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Posts Tagged ‘suicide’

Almond Joy

April 28, 2015 | by

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From a 1905 sheet-music cover.

“That parrot,” he said at last. “You know something? It had me completely fooled when I first saw it through the window. I could have sworn it was alive.” “Alas, no longer.” “It’s most terribly clever the way it’s been done,” he said. “It doesn’t look in the least bit dead. Who did it?” “I did.” “You did?” “Of course,” she said. “And have you met my little Basil as well?” She nodded toward the dachshund curled up so comfortably in front of the fire. Billy looked at it. And suddenly, he realized that this animal had all the time been just as silent and motionless as the parrot. He put out a hand and touched it gently on the top of its back. The back was hard and cold, and when he pushed the hair to one side with his fingers, he could see the skin underneath, grayish black and dry and perfectly preserved. “Good gracious me,” he said. “How absolutely fascinating.” He turned away from the dog and stared with deep admiration at the little woman beside him on the sofa. “It must be most awfully difficult to do a thing like that.” “Not in the least,” she said. “I stuff all my little pets myself when they pass away. Will you have another cup of tea?” “No, thank you,” Billy said. The tea tasted faintly of bitter almonds, and he didn’t much care for it. “You did sign the book, didn’t you?” “Oh, yes.” “That’s good. Because later on, if I happen to forget what you were called, then I could always come down here and look it up. I still do that almost every day with Mr. Mulholland and Mr. … Mr. …” “Temple,” Billy said, “Gregory Temple. Excuse my asking, but haven’t there been any other guests here except them in the last two or three years?” Holding her teacup high in one hand, inclining her head slightly to the left, she looked up at him out of the corners of her eyes and gave him another gentle little smile. “No, my dear,” she said. “Only you.” —Roald Dahl, “The Landlady”

We all know that cyanide tastes like almonds. If something is almond-y, and you’re somewhere sinister, well, mister, look out! You’ve been poisoned. I first learned this from the Dahl story cited above–or, more accurately, from the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents based on the story. 

But generally, one assumes, writers only know this themselves via hearsay. They know—like the rest of us—that cyanide smells like “bitter almonds.” As one article explains it, “in murder mysteries, the detective usually diagnoses cyanide poisoning by the scent of bitter almonds wafting from the corpse.” In its pure form, cyanide apparently does have an almond-like scent—and this makes sense, since the toxin is found in the wild form of the nut. Read More »

Broken on the Wheel

March 13, 2015 | by

A gruesome legal case turned Voltaire into a crusader for the innocent.

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The death of John Calas, depicted in an English chapbook.

This article was reported and written by Ken Armstrong for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal-justice system.

On the night of October 13, 1761, cries rang from the shop of Jean Calas, a cloth merchant who lived and worked in the commercial heart of Toulouse, in the South of France. The eldest of Calas’s six children, Marc-Antoine, a moody, handsome man who was fond of billiards and gambling, had just been found dead. The family said he had been murdered—perhaps stuck with a sword by someone who slipped into the darkened boutique from the cobblestone street.

A crowd gathered outside the front door as investigators were summoned. A doctor and two surgeons, called to examine the body, found only a “livid mark on the neck.” They signed a report refuting the family’s account of some intruder with a blade, concluding that Marc-Antoine, twenty-nine, had been “hanged whilst alive, by himself or by others.”

Those last five words, “by himself or by others,” began an enduring mystery and a true cause célèbre, one that might have been the “crime of the century” for the 1700s had the cliché been in use back then. Voltaire, the philosopher, dramatist and propagandist—“the greatest amuser of his age” and the greatest polemicist—became obsessed with the case, and for years worked to eradicate what he considered to be a stain on his country, church, and courts.

Finally, a panel of forty judges sat in Paris to hear the case against Calas once again. The verdict they issued, 250 years ago this week, “echoed and re-echoed” in Europe and beyond. Voltaire, by appealing directly to the people, helped established the power of public opinion as a tool to fight injustice. To some legal scholars, the infamous case also marked the first stirrings of the global movement to end capital punishment. Read More »

Who Shot Van Gogh? and Other News

November 19, 2014 | by

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Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrait of Van Gogh, 1887.

  • Mark Twain’s career as an author began at a place called Jackass Hill, a boomtown gone bust where, in the local tavern, he heard the story that would become “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” “[I] turned my attention to seriously scribbling to excite the laughter of God’s creatures,” Twain wrote. “Poor, pitiful business!”
  • Today in terrifyingly ambiguous headlines: “Family’s agony over when to tell mother her premature babies died while she was in a coma after she woke up.”
  • “O to sail to sea in a ship!” Walt Whitman inspired many things—one of them, it turns out, was a logo.
  • Was Van Gogh … murdered? Conventional wisdom has it that he shot himself, but the facts don’t really support his suicide. “What kind of a person, no matter how unbalanced, tries to kill himself with a shot to the midsection? And then, rather than finish himself off with a second shot, staggers a mile back to his room in agonizing pain from a bullet in his belly?”
  • “I sometimes see science like art. People don’t necessarily see the connections to how it makes their lives better—this is not going to give them a better toaster, or something like that—but there is this feeling, just like with art, that this is important in some way. It is worth expending vital resources on, whether it’s tax money or people’s focus. It just feels worthwhile to do.” What we talk about when we talk about landing spacecrafts on comets.

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Final Chapter

October 16, 2014 | by

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A portrait of Kleist from Die Gartenlaube, 1858.

On November 21, 1811, the writer Heinrich von Kleist shot his beloved, the terminally ill Henriette Vogel, and then himself, on the banks of Kleiner Wannsee. The innkeeper who housed them the night before described the couple, thirty-four and thirty-one, as cheerful and voluble; Kleist wrote in a final letter to his sister that he viewed death with “inexpressible serenity.” Although controversial, troubled, and financially unsuccessful in his day, he went on to achieve a monumental posthumous reputation and is today regarded as one of the finest writers—playwright, philosopher, and novelist—in the German canon.

Vogel was herself an accomplished intellectual. Theirs is one of the most famous suicide pacts in history, but the details are hazy—some accounts say the suicide was her idea, others that she wasn’t even his first choice, a theory espoused by the recent film Amour Fou. The exact location of the bodies is unknown.

Because of the nature of their deaths, Kleist and Vogel were denied church burial and were instead interred where they fell, by the lake. An immediate tourist attraction for romantic rubberneckers, the gravesite fell into disrepair for most of the nineteenth century. It was freshened up when Kleist was claimed by late-century nationalists and was commemorated with a large, Nazi-style stone for the 1936 Olympic Games. (The Nazis claimed Kleist as theirs, too, but they had to redo the stone when they discovered they’d accidentally inscribed it with a quote by the Jewish poet Max Ring.)

In 2011, the site was given the grand bicentennial treatment: paths were laid through the nearby woodlands, the area was landscaped, and both Kleist and Vogel were given fresh markers; hers is new, his is the old stone turned 180 degrees and inscribed, once again with the Ring quote: “He lived, sang and suffered / in gloomy and difficult times / he sought death here / and found immortality.” 

The site is easy to visit; it’s on what’s now the southernmost edge of Berlin, a short walk from the S-Bahn Station through the woods. And when the sun shines off the lake and filters through the yellowing branches, it’s heart-catchingly beautiful.

I don’t know any Kleist by heart—one wishes to be the sort of person with reams of quotations at her fingertips in such moments, and I, instead, had to look up what I wanted on my phone. I was thinking of Kleist’s well-known essay “On the Marionette Theatre,” collected in the fabulous On Dolls. These are its closing lines:

“Now, my excellent friend,” said my companion, “you are in possession of all you need to follow my argument. We see that in the organic world, as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively. But just as a section drawn through two lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity, or as the image in a concave mirror turns up again right in front of us after dwindling into the distance, so grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.”

“Does that mean,” I said in some bewilderment, “that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?”

“Of course,” he said, “but that’s the final chapter in the history of the world.”

Going Dark

August 12, 2014 | by

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Detail from Vittorio Reggianini’s A Shocking Announcement

I have been trying for some time now to write this post, but it’s been very hard for me. Not emotionally, I mean—physically. My hands go funny, my vision blurs, my legs get weak, and I start to feel sick. In short, I get woozy. Allow me to explain.

Not that I really can explain; if I do, I’ll pass out. Just this morning, I started to read a review of a film that mentioned the protagonist’s “suicide attempt” and “bandaged wrists” and I felt shaky and had to immediately close the paper and, what is more, put it down the garbage chute so it couldn’t torment me. At least with books, you have some control over these things; to date I have fainted in The Virgin Suicides, Swing Kids, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Sunset Boulevard. With The Three Faces of Eve, Harold and Maude, and Little Miss Sunshine, I managed to get out in time. I also got woozy once in a college history class; we were discussing the death of Seneca.

It sounds funny, until you see it in action. It is never fun to see reason give way to blind panic, nor to have a friend pass out at your feet. Sometimes, before they understand, people will tease me, exploit my weakness—as a result, I usually try not to mention it. (Also, if I talk or think about it, I will get faint.) Like someone with an allergy, I am ever vigilant, but the vigilance has become second nature. I tend to avoid anything that I know for a fact contains a suicide, just in case they do it that way. If I sense one might be coming, I will page ahead or ask a sympathetic friend for a warning. Sometimes, I have to reread or re-watch something because I realize after the fact that my tension and apprehension ruined the experience for me.

I can’t tell you when this started, or why it’s so very specific. There’s the time I spent in the ER waiting room seated across from a girl with bandaged arms, my eyes desperately glued to the television screen on the wall; she must have been okay, but to this day I can’t watch Charles in Charge (not that I’m so wild to). If you want to get mystical about it, there are the generations of family suicide to contend with. I can’t talk to a shrink or a hypnotist about it; I’d faint. Writing this alone has taken me four tries, and a large, sugary iced tea; I’m doing it as a sort of aversion therapy.

Do other people have these sorts of neuroses and aversions? Do they impact your quality of life—and, especially, your ability to enjoy books and movies? I’d love to know how to better cope. For now, I’m going to have to lie down—I’m feeling distinctly faint.

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A Screaming Comes Across the Tongue, and Other News

June 26, 2014 | by

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Paul Klee, Mumon sinkt trunken in den Sessel, 1940.

  • For seven years in the sixties, Dennis Hopper disappeared from Hollywood. What was he doing? Attending the Fonda-Vadim nuptials, hanging around LA’s Love-In, watching Martin Luther King Jr. speak, and photographing all of it.
  • Today in brave souls and/or fool’s errands: “I’m drinking everything mentioned however peripherally in every Pynchon book and jabbering a bit about what it’s like … So what is Chivas Regal like? I’m tempted to say that a screaming comes across the tongue.”
  • Amazon is demanding concessions from publishers that are tantamount to “assisted suicide for the book business” …
  • … And a new, “fiercely independent-minded” book, The Everything Store, reminds of Amazon’s considerably less-incendiary early days: “Bezos hired writers and editors who supplied critical advice about books and tried to emulate on Amazon’s website ‘the trustworthy atmosphere of a quirky independent bookstore with refined literary tastes.’” Years later, these people were replaced by an algorithm called AMABOT, which, given the meaning of amatory, sounds sort of like an animatronic sex doll.
  • But it must be said: “When Anne Campbell of the Open University in Scotland looked at how students used Kindle readers and paper books, she found that the electronic devices promoted more deep reading.”
  • Soon before her seventieth birthday, a woman named Sandy Bem found that her mental faculties had deteriorated enough that she wanted to take her own life—so she planned her suicide with her family. “We looked at the calendar and said, ‘OK, if it’s going to be next week, what day is it going to be?’” her husband said. “I wouldn't have had it any other way,” her daughter said.

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