Monday, August 13, 2012

The Triumph of Despair

Suicide’s Note

The calm,
Cool face of the river,
Asked me for a kiss.

-Langston Hughes

Richard Cory

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
'Good-morning,' and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich - yes, richer than a king -
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

-Edwin Arlington Robinson

This morning, in my poetry textbook, I read Suicide’s Note, by Langston Hughes. Unlike the longer, more elaborate poetry that I had been reading, this struck me as being extremely informal and, well, slightly silly. But after a few seconds, I realized that this was much more subtle than that. The image, brief as it is, paints a very full picture – and that’s a difficult thing to do with as little space as was allowed. A still, glassy, black pool of water, beckoning, enfolding the poet in a cold and deadly embrace. He sinks into the water, only to realize that the siren’s call has become his death.

Contrast Suicide’s Note with the poem, Richard Cory. Immediately, one hears the difference in tone and meter, which add a very different feeling to the story. With Richard Cory, there is a pattern of four-line paragraphs, with the a-b-a-b rhyming scheme. The imagery is light-hearted, the character or Cory puts one in mind of a Lord Peter Wimsey figure, immaculately mannered, charming—the social ideal. Cory is idolized by the poet(s); he couldn’t possibly make a faux pas, perfect wife, perfect family, butter wouldn’t melt – etc. Wouldn’t you want to be Richard Cory?

You know the type.

He has everything you’d ever want – charisma, wealth, manners, popularity. He’s that CEO who everybody likes, despite. People scrimp and save, longing to be their idol.

“And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.”
And that is what makes the poem’s end so effective: idols are always flawed. No man is perfect, appearances are deceiving. The poet is brilliant to keep the tone light-hearted and jaunty…right up until the fatal moment. That’s what suicide is like in real life – not melodramatic and mythic like Suicide’s Note, but quick, brutal and catastrophic. It is the triumph of despair and loneliness.

This is why so many people are devastated with the fall of pastors, actors, philanthropists and other “good” public figures, who had gained their trust. As Ravi Zacharias says, why should we be surprised when those we consider “holy” fall? Being a pastor does not change the desperate depravity of the human heart. Everyone, even and especially they, are subject to temptations and despair.

The current tagline of my novel, Raven’s Death, sums it up: “Judge not by sight. Secrets remain hidden because they are not clearly seen.” Well, it needs some work, but it’s supposed to be a maxim in my fantasy land, Mordreal, and I was trying to make it sound…proverby.

But here's the flipside: martyrdom. Suicide is much different than martyrdom. Many people have asked Christians why we condemn one and glorify the other. That is because there is a fundamental difference in the motives. Hear it from he who always says it best:

About the same time I read a solemn flippancy by some free thinker: he said that a suicide was only the same as a martyr. The open fallacy of this helped to clear the question. Obviously a suicide is the opposite of a martyr. A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything. One wants something to begin: the other wants everything to end. In other words, the martyr is noble, exactly because (however he renounces the world or execrates all humanity) he confesses this ultimate link with life; he sets his heart outside himself: he dies that something may live. The suicide is ignoble because he has not this link with being: he is a mere destroyer; spiritually, he destroys the universe.

-G.K. Chesterton
Suicide is the triumph of despair, abandoning and not "so loving" the world. Tolkien demonstrates this in many ways in The Lord of the Rings:

“Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death,” answered Gandalf. “And only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death . . . Come! We are needed. There is much that you can do.”

-Return of the King
I just discovered an article that follows the Chesterton-Tolkien connection even further; it's great. Check it out here.

There's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo,
Neo-Mayberry, Middle of Nowhere, America

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