Whenever a rich and successful person commits suicide, it calls into question much of what our culture holds dearest. I see it written in the glum faces of my fellow subway riders: “If money, fame, recognition, even adulation, do not provide a life rich with pleasure and validation, will anything?” In his tribute to DFW, David Lipsky of NPR responds to his own empty analogy by posing an intelligent question: “When someone very gifted takes their own life, it’s like the best student dropping out of high school. There’s the tragedy, but it’s set in a particular and personal fear: What are they seeing that we don’t?” That it’s a tragedy is regarded as given, here. For whom is it a tragedy: the student, or the school? His own question poses the very mystery surrounding such an act–that, possibly because we are too stupid ourselves, we cannot see what may be very real reasons for “dropping out.”
I for one am not inclined to view suicide in such simple terms: as a “tragedy,” or a “loss.” Certainly it is a loss for us, but are we really so selfish as to demand that a person tortured to the end of sanity remain around for our own sporadic uplifting? I assume not. As far as “tragedy” goes, I find it insulting to DFW to assume that, as brilliant as he was, and as much as we valued him for this, he was not able to make a reasonable decision for himself. Perhaps it was not the right decision–but that is not for me to judge. It was his decision, not mine, and not anybody else’s. It’s meaningless to speculate what his reasons were, but we do owe him an effort to not let his death be written off as simply “unfortunate,” or “a tragedy.” It’s difficult for any society to imagine that it might have pushed one of its finest members to suicide, but given the nature of his work, I think we ought to do him the justice of trying to understand him, and not assume that it was mere sadness that drove him away.
In DFW’s interview on NPR (which Jared posted in the last entry), he is asked to think about why something that is supposed to give pleasure can simply create anxiety. He responds that it has “something to do with being raised in a society where the ultimate value is, let’s see… You make a lot of money, and you have a really attractive spouse, or you get infamous or famous in some way, so that it’s a life where you basically experience as much pleasure as possible. Which ends up being sort of empty and low-calorie…This came as something of an epiphany to us, at around age 30, sitting around talking about why on earth we were so miserable when we’d been so lucky.” Continue reading