Christopher Hitchens: On The Suicide of His Mother

The below is transcribed from Hitch’s book “Hitch-22”

Hitch 22 cigs

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…because most of what I know about manic depression I first learned from Hamlet.

“I have of late,” the Prince of Denmark tells us, “but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth.” Everyone living has occasionally experienced that feeling, but the lines that accompany it are the best definition of the blues that was ever set down. (“Tired of living, scared of dying” is the next-best encapsulation, offered in “Old Man River.”) Who would carry on with the unending tedium and potential misery if they did not think that extinction would even be less desirable or—as it is phrased in another of Hamlet’s mood-swing soliloquies—if “the ever-lasting” had “not set his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter”?

There are fourteen suicides in eight works of Shakespeare, according to Giles Romilly Feddnen’s study of the question, and these include the deliberate and ostensibly noble ones of Romeo and Juliet and of Othello. It’s of interest that only Hamlet’s darling Ophelia, whose death at her own hands is not strictly intentional, it is the object of condemnation by the clergy. My own indifference to religion and refusal to credit any babble about an afterlife has, alas, denied me the hearty satisfaction experienced by Ophelia’s brother Laertes, who whirls on the moralizing cleric to say:

“I tell thee, churlish priest,

A ministering angel shall my sister be,

When thou liest howling.”

Memorable to be sure, but too dependent on the evil and stupidity of the heaven/hell dualism, and of scant use to me in deciding how it was that a thoughtful, loving, cheerful, person like Yvonne, who was in reasonable health, would want to simply give up.

I thought it might have something to do with what the specialists call “anhedonia,” or the sudden inability to derive pleasure from anything, most especially from the pleasurable. Al Alverez, in his very testing and demanding study of the subject, “The Savage God,” returns often to the suicide of Cesare Pavese, who took his own life at the apparent height of his powers.  

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“In the year before he died he turned out two of his best novels… One month before the end he received the Strega Prize, the supreme accolade for an Italian writer. ‘I have never been so much alive as now,’ he wrote, ‘never so young.’ A few days later he was dead. Perhaps the sweetness itself of his creative powers made his innate depression all the harder to bear.”

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Thank you for reading.

-Lance

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