‘I think about suicide continuously’
That’s the phrase the editors of Culture in The Sunday Times have chosen as a caption for their picture of Maurice Saatchi, although perhaps it was Bryan Appleyard, the author, or even Saatchi himself. Does it matter? Probably not in the grand scheme of things. Sensationalism of suicide – thoughts of suicide – can detract from the gravity, but reading the article through, no gravity is lost. Here is honest, raw, open grief, and it would be hard for those who have experienced the effects of suicide to hold against Saatchi any ill feeling; in the death of his wife, he is affected. But I don’t want to talk about Maurice Saatchi. It seems offensive to look into someone’s life without a clue of any of the parts that make it up.
Nevertheless, the article prompted two strains of thought. For those who haven’t read it, it is a product of a newly released book, Life Saving: Why We Need Poetry. Saatchi does away with the distinction between himself (compiler) and his wife (‘I am her, we are one… I am Josephine Hart’), and, quite naturally, the book is attributed to her.
This duality is built on as he professes to have become a student of poetry because of her. Here he mentions Auden, and particularly Frost, as the poets who best understand his grief; he does, rather, treat them as friends and comrades in arms – as like feeling souls. As “one acquainted with the night” though, his analogues are not just rooted in the 20th Century. Rather the two more striking parallels emerge from the shadows of Victorian England. Saatchi draws this out in describing breakfast, how, as he has a place set for his wife, so Queen Victoria “kept Albert’s utensils set out for 40 years” after his death.
Does he have in mind Victoria’s own literary consolation? As she wrote in her diary, ‘Next to the Bible, In Memoriam is my comfort’. She drew from Tennyson’s grief for his friend Arthur Hallam, and the poem that took seventeen years to complete. In Memoriam is seen as modern for its reflections on evolution and “Nature, red in tooth and claw”. There is something more modern though, Tennyson’s timeless questioning in grief – the doubt (and hope).
There’s more too from the 1840s. Saatchi’s description of the indivisibility of himself from Hart mirrors Cathy’s exclamation in Wuthering Heights:
“…I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don’t talk of our separation again: it is impracticable…”
Brontë’s novel, that looks back in plot, Romantic expression, and Gothic temperament, has a striking hero. Heathcliff arrives as an ‘Other’, with no background (financial or social) as was expected of Victorian protagonists, and this extends the motif of transgression that dominates the novel. Boundaries are harshly demarcated and wilfully crossed. Here, as elsewhere, Brontë seeks to assert the primacy of personal experience over traditional Victorian concerns (e.g.class). This she does explicitly – as with Hareton’s dissolution, and Heathcliff’s jealous will to power – and implicitly, as with Cathy’s Freudian metamorphosis, when the bloodied purple tongue of Skulker (the Lintons’ dog), drags her into the civilised propriety of Thrushcross Grange (and Victorian womanhood).
Wuthering Heights is an important step in the democratisation of love and grief, especially within the context of rigid Victorian societal hierarchy (as opposed to, say, the depiction of paupers and prostitutes in Restoration comedy), an arc that would be mirrored in tragedy (as drama). Moving from Aristotle’s formal conventions of unity, and the aristocratic requirement of being cut down “From high estate” (Chaucer), Orton, Beckett, Pinter et al formed part of the transposition of tragedy to the everyday (person, situation) in whatever absurd manner the everyday could exist after the World Wars.
The erosion of ‘objective’ bases for tragedy, and the (public) communication of grief (within a modern, European framework), has not been extended to the common understanding of depression or suicide: still the yardstick for ‘reasonable cause’ is the death of a loved one. This outlook, medieval in its shallowness also flirts dangerously with a laddering of those losses. Is the death of a child a greater or lesser cause for depression than the death of an aunt? If so, should the age of the child matter?
Pessoa understands that love, as much as depression or suicide, is agnostic to objective cause – it is individual, personal, and defies justification. From The Book of Disquiet (trans. Richard Zenith):
“And in the same ways that others return to their homes, I return to my non-home: the large office on the Rua dos Douradores. I arrive at my desk as at a bulwark against life. I have a tender spot – tender to the point of tears – for my ledgers in which I keep other people’s accounts, for the old inkstand I use, for the hunched back of Sérgio, who draws up invoices a little beyond where I sit. I love all this, perhaps because I have nothing else to love, and perhaps also because nothing is worth a human soul’s love, and so it’s all the same – should we feel the urge to give it – whether the recipient be the diminutive form of my inkstand or the vast indifference of the stars.”
Finding that knowledge of feeling, in literature, in others – it helps.