An Invisible Apprenticeship


This is How the Tree Breaks, William Kentridge, 1955

by Giorgio Fontana

Jean Améry titled his renowned book on voluntary death, Hand an Sich Legen – To lay Hands on Oneself. Beyond the argument of Amery (who killed himself in 1978), I’ve always found this image very appropriate. It describes with precision and grace a terrible gesture; it highlights the movement, inscribes it in time. It emphasizes, in particular, its slowness: the hand must be raised – it is consciously raised – and then it falls and hits. There is no suicide, even the most rapid – a bullet instead of a cut wrist – which does not involve a long elaboration of this shape. The suicide victim cultivates death, and he becomes a victim only with time. Sure, he can end his own life out of the blue: a flash of terror, instant execution. But most often the idea of suicide is an idea that matures; though always equal to itself, as if it gains strength and reason over time, or throws an ever wider light of relief. To raise your hand against yourself requires an invisible apprenticeship.

What I find misleading (and ethically revolting) is the removal of this apprenticeship: its invisibility turns to absolute unreality in the public perception. All the sorrow that triggered the gesture – the path that leads to a needle, to handful of pills, to a leap – is simply not discussed, but perhaps also because words themselves seem lacking. The violence of every suicide forces us to focus on the “tragic event”, while the only way to deal with this issue in a suitable manner is to overturn it, and stop focusing on the gesture. As striking as it can be, it doesn’t speak. The hanged rope does not say anything to us if we don’t understand the amount of suffering that’s been crucial to tie it.

This is very uncomfortable, but it’s also very important. The risk is to write off any form of depression, or the very idea of depression as a path, disease or a fact. It would be far too easy to think of a group of sad people who go crazy all of a sudden (maybe after a “bad day”) and decide to call kill themselves; in the most ironic case, it would also be falsely comforting. Depression – and here I use the term in a strictly technical sense – is something very different from sadness; it’s a terrible condition which is always linked to the idea of a final conviction, issued continuously on every moment of one’s life.

And here we run immediately into language problems. Far more understandable are the pains of bereavement, poverty, hunger and unemployment. And although depression itself may result from each of these elements, it’s the idea itself that seems to have something wrong. The commodification of the word “depressed” has destroyed most of its medical semantic value, and given it a faint hint of denigration: a depressed person – because now everyone can say they are depressed – would thus be a fake patient, who simply “needs to wake up” or “get real”. It becomes easy to consider such an elusive sorrow as an insult to those who have good reason to feel annihilated: a physical illness, for example.

In short, the body of the depressed person is not socially acceptable: on the one hand because it seems to express a rejection of social community itself (through the inability to act, the self-absorption), and on the other because his pain is unexplainable according to its parameters. It cannot be named; there are not – out of the mercy of psychoanalysis and psychiatry – conclusive popular arguments in this regard. After all, if a cancer patient spends the rest of his days mourning his misery, no one will object. There is medical and physical evidence, there is a vocabulary now absorbed at a popular level, there is above all an empirical system that allows everyone to verify this suffering, to give it an evident cause. Depression, on the contrary, cannot be distinguished with “technical certainties” from very irritating forms of self-pity: or, at least, it’s much more complex to do so. Here all the mythology that binds this illness to artistic torments, or gives some positive value to i, or romanticize it ruthlessly, has done a true disservice. We should stand against all this rhetoric without compromise.

Of course, the evidence of this disease becomes clear once the cycle is complete: if a depressed person kills himself, it demonstrates the reality of his condition. But this test is sad, useless knowledge. Each death has the ability to reveal deception, but this revelation always comes too late; moreover, it is likely to further cloud the issue, causing the common mistake of those who remain and judge, to consider the hand raised against oneself as an affirmative act. I defeat death by embracing her, and spit in the face of life. But it is not so: people do not kill themselves to assert something, but to deny everything: they die of exhaustion, because the very existence has been unsustainable for far too long.

Unfortunately, at the exact moment in which the body breaks down, this profound truth is hidden by the violence and absurdity of the gesture. How then to do justice to this mute sorrow, so unable to tell us about itself? If Julia Kristeva is right in emphasizing its asymbolia, its babbling and meaningless character – which is all but extremely and bodily clear to those who suffer, without any tragic gradients – how do we build a bridge between the depressed and the “healthy society”? How do we provide it with a language – and how can a writer and depressed person (me, in this case) do so?

There is a famous passage by David Foster Wallace that should be re-read very carefully, bearing in mind not to project above it the shadow of his suicide:

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

My call is the same: do not look at the body of the one who leaps, but take a step back and think about his situation with a wider and respectful look. Watch the burning building from which this creature jumped. From this height we should begin, and here and here only find the words, no matter how difficult it can be.

About the Author:

Giorgio Fontana is an Italian writer who lives in Milan. He has written three novels, the most recent of which, Per legge superiore won the Racalmare-Sciascia, lo Straniero and Chianti literary awards, and has been translated into French, German and Dutch.

He has written articles and papers for various Italian and international publications, including OpenDemocracy, Cyborgology and “lo Straniero” minima&moralia. In 2012 he was the recipient of a Writers Omi fellowship.