“Behind his eyes he says ‘I still exist’” – “Atrocity Exhibition” Joy Division
“Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun – for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax – This won’t hurt.” – Suicide note, Hunter S. Thompson
Contemporary culture is, has been, perpetually ending for the last hundred or so years. Ending as in crisis, ending as in burning, ending as in falling fast away. What seems to shock humanity or those observing this decline are the means of resistance. We resist but largely in part, and those who resist entirely are likely not seen, or have chosen death, a feasible response perhaps to the impossibility of breathing. When public figures kill themselves, a brief instant of death seems to flash before the eyes of many. When public figures kill themselves and it seems embroiled in the work they did prior—their work seems deathly, sepulchral, “already dead” to quote devotees of this art (and the only actual punk band) CRASS—that instant of death receives an endless life, so to speak; as with figures like Kurt Cobain or Ian Curtis or Hunter Thompson (there are plenty, see: ART SINCE LASCAUX CAVES perhaps) that flash, that instant of death is forever linked with their words, their ideas, their “presence” thereafter, so that with each listen to Bleach, Closer, or each page read from The Rum Diary we’re not only reading or hearing the texts but also perceiving the extended narrative of death in perpetuity, one might comfortably argue. Many times these deaths are memorialized in art in turn, as with Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, Anton Corbijn’s Closer or documentary interviews of Hunter Thompson’s family recounting his death—apparently he wrote his famous note about football season’s close, with his family largely understanding he was ready to end it, and his son describes a harrowing moment where the bullet released from Thompson’s gun made a sound like a book falling to the floor—these things become “art moments” one might say, being the last moments of great artists, and our last biographical moment to cling to in their respective timelines to attempt to make personal sense of the work done.
In that way, we carry vicarious deaths within us much of our lives, constantly acquainted with the possibility of the escape from say monotonous work, failing relationships, and disappointments by way of the gun, the rope, et cetera. These become culturally-sanctioned moments wherein we as “normal people” or “ordinary fucking people” to quote Harry Dean Stanton’s repo man in Repo Man—a film arguably acquainted with aforesaid sentiments, not merely though possibly slightly thrown in as the author has had substantial death for one day by way of artistic reference—can address the “other side” directly through the unfortunate demise of others. Just stating it sounds opportunistic, greedy maybe, but it’s slightly removed from those ideas in that those attempting to process their life on earth and apparently reasonable escape by way of chosen death can arguably substantially identify with the death of their art heroes. After all, the sentiments within their art are likely responsible for their acquaintance with the ways in which they died in the first place—i.e., you might “know” Kurt Cobain shot himself by way of common knowledge, but you don’t really consider that death as significant unless Nirvana’s music affected you prior to studying his biography’s close, arguably.
To complicate matters slightly, one can find substantial evidence here for the existence of Foucault’s carceral continuum if these public suicides are considered more as escapees from said continuum, thus providing some degree of hope for the rest of us. This seems necessary here for the conditions of the Curtis suicide are highly industrialized, its depiction in Corbijn’s film and its echoes through Joy Division’s music cast Manchester as this driving factorial cell, and his death as a leap into oblivion for relief. It’s also necessary because our identification with suicides and our romanticizing of these figures in turn seems inextricably linked from the aforementioned continuum. For instance: which suicides in all realms of existence might be considered the most understandable, even occasionally expected? A likely answer is: the prisoner. Why is this so? Because we’ve identified the walls of a prison as confining an existence so horrific that we might even feel relief to hear a prisoner’s “escaped” from such a hellish prospect and in turn simplified sociological questions as to potentially reforming these individuals and degrees of guilt. Here we find another parallel with the artist: if the Ian Curtis/Kurt Cobain/Hunter Thompson/Virginia Woolf pantheon of art-tangled suicides were to occur after passive lives of quiet contemplation and a sense from those left behind of complete shock and confusion as to “why,” one can assume their suicide would hardly drift into its potential role as dark fantasy for intellectual depressives and would certainly abstain from skewing our collective perception of their art. However, this is almost never the case with remembered deaths: the suicides that stick are those which follow turmoil, writer’s block, spousal difficulties, public disinterest, anger, violence, and more. This seems tied with the earlier prisoners in that we accept their deaths rather than the complicated notion of “reforming” them or accepting them back into society upon their release; and with the artists rather than the complicated notion of their reformation or return to society (see, perhaps, Norman Mailer after the ordeal when he stabbed his wife, and the confused melee that was ever after his career) we seem to accept their death, which in turn might let it transmogrify into that strange romantic thing.
And so we see Ian Curtis et al as having escaped from the confines of enduring existence, perhaps, for if Foucault’s continuum bears any truth we’re just as imprisoned “out here” where we’re “free” to “do as we like” as individuals in solitary confinement on their way to a botched execution. Ian Curtis, then, in industrial Manchester when he chose to end his life, escaped from a prison to a lesser extent than the inmate who cuts his throat with a piece of broken mirror; escaping nonetheless.
What I can comprehend is the necessity for death in certain cases. What I can comprehend is the temptation to end it when the overwhelming goes too far and that’s all there is. What I can comprehend is Ian Curtis, alone, thoughtful, watching Werner Herzog’s Strozcek, before the deed. For whatever reason, however, what I cannot comprehend is the copy of Iggy Pop’s The Idiot still rotating on the record player when his body is discovered—based on which, one can guess he listened to it and watched Herzog’s film before his end. I am not sure why this doesn’t register comfortably for me, won’t reconcile itself amicably and become embroiled in the rest of the mythos of the romantic artist’s young death, yet here we are. I doubt if I heard Iggy Pop’s The Idiot without in turn connecting it to the Curtis suicide, as I cam to that record in my late teenage years and already knew a bit of the Joy Division saga; yet what throws me off even still aren’t the connections discernible between that record and this event—Iggy Pop’s influence on Curtis overall, for instance; the fact that in The Idiot the novel, which inspired the title of Pop’s LP, what’s being referenced is epilepsy, not a contemporary conception of the term “idiot,” and it was epilepsy that arguably undid Ian Curtis’s interior life; the fact that The Idiot has a far more mechanized, industrial sound than any of Pop’s previous work (influenced both by the presence of Bowie and the city of Berlin, as well as groups like Kraftwerk) and thus provides a nice coda to the era in which Ian Curtis lived in bleak, industrial Manchester—no, what bothers me aren’t the connections one might draw, but the disconnections. The Idiot, for all its aforesaid sense of industrialization, is also a rather jovial album, I’d say, and although a miserable sound isn’t a prerequisite for the ideal pre-suicide listen—I’m not arguing that, as it’s naïve and foolish—the strange excitement of Iggy Pop’s first solo venture so complicates the image of Ian Curtis as purely a depressed mess, steeped in sorrow and WWII images and failure, that it seems shocking to me that today so much of his history is painted over with teary black ink. In a sense, and here I might be stretching things, but nonetheless, in a sense the placement of these texts, Herzog’s and James Osterberg’s, alongside the event of his demise, seems to me to deconstruct our conception of the ups and downs of mental illness and the suicidal impulse, and thus The Idiot becomes a key in a strange intertextual triptych from which a fuller understanding of the mind seems apparent, perhaps. There are endless philosophical avenues here, as anyone familiar with the seemingly infinite spread of Paul Morley’s writings on Ian Curtis, Joy Division, and Ian Curtis’s death can easily attest, so I won’t set out to definitively say just what it means or why the choice of last screening and last listen so fascinates me, as I’m hoping the at least slight weight of anything previously noted holds true.
As life is a monotonous sink on the whole, or at least becomes thus for much of the population who comes to seek out comfort in the formless terrain of art. With the notion of identifying with artists who’ve chosen a way out comes another interesting dimension: Antonio Gramsci’s indication that all human beings are intellectuals—i.e. persons capable of intellectual acts, one of which being artwork—which when tied with Foucault’s continuum complicates our identification with the artist no longer with us as it implies an understanding not only of the “escape” but the events leading up to it; the thoughts and acts that might bring about the creativity and sorrow with the lives of these noted figures, as well as the final decision. Everyone is an intellectual, everyone in some way understands even the most complicated intellectual concepts even if it’s only enough to send them running in the opposite direction—that of course being a recognition of the concept in certain terms. Everyone, as well, is an artist, and were we to bring in more strange metaphysical ideas we might explore the ways in which we’re all interlinked anyway, and thus the death of anyone, public or not, “artist” or “not,” represents the death of a part rather than the death of a whole, distinct-from-ourselves entity. “Asylums with doors open wide” indeed, or rather asylums whose doors have never really been closed in the first place, only apparently made separate from the rest of the world when really the observer in Joy Division’s/Ian Curtis’s “Atrocity Exhibition”—itself an observation of J.G. Ballard’s text, another connection—blurs with the observed, the artist blurs with the non-, the intellectual with the apparent philistine, and this convoluted pot of ennui indicates a more apt perception of society, where figures like Ian Curtis have stripped away the veils of ideology at many turns and with their deaths solidified the very deathliness of this world and its people, the horror of living driving one to suicide can, in more romantic moods, be termed an act of art—as noted—but it seems more apropos to think of it as an act of ultimate humanity, an indicator and ghost that in turn might haunt the rest of us into better selves, simultaneously acquainting us with the deaths, the prisons, the walls, the asylums that surround us, but in turn opening wider eyes to the light; through suffering—and importantly through acquaintance with suffering (and suicide as the end-all suffering act)—the modern world so steeped in crisis and turning hells might find real life.
And so perhaps we live in a world of impossibility, boxed in by societal prison guards and as connected and understanding of the death walling us in as every apparent intellectual, every apparent genius. And yet this has likely never changed. We discern in the sorrow of past suicides a sorrow everywhere today. We discern in the death-centric writings of Woolf, Curtis, Thompson, any of them, we discern in these writings a state of perpetual dissatisfaction and impossibility, and yet it’s through this we find some way out, it’s through this a moment of revelation and acknowledgement of our sorry state allows for something new; some avenue unforeseen yet foretold by the Gramsci ideas, the Foucault ideas, the music the art the suffering. For if we can align our sorrow with feeling sufficient to drive our hero artists to hanging or walking into the river with pockets full up of rocks, if we can empathize beyond reason with the elder Thompson before he sat alone and willed himself to pull the trigger, perhaps this interconnectedness goes beyond mere death; and perhaps that ending represents more than full dissatisfaction with the crisis of today and rather hints at possible worlds within the world, escapes within the inescapable.
And so the suicide echoes. The lives cut short stay with us and enhance a more complicated, “realistic” take on the state of things. Living is an impossibility, as is truly dying. The dead come back to haunt us (living here) and sink their teeth into our doubts about waking up each morning. The strength of great art is not inevitably linked with the biographies of great artists but nonetheless these lives can sometimes chip the glass of our understanding irrevocably to make the art itself impossible to wholly know. It might be thought of as the broken glass of the barred prison window that reveals the humanity connected in breaths of air that sneak through the pane. It might be thought of as the public genius who in turn must go home to engage in acts we all engage in—Aristotle had diarrhea, to be sure; Mozart masturbated, one can posit; and (contrarily) the janitor of your grandmother’s nursing home has considered thoughts which apparently transcend her position. It might be thought of the voices long dead who speak to us nonetheless and warn our impatience. Another dimension might be that our ways are fundamentally lighted by darkness. We only discern our paths based on the absence of light and not its presence, only make sense of positives by their relationship with negatives. Ours—and it is us, we the caring, so to speak—is a world governed by shadows, a strange thing to consider when tied with the epilepsy of Ian Curtis, or the perceived pall cast over the lives of individuals who summarily end it. Curtis, it might be said, struggled with the strobe of performance and public spotlight because his insights ran toward the absence, aligning in turn his message and artistic/existential output with the confused but determined minds of history who see through the veil to the boiling skin beneath. Ours—and here society, Gramsci’s ISAs and RSAs for instance, are more apt—is a world that doesn’t lend itself to such glaring awareness, and struggles as the individual struggles to relegate that nervous perspective to its place. The suicide is a response to this, and a statement against this, an attempt to welcome in the shadows to the light so that all while living might be more accepting that everyone, wherever, must someday die.
Note: The Samaritans Helpline and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are safe, private and available 24 hours a day.