Life I consider an inn, in which I shall have to live till the Stage Coach Abyss will arrive.
Pessoa, Book of Disquiet
No threat it was,
That made your gardener flee. I was surprised,
When in the morning, here, I saw him still at work,
The man I had to snatch that evening in far Ispahaan.
P.N. Van Eyck, The Gardener and Death
I wrote. I write. I follow the pen, going where it takes me. What else have I now.
Coetzee, Age of Iron
– It’s useful to know one’s beginnings.
– There are more urgent things to contemplate, he muttered, one’s end for instance.
Beryl Bainbridge, Master Georgie
Moreover, I know these young people. Their emotions are more expensive than ours were… They are afraid of death like we were afraid of life, they are craving for death like we hankered after life.
Joseph Roth, Right and Left
VICISSITUDES OF SUICIDE
1. a life-time occupation
2. suicide as euthanasia
3. anarchy of death
4. easter miracle
5. insidious inspection
6. fatal research
7. practicing the end
8. the arthritic shootist
Johnny Cash and John Wayne are easily the two Americans I loath most. It must be, because both are called John. Or perhaps, because these two have been performing the All American Man as the Yanks like to imagine their men, just as I have come to detest them. Their manner of speaking the language, not merely drawling but almost drooling. Their overacted nonchalance which is in fact sheer lack of acting and singing capacities. And perhaps other coincidences of character and of what not.
Nevertheless, I followed my pen. For the title of this Sequence this writing instrument pointed to Don Siegel’s movie The Shootist, with horrible Johnny Wayne as its protagonist. The pen knows better than the writer. Has-been gunfighter Wayne is dying of a nasty disease. I suspect him to have been seeking his suicide by way of a last gunfight which he more or less loses.
The title for this little essay on suicide thus seems to be to the point. It might also have been called The Paradox of Autonomy, or even The Return of an Adolescent Obsession.
1. a life-time occupation
Death in Spain is like a friend, a comrade.
When he arrives, no great fuss is made about this guest.
H. M Enzensberger, The Short Summer of Anarchy
It needs improvement, after all, my old thesis phrased such a long time ago: After you’ve turned forty, the affliction of suicide disappears, it dies with age.
Yet, the personal myth that was built around that act was not so easily forgotten. A theatre in which only one play is staged, performed by just one actor, the same who wrote his own script and who is simultaneously the one and only spectator.
In the suicidal phase of my life, lasting indeed from adolescence into my forties, this was the scene which like a repeating math fraction played in my nightly and sometimes even day-time reveries over and over again:
I take my bike from the shed, ride into the dunes, not all too far away from where I live, park the vehicle against a tree and lock it. I put the key in my purse. Then I walk away into the sandy hills and find myself a cosy little hollow between the mounds, lie down on my back, face up, using a folded raincoat as a cushion under my head, for a while contemplating the clear blue sky which is sprinkled with little fleecy clouds. Thereupon I take the revolver from the pocket of the raincoat and shoot a bullet through the right temple.
Temple, a word which in Dutch translates into slaap or sleep, perhaps its meaningful destiny.
One thing I have learned at an early age. Always having been an outsider and thus observant of others who were in the same position, I soon ceased to ask about the origin of my own and other peoples’ fetishes that rule our sexual and other appetites. The same applies to the preference for types of men or women or for whatever other existentially vital motive. One is the one that one is, thus one learns to perform one’s life. Life, but a tale… Everyman his own idiosyncrasy.
I was never much of a soul-searcher. Where that suicidal inclination came from, I have never asked and I still don’t. Neither do I know the origin of the little personal myth of its execution accompanying it. Call it creativity.
However, this much is certain. For a very long time, I also considered the act of suicide as zelfmoord (its Dutch version) or as Selbstmord (the German phrase). Both expressions literally mean the murdering of one’s self. Its historical source I do know. It refers to the Christian semantics of death in North-Western Europe, even now still causing this complete atheist to every so often use this ugly word. It implies suicide as a crime against the Creator. No man who killed himself was buried in the sacred grounds of the Church cemetery but was put away outside its walls, in earth considered not consecrated. One was not so much punishing the already dead man but more particularly the still living, those next of kin who would from now on be shamed.
Quite certain I am that in societies with a Latin-root language suicide will also have this connotation of murder. After all, the Holy Church’ greedy linguistic fingers are reaching far. Yet, the Latin-based word suicide also has an agreeable ring of neutrality, more a general notion of merely killing oneself. Inside the confines of my Dutch mind I have come to use this word suicide as it is spelled in those languages.
Many years ago I drew up an official document regarding euthanasia. A short time before this, after the death of my beloved granddad, my grandmother had asked me – her grandson that is, not her daughter, my mother – to search for a doctor who would help to end her life. At the time, I did not succeed in finding such a physician, my grandmother took an overdose of sleeping pills and other medicines to wake up from a coma four days later. I joined the Dutch Association for Euthanasia which had at that time just been founded.
Already long before this happened, I had become fully convinced about one thing in life: My existence is also a matter that concerns others, after all man is a social animal. However, even if the consideration of others may enter the mind of someone contemplating suicide, the ultimate ending of one’s own life is utterly personal, something with which in that last instance no one else must be concerned.
As far as death is concerned, I am a radical anarchist: No state, no functionary of the state, no representative of any of the various so-called creeds or ‘philosophies of life’, no lover and no next of kin should meddle in the preferred ending of my life.
Of course, the manner by which one desires to finish one’s life has a social component. You do not want to cause others unnecessary grief or leave them with the mess produced by your act. Throwing oneself in front of a train I always considered an evil deed, the act of an inconsiderate human being who is ruining another existence by forever shocking the machinist’s peace of mind and by making complete strangers clean up his mess.
When quite some years ago, at the end of April and after a ten hour journey from the Low Lands, I entered La Roche for my usual half year in ma douce France, the hamlet felt eerie. I had always considered descriptions of premonition before the fact miserable props of bad literature or the ingredients of lousy cinematography. However, my little village felt as dead. After unloading my luggage, the first thing I always do, I went to greet my very old neighbour La Mémé Pain. She sat slumped in her chair, drained so it seemed of all life, dead eyed and white-faced, yet alive. What has happened to you? I asked. Not to me, she answered. It is Philippe.
Philippe is the son of the other two inhabitants of our little hameau, son of Raymonde and the stepson of her husband Roland. Philippe is gay and lives with his man in Orleans, he visits them regularly but not all too often. This time Philippe had come on his own and had waited till his parents had gone out to some festivity in the village nearby. He took Roland’s shotgun with him into the shed next to their house and shot himself right through the head. Or rather, he shot it right off.
It had taken Lilly’s son, who lives opposite their house and had heard the explosion of the gun, hours to clean up the worst, before Raymonde and Roland came home and would have seen the mess. His brains had been al over the place. The Mémé told me the story crying, I felt drained of all feeling, just sat there, frightened and thinking about my coming visit to the parents. Once in a while, during all these years, all this comes back to me with a bang.
This is what I want to spare my loved ones. For this reason euthanasia with the help of my own physician has since long seemed the wiser solution, even if it means that I would become dependant on some one else. Yet, that person would be the one of my choice.
However, apart from the more general considerations on the anarchism of death each individual has to confront his own itinerary towards that end. Quite some time since I regularly considered it, suicide more or less having become a way of life, I finally gave up that desire and have suffered only minor depressions and occasionally even enjoyed exquisite little phases of euphoria. However, suddenly the peace was over; a vicious pain hit me like lightning and disaster struck.
At a little dinner party at my best friend’s home I drank a nice wine and ate some nibbles, tidbits I really liked. So I asked what was in this delightful snack. Maror it was, made from a bitter herb. Now I am a greedy man, whatever I like I digest fully and in rather too large, if not indecent quantities. After a while, it felt like I had eaten my belly full of bitterness and would now not mind a dinner. All went well, that is till late in the night and already well back home, having returned from Amsterdam to Haarlem. A pain hit me in the guts, I know not where and thus everywhere.
As it was the night from Saturday onto Sunday, I tried to survive the attack hoping that it would die down. It didn’t. The night from Sunday on Monday, every move I made, either lying down, sitting up or standing, felt like all organs in my belly were floating and bouncing inside me, let loose and having lost their attachment to my very being.
Early that Monday morning I was in a hospital bed, first screaming from a pain which was subsequently annihilated by some intravenous painkiller that did its job so well that, inside my very own self, I acquired a whole second personality. Together with all those loose organs it became really crowded in there.
It took some time, but with the help of scan after scan after scan clever doctors discovered the cause of my misery. After a series of hypotheses, ranging from liver cancer, cirrhosis, cancer of the stomach and what not, it turned out to be an inexplicable thrombosis of the porta vena. From then on, my blood was denied entrance through the front door of the liver.
It took the heart a while to forcefully pump that blood through bypasses towards this organ, enlarging certain veins at the bottom of my oesophagus and in the upper stomach wall, aneurysms which in an unknown future from now on await their final tearing. Eating, which is of course an art in itself, has to be done with ever more finesse: chewing and chewing and chewing, no bones, no sharp nuts, no sharp things whatsoever. All alcohol is out and for good. No more gorgeous Belgian Trappist beers, no more delicious French wines… For someone passing through Belgium, while going to ma douce France to live there for a half year each year, this is hellish.
Half a year later, after some awesome drilling into my hip bone in order to get out some marrow, painful pistol shot after painful pistol shot repeatedly on target, the mystery of the thrombosis was yet solved. After all, a serious thrombosis does not drop from heaven, like lightning on a clear day, there must be some cause already at work, that is if Descartes’ notion of ‘man as a machine’ has any meaning. After that incredibly painful puncture the marrow did indeed spit out its guilty secret: JAK 2 it was, a defect with a prosaic, if not ugly name. An affliction rather rare, so – agreed – its name should be rare.
Not only would this defect tire me, if the thrombosis were not already responsible for this, now and then it also makes the skin itch terribly, moreover, leukaemia is a serious risk. Suddenly I am dying of a short word. Some time after the discovery of this JAK 2 business, I also found out that it is directly linked to losing one’s memory rather fast.
Unexpectedly I had solved a second riddle. What for quite some time I had called jokingly my Alzheimer Light, something that actually caused me to retire from university life earlier than wanted, now all of a sudden had an official alibi. The JAK thing had of course been doing its work already quite some time before the fatal attack on the belly.
This memory loss has become a pain in the ass. This may be illustrated by the fact that, for the first time in these seventy-one years here in La Roche, I forgot the 4th of May this year. Our Dutch day, on which we commemorate those fallen in the Second World War, one of them my father’s friend whose name was given to me and who was shot by the Germans when found out stealing and burning their blasted mail. It can’t be that my memory is fading faster, simply because I have become too occupied with death.
True atheist that I am, I thanked the Lord. In a beautiful French church I burned a nice candle in front of a gorgeous Maria, that Consolatrix Afflictorum, grateful for the fact that I had signed the documents for my future euthanasia already long ago.
2. suicide as euthanasia
Not until we translate the death of one man
into an exact quantum of energy of the universe, can we be philosophers.
Dahlberg, The Carnal Myth
Some time ago I already rewrote the papers recording my wish for euthanasia in a specified set of circumstances. Once again the signature in triplicate was witnessed, thus I could leave copies in the vault of my doctor and in the hands of my wife. After I had found out that the new disease might produce conditions not yet covered in this second version, this newly updated document provided me with a certain calm again. On balance, I have never been afraid of death, for some forty years I was seriously suicidal, so I simply know better. However, afraid of an embarrassing and/or an unnecessarily painful agony at the very end I have always been and I still am.
My new peace of mind was thoroughly upset by two events.
First the actual agony witnessed during two and a half months, spending much time at the bedside of Raymonde, my beloved neighbour and wife of my friend Roland. Her demise at the intensive care unit of the hospital in Le Blanc was godforsaken, gruesome and cruel to both her and her husband. In contrast with the Netherlands, France does not yet have any effective legislation on euthanasia.
The second blow was an event more remote than Raymonde’s very personal disaster. It was first brought to me by a TV broadcast, then as a rerun in an article in the morning journal. It told the story of a benevolent doctor in one of the northern Dutch provinces, who at the request of an equally benevolent spouse had helped someone seriously suffering towards his end. However, the situation being urgent as it was, he did not entirely follow the instructions as laid down by Dutch law. In his eyes, in such an acute case there was no time left for formalism. Uniformed police officers, in day-time and in cars with the alarm on, came and deported the doctor from his own home. Subsequently, the state had the chutzpah to accuse that poor man of murdering his patient. The doctor committed suicide, thus ending a second life.
At this point I realized that the conclusion of my life should be in my own hands, and this completely so. No committee of physicians having conferences on it, no end to my life according to state regulated protocol. Long before this, the famous Drion Pill had also been killed by our law-makers. It was named after a Dutch humanist, a capsule which in the past had been considered the ideal solution, as it would have given peace of mind to one who had it in his medicine cupboard for when it would become necessary.
The signed papers in the vault of my physician had suddenly become worthless, as the law prescribed ‘second opinions’ for a legal euthanasia, meaning the judgment by doctors I have never met in my life. Other experiences were added to this, only intensifying my now thorough distrust of others as far as my own death is involved.
Those mentally underprivileged, the ones full of faith, the superstitious, the drivel sellers, Anthroposophists and all those other sophists – they hide in the wings of the stage on which man is strutting, then all of a sudden to emerge when he falls ill. Keeping their mouth shut and their airy notions in the closet, they silently wait, till finally they find the mentally stronger caught in some nasty predicament. Like hyenas they begin to devour what they now consider to be a mental corpse.
At the end of Evelyn Waugh’s intriguing book Brideshead Revisited, particularly so in the brilliant film adaptation thereof, we observe the unconscious body of Lord Marchmain on its deathbed, making the sign of the cross at the instigation of a priest going through his motions. A devout daughter and some pious bystanders consider it a sign of True Faith and consequently of Marchmain’s remaining belief therein, even though, when fully conscious, he had abjured all Catholicism.
After having heard of his thorough dislike of the Roman Church and of the religion it represents, the spectator of this scene cannot see anything but the embarrassing hocus-pocus of a priest who, like a black robed Skinner, titillates some very old conditioned reflexes in the near-corpse of poor Marchmain, this with the help of his posturing, his gestures and his mumblings.
Gillian Rose, in her at times exquisitely written book Love’s Work, describes experiences with an incurable cancer as well as contacts with hospital doctors. ‘Medicine and I have Dismissed each other. We do not have enough command of each other’s language for the exchange to be fruitful’. However, after having decided to stop visiting the doctors, her friends and family felt that time had come to finally strike out at the sick woman. It had been already difficult for her ‘to understand the limitations of speaking in the esoteric language of clinical control. Far more difficult it was to articulate the deadly blandishments of the exoteric language of cosmic love’.
Superstitious people suddenly surround the dying and think: Now is the moment; up till now (s)he has been too rational, too convinced of the good gifts of mainstream science, now this poor victim of disease is ripe and ready for our alternative onslaught. Hyenas they are, loathsome animals feeding cowardly on dead meat that cannot defend itself against their vile gluttony.
In, of all places, our own living room this is what happened to me: Following a brief account of my medical condition, a guest suddenly came with stories of two ‘very good friends and well-known men’ suffering from cancer and ‘already abandoned by mainstream science’. Yet, ‘thanks to a well-known special diet they still live!’ Shameless blah-blah, as if we sick natives may be fobbed off with alternative medical beads.
Maliciously I told the visitor: ‘Here it comes, you’re now going to tell me that these gorgeous alternative insights are pushed out of publicity by the representatives of mainstream science; that there is a conspiracy of doctors and hospitals against your cure’. Yes indeed, that was her answer.
My question: How does mainstream science manage this trick and keep medical treatment that so obviously already ‘works’ for decades hush-hush, this for so many languishing and sick people who profit by it? Such rumours spread, or don’t they? The masses would naturally flock to the alternative doctors with their diets, letting mainstream medical science for what it is and prove themselves right? Why are the believers always trying to convince us of their secretive right by bringing up exceptional miracle cases?
It is ironic that I actually knew a ‘well known man’ who later in life suffered from such conspiracy delusions. If something ‘bad’ was not the fault of ‘capital’, it must be the wrongdoing of villains who always manage to remain in the dark. Even a hint of alternative medicine was not foreign to him: ‘Many people say they have gained by it…’ Thereupon he was hit by a brain tumour which maimed his intellect for a second time, this time deadly. I do not know whether he came to his senses or drank ‘special’ juices until his very end, keeping away ‘regular’ doctors from his bedside.
Leave us sick people alone, you fools! Do drink gallons of your own alternative drinks and eat those very special dishes. But don’t abuse our disease to justify the nonsensical claptrap in which you apparently belief insufficiently, as otherwise you would leave us in peace. May God ward off the scourge of your feeble-mindedness, protect us from the narcissists whose megalomania all too easily slides into slimy humility and whose manner of mind is so seriously tarnished.
I decided that, when the time would have come to end it all, a proper suicide would be my manner of euthanasia.
3. anarchy of death
What then is life? It is the tiny shadow running in the grass,
then disappearing when the sun sets.
Crowfoot, Chief of the Black Feet
I returned to the old and once endlessly repetitive fantasy which I once entertained in my suicidal period: wielding my revolver. I have already described that ritual in my head as a play in which author, actor, director and public coincide. However, that self-destructive obsession, born from whatever melancholy, I have lost a long time ago.
Now, in case an unpleasant end is near, the combination of state law and physical ailments has forced me once again to contemplate violent suicide. The technique once chosen still seems excellent, this time lying in my bed, on my back, then putting the revolver against the side of my head to leave my bedroom and this world forever. The problem is: I do not possess a revolver.
Marquis de Sade may have been morally wrong when he described murder as the mere transformation of one form of matter into a different form. However, suicide at life’s end is precisely this, no moral issue is involved. Ethics has fundamentally to do with at least two persons, but suicide is an affair wholly between me and myself. Before that moment of decision arrives, each of us is a social being. Suicide however is the elementary choice of a particular way of ending made by someone who, only at that point of his life, is finally sovereign.
Still, how to get hold of such a weapon? In France, in my dark period, I left the family camp site to see if in the nearby provincial town I could procure a gun. Then and there, I had already come across the obstacle of the requirement of a license necessary for both firearm and ammunition. A permit which, of course, I could not show the salesman at the time and which I still do not possess now. And I simply do not see myself entering some seedy dive bar in Amsterdam or Antwerp and ask an obscure figure for a weapon. He is no fool, suspicion all around…
Years later, in France and purely by chance, I met somebody owning a real arsenal. Although all of his weapons were for hunting, the man has an unmistakable bent for arms. To the dismay of his wife, he encouraged their son to become a sharpshooter in the French army. On a trip down south to the place where he lives, my friend and the hunting man’s wife remained at the kitchen table. Once in the garden I asked him The Question and explained my medical situation plus the desire to keep it all in my own hands.
I was thinking of some forlorn army revolver, forgotten in a cupboard by one of his friends. He understood and would start looking around. Later, after I had already returned from France to the Low Lands, he wrote me a letter in which he explained that during his search for a gun his acquaintances had found state surveillance too threatening. A license was simply necessary…
When, instead of a revolver, he offered to sell me a shotgun without such a permit, I thanked him but refused for reasons already described above. Too messy. A bit of a disappointment this was. But then again he was what one might describe as the local fascist, with the name of his birthplace tattooed on his back accompanied by a text telling you that from this town it is, that each day the sun rises for the rest of the world. In his case, then, a certain subservience to the state was not all that strange.
After I looked up ‘revolver’ in the colour version of the Larousse Encyclopaedia, for the first time in my life did I consider the fact that this word designates a pars pro toto. In everyday speech it may stand for the whole gun, but it actually only names that small cylinder which is holding the cartridges.
This is the piece which, with each shot taken, truly revolves and in such a manner that, for the next shot to be ready, its rotating movement places a new bullet in front of the canon. Revolver, a metonym.
Lately, I am frequently thinking: Ah, it has started, the end! Only when I would own that little brute, could I feel confident about its outcome. After all, life is revolving around its very centre which, for all of us, is death.
Last year I resolved to try it once again, this time the royal, the stately way, acquiring a licence for a handgun at the officially designated desk, in the manner of the French Republic. Before I left for France, I googled the latest version of the French law relating to the subject, made a print and I read it all.
The reader of this account must admit that our hero, who is I, does indeed show perseverance and an admirable tenacity, as if his life depends on this search, while it is in fact his death which does or more precisely: his manner of dying. He took the print of the Law with him to his house in France.
We are always told that everybody must know the law, that is the whole law – and hopefully something more than that. Only by living this legal fiction, can a constitutional state exist. This is why all citizens are supposed to vote for a law-making parliament, to be sure that we indeed know that we have framed the law ourselves, if only by proxy. Nobody standing before his judge, can ever claim that he did not know this or that little rule. Such fiction is also upheld by the obligatory legal adviser, better known as your lawyer. Then of course, one expects the law to be known by those who are there to uphold it.
In the nearby town I called at the instance of the authorities as indicated by this French law. At the Gendarmerie, someone with what must have been retarded genes told me that this was not where I could get my permit for une arme de poigne or arme à feu portative. Go to the Département in Chateauroux! I was out of his office before I could even produce the Law from my breast pocket. In law and in life I should learn to draw faster than this.
Chateauroux my ass, that town lies a full eighty kilometres from my village! Moreover, the law is the law and it states that the nearest Gendarmerie is the place to go to. Not defeated so easily, I went to the office of the Sous-Préfecture in my little town, second best. No, no, sir, it is Chateauroux you have to go to! This time I pointed at the papers already in my hand, but the woman was just not interested. Since their Revolution, all French citizens have become equal; each person takes himself to be a little king or a queen for that matter. Functionaries of the Republic are of course more equal than other French men and women, obviously then also more king…
Almost on my way home and already looking for my car in the parking lot, feeling finally defeated and very much an Anti-Republican and an Aristocratic Royalist bereft of his former rights to carry his own weapons, I passed the Mairie. I suddenly remembered that inside there was another dépendence of the Gendarmerie. Once more I thought: Don’t you go to sleep tonight with the nagging feeling that you did not do your utmost. Behind his desk there was one more Officer of the Law.
This time I was already waving my bundle of papers while entering his office. The Law! I almost cried, pointing at the sheaves of printed word. Calm down, Sir, let’s hear what you have on your mind. So I told him. No, the others had been right, a permit for a gun needs to be asked for in Chateauroux. This time I spread out the Law on his desk and read it out loudly. The man came from behind the desk and started to read it with me. No sir, that is not what it says there. Well then, what does it say, I ask him. Read it to me – and loud!
Confused by this blunt foreigner, he retreats again and takes cover behind his desk to make a phone call. Within the minute a lady appears, wearing more stripes on her uniform than the one who has asked for her. I was given the French treatment, I was confronted with Those Higher Up and a Lady at that.
This awful complexe de chef of the Frenchies! I presume that once they are confronted with obvious power, they come in their panties, either sexually or simply from fear. That is why all Frenchmen hate their own police. Yet, this is how they show their self-hatred. Go into a shop, ask someone of the staff one single and simple question which lies just outside the normal repertoire, and he will immediately ask you to wait and go look for his superior. Any way of handling this himself is out of the question. No power of discretion, too bloody afraid to make a wrong decision or a wrong move. In The Low Lands this is unheard of.
There I stand, face to face with a uniformed woman with a lot of stripes, next to her the colleague, and I cannot do anything else but go for it. As a former university philosopher I know my hermeneutics; I know that all of life is but the navigation of meaning. I also know of the presentation of self in everyday life. This however is the worst version.
Pointing out sentence after sentence, often not even needing interpretation as the text is utterly clear, I claim that this is the place where according to her own law I should get the papers to apply for a handgun. The chef and her underling simply continue to deny it, proving that their French is obviously worse than mine and that their willingness to be taught and to learn their own language zero.
Without the papers I am leaving their office. I should have known and I knew it. Bull’s eye: The hermeneutics of The Law. In France, whatever is done officially is done through the centre, preferably Paris and if not Paris, then the first dépendence of Paris, for instance the Département – even if the law states otherwise.
At the last moment, with the door handle already in my fist, I turn around once again and fire my last question, perhaps by now in a surrendering mood. What will happen, once I have gone to Chateauroux and have filed my papers and have acquired that damned permit? Ah, Sir, you will come back here and receive six months of shooting lessons from one of us present…
I give up. There is, after all, the grave chance that before all this would be over, I won’t be needing that gun any longer. I must reconsider throwing myself from the local viaduct, probably causing a horrid mess on the road below for the very same policemen I have been arguing with. My best French friend Roland is such a nice man that he would not know any criminal selling guns. So, end of the line.
I am out in the desert again. If it were only as Symeon the Stylite, I could throw myself from that pillar and finish as desert dust. As it is, anarchy seems to be the sole solution.