|Le Suicidé by Édouard Manet, 1881
Threnody Upon a Decadent Art
by Joseph W. Krutch
In no department of human activity is our decline from the grace of the ancients more evident than in that of suicide.
It is not that people do not continue to take their own lives, but that they no longer do it exquisitely. We achieve our ends with devastating thoroughness, but, with all of our effectiveness, we are crude. The polished gesture is no more. Our crass utilitarianism has destroyed all of the fine arts, including that of suicide, and we are no longer careful that no act of life shall be more becoming us than the leaving of it. The modern designer of a suicide, like the modern builder, aims only at achieving his end. If he succeeds in getting himself dead he is satisfied, and cares nothing for the grace or beauty of the thing. As a consequence, his friends are likely to be shocked at his indelicacy, whereas, had he been an artist, his death might have added to his name a luster that no act of his life had been able to attribute.
The disgusting crudity complained of can in part be attributed to loss of caste by the act itself. Feeling that he is doing a shameful thing, the modern does it shamefully. It was not so with the Roman or Greek. He recognized in suicide a fitting end to an earthly career. To take one's leave gracefully and voluntarily seemed to him a more dignified end than to be snatched by death unwillingly away, and which of us barbarians dare question him in a matter of taste? Pliny, indeed, counted the right of self-destruction one of the most valuable of man's prerogatives, and pointed out exultingly that in that respect mortals are superior to God, who, though it is said all things are possible to Him, cannot compass his own destruction.
To the Christian must be very largely attributed the changed attitude. To him it seemed that to take one's life betrayed an unseemly haste to taste the delights of Heaven, which were not to be purchased so easily. Such precipitancy, in fact, was likely to result in his being permanently excluded from the very delights he had been so eager to enjoy, just as children are sent supperless to bed for plucking a cake before grace is pronounced.
Even had illuminating gas been known in the days of the Ptolemies, it is inconceivable that Cleopatra should have used it. Death by such a means suggests stuffy hall bedrooms and unfortunate shop girls, and is incompatible with "immortal longings." Moreover, its use seems to betray more concern for personal ease than artistic effect, and the pursuit of mere comfort is as fatal to beauty as any of the other characteristic vices of the philistine. Cleopatra's experiments, whereby she watched the effect of different poisons on slaves, were justifiable, since it must be remembered that she was seeking not merely a relatively painless death, but one that would be in no way repulsive to the finer sensibilities. Well aware that her story was one to be acted over in countries yet unfound and accents still unknown, she was too much of an artist to spoil the effect by leaving a distorted or mutilated corpse at the end.
Her work will repay the closest analysis, for the infallible intuition of genius arranged every detail of the plan. Admiration for the instrument which she finally adopted may be regarded as a sort of touchstone. Anyone with an authentic taste in suicide will feel at once the exquisite fitness of her final choice —the asp, for such a means smacks neither of the lamp nor the laboratory, but brings one in touch at once with nature—the source of all genuine beauty. Cunningly compounded poisons would have suggested the ignoble labor of vulgar apothecaries, puttering in dirty shops, but the venom of the asp was quietly distilled in nature's alembic.
"I wish you joy of the worm," Shakespeare makes one of the servants say to her.
Evidently the spectators were regarding the catastrophe of her drama with proper aesthetic detachment.
The connoisseur can do no better than to avoid the newspaper as carefully as the lover of the drama does the contemporary stage, for he will find there nothing but accounts of performances that will shock all of his finer sensibilities. Even when poison has been employed— a method that has the sanction of the masters—he will discover that none of the finer effects possible have been achieved or, indeed, even attempted.
Socrates, involuntary though his suicide was, showed what could be done in this branch of the art. Surrounded by an audience capable of appreciating the best that he could give them, he tossed off the lethean bumper, not only like a man, but like an artist. Your modern, on the other hand, buys his vial of laudanum and, sneaking off to a corner, dies like a dog. Indeed, I am not aware that hemlock, with all its noble associations, can even be bought. No single fact could show more clearly how blind to their opportunities suicides have become.
The history of every art will reveal one supreme figure, without whom the ultimate reach of that art could never have been dreamed. Had Bach never lived, music might have meant no more than an aural titillation. Without Michael Angelo the sublimity of marble and paint would never have been suspected. By the side of Michael Angelo must be written Petronius Arbiter, for, as the former name stands for the perfection of the plastic and graphic arts, so does the latter for the suicidal. The great figures should be ever before us as counsels of perfection, and the story of Petronius cannot be too often told.
It is to Nero that we owe his triumph —to Nero who was, in a way, the greatest patron of this art, which during his reign and thanks to his influence flourished mightily. Yet, however much the emperor might enjoy the works of others, he himself had, as his end showed, no productive genius, and even his taste, one is inclined to suspect, was crude, so that he was likely to be content with mere bloodshed without having any just appreciation of the subtler effects. When his own time came he failed miserably, even, if we are to believe the gossipy Suetonius, ludicrously. When the news of his downfall reached him, he knew that his great opportunity had arrived, and we may be most charitable by attributing his failure to stage fright, arising from a realization of his responsibility. "What, is it so hard to die as that?" jeered some of the guards, but even their scorn could not awaken inspiration. Unable to persuade anybody to relieve him of the responsibility and do the deed for him, he snatched some poison (which he never used) and fled. At the last moment he attempted to drive the dagger into his throat, but lacked the courage, so that a kindhearted soldier was compelled to lend his assistance. Surely so great an opportunity was never so completely bungled. While he lived fear compelled the award of the laurel to his atrocious voice, but dead none need praise his suicide.
But let us turn to the more pleasing contemplation of a glorious success. Unfortunately, we know almost nothing of Petronius save what is told by Tacitus Yet from the latter's laconic phrases we may infer the greatness of the Arbiter of Elegance. He was, it seems, erudito luxu, and spent his days in sleep' in order to reserve the night for social delights, but such habits will not be held to count too severely in the estimation of an artist. For a time Nero regarded him so highly that no diversion was considered elegant unless it had received the approval of Petronius. But at length the emperor wearied of elegant inventions just as he wearied (and this is more easily understandable) of the salutary commonplaces of Seneda. When Petronius heard that his approach to the emperor had been forbidden, he hesitated no longer, but, conscious of his ability to show the world how suicide should be accomplished, he prepared to achieve his masterpiece.
The austerity of Tacitus prevents him from fully appreciating the genius of Petronius, but a sympathetic imagination can easily reconstruct the picture from the skeleton given in the Annals. Gathering a few friends about him at the bath, he descended leisurely into the tepid water, and, reclining negligently, began to discourse with his companions. Casually, he drew the curved bronze razor over his wrists and lowered his arms into the water. A slender stream like crimson smoke curled upward and dispersed itself through the crystal water, which, after a time, began to blush faintly and then to grow more deeply incarnated. Being a man of pleasure, he avoided the usual death-bed topics and indulged in convivial songs and stories. From time to time he arrested the course of his too rapid dissolution by stopping the flow of blood, but, intermittent though the loss was, he gradually grew weaker and weaker, until with the breaking of the last jest and the emptying of the last bottle he was no more. Petronius Arbiter was dead, but he had left a name that is to endure as long as art is revered. What the discerning lover of suicide will note particularly is the device by which the process of dying was prolonged. More than anything else, the repeated stopping of the blood reveals the touch of genius. The greatest limitation of our art is that its practitioners cannot appreciate their own achievements. By prolonging the process, Petronius showed how this limitation could be practically transcended. I have no desire to belittle the work of other great classical artists. There is a noble simplicity about the deaths of Cato and Brutus, and Empedocles, when he flung himself into the crater of Aetna, revealed imagination and a fine sense of theatrical effect, exhibiting the soles of his feet as the last vision he offered to the world. Still, in spite of many worthy rivals, Petronius remains The Master.
However valuable the force of a beautiful example, the too absorbed contemplation of past excellence is fraught with danger. Our ultimate purpose is to create anew, not to stop at any realization, however complete, of past accomplishment. We must make art live again; we must not decline into a sterile aestheticism. What, we must ask, can be done today? Can the golden age of suicide be revived?
Personally, my attitude is one of hope. Does not modern life offer an abundance of inducements to get away from it? Are there not as many things to escape from as there ever were? Surely, we should be no less willing to leave New York in the twentieth century than Petronius was to leave Rome in the first, for there are as many things to induce the taedimn vitae and as many examples of the lachrymae rerum as there ever were.
The root of the trouble lies, as I have tried to suggest, in our attitude toward the art. Could we but escape from the feeling, born of puritanism, that the beautiful is merely one of the divisions of the sinful, we should find an increased perception of the beauty of suicide. Christianity, teaching that this world is a vale of tears, has done its best to make it such. To endure and, if necessary, create trouble is the essence of godliness, and consequently, to the austerely minded, a work like that of Petronius is doubly damned, first because it got him out of trouble, and, secondly, because it is beautiful. To the aesthete, on the other hand, it is admirable for these very reasons, and just as soon as the world can be brought to a proper appreciation of aesthetic values, the creator of a pleasing suicide, instead of being regarded as merely the provider of another skeleton to be hid in the closet, will be exhibited, like a great painter or musician, as an ornament to the family tree.
Let me forestall the impertinence so often flung at the critic or connoisseur. "Why," no doubt many of my readers have asked me with an air of triumphant finality, "don't you show us how the thing ought to be done. "For," and here the triumph grows complete, "example is perhaps better than precept."
The truth of the matter is, that though I know what is good, I am bound to confess that I am not able to compass it. To achieve a perfect suicide, the artist must have completely lost interest in all that life has to offer, while I, I must admit, have grown so much interested in self-destruction that I am unable to bear the idea of joining the dead where it is no longer possible.
The Smart Set, Volume 64, Issue 1, January 1921