My essay “Melville’s Secrets” will be published in the September issue of Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies. A subscription to the journal is sent to all members of the Melville Society, so join now (you can use Paypal and do it all online), if you’d like a copy. The essay is a mild revision of the Walter Harding lecture that I gave at SUNY Geneseo in September 2010.
It is a sign of our times, conspicuous to the coarsest observer, that many intelligent and religious persons withdraw themselves from the common labors and competitions of the market and the caucus, and betake themselves to a certain solitary and critical way of living, from which no solid fruit has yet appeared to justify their separation. They hold themselves aloof: they feel the disproportion between their faculties and the work offered them, and they prefer to ramble in the country and perish of ennui, to the degradation of such charities and such ambitions as the city can propose to them. They are striking work, and crying out for somewhat worthy to do! . . .
Society, to be sure, does not like this very well; it saith, Whoso goes to walk alone, accuses the whole world; he declareth all to be unfit to be his companions; it is very uncivil, nay, insulting; Society will retaliate. Meantime, this retirement does not proceed from any whim on the part of these separators; but if any one will take pains to talk with them, he will find that this part is chosen both from temperament and from principle; with some unwillingness, too, and as a choice of the less of two evils; for these persons are not by nature melancholy, sour, and unsocial,—they are not stockish or brute,—but joyous; susceptible, affectionate; they have even more than others a great wish to be loved. . . .
These exacting children advertise us of our wants. There is no compliment, no smooth speech with them; they pay you only this one compliment, of insatiable expectation; they aspire, they severely exact, and if they only stand fast in this watchtower, and persist in demanding unto the end, and without end, then are they terrible friends, whereof poet and priest cannot choose but stand in awe; and what if they eat clouds, and drink wind, they have not been without service to the race of man.
From “The Transcendentalist, a Lecture Read at the Masonic Temple, Boston, January, 1842.”
Diderot defends what novelists do, in his essay "In Praise of Richardson":
You accuse Richardson of boring passages! You must have forgotten how much it costs in efforts, attentions, moves to make the smallest undertaking succeed, to end a lawsuit, to conclude a marriage, to bring off a reconciliation. Think what you like of these details; but I'm going to find them interesting if they're true, if they bring out passions, if they show people's characters.
They're commonplace, you say; they're what one sees every day! You're mistaken; they're what takes place in front of your eyes every day that you never see. Be careful; you're putting the greatest poets in the dock, under Richardson's name. A hundred times you've seen the sun set and the stars rise; you've heard the countryside echo with song breaking forth from birds; but who among you has felt that it was the noise of the day that rendered the silence of the night so touching? All right, well, there are moral phenomena that exist for you the same way physical phenomena do: outbreaks of the passions have often reached your ears; but you are very far from knowing all that there is in the way of secrets in their tones and in their expressions. There's not a single one that doesn't have its own physiognomy; all these physiognomies appear in succession on a face, without its ceasing to be the same; and the art of the great poet and of the great painter is to show you a fugitive circumstance that had escaped your notice.
In honor of Sybille Bedford’s centenary, I’ll be one of several writers and editors reading from her work at the Paris Review offices at 62 White Street in Manhattan tomorrow night, Thursday, March 24, at 6:30pm. Free and open to the public, if you RSVP.
If a thing is weighing on one’s mind—a topic, say, like 18th-century tea smuggling or political paranoia—one tends to find it even when one isn’t looking for it. While reading novels, for example.
Americans were far from being the only people in the eighteenth century who smuggled tea. In fact, the ratio between the tax on East India Company tea and its underlying price was so high that it eventually became a classic example in economics of the way that overburdensome regulation may encourage illegality, and awareness of the problem seems to have spilled over from economics into literature quite early on. While researching “Tea and Antipathy,” I happened to read John Galt’s Annals of the Parish (1821), a charming novel that Galt himself liked to think of as a “local theoretical history.” The book is written in the voice of Reverend Micah Balwhidder, a Presbyterian minister, recently retired, who has decided to set down an account of his life in the Scottish parish of Dalmailing. Each year gets its own chapter, in which Reverend Balwhidder, with a guileless lack of self-awareness, summarizes the doings in Dalmailing, spiritual and nonspiritual. In 1761, the most remarkable thing in Dalmailing was the smuggling of tea and hard liquor:
It was in this year that the great smuggling trade corrupted all the west coast . . . . The tea was going like the chaff, the brandy like well-water, and the wastrie of all things was terrible. There was nothing minded but the riding of cadgers [sellers] by day, and excisemen by night—and battles between the smugglers and King’s men, both by sea and land. . . . I did all that was in the power of nature to keep my people from the contagion; I preached sixteen times from the text, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. I visited and I exhorted; I warned and I prophesied; I told them, that, although the money came in like slate stones, it would go like the snow off the dyke. But for all I could do, the evil got in among us. . . .
Indeed, a year later, in 1762, the evil has made its way into Reverend Balwhidder’s own home, in part on account of the charitable interest he takes in an indigent widow, Mrs. Malcolm, who has begun selling tea. “I lost some of my dislike to the tea,” the minister admits.
It did no harm to the head of the drinkers, which was not always the case with the possets that were in fashion before . . . ; so, both for its temperance, and on account of Mrs Malcolm’s sale, I refrained from the November in this year to preach against tea.
By 1778, when the rage for smuggling returns, Rev. Balwhidder is not above chuckling over the story of a woman who has hidden a stash of smuggled tea in her mattress ticking and lies on top of it, feigning to a customs officer that it’s her deathbed. Loosened from strict virtue by time and his affections, the reverend even goes so far as to observe, “Of all the manifold ills in the train of smuggling, surely the excisemen are the worst.”
Not long after, while reading Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), I unexpectedly came across some 18th-century political paranoia—in particular, the variety known as the 18th-century Commonwealthman tradition. In chapter 19, the Vicar, Dr. Primrose, is invited to dine at the home of Wilkinson, a man so interested in politics that he reads six newspapers, seventeen magazines, and two reviews. Wilkinson complains that George III hasn’t let himself be managed the way a king ought to let himself be managed:
I don’t think there has been a sufficient number of advisers: he should advise with every person willing to give him advice, and then we should have things done in anotherguess manner.
When the Vicar protests that such management would be meddling, a lady calls him “sordid” and indignantly apostrophizes “Liberty, that sacred gift of heaven!” Wilkinson, too, takes offense: “Can it be possible . . . that there should be any found at present advocates for slavery? Any who are for meanly giving up the privileges of Britons?”
This was the lingo of the 18th-century Commonwealthman, which Goldsmith disliked, and the Vicar—or Goldsmith, in the Vicar’s voice—proceeds to dress Wilkinson down. The way he does so is rather interesting to an observer in 21st-century America, where income inequality is higher than it has ever been. The Vicar argues that the antimonarchical rhetoric of people like Wilkinson is obfuscatory piffle served up by rich oligarchs, who resent the king’s power as an interference with theirs—as interference with the manipulation by the wealthy of the poor and the oppression by the wealthy of the middle class:
It is the interest of the great . . . to diminish kingly power as much as possible; because whatever they take from that is naturally restored to themselves; and all they have to do in the state, is to undermine the single tyrant, by which they resume their primaeval authority. Now, the state may be so circumstanced, or its laws may be so disposed, or its men of opulence so minded, as all to conspire in carrying on this business of undermining monarchy. For . . . if the circumstances of our state be such, as to favour the accumulation of wealth, and make the opulent still more rich, this will encrease their ambition. . . . Now the possessor of accumulated wealth, when furnished with the necessaries and pleasures of life, has no other method to employ the superfluity of his fortune but in purchasing power. That is, differently speaking, in making dependants, by purchasing the liberty of the needy or the venal . . . the rabble of mankind, whose souls and whose education are adapted to servitude. . . . But there must still be a large number of the people without the sphere of the opulent man’s influence. . . . In this middle order of mankind are generally to be found all the arts, wisdom, and virtues of society. This order alone is known to be the true preserver of freedom, and may be called the People. Now it may happen that this middle order of mankind may lose all its influence in a state, and its voice be in a manner drowned in that of the rabble: . . . In such a state, . . . all that the middle order has left, is to preserve the prerogative and privileges of the one principal governor with the most sacred circumspection. For he divides the power of the rich, and calls off the great from falling with tenfold weight on the middle order placed beneath them.
A strong central government, the Vicar insists, is the middle class’s safest ally. The rich demonize such a government as tyrannical, because no other force in society is capable of standing up to wealth. Should the rich succeed in fooling even the middle class into distrust of government, the result will be a country where “the laws govern the poor, and the rich govern the law.”
The contradiction outrages Wilkinson. Before Wilkinson can throw the Vicar out of the house, though, Wilkinson’s master and mistress come home: it turns out that Wilkinson is really no more than a butler.
Yesterday afternoon I gave the 2010 Walter Harding lecture at SUNY Geneseo. The lecture series is named after Walter Harding, who taught for decades in Geneseo and was the preeminent twentieth-century scholar of Henry David Thoreau, and I felt it was a tremendous honor to have been asked. I talked about Melville’s secrets—in particular, about a distorted Platonic myth that I suspect may be present in Moby-Dick. “Ishmael,” I claimed, “might be considered a final, uninvited guest to Plato’s banquet, and his tale a postscript to Diotima’s.”
SUNY Geneseo has already uploaded a video of my talk (perhaps also embedded below, if I’ve coaxed the html sufficiently); a downloadable audio is forthcoming. I’m not going to post a transcript, because I’m hoping to revise the talk into a scholarly paper in the not-too-distant future. To that end, if any of you who heard the talk yesterday or who listen to it online have suggestions, corrections, or comments, please get in touch.
I had a great time at SUNY Geneseo. Many thanks to Marjorie Harding, for the gift that made the lecture series possible; it was an honor to meet the Harding family. I’m very grateful to Geneseo’s English department for their hospitality and great questions. I’m especially grateful to department chair Paul Schacht for his support and guidance, to associate professor Alice Rutkowski for a very kind introduction, and to the college president and English professor Christopher Dahl and his wife Ruth Rowse for a lovely dinner.
Once spermaceti, the oil inside the head of a sperm whale, is extracted, it begins to congeal, and in “A Squeeze of the Hand,” the 94th chapter of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville claims that sailors used to be put to work rehomogenizing the oil by hand:
When the proper time arrived, this same sperm was carefully manipulated ere going to the try-works, of which anon.
It had cooled and crystallized to such a degree, that when, with several others, I sat down before a large Constantine’s bath of it, I found it strangely concreted into lumps, here and there rolling about in the liquid part. It was our business to squeeze these lumps back into fluid. A sweet and unctuous duty!
Melville goes on to describe an ecstatic experience that overcame his narrator while engaged in sperm squeezing; that ecstasy has attracted much commentary and speculation about its possible sexual and psychological significance. The meanings that Melville invests in the task are clearly a contribution of his own. Much of the whaling practice described in the novel, though, is non-fiction. Was sperm-squeezing?
When I reviewed Eric Jay Dolin’s Leviathan for the New Yorker in 2007, I concluded that it wasn’t, but the case is a tricky one, so here’s a presentation of the evidence.
Dolin himself was agnostic, and merely quoted Melville’s description of “the experience of squeezing the lumps out of congealed spermaceti” (Dolin, p. 267). A number of nineteenth-century whaling narratives do confirm that spermaceti looks, feels, and behaves as Melville describes, though prior to the publication of Moby-Dick, none that I know of describes hands-on delumping.
In Incidents of a Whaling Voyage (1841), for example, Francis Allyn Olmsted writes:
The case [the head of the whale] is surrounded by a thick wall of a white, gristly substance, termed by the whalers “white horse;” the cavity is lined with a yellowish fat, and is filled with oil of a very superior quality, which, when warm, is perfectly limpid, but concretes in beautiful white masses, if allowed to become cold, or as it drips upon the water. (p. 65)
Olmsted goes on to say that “The head oil and fat are immediately committed to the try-pots”—cauldrons where the fat is purified by high heat. He makes no mention of physical manipulation.
According to William Scoresby’s Account of the Arctic Regions (1820), head oil wasn’t passed through try-pots before it was stored: “The head-matter congeals when it is cold; it is put into casks in its crude state, and refined on shore at the conclusion of the voyage” (vol. 2, pp. 534-35). In Whaling and Fishing, published in 1856, Charles Nordhoff also describes storing case oil immediately, without boiling it first in try-pots:
Meantime the case was opened; a man being placed in the large opening, the pure and beautifully white spermacetti was bailed out with a bucket constructed for that purpose. It is quite fluid when first taken out, but quickly congeals on exposure to air. It is at once placed in new casks, which are duly marked “case.” (p. 127)
Since I haven’t found any accounts before Melville that refer to sperm squeezing and since the episode in the novel is overlaid with such personal psychological significance, it seems possible that Melville invented the practice, which doesn’t on the face of it make much sense. If sperm oil congeals as it cools, then presumably it melts again when heated, so the try-works would render squeezing unnecessary. On the other hand, if the spermaceti is to be stored in barrels without heat purification, squeezing would be in vain, because the lumps would inevitably form again while the oil waited inside the barrels; whalers often spent years at sea. Melville does sometimes invent. In the very next chapter, “The Cassock,” he writes that before the tougher blubber of the whale is sliced up for the try-pots, the slicer dresses himself in the skin of the whale’s penis. As Howard P. Vincent observed in In The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, “the whaling sources give no indication, physiological or otherwise, of the facts of Melville’s chapter” and so “one must assume that it came from memory or from an imagination profoundly Rabelaisian.” Probably the latter.
But there’s at least one piece of evidence vindicating Melville. In Nimrod of the Sea (1874), in a passage that I was first directed to by Wilson Heflin’s Herman Melville’s Whaling Years, William M. Davis does describe sperm squeezing:
On being withdrawn [from the head of whale], the bucket is filled with transparent spermaceti, mixed with the soft, silky integuments, and possessing the odor of the new-drawn milk of our home dairies. With our hands blistered yesterday by the oar, and all on fire to-day by the harsh friction of the handspike, it was luxurious to wade deep in the try-pots filled with this odorous unguent, in order to squeeze and strain out the fibres, which, if allowed to remain, would char with the heat, and darken the oil. No king of earth, even Solomon in all his glory, could command such a bath. I almost fell in love with the touch of my own poor legs, as I stroked the precious ointment from the skin.
One reason to hesitate in accepting this evidence is the date. Since Nimrod began writing his book in 1872, there’s a possibility of contamination—in other words, there’s a possibility that he read Melville’s novel and later remembered Melville’s account as an experience of his own. (For a contemporary example, consider Tony Blair, whose account of meeting with the queen incorporates dialogue from Stephen Frears’s movie The Queen, which Blair claims not to have seen.) It argues against contamination that Davis’s account differs somewhat from Melville’s. The purpose of squeezing, Davis writes in the passage above, wasn’t to redissolve lumps but to remove fibers that would darken the oil—a more plausible explanation than Melville’s, though it suggests that if the task was real, Melville failed to understand the point of it and probably didn’t do a very good job. Davis’s reference to Solomon’s bath reminds me of Melville’s reference to Constantine’s, though—hinting at contamination. Maybe Davis did unconsciously turn Melville’s fictional description into a memory of his own and just as unconsciously revised it, to make it more rational. Also worrisome: Try-pots had to reach a very high temperature, and they stayed at that temperature for days while a whale was being processed, so I’m a little skeptical of Davis’s account of wading into the try-pots, which implies significant delay in heating them. Also, even a small amount of moisture in the try-pots was dangerous, because it caused the oil to sputter. Olmsted says the whalers went to great lengths to keep moisture out, making it unlikely that sailors, who perspire, would have been asked to wade into the fluid.
Despite my reservations, I’m inclined for the interim to accept Davis’s testimony and believe that sperm-squeezing was an activity that real whalers engaged in, as well as fictional ones. But I wish there were more evidence on either side. A plea for crowd-sourcing: If anyone knows of another reference to sperm squeezing—especially one published before 1851—I’d love to hear about it.
"We are undergoing what they call in California 'a paradigm shift,'" writes Nigel Burwood at Bookride, his brilliant blog about bookselling. "An older more bookish generation is dying off or downsizing," he explains. And as a result, booksellers like Burwood "are being offered far too many books."
I've been wondering about this. I'm a buyer of secondhand books rather than a seller, so I'm not as acutely aware of market vicissitudes, but there is an indicator that I've been curious about. At the used-book search site Abebooks.com, if you aren't ready to buy, you can "Save for later" the books you've found. Since my reach usually exceeds my financial grasp, and since searching for copies of books in and of itself satisfies a certain obsessive-compulsive craving, I often have dozens of books in my "Save for later" list. Over the years, I have learned that the list is not stable. From time to time, either I or Abebooks upgrades software and inadvertently deletes all the titles. Sometimes individual books vanish from the list without explanation, perhaps because a software cookie has expired, but if you notice that such a book is gone, you can easily search for it again. Even less distressingly, if a bookseller goes on vacation, his book remains in your "save for later" list but the price is replaced by the notation "Temporarily unavailable." It comes back of its own accord when the bookseller does.
Excruciatingly, however, the price next to a title in your "Save for later" list is sometimes replaced with the notation "Book sold!" That exclamation point always cuts like salt dashed into a wound. How long did the very good set of all eleven volumes of the Bodley Head Henry James in very good dust jackets remain in my "Save for later" list, priced at $150, without my finding the necessary funds and courage? I do not know, but I remember the day that the numerals disappeared, the title went from clickable blue to unclickable black, and I was forced to concede that "Book" had "sold!"
As recently as a few years ago, I felt such pangs more or less monthly. As much as the pangs pained me, I recognized them as a sign of general economic health and my own good judgment about prices. After all, I put a book in my "Save for later" list because I thought it was the cheapest available copy in good condition of an edition that I wanted. If anybody else wanted the same edition, the copy in my cart was exactly the one they would buy, if they had any sense.
The pangs became less frequent in 2008, with the advent of the Great Recession. Oddly, though, they didn't return with the so-called recovery. In fact, over the past year, almost no books in my cart have been sold out from under me—so few, in fact, that I erroneously concluded that Abebooks must have changed its methodology and must now be silently vanishing sold books from "Save for later" lists, perhaps on the advice of some marketing psychologist who had revealed to the site's managers how traumatic those words and that mark of punctuation were to fragile personalities like mine. But then, a month ago, I was once more stabbed in the heart: "Book sold!" It was a shock. Once I recovered from the particular loss, though, I became perplexed. So Abebooks hadn't changed its methods. That meant that only one book I wanted had been bought by someone else in the course of almost a year.
A number of explanations suggest themselves. First: perhaps there is no economic recovery, not really, at least not among people who buy the sort of books I like. Second: perhaps e-readers, by changing habits, have thinned the ranks of collectors and made physical books a drug on the market, as Burwood has suggested. Third: perhaps it's a sign of deflation. (Number three isn't so much an alternative to number two as an alternative way of thinking of it.) General deflation would be a worldwide economic nightmare, to the extent that I understand it, but it's possible that there might only be deflation in the market for used books. New booksellers, especially online, constantly vary their prices, but used booksellers usually price their books just once. That practice works well in an era of mild inflation; the real cost of a book drops the longer it sits on the shelf, as a reasonable seller would want it to. But if, because of changing tastes or general economic malaise, the demand for used books is dropping, then most old prices are now too high, and as time goes by, the real value of these books to buyers will fall ever further below the price written on the front flyleaf. But few booksellers are likely to want to endure the tedium of repricing their whole stock.
Deflation would explain why I often nowadays buy books through another feature offered by Abebooks, the "Wants" list. If you enter search criteria for a "Want" and add it to your "Wants" list, Abebooks will email you any new books entered into its database that match. Often the newly added copies are priced substantially lower than the ones currently sitting around, perhaps on account of the factors sketched out above.
To look on the bright side, if the trend persists, I might someday be able to afford a library much ampler and substantial than I ever thought possible. (Where to put it is another question. And if the market for used books collapses altogether, of course, I won't be able to find the books that I will theoretically be able to afford.) Among the drawbacks of this state of affairs, however, is the sense of an era ending. One kind of book that I like to have is a reasonably attractive hardcover scholarly edition of a literary classic; recently, for example, I got a bargain on the second edition of Eugene Vinaver's three-volume Sir Thomas Malory. In that vein, when Jenny Davidson's blog Light Reading alerted me last week to a TLS review of a new edition of the poems of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, I devoured the review at once, because I don't have an edition of Rochester, and I've never been able to figure out which one to get, if I were to get one. Bad news: the new Wiley-Blackwell edition costs $99, but according to the TLS, the edition you probably want is Harold Love's 1999 Oxford English Texts edition, which costs $350 new, and only about a C-note less used. The price of scholarly hardcovers of classic literary texts has been rising for decades, and in many cases, they're now out of the reach of everyone except research libraries and a few of the academics who specialize in that specific author, if said academics are well funded. Indeed, when columnists at the Chronicle of Higher Education recently recommended that new graduate students "build a personal library," they weren't referring to the purchase of books at all. They were merely advising that grad students store in a software program the titles of articles and books they read, preferably along with a few keywords. (Happily, Penguin often republishes the texts I covet, but they're stripped of much of the scholarly apparatus, and a paperback isn't as durable, nor is it quite the same aesthetic object.)
Desultorily, with no ambitions for speed or even completion, I have been reading Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene (1590-1609). I had always been daunted by its reputation (long, boring), but Keats goes on and on about Spenser in his letters, and in The Magician's Book, my friend Laura Miller offhandedly suggests that the sort of children who like C. S. Lewis's Narnia books may grow up to be the sort of adults who like the Faerie Queene, so I thought I should show a little gumption.
Spenser's vocabulary was deliberately archaic even in the sixteenth century, and that's an obstacle. You win quite a few rounds of OED bingo while reading Spenser. (To win a round of OED bingo, a game of my own devising, when you come across a word you don't know, you look it up in the OED, and if you find the same passage that you've been reading among the usage examples, you win. For example, if, like me, you don't know the meaning of stound, then upon discovering the word in a line of Spenser's, you turn to the OED, learn that it refers to a sharp pang, attack, or shock, and just below this definition you find the lines of verse that sent you there:
Then when his deare Duessa heard, and saw
The evill stownd, that daungered her estate . . .
Bingo! I've also won rounds while reading Trollope. Boody, meaning "to sulk," is a word that only Trollope seems ever to have used.)
The Faerie Queene isn't like Spenser's lyric poetry, which I've liked since college; it's more impersonal, even monumental. Moreover, it's allegory—another obstacle to modern enjoyment. In principle I don't mind it that one character stands for virtue, another for virginity, etc., but many of Spenser's characters represent their ideas so impartially that they don't quite come across as people. Add in the poem's resort to fantastical and sometimes gruesome imagery, and the reader sometimes feels as if he is trapped in another person's unconscious, prey to mysterious forces incarnated as monsters, elves, and beauties, all lacking the sort of personal self that might in a pinch be negotiated with.
An exception to this generalized quality is the character Despair, who appears in book 1, canto 9. Despair, rather modernly, not only represents an idea but gives voice to it and has an almost personal way of thinking about it.
Personal and creepy. He's thoroughly unpleasant. Greasy-haired and lantern-jawed, he is discovered by Red Cross, the first canto's hero, sitting on the floor of a cave beside a man whom he has just encouraged to stab himself. The corpse, Spenser reports, is still wallowing "in his owne yet luke-warme blood." Red Cross threatens to kill Despair, who in his defense points out that he didn't kill the man beside him: "None else to death this man despayring drive, / But his owne guiltie mind deserving death." Moreover, Despaire continues, the man is now at peace, which it's hardly kind for Red Cross to begrudge him:
He there does now enjoy eternall rest
And happie ease, which thou doest want and crave,
And further from it daily wanderest:
What if some little paine the passage have,
That makes fraile flesh to feare the bitter wave?
Is not short paine well borne, that brings long ease,
And layes the soule to sleepe in quiet grave?
Sleepe after toyle, port after stormie seas,
Ease after warre, death after life does greatly please.
Everyone dies, Despair continues; so why try to avoid death? Humans are naturally sinful, and therefore the longer they live, the more sin they commit. Despair reminds Red Cross, for example, that not long ago Red Cross betrayed his beloved Una with the fetching but evil Duessa. Isn't Red Cross himself guilty enough already? Does he really want to live longer and risk adding to his budget of misdoing? "Then do no further goe, no further stray," Despair counsels, "But here lie downe, and to thy rest betake." Despair hands Red Crosse a dagger. Red Crosse lifts it up . . .
Una herself stops him. She calls Red Cross "faint harted," which isn't quite fair, but she reminds him that she's relying on him to fight a dragon, and that's sufficient to liberate him from Despair's spell.
Not long after reading Red Cross's encounter with Despair, I picked up the psychologist Thomas Joiner's recent book Myths about Suicide (Harvard University Press, 2010). Unhappily, several friends of mine have died by their own hand over the years, so I was reading for the personal reason of wanting to understand. Joiner is out to explode a number of canards about suicide that he believes untrue. He's more impatient with the psychoanalytic tradition than I am, though I'm sympathetic with his exasperation, particularly with the orthodoxies of mid-twentieth-century American psychoanalysis, which got quite sclerotic. He repeats some of his material from chapter to chapter, but perhaps that's because he expects people to read the book in pieces, turning to the myth that they're curious about, rather than all the way through, as I happened to.
I learned a great deal from Joiner's book. I think he would give Edmund Spenser's representation of suicidal despair a B+. He wouldn't have approved of Una's aspersion on Red Cross's bravery, for example, because he considers the notion that suicides are cowards to be false. A suicide has to overcome natural aversion to self-harm, and the effort sometimes requires near-incredible will-power and toughness. Joiner would, however, have overwhelmingly approved of Una's intervention, and of her indication to Red Cross that he is wanted and needed.
Joiner is a strict logician, and his angriest debunking is of the psychoanalytic notion that "suicide is an act of anger, aggression, or revenge." According to this theory, first mooted by Freud, Red Cross's real impulse for trying to stab himself would have been anger or resentment of someone close to him. Who, though—Una? The notion "fails to explain why so many people who die by suicide take steps to make their deaths easier on loved ones," Joiner writes. Survivors of a suicide often feel angry and may perceive themseves to have been attacked by the deed, but suicides motivated by anger, Joiner suspects, are rare. Those contemplating suicide are much more likely to feel "that they are bereft and that their deaths will be a service to others."
Joiner believes that one reason suicides are so difficult for others to understand is that suicide is the end-result of three long processes that change the way suicidal people think about themselves and the world: "learned fearlessness, perceived burdensomeness, and failed belongingness." It isn't natural to harm oneself, and suicides have learned to be fearless about self-hurt, either because their careers (the practice of medicine, military service) or life experiences (Holocaust survival, anorexia) have inured them to pain and trauma, or because they have managed to inure themselves by repeated attempts. By "perceived burdensomeness," Joiner explains, he means that suicides come to hold "the view that one burdens others to such a degree that one's death will be worth more than one's life." By "failed belongingness," he means that they feel "profoundly alienated from others." Una's request for Red Cross to fight a dragon at once offsets his perception of himself as a burden—as the pit of accumulating sinfulness that Despair is trying to insinuate into his self-image—and reintegrates him into the social world.
That sense of integration seems crucial. Not much in the study of suicide is based on rock-solid scientific proof, Joiner explains, because it's not the sort of phenomenon that it would be ethical to experiment with. Intriguingly, however, the only clinical intervention proven to lower death rates is a very simple one: if patients hospitalized for a suicide attempt later receive "brief expressions of concern and reminders that the treatment agency was accessible when patients needed it," fewer of them go on to die by suicide. The benefit was first demonstrated with personalized, signed letters, but a later study showed that the benefit persisted even if the expression took the form of a computer-generated postcard. Even a small gesture had a powerful effect.
There's overwhelming evidence, in fact, that it's untrue that "If people want to die by suicide, we can't stop them." Una's no-nonsense yanking of Red Cross from Despair's cave is, here too, a model. Studies have repeatedly shown that when suicide-prevention barriers are added to a bridge, the number of suicides from that bridge drops, and the number of suicides from other bridges nearby does not rise. After 1963, Joiner reports, suicides in Britain dropped by a third merely because that year "Britain switched from coke gas to natural gas for domestic use" and "coke gas is far more lethal." The rates didn't rise again later. Similarly, when Britain outlawed packages of acetaminophen and aspirin containing more than 32 pills, deaths by overdose of those drugs dropped 22 percent, and that decrease, too, became permanent. After Australia banned automatic and semi-automatic weapons in 1996, suicide by firearms dropped from about 492 yearly to 247, and no increases in other methods of death was observed.
Everyone who attempts suicide is ambivalent, Joiner believes, and therefore apparently contingent factors can be decisive, such as access to means and minor positive or negative social signals. The person contemplating suicide isn't seeing the big picture, and this is why only about a quarter leave notes, and why those few notes tend to focus on practical, short-term matters, like where to find the keys to the car. Joiner refers to this as "cognitive constriction," and Red Cross certainly falls into it. He forgets, after all, about a whole dragon.
I thought I had blogged about the prodigious walking of Wilkie Collins back when I wrote about him for the LRB, but I don't seem to have.
In The Woman in White, Collins's hero Walter Hartright is eternally walking. His first vision of the Woman in White, in fact, comes during a walk from Hampstead to his apartment in the Inns of Court, a distance of slightly more than four miles. But even though Walter begins his walk after dark, he takes the long way home:
I determined to stroll home in the purer air, by the most round-about way I could take; to follow the white winding paths across the lonely heath; and to approach London through its most open suburb by striking into the Finchley-road, and so getting back, in the cool of the new morning, by the western side of the Regent's Park.
According to Google, if in your walk from Hampstead to the Inns of Court you insist on going by Finchley Road and the west side of Regent's Park, you nearly double your trip, to slightly more than seven miles long. No wonder that Walter later, in a high frenzy of sleuthing, scoffs at fear of distance:
"How far is it to Knowlesbury from this place?" [Walter asks.]
"A long stretch, sir," said the clerk, with that exaggerated idea of distances and that vivid perception of difficulties in getting from place to place, which is peculiar to all country people. "Nigh on five mile, I can tell you!"
It was still early in the forenoon. There was plenty of time for a walk to Knowlesbury, and back again to Welmingham. . . .
Though hobbled by something he called gout, and addicted to opiates, Collins himself walked vigorously. Biographer Catherine Peters reports that during an 1873 book tour of America, Collins was dismayed to discover that Americans did not carry walking-sticks and did not like to go on walks. From New York, Collins wrote home to a friend of his chagrin:
I . . . thought nothing of a daily constitutional from my hotel in Union-square to Central Park and back. Half a dozen times on my way, friends in carriages would stop and beg me to jump in. I always declined, and I really believe that they regarded my walking exploits as a piece of English eccentricity.
Collins's constitutional measured about five miles.