A week from today marks the sixty-seventh anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s death by suicide. Maxine Kumin has reported that the suicide rate among dentists is higher than it is among writers, but I don’t know the source of her figures. I do know that authors who take their own lives are the object of a special reverence, a reverence not based on the quality of their work alone; and I wonder why. The most recent instance is Sarah Hannah whose posthumous book Inflorescence was published last year. Literary historians tell us that, during the year after the publication of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, hundreds of young men killed themselves. Apparently there is something like a literarily inspired suicide. In the United States, at the height of what has been called the “Confessional “ period, there was almost an epidemic of these: Sylvia Plath, Randall Jarrell (probably), John Berryman, Ann Sexton. A bit later, Thomas James, and then more recently the horrifying death of Reetika Vazirani. And I gather that many poetry students during the late sixties and early seventies took their lives before giving themselves to time to find out what they could do.
Why this morbidity? I don’t know the answer. But it disturbs me, and I wish it weren’t so. I don’t find suicide glamorous. No doubt there are cases of terminal and extraordinarily painful illness where choosing to put an end to suffering is in the best interests of the sufferer. Otherwise, a different solution should be sought. One contribution we could all make is to stop regarding suicide as proof of some extraordinary commitment or passion. Suicidal impulses are the result of mental illness and deserve sympathy and support; but not reverence.
In the period when Woolf died, there were no effective medications and psychotherapy was only rudimentary. We can understand why someone with a history of sexual abuse and recurrent schizophrenic episodes might decide late in life that she could no longer bear to continue, especially when the country that she loved was subject to constant bombing. But the present-day medical and psychotherapeutic climate is not what hers was; we have options that Woolf did not have. Intense emotional pain is treatable, it is not a death sentence.
This blog began with a mention of a new book of critical essays to be published later in the year. One of the essays is about Woolf’s suicide (and I’d like to say the piece was published several years before Michael Cunningham’s The Hours). Here is the concluding paragraph:
“It’s as painful as useless to speculate what Woolf might have gone on to write if the psychological difficulties she struggled with had been better understood in her day so that she could have regained her health and lived. What we can do is at least respect her difficult choice, go with her on that last walk to the river, try to see some of the beauty that she surely saw even then in the landscape, a sky beginning to cloud over, the black silhouette of a bird in the distance. We return accompanied not by her, alas, but by the gritty determination she left for us to take up when she could carry it no longer—to defy, to offer witness. Since her death, new avenues of freedom and well-being have been opened and are readily available. If hers was a sacrifice, it has been made: we need no others.”