Self-Extinction

Russell Davies

  • Short Lives by Katinka Matson
    Picador, 366 pp, £2.50, February 1981, ISBN 0 330 26219 X

There is nothing very mysterious about the interest we take in self-destructive personalities. To be callous about it – and we are all callous when it comes to disasters relived on the printed page – their lives make excellent biographies. Not only do they suffer in a dramatic way: they do it more purposefully than the rest of us, with our dull sense of un-satisfactoriness, can manage. Sequences of chaos and catastrophe in the life of an artist maudit, which to an eye-witness must appear so messy, pointless and wasteful, are revealed by the historical assessor as deliberate strides towards the goal of oblivion. Death becomes, unmistakably, an achievement, if only in the sense retained by that useful French word achevé, meaning both ‘brought to completion’ and, in a more brutal tone, ‘finished off’ or even frankly ‘killed’. Linguistically, the French are well-equipped to examine these morbid processes, and with perplexing modern exemplars like Artaud and Simone Weil to go at, they need to be.

The spectacle of ‘creative’ people destroying themselves is a modern entertainment. We sense a pleasing paradox in it – or, more accurately, a contrary motion away from the morally neutral point of ‘normality’. People enjoy believing that the more urgent and ecstatic the artist’s drive into the gratifications of creativity, the more desolating his equal and opposite emotional knock back into perplexity, incoherence and helplessness. The suffering – this is where we in the spectatorial mass are truly callous – is seen as the necessary penalty of the gift: a penalty silently exacted by the rest or us who have no gift to exercise. Be the protagonist Van Gogh or James Dean, the message from the public is the same. We love you for your talent, but we will love you doubly for dying of it. The proof that we are better off without it is a comfort. It helps to make the complacency of an unrisked life that much more bearable.

One can even smuggle a little contempt into this point of view, for the notion of the Holy Fool comes readily to hand: a respectable disguise for the subtly belittling anecdote casting the artist in the role of perpetual adolescent. Nobody doubts that Dylan Thomas died of drink and a regressive, infantile personality: but the thing that is remembered about his last days is a remark (‘I’ve just had 18 straight whiskies, I think that’s the record’) which superbly typifies the kind of thing his public would like him to have said. Recent biographies deny that he said it at all, but the remark will survive, because it encapsulates so well that combination of bravado and pathos which gives a reader the feeling he’s got the artist’s measure. Indeed, Thomas’s whole career in America – the well-authenticated outrageousness at academic receptions, the nuzzling up to repelled and fascinated ladies, even the bow-tie and cigars – is a sort of gift package to collectors of the artist-image, as no doubt Thomas at the time intended it to be.

Dylan Thomas was among the first to make a successful showbiz performance of his own decline. His pain, in the meantime, remained visibly authentic: which must have helped Americans accept, without too much distaste, the comparatively new idea that an artist’s loss of powers was as saleable a commodity as anything else about him. (The idea was already becoming familiar in the performing world, where John Barrymore, notably, had played out the end of his career surrounded by idiot-boards as an openly bog-eyed parody of his younger self.) It was in the Fifties, then, that America’s taste-makers finally stopped resisting the attractions of dissolution and decay. The policy began to pay off immediately. Having identified, for example, the screwed-tight, stuttering James Dean as an appropriate hero for the time, Americans experienced the novel satisfaction of seeing him ratify his anguish by driving his Porsche Spyder (unbeatable name, gratifyingly foreign car) flat out into an oncoming vehicle.

Transferring its wilder affections to Elvis Presley, the American public seemed to be opting for a more affirmative, if dangerous, sexual vitality; and for a while, Presley’s publicity agents even managed to imprison this force successfully within a patriotic uniform. Elvis the GI, the last great publicity-shot of the Fifties, was also America’s last pretence to psychic health. By 1977 – the year Presley finally swelled to bursting, as though a victim of the grossness of his own fame – unnatural deaths of famous men were threatening to become the tradition rather than the freak. Pop music had its own long roll-call of the overdose: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and a dozen more; Judy Garland had heroically outlasted Marilyn Monroe, and the not unconnected Kennedys were slain. Vietnam and the political assassinations continued the specifically American tradition of violent death, but the suicides and near-suicides, those half-expected misadventures, perhaps made Americans question themselves more deeply. As Mailer wrote (it is one of the texts quoted near the close of Alvarez’s Savage God), ‘the private terror of the liberal spirit is invariably suicide, not murder.’ In the light of the assaults on Lennon and Reagan, it might be truer, today, to say that murder is the form in which America’s suicidal impulse has begun to express itself. Americans face the possibility that their nation as a whole suffers from a sickly form of the ‘artistic temperament’. Is it all a phase, or does unparalleled national creativity directly generate a propensity for self-destruction?

Katinka Matson’s selection of ‘short lives’ comprehends an array of nationalities wide enough to be almost comforting in these troubled times. The case of Yukio Mishima in particular will remind Americans that the rites of self-extinction practised elsewhere can be even more bizarre. But there is a large preponderance of American names, ranging from Poe to Billie Holiday and Lenny Bruce. The starry cast of international oddments runs to the likes of Rimbaud, Nijinsky and Modigliani, and as far back as Thomas Chatterton, the Romantic stereotype. As an aid to the study of an important public theme, the list is interesting, but has been assembled, oddly enough, for a much more private reason: namely, as a sort of commemorative apologia for the life of Thomas ‘Tyler’ Bootman, a semi-published and semi-vagabond poet with whom Ms Matson spent 13 unofficially and sometimes loosely attached years. Bootman, whose career is affectingly summarised, sounds like one of those figures who never quite escape studenthood. His progress was perhaps significantly hindered, in any case, by a serious car-crash in Mexico. Outstandingly successful in what can only be called an empire-building sex-life, he gradually failed to produce in other areas. One suspects it was a premonition of failure which attracted him to the self-destroying literary heroes Ms Matson has since documented in his honour. Substituting life-style where the literary style would not come, Bootman took to a life of vagabondaggio which led him frequently South of the Border again.

Mexico incidentally emerges from this book as the Mecca of the moribund, and absolutely not the place to go if your hold on life is a matter of desperate clinging. More dooms have been contemplated and prefigured in Mexico – incubated, I would even say – than anywhere else on earth, even New York City. Artaud participated in the Mexican Indians’ peyote rite, exacerbating his drug condition. ‘Plentiful tequila’ appealed to Hart Crane – Mexico was his last home shore. Kerouac’s friend/hero/obsession Neal Cassady was found dead there on a railroad track. Jack London did not last more than a couple of years after getting dysentery, and perpetually drunk, in Mexico. Malcolm Lowry, of course, boiled his head there for years, and made the Mexican Day of the Dead immortal. It was in Mexico, too, that Tom Bootman died, at the age of 36. The cause of death, ostensibly, was bad anaesthetic at a dentist’s: but it was one of those deaths where the accident surprised nobody. To say, as Ms Matson does, that Bootman was ‘pursuing his own death’ is to capitulate, a little unhelpfully, to the tradition of Gothic overstatement which a book like this should really aim to set aside. Yet it is not easy to see how she could have pitched her claim very much lower: for it is perfectly true that there is a way of going in pursuit of something which amounts to the expectation that it will catch you first. In this volume, at all events, Bootman lines up with his heroes at last, though tagged on to the autobiographical sequence, an envoi in more senses than one. It is a touching scheme, but makes the book more of a gesture than a work. The exercise peaks for itself, but so very plaintively that one longs for some stronger editorial comment. The shortest of general statements from Ms Matson would have been welcome.

The life-stories told here very rarely collide – Hart Crane and Harry Crosby make up the only instance of a useful overlap – and though one destiny will often echo another, the meanings that can be inferred from such correspondances are never very solid. However, if I had to draw one bold conclusion from this conspectus of abridged existences it would be that fathers promote survival. Much the most strongly predisposing factor in favour of a short and reckless life is the lack of a loving father. In case after case it happens, right through this alphabetical index of alienation. Artaud’s father, ‘whose interest was in business, misunderstood his son’. Lenny Bruce’s parents’ marriage ‘ended in divorce when Bruce was eight years old’. Chatterton’s father died two months before Thomas’s birth. Montgomery Gift’s father survived, but being ‘a quiet man’ and ‘Vice-President of the Omaha National Bank’, lived apart from the family, in one way or another, most of the time. At 19, by the way, Clift travelled to Mexico with his friend and mentor Lehman Engel. They sailed on the SS Orizaba, ‘the ship from which Hart Crane had jumped to his death seven years before. While in Mexico, Clift contracted amoebic dysentery.’ And so the catalogue continues. Hart Crane came to call his father ‘the chocolate maggot’. Stephen Crane’s died when he was nine. It’s not until the rather marginal figure of Harry Crosby that we meet a man whose father lasted long enough to threaten to ‘map out’ his son’s life, thus providing the traditional platform for healthy rebellion. But by this time, Harry had had his ambulance shelled from under him at Verdun – escaping unhurt, but contracting a severe obsession with the sun, perceived as a glorious vision of death by explosion. Crosby shot his lover and himself in 1929.

The pattern resumes with James Dean, who was brought up by an aunt and uncle after the death of his mother (‘His father remained in California’). What these dead or absentee fathers took with them, evidently, was some principle of attachment to life at all costs: the will to live to the Father’s age. To be, indeed, Father. Nobody has put it more plainly than Sylvia Plath (‘Daddy, I have had to kill you/You died before I had time’). It all adds up to a pretty straightforward endorsement of father Freud, especially when we arrive at the unknown territory of the Bootman story and find the familiar story awaiting us: ‘While he always got along with his mother, a warm, sympathetic woman who adored him, Tom’s relationship with his father was uneasy; they were often at odds.’ Here we are even propelled towards routine conclusions about the dangers of exclusive mother-love. The book does indeed display the full range of sexual malaises presumed to result from this one-sided affection, Bootman standing at one end of the scale as the compulsive womaniser and Hart Crane at the other as the sailor-chasing homosexual, with several bisexuals (including a very elegant and achevé case in Montgomery Clift) occupying the middle ground. ‘Latent homosexuality’ is a hoary phrase giving rise to hoary ideas, but it is hard to deny the claims of some such motive in the oblivion-seeking of, say, Malcolm Lowry, whose chesty poses on the Dollarton seashore, ironic though they doubtless are, have always struck me as uncomfortably similar to homosexual pin-ups.

It was Lowry who called the race of artists he typified ‘the ones that burn’. He willed the image into his life, too: fire, as he admitted, had a tendency to follow him around. He saw fire-work even in the creation of his masterpiece (entitled, of course, Under the Volcano): ‘the truth is, the beastly book seemed to go off like a hundred skyrockets at once and I am still trying to dodge the sparks and sticks falling on my head.’ This is certainly among the most attactive signals sent up, in this selection at least, from the centre of a personal conflagration. But one of the most articulate and obsessive spokesmen for burning souls is unfortunately omitted: Cesare Pavese, whose letters and journals, apart from their interest as abstract pronouncements on the topic of self-destruction, are especially illuminating as examples of a modern European sensibility under pressure from its more muscular American equivalent. It was presumably the shortage of finely-worded plaints from the pen of Bix Beiderbecke that prevented Ms Matson from including in her survey the jazz world’s most illustrious (white) burnt-out case: Charlie Parker, the outstanding black victim, is perhaps a more puzzling exclusion. John Berryman was surely worthy of a place: but it would have been a shame, I grant, if he had displaced a lesser-known figure like Ross Lockridge (1914-1948). Lockridge, having striven for years to get his Great American Novel, Raintree County, into print, gassed himself in frustration, the night before his book appeared in the best-seller list, at the top.

The definitive rock-bottom statement on the claims of the self comes, as a matter of fact, from Lockridge’s book. In spite of being on amazingly good terms with his father, who not only wrote books but sold them as well, he was able to write:

We Americans make the modern error of dignifying the Individual. We do everything we can to butter him up ... But after all, he’s only a seed, a bloom and a withering stalk among pressing billions. Your Individual is a pretty disgusting, vain, lewd little bastard ... By God, he has only one right guaranteed to him in Nature, and that is the right to die and stink to Heaven.

‘Hear hear’ from Plath and Poe and Bruce and Anne Sexton, the more raucous voices of Messrs Chapman and Hinckley joining in behind.