Is suicide contagious? I'm afraid the answer is yes.
In the last two weeks, the poet Deborah Digges and the painter Darragh Park joined David Foster Wallace and Tom Disch among the noteworthy writers and artists who have taken their own lives in the last year. In 2007 we lost Sarah Hannah, Liam Rector, and Landis Everson. There must be others. I write with full compassion for them and for the people they left behind.
I've heard from a number of friends, off line and off the record, who are distressed by what seems to be an epidemic. They have asked me to address the question head on, as I haven't done in this space.
We who teach have, I believe, a special responsibility to the young people who come to us for tutelage, support, and advice. We must do all we can to remove the false glamor that may enshroud an act of self-slaughter. Suicide is not romantic. Madness is not glamorous. The suffering that leads someone to jump off a bridge or take a lethal dose of poison is unbearably painful. There is nothing ennobling about the act. There is not even any guarantee that a violent death at one's own hands will amount to what W. H. Auden called, in his poem about Icarus, "an important failure." And let no one minimize the distress and damage that the premature death causes for the children, the parents, the families, the friends, the students and the teachers who will go on living albeit with a new burden of consciousness.
There is a line in Paul Valery's great poem, "Le Cimetiere marin": Il faut tenter de vivre. It is not an easy line to translate. But it should be as well-known among us as the last line of Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo." Rilke wrote: You must change your life. Valery: You must try to live.
-- DL [April 22, 2009]