The literary life is too often linked with untimely death, study panel believes

November 24, 1994|By New York Times News Service

When the poet Anne Sexton learned of Sylvia Plath's suicide in 1963, she was horrified. "That death was mine," she said. Eleven years later, wrapped in a fur coat that once belonged to her mother, she sat in her car with the engine running in a closed garage and ended her life.

Literary artists have always been drawn to death as a subject, but a disproportionate number of them have also courted it in their personal lives. In a recent daylong conference at the 92nd Street Y, several scholars and writers explored the links between depression, creativity and suicide, primarily in the life and work of Sexton, Plath and Ernest Hemingway. The conference, "Wanting to Die: Suicide and American Literature," was organized by the American Suicide Foundation.

The novelist William Styron recounted his own battle with depression, told in his book "Darkness Visible," and pointed to the warning signs of his illness in his novels. "I now realize that depression and thoughts of suicide have been an integral part of my creative personality throughout my life," he said.

Three of the main characters in his novels kill themselves, Mr. Styron said. Moreover, the depressive mental states that he described in detail from "Lie Down in Darkness" and "Sophie's Choice" uncannily anticipated his own illness.

In rereading his work, Mr. Styron said, "I began to realize all my work was of an incipient depressive personality struggling to prevent the demons of mood disorder from crowding in."

Mr. Styron joins a long and illustrious roster of literary figures who battled depression and despair. Kay Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University and the author of "Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament," said writers were 10 to 20 times as likely as other people to suffer manic-depressive or depressive illnesses, which lead to suicide more often than any other mental disorders do.

It is not surprising that these mood disorders seem most at home in the artistic mind. "The cognitive style of manic-depression overlaps with the creative temperament," Ms. Jamison said.

Researchers have found that in a mildly manic state, subjects think more quickly, fluidly and originally. In a depressed state, subjects are self-critical and obsessive, an ideal frame of mind for revision and editing. "When we think of creative writers," Ms. Jamison said, "we think of boldness, sensitivity, restlessness, discontent; this is the manic-depressive temperament."

The demons that pursued Mr. Styron gave Anne Sexton her richest subject matter, and eventually consumed her. Diane Middlebrook, the author of a recent biography of Sexton, said that initially she resisted ending her biography with the suicide, for fear that it would dismantle the image of Sexton as a woman who found in the wreckage of her life the raw material from which she constructed poetry of unusual power and immediacy.

In the end, she acceded to Sexton's wishes and, so to speak, assisted in her suicide. "She neither could have nor should have been prevented from ending her life that day," Ms. Middlebrook said. "The best thing I could do as a biographer was honor her intention without flinching."

Herbert Hendin, a professor of psychiatry at New York Medical College and executive director of the American Suicide Foundation, rejected the notion that Sexton's suicide was inevitable. "This is tempting to therapists and biographers," he said. "It softens the desperation of the act and provides solace for the reader."

Both Ms. Middlebrook and Sexton's analyst, Dr. Martin T. Orne, made the same mistake, he said, in not challenging a central premise governing Sexton's psychiatric treatment, namely, that she had nothing to offer but her poetry.

Perhaps more than other artists, writers can be seduced by the attractiveness of suicide as a means of controlling their life story. Several speakers pointed out the tendency of

suicide to become a powerful image or metaphor, one that takes root in the mind and flourishes.

"Both Sylvia Plath and Sexton shared the notion that a great artist's life must end in death," Ms. Middlebrook said. "You stop hTC before you write more bad stuff. Sexton applauded Hemingway's suicide.

Hemingway, of course, was almost programmed for suicide. His father killed himself, and so did a brother and a sister.

"He blamed his father for committing suicide, because he saw it as cowardice," said Scott Donaldson, the author of "By Force of Will," a biography of Hemingway. "It was not suicide as suicide that got to him, but the idea of a guy running away from a fight." In the end, Hemingway's resolve unraveled as his health failed and he became subject to paranoid delusions.

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