Writing After Silence

I can’t be on Twitter today. A young man named Rory hits send on “sorry” after a few days missing, a few days of silence, and the outpouring of sadness and sympathies is overwhelming.

She tells me she is worried. She’s caught up on the blog. We met only recently, but she had no idea I was quite so unwell. She reads about my discharge and the care I have been under. “Is it true?” She does not believe that the person she has just met could have so recently tried to commit suicide. I can’t either. But it is true. Not just once, but twice, worn down repeatedly by ever-present intrusive thoughts and complete emotional exhaustion.

It is telling, now that I think about it, that each near-miss was preceded by a silence. I never turn my phone off, but I did twice recently. It is the reddest of flags. I called a friend in a daze a few weeks back who had been trying to get in touch with me. “Why did you turn your phone off?” She asks the question in an accusatory tone, and rightly so, angry that I would cause so much worry by being decisively uncontactable. But I can’t give an answer. I don’t know why. The silence isn’t something chosen so much as something that descends. I have kept it at bay by not shutting up, by not stopping to write. I realise at various points that the things I say in public may be to my detriment. I can tell how it irks some to see me apply some sort of conscious or unconscious aestheticization to an experience and set of conversations that are really quite unspeakable. But silence is always worse, always more concerning. Today I am left thinking about how writing constantly, being anything but silent, has kept me here.

I can’t get away from Blanchot’s The Space of Literature. I come back to it almost daily. I think it is because he writes so often about death.

The final chapters of the book draft I finished before my mind fell out focused intently on Kate Zambreno’s study of Guibert, To Write As If Already Dead. But as bleak as the title sounds, she discusses how it is likewise the writing that seems to keep Guibert alive. He writes to die, but keeps on living, perhaps because the work of dying is never done. It transforms his life into another modality, but for as long as his seropositivity is kept at bay, is manageable, it is still a life he is living, writing a new self into existence. Blanchot calls this strange space of writing “the circle”, expressed most succinctly by Kafka: “Write to be able to die – Die to be able to write.” It is an oscillating movement around a central point, perhaps a point of departure. It is a “movement which, in the work, is the approach to death, death’s space and its use,” but this is “not exactly the same movement which would lead the writer to the possibility of dying.” It is to confront the doubling of death, but to write in this way is always to keep one kind of death at bay.

Bleakly, Blanchot turns to the possibility not just of death but of suicide quite explicitly, perfectly describing the strangeness of suicidality, which I felt myself in orbit of for weeks on end: the strangeness of not going through with it, of prevaricating, circling the void but not quite entering it, drifting on the brink, not so much planning and conspiring as being caught in a gamble, playing a sick game of possibility and probability. It is in this sense, Blanchot writes, that “One cannot ‘plan’ to kill oneself.”

This apparent project [of suicide] sets out after something never attained, toward a goal impossible to aim for. I cannot conceive of the end as an end in itself. But this implies that death eludes the workday, the time which is nevertheless death made active and capable. This is equivalent to thinking that death is somehow doubled: there is one death which circulates in the language of possibility, of liberty, which has for its furthest horizon the freedom to die and the capacity to take mortal risks; and there is its double, which is ungraspable. It is what I cannot grasp, what is not linked to me by any relation of any sort. It is that which never comes and toward which I do not direct myself.

Thus one begins to understand what is strange and superficial, fascinating and deceptive about suicide. To kill oneself is to mistake one death for the other; it is a sort of bizarre play on words. I go to meet the death which is in the world, at my disposal, and I think that thereby I can reach the other death, over which I have no power – which has none over me either, for it has nothing to do with me, and if I know nothing of it, it knows no more of me; it is the empty intimacy of this ignorance. That is why suicide remains essentially a bet, something hazardous: not because I leave myself a chance to survive, as something happens, but because suicide is a leap. It is the passage from the certainty of an act that has been planned, consciously decided upon, and vigorously executed, to something which disorients every project, remains foreign to all decisions – the indecisive and uncertain, the crumbling of the inert and the obscurity of the nontrue. By committing suicide I want to kill myself at a determinate moment. I link death to now: yes, now, now. But nothing better indicates the illusion, the madness of this “I want,” for death is never present. There is in suicide a remarkable intention to abolish the future as the mystery of death: one wants in a sense to kill oneself so that the future might hold no secrets, but might become clear and readable, no longer the obscure reserve of indecipherable death. Suicide in this respect does not welcome death; rather, it wishes to eliminate death as future, to relieve death of that portion of the yet-to-come which is, so to speak, its essence, and to make it superficial, without substance and without danger. But this tactic is vain. The most minute precautions, all the most carefully considered and precise arrangements have no power over this essential indeterminacy – the fact that death is never a relation to a determined moment any more than it bears any determined relation to myself.

One cannot “plan” to kill oneself. One prepares to do so, one acts in view of the ultimate gesture which still belongs to the normal category of things to do, but this gesture does not have death in view, it does not look at death, it does not keep death before it. Hence the attention to minutiae often symptomatic in those who are about to die – the love for details, the patient, maniacal concern for the most mediocre realities. Other people are surprised at this, and they say, “When you really want to die, you don’t think about so many little things.” But the explanation is that you don’t want to die, you cannot make of death an object of the will. You cannot want to die, and the will, arrested thus at the uncertain threshold of what it cannot attain, redirects itself, with its calculating wisdom, toward everything it still can grasp in the area around its limit. You think of so many things because you cannot think of something else, and this is not for fear of looking into the face of too grave a reality; it is because there is nothing to see. Whoever wants to die can only want the borders of death, the utilitarian death which is in the world and which one reaches through the precision of a workman’s tools. Whoever wants to die does not die, he loses the will to die. He enters the nocturnal realm of fascination wherein he dies in a passion bereft of will.

I was taken to A&E twice, over a three-month period, following if not a suicide “attempt”, at the very least a kind of suicidal gesture. The first occasion was the most harrowing. Friends came to my house to find my front door unlocked, sitting at the coffee table in the living room, scribbling down a note rehearsed on my laptop. On the table, a month’s worth of anti-depressants, popped from their packaging and ready for consumption like a most depressing final meal. From the cupboard door in the corner, a belt was wedged, made into a noose, that I already knew would hold my weight. To share such details seems reckless, but in hindsight I am doubtful either method would have been effective. “Would you have gone through with it?” was a question asked repeatedly. I say that I think I would, but gone through with what exactly? At the very least, I would have gone through with the gesture. The image of the living room, strewn in chaos, branded on my mind from that night is like that of a morbid casino, with a multitude of games to play. Would I have gone through with it? The question is more like: “Would I have sat at one of these tables and played a hand?”

My second suicidal gesture was perhaps more developed. I took 16 paracetamol whilst sat outside a pub by Newcastle’s quayside. The realisation, later had, that I had not taken enough to do any damage to myself was almost embarrassing. Still, the same question asked by the Psychiatric Liaison Team: Was it my intention to kill myself? I’m not sure how much intent in that direction I could truly possess. I played a hand and did not win. I left the hospital that night, however, with a better conception of death’s borders, of what it really takes. I did not want to die, but I learnt more about dying in the process, and on acquiring new knowledge I made a retreat. I left the casino. I sought help for the emergent addiction to the risk.

“What a strange, contradictory undertaking is this effort to act where immeasurable passivity reigns,” Blanchot writes. Indeed, that was the emotion felt most profoundly: passivity. The dice was rolled and, for a time, I felt indifferent to the outcome. That is all. Indifferent. The coin was flipped, I called heads and got tails. I carried on. The challenge has become to avoid, for the rest of my natural lifetime, the desire to flip the coin again, knowing that with each flip I learn more about the coin’s weight, its movement through the air, the probability of any given result, the power or force needed to hurl the coin higher, increasing its velocity, the number of spins it is capable of, increasing the time of indeterminacy as life itself hangs – in thought, if not in elusive reality – in the balance.

Suicide is contagious. That is the enduring realisation that has, I think, kept me from the door. I have known too many who have died in this way. When I was a teenager, a girl named Alisa, on the edges of my social circle, took her own life at the age of 18. It was an event that occurred during that minor moral panic, during the late 2000s, around MKAT – a then-legal high that was increasingly popular with the nation’s youth. I knew little then, and far less now, of the circumstances that led to her going through with it. The narrative shared was one of a weekend bender, with copious amounts of alcohol and “plant food” consumed. She left Hull’s Welly Club in the middle of the night and by the morning it was over. I did not know her at all, but remember seeing her around. She was close to many of my closest friends but we had never truly crossed paths. I remember going to the funeral, more to be there for my friends, but feeling like I was somehow intruding nonetheless. I felt the stares from friends that knew I did not know her. At that age, I felt incapable of expressing my well-meaning, my intentions. They were expressly there to mourn her, I was not. But I wanted to be there for them. I could not understand their pain but wanted them to know that, irrespective of this, I could be relied on to help them through it. In hindsight, and with regret, I don’t think that I contributed to that process in any particular way. The experience of truly grieving a suicide was too remote to me then.

A few years later, a boy named James Mabbett, one year above me at school, took his own life in his mid-20s. A similar story: a night out of fun and frivolity that ended unexpectedly in the unimaginable.

James became something of a mascot for Mental Health Awareness in 2015. One of his friends wrote an article about him, his story, his life and death, that was published in the Independent newspaper – as story all too familiar at this point:

‘Go hard or go home,’ that was the motto my friend lived by. James Mabbett. Mabs to his mates.

Aka an infectious lust for life, bloke you wanted to be around, life and soul of every party. TOTAL. LEGEND.

Painting this picture isn’t to sensationalise his character in death by making him more grandiose than he was, nor is it to fall into the predisposition of glossing over his bad habits as we do when honouring the dead.

It’s simply to emphasise that mental illness lurks in the unlikeliest of places. That the ‘happiest’ in the room could be the saddest. And that a smile can mask a lot.

We are not visionary doctors, we cannot see who is sick. It is not the Jack Nicholson lookalike circa One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest frothing at the mouth in a straitjacket we need to be watching out for, but those closest to us.

I was at work the Monday after Valentine’s Day when I got ‘the call’. It took another week to find out exactly what had happened.

Crippled by shock, I found ‘comfort’ by convincing myself Mabs had partied too hard during his work weekend away, taken alcohol to the extreme, and in a macabre way at least he passed away while celebrating like the night owl he was.

He categorically ‘is the last person on earth who would take his own life’ I fiercely told people.

Six days later while working in America and getting ready for the Academy Awards, I learned over WhatsApp that dearest Mabs – a 24-year-old uni graduate who oozed charisma out of every pore and had you in stitches with his random acts of hilarity – after a relatively calm night with colleagues, his alcohol limit was found to be well below the national driving acceptance level with no drugs in his system, had quietly hanged himself in a hotel room.

Always quietly. Always in the dead of night. Or certainly not always, generally speaking, but at that age the story was so often the same. I knew Mabs’ sister better, but still at a distance. On the anniversary of his death, she posted annual remembrances and grievances on social media and her pain felt so profound, still unknowable.

It was not until Mark Fisher’s death that the story changed. Seeing Mark during those final months, hollowed out when outside of the classroom, was so deeply haunting. In trying to truly understand what made him do it, suicide became all the more thinkable, all the more contagious. Grief led to risk. Risk led to a new understanding of the gamble. It is a hard thing to forget and to unlearn, this understanding. It follows you.

Fisher’s death was the death of a writer, with a body of work that existed, even whilst he was alive, in what Blanchot calls “death’s space”. His book, Ghosts of my Life, now newly reissued, its subtitle quite explicitly making the link between spectres, depression and the abolition of – “the slow cancellation of” – the future. But the writing itself is not a writing toward death, no matter how we might now so easily read into his work the future that was to come. Death as future is a truth for all of us, after all. We can find these same breadcrumbs anywhere. This is especially true in a capitalist world, which constrains our thinking around health and life, making the possibility of the world’s end inextricable from the end of ourselves. This is the subtle echo found in Fisher’s most famous adage, borrowed from Žižek and Jameson, that the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism. But it is not just the end of the world – it is the end of our world. It is our obsession with worlds ending that unveils the “secret sadness of the twenty-first century”; the indeterminacy of capitalism’s future, its seemingly infinite prolongation, the unimaginable nature of its end and of our own transformation into something other, some other kind of collective subjectivity, beyond the paltry existence of the capitalist subject as such.

To repeat Blanchot from above: “There is in suicide a remarkable intention to abolish the future as the mystery of death: one wants in a sense to kill oneself so that the future might hold no secrets, but might become clear and readable, no longer the obscure reserve of indecipherable death.” When Fisher writes that mental health is a political issue, is this not precisely the sentiment he scales up to the level of not just the depressed individual but a depressive society? The suggestion that Fisher’s suicide, considering the content of his writing, was somehow inevitable misunderstands the gambit. The oblique horror of capitalism is in its closing of the future, the death it already assigns to us. A capitalist society is a suicidal society, where the future holds no secrets. To transition out of capitalism is to re-establish life’s mystery, and death’s mystery too – the possibility that we might die otherwise than overworked and underpaid.

Blanchot connects this suicidal tendency to the making of art. “Suicide is a right”, he says, “detached from power and duty, a madness required by reasonable integrity and which, moreover, seems to succeed quite often.” To die on one’s own terms – the Stoic absolute, used by the likes of Foucault not to imagine death’s reality but to construct an art of living that is decisively one’s own. It is perhaps in this sense that Blanchot writes how it “is striking that all these traits” – the madness of a reasonable integrity – “can be applied equally well to another experience, one that is apparently less dangerous but perhaps no less mad: the artist’s.” Blanchot continues:

Both the artist and the suicide plan something that eludes all plans, and if they do have a path, they have no goal; they do not know what they are doing. Both exert a resolute will, but both are linked to what they want to achieve by a demand that knows nothing of their will. Both strive toward a point which they have to approach by means of skill, savoir faire, effort, the certitudes which the world takes for granted, and yet this point has nothing to do with such means; it is a stranger to the world, it remains foreign to all achievement and constantly ruins all deliberate action. How is it possible to proceed with a firm step toward that which will not allow itself to be charted? It seems that both the artist and the suicide succeed in doing something only by deceiving themselves about what they do. The latter takes one death for another, the former takes a book for the work. They devote themselves to this misunderstanding as if blind, but their dim consciousness of it makes of their task a proud bet. For it is as if they were embarking upon a kind of action which could only reach its term at infinity.

Here I feel the relation between writing and mental illness most profoundly. At first, as I have said on numerous occasions, my writing appeared to be quite profoundly unhealthy to those around me, who perhaps recognised in these firm steps towards the uncharted a kind of suicide by another means. They were most likely not wrong. But then, over time, the writing is encouraged. The footsteps echo but do not sound quite the same. It is realised, eventually, that the firm steps taken in writing are along a quite different path, if nonetheless one that exists in parallel to the one they hope I will deviate from. Writing becomes not a suicidal gesture but an alternative to the act, another act, less dangerous and along which I can walk further without stumbling.

Blanchot writes of this tension explicitly:

This comparison of art to suicide is shocking in a way. But there is nothing surprising about it if, leaving aside appearances, one understands that each of these two movements is testing a singular form of possibility.

It is always better to write than to die. Death, unfortunately, is too often preceded by a silence, by a disappearance. To appear is to live and keep living. It is why we encourage those who are struggling to talk, to reach out, to not hold their tongues or give up on the expression of a pain that may never leave them. To speak, to write, is to try and answer a more fundamental question. It may still be a question that is abject, which Blanchot asks so matter-of-factly: “Can I die? Have I the power to die?” It is a most abstract question, although one that becomes more material when we bear witness to those who actualise this apparent power in themselves. “This question has no force except when all the escape routes have been rejected”, Blanchot continues. But this rejection cuts us loose, untethers us. Like the gambling addict who cannot leave the table, the suicidal person thinks their only salvation is to keep playing another hand, denying themselves the opportunity to get up and walk away. But it is because, in this disastrously enclosed space, we find possibility in the risk taken. “The decision to be without being is possibility itself”, Blanchot explains. But there are always other tables, other games to play, some less dangerous and more affordable. How to move from blackjack to the penny slots? And from there to the world outside, where life is no less of a gamble but one more weatherable, where the game of chance is lived alongside others rather than on one’s own?

There are solutions, if we can turn our eyes away, for a time, from the ultimate game. I believe this is something that can only be done in community.

Rory’s approach of death, chronicled at intervals on his own Twitter feed, is harrowing. His penultimate tweets make the situation he could not turn away from clear as day:

I lost one grand in a deposit to a university because, while I met the offer requirements, it became clear that I hadn’t made nearly enough money to fund the living costs after two years saving in full time work. There were no university fees in this country until 1998 btw.

Everything just feels impossible and unliveable

Originally tweeted by Ghostface Kafka (36 Chambers) (@thekafkadude) on July 23, 2022.

People share their own stories of re-entering education, the cost of postgraduate living and the stresses of juggling this desire to study with the reality that Master’s degrees, in particular, in this country, are difficult things to do for those who are not already wealthy. I have never felt poorer than when I did mine, except perhaps now, when severe depression has only compounded financial difficulties. But my situation at present only makes Rory’s all the more unjust. I have been signed off work, but have a funded PhD to look forward to. Recently having a conversation with my supervisor, it became clear that the time and support available to undertake a doctorate would likely be more beneficial to my recovery than the drudgery of a return to my day job. It would be possible, he said, to let it structure my weeks, whilst using the time to write to further work on myself, making the PhD fit my new life as someone finally coming to terms with chronic mental illness, rather than trying to live a life that hides this fact from friends, colleagues and employers. I have been through a death – the death of a person deemed fit to work – and now feel reborn, able to make life work for me (at least for a time). It feels like a rare opportunity to take time to recover and rebuild. It is an opportunity that Rory, so tragically, did not think he had, could not see in his indeterminate future. It is a travesty that there are so many like him, like us. We all deserve so much better than what we are offered. We all deserve the opportunity to find possibility elsewhere than in that most extreme of gambles.  

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