by whose agency he in poetry and drama anticipated many of the problems in modern life and literature--two more factors intervened to make him lose his survival instinct: 1) for six months he was the editor of the Berliner Abendblatter, a daily periodical; its termination for him meant the loss of any means of financial sustenance; 2) in such financial dire straits, he met Henriette Vogel, a woman who was terminally ill and who begged of him to end her life, and for Kleist this constituted the last straw, the final push towards a final decision to kill himself. And so, on the shores of the Wannsee River, on 21 November 1811, he shot her and then himself.
Devious are the ways of suicides.... Indeed, we have many questions, twice as many hypotheses, and hardly any answers; to top it all, what is seemingly one of the very few certain answers, that this self-inflicted gesture is the ultimate expression of aggressive selfishness, is contradicted by the case of Benjamin Fondane, about whose death we have several versions, all of them being illustrative of... compassionate selflessness. Here are two of them, probably coming closest to the reality of the matter.
The former one holds that he was arrested in the spring of 1944 as a result of some unknown neighbours reporting on his Jewish origin; he was thus held by the Gestapo and subsequently sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, without his family knowing anything about him. When the news of his arrest reached the family and circle of friends, two things happened: 1) Emil Cioran, Stefan Lupascu and Jean Paulhan (and possibly also Eugen Ionescu) intervened on his behalf, justifying that he should be spared deportation because he was married to a Christian woman; 2) his sister Lina decided to search for him--she disappeared, probably caught by the Nazis and also deported and killed (cf. Paul Daniel's reports in the 1978 volume of Fundoianu's poems).
The second account holds that Lina was arrested at about the same time as her brother, or even together with him. Although he had a legal claim for being spared deportation (he had a Christian wife), knowing very well that this kind of justification could not be invoked by his sister, he decided to sacrifice himself in order to not leave her all alone in the hands of the executioners. They were thus both sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau with the same transport and murdered in gas chambers. A variant of this latter account is that Lina was gassed immediately after their arrival, while Benjamin survived in the extermination camp for a few more months, the day of his gassing being 2 or 3 October 1944. If that is correct (as is suggested by reports stating that he made friends with two Jewish physicians, a Dr. Moscovici and a Dr. Klein), then it follows he had time more than enough to feel death inevitably approaching--another report in this sense tells of how the poet was aware of the irony of the situation, what with the Allies approaching more and more a final expected and foreseeable victory. He is reported to have waited for his death in a dignified and courageous way, something in the manner of a martyr, looking death deep into the eyes.
It now remains for me to pin down, in straight, conceptual terms, the possible causes of Benjamin Fondane's (para)suicide: family bond as an eternal given, the provider of the kind of absolute love that goes beyond life and death; family belongingness as a principle that transgresses all borders of life and death and finally finds a solution to personal "no-belongingness," no matter how severe.
Iuliu Hatieganu University of Medicine
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The gallery of cats herein, by Louis Wain (1860-1939), a patient at the Bethlem Hospital for almost two decades, is to be found in the Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives and Museum, Beckenham, Kent, UK.