LI saw the well intentioned snuff film, The Bridge, this week. For those who haven’t seen it – the bridge in question is the Golden Gate Bridge. The film is the result of a sort of birdwatching project, the birds in question being suicides swandiving off the bridge. The crew set up cameras on both sides of the bridge, equipped themselves with cell phones, and kept on scanning the bridge till they would come upon a likely prospect. Then, doing their duty, they would call up the police, while trying to keep the camera focused on the potential diver. 24 people killed themselves in the year they were watching, but a documentary that just did the highlights would be rather short, so we are given interviews with family and friends. And there is one spectacular suicide, a man in a leather coat and fine, dark as a raven’s wing long hair, a rock n roller type, whose indecisive postures and agitation as he walks about and sits staring out at the water are intercut with the rest of the film. There’s a woman who is rescued, apparently a regular attempter. There’s a wonderful, jug eared young man – a nineteen year old – who survives his plunge with a broken rib and some other internal injuries, and is trying hard to understand how he ever got to that point.
There is, obviously, a lot of tastelessness about this enterprise, but one has to be tastelessness to get anywhere with the topic of suicide. The film does try to sample the variety of suicides. Most of them are men, as statistically most suicides are men. Suicides, as we all know, are undercounted – and even of the one that is successful, there are eight to twenty five that are not, making suicide a pretty common occurrence - 35,000 some being counted in the U.S. each year, making hundreds of thousands of attempts. Car crashes, odd accidents – there are a lot of other suicide-like phenomenon that just aren’t put in those stats.
While the swan dives hold a gawker’s interest, the most interesting part of the film to LI was the number of people of different types – family, friends – who talked about the suicides. There’s a limit to how much one can talk in public about suicide – it is one of those forms of speech that, too much indulged in, can get you committed. Which immediately makes the topic weirder than it really is. Psychiatry simply makes that weirdness official. I don’t hold myself out as an entire model of normality, but still, my own experience is derived from the main, and my own experience is that suicide is and always has been one of the normal ‘ideations’ in the longue duree of my experience. It takes on all the technicolor of any object of repeated reflection: at time it is a comfort, sometimes it is a threat, sometimes it is a silly melodrama, sometimes an inevitability. I find this all pretty normal. Now, there are probably human beings out there who don’t think of killing themselves, or who think much less frequently than I do. But it is hard to image that someone committed in some vague way to the arts doesn’t have a lively dialogue going with a suicide double at some point or another.
The science of psychology has always wanted to come up with a classification schema that is as non-controversial as accounting, but it has always had to deal with the problem that the human mind consists of swarms of multicolored and fantastic lifeforms, ideas that swim about and breed and brood. As a result, most psychological classification reduces the inner life to a pitiful handful of concatenated moods. Worse, unlike, say, biological taxonomies, which strive to construct themselves about some generative principle – and thus create a map of relationships and lineages – psychological taxonomies carry a certain air of committee work – definitions that seem simply to absorb the given and the fashionable in a suitably esoteric vernacular. In a recent article in Psychiatry by Robert W. Daly entitled “Before Depression: The Medieval Vice of Acedia,” Daly sums up the current medical definition of depression like this: “Contemporary depression is characterized by the continuing presence of a depressed (pressed down) mood, diminished interest or pleasure in most or any activities, weight loss, insomnia or hypersomnia, psychomotor retardation or agitation, fatigue or loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate
guilt, diminished ability to think or concentrate, recurrent thoughts of death, and suicidal ideation.” Welcome to my week! Although, in truth, my own pressed down moods are often countered by the momentary elations that help me bounce through the day, often like a fucking speedfreak bunny rabbit. There are, in truth, two souls within my breast – and sometimes a whole dinner party of souls – and certainly there are different, concurrent streams of mood.
Daly’s essay asks a good question: how was acedia a vice? why did it become a vice? To answer it, he goes back to the desert fathers, one of whom, Evagrius Pontus (345–399 A.D.), seems to have given the first thorough definition of acedia:
“The most serious tempter was the “noonday demon.”4 Evagrius’s writings characterize this demon (or spirit) as manifesting itself in psychic exhaustion and listlessness caused by the monotony of life and the immediate surroundings or by the protracted struggle with other temptations. This boredom signals that the hermit is still too much attached to sensual pleasures. Its effects are dejection, restlessness, hatred of the cell and the monk’s brethren, desire to leave and seek salvation elsewhere—the latter temptation often suggested under the appearance of charity. (Evagrius, 1970, pp. 18–19).
The remedies for ridding oneself of this temptation are to try to encourage (one’s self?) and to be encouraged “to sow seeds of a firm hope” by singing psalms, to remain in one’s cell, to face one’s conflicts, to live “as if he were to die on the morrow but . . . treat his body as if he were to live . . . for many years to come” (Evagrius, 1970, pp. 23–24).”
I have to hand it to Evagrius – that’s a genius solution. Combining song with the idea that you are going to die tomorrow, but treating your body as though it were in for the long haul – that is the solution searched for by all the great rock n rollers, the bluesmen, the hip hoppers, the divas, n’est-ce pas? Even though things do get fucked up in the drug channel, and there’s always the possibility that your body will live on and your soul would wither and die – the Mick Jagger complex. Becoming your own re-run is a terrible fate.
Daly traces the course of thinking about acedia through the whole monastic tradition, where it seemed to breed as a vocational vice – the result of too much contemplation and too little company. As it sprang out of the monastic circumstance, it was connected – notably by Aquinas – with lack of love. Lack of a disposition to love, uncharitableness – this is the cold heart of that boredom unto death. Daly’s essay proceeds to find the place for acedia as a vice – a disposition – rather than a sin – an act – in the Christian schemata, although as he admits, vices and sins are not so clearly distinguished at all times. Myself, Nietzsche-lover that I am, I’m attracted to the Christian notions of vice and sin not just for the truths they might hold but the counter-truths they hold at bay, the ruling values they seek to establish.