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Posts Tagged ‘suicide’

I Tried Always to Do My Best

November 30, 2015 | by

Lucy Maud Montgomery. Photo: KindredSpiritMichael

Should you visit Google today, you’ll find that the daily “doodle” commemorates the birthday of Lucy Maud Montgomery, born November 30, 1874. The animation portrays Montgomery’s most famous creation, the red-haired Anne-with-an-e Shirley, turning green as she cuts into a piece of adulterated cake. (Herein lies my acknowledgment of Cyber Monday—and understand it is not intended as an ad.)

Like so much of Montgomery’s writing, this moment in Anne of Green Gables is heartwarming and gently funny, part of the long journey toward love and acceptance by Anne’s strict guardian, Marilla Cuthbert. These early books—before Anne becomes overly ethereal and perfect and beset with dozens of clamoring suitors—are the best loved, and certainly my favorites. But in her day, all Montgomery’s novels sold well, even less-inspired fare like Kilmeny of the Orchard or the mopey Emily series. By the time of her death the author was a bona fide celebrity, and Mark Twain called Anne “the dearest and most moving and delightful child since the immortal Alice.” Read More »

Hey, Are You Really Dead? And Other News

November 30, 2015 | by

Christian Eisenbrandt’s 1843 design for a “life-preserving coffin,” with breathing holes and an easy-open lid, to be used in the case of the doubtful dead.

  • Primo Levi died in 1987, after he tumbled over a railing in his apartment building in Turin. The consensus held that this was a suicide, but the publication of The Complete Works of Primo Levi has, at least in some quarters, renewed the debate. Tim Parks has chosen his side: “The three biographers—Ian Thomson, Carole Angiers, and Myriam Anissimov—who worked intensely on Levi’s life, interviewing most of those who knew him, all speak of his suicide as fact. The police on the scene concluded that the death could only have been suicide, this for the simple reason that one does not take a ‘tumble over a railing’ in a Turin apartment block … Given that Levi’s instinct was always to encourage the reader to confront the hardest of facts and not take refuge in any comfort zone, we owe it to him to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence of the way he died. His suicide does not diminish his work or his dignity.”
  • While we’re on matters of life and death—when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she drew on a fierce and as-yet unresolved debate between two surgeons, John Abernethy and William Lawrence, about the blurry boundary between the living and the dead: “Questions were asked about how to define life, and how living bodies were different to dead or inorganic bodies. Abernethy argued that life did not depend upon the body’s structure, the way it was organized or arranged, but existed separately as a material substance, a kind of vital principle, ‘superadded’ to the body. His opponent, Lawrence, thought this a ridiculous idea and instead understood life as simply the working operation of all the body’s functions, the sum of its parts. Lawrence’s ideas were seen as being too radical: they seemed to suggest that the soul, which was often seen as being akin to the vital principle, did not exist either.”
  • Today in Propaganda for Kids™: in China, publishing for children is still geared to less-than-subtle ends. “Parents and the state still believe the primary role of such works is to shape young minds, not amuse them … The moral is often laid on thick. One provincial publisher (state-owned, like all of them) has titled a six-volume set of nursery rhymes ‘A Good Father Is Better Than a Good Teacher.’ Chinese-language versions of foreign classics often proclaim their didactic worth: Paddington, a marmalade-loving bear from darkest Peru, is a model of ‘thoughtfulness, modesty and self-discipline.’ ”
  • Marlon James believes the publishing industry panders to white women, pursuing fiction that “panders to that archetype of the white woman, that long-suffering, astringent prose set in suburbia. You know, ‘older mother or wife sits down and thinks about her horrible life’ … If I pandered to a cultural tone set by white women, particularly older white female critics, I would have had 10 stories published by now … Though we’ll never admit it, every writer of colour knows that they stand a higher chance of getting published if they write this kind of story. We just do.”
  • Some have claimed that poetry today has no appeal to the common man. If that’s true, why has Kobe Bryant chosen to announce his NBA retirement in verse? Featuring such lyrical turns of phrase as “my dad’s tube socks” and “garbage can in the corner,” Bryant’s poem, “Dear Basketball,” may well show up in anthologies before his jersey number has been retired.

The Brief and Bitter Encounters of Ambrose Bierce

June 23, 2015 | by

See more of Jason’s work in our new Summer issue.

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When I was a kid, I came across Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary and found it to be a revelation of cynicism—even somehow liberating in its bleak honesty.

Bierce’s writing has fallen out of fashion over the past century. His specialty was the dispensation of devastating aphoristic truths. If I had to name a single literary antecedent, it might be Blaise Pascal. While Pascal was content to note the pain and weakness of humankind, though, Bierce injected his epigrams with a dose of fanciful weirdness. Take this one, for example, which almost reads like stage directions for a vaudeville routine:

Meeting Merit on a street-crossing, Success stood still. Merit stepped off into the mud and went round him, bowing his apologies, which Success had the grace to accept.

Most of Bierce’s works are so direct and evocative that illustrations might only cloud their effect. But these unusual exchanges between virtues personified—many of which are collected in A Cynic Looks at Life (1912)—cried out to me as mini-comics. I hope this form brings out their idiosyncrasies. Read More »

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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