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TW: suicide, self-harm, paywalls, and the past
TIL: Penguin Random House slapped a trigger warning on their latest edition of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.
“This book was published in 1927 and reflects the attitudes of its time,” the new introductory page reads. “The publisher’s decision to present it as it was originally published is not intended as an endorsement of cultural representations or language contained herein.”
The warning does not mention Woolf’s suicide, so the publisher’s words are not there to connect her work to her IRL pain or to warn of self-harm representations. Woolf scholars, further, cannot identify any actual controversial language, imagery, or concepts in To The Lighthouse’s coming-of-age story.
And it’s happening everywhere, fwiw. The Penguin(house) also slapped the same worded caution as To The Lighthouseon their latest edition of Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 anti-war epic The Sun Also Rises. It seems the publisher anticipates these works will offend for the sole reason they were written long ago. We’re at a point where the past, all by its lonesome, is now a trigger that requires warning.
Imagine that. Memory as a subset of trauma, rather than the other way around. The past is where your pain lives forever. Oof.
On the morning of 28 March 1941, Woolf left a note for her husband Leonard on their kitchen table, stole outside, stuffed rocks in the pockets of her fur overcoat, and walked into the rushing River Ouse near her writing room in the village of Rodmell in Sussex, UK.
I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly.
On 20 April 1994, Kurt Cobain put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. His suicide note’s sense of his love’s worthlessness parallels Woolf’s:
There’s good in all of us and I think I simply love people too much, so much that it makes me feel too fucking sad.
What pushes someone past the point of suicidal ideation to execution? What is Woolf thinking as she walks to the river? What’s in Cobain’s head as he cocks the gun? At any point, she can turn around. He can lower the gun. And yet…
Was Woolf thinking at all? Perhaps not. Perhaps she was at perfect ease with her decision, just listening to birds returning from migration, breezes rustling through trees waking from winter, water shushing gently against river stones.
Suicide messes with people’s heads because in the end, it’s easy. Too easy.
My cousin’s wife took her life on Thursday 06 July 2023, three weeks before she, my cousin, and their 1-year old son were set to move back to their home state of Minnesota from California, into a house they closed on in June. Her 36th birthday would have been the 11th of July.
The night of the 6th, around 1 in the morning, she left a note for my cousin, stole in silence out of their house, walked about 20 minutes north and west through their Silicon Valley neighborhood, ducked under a red-flashing warning gate, and threw herself in front of Caltrain Southbound Commuter #146.
I don’t know why she took her life. Neither do the 14 passengers or the conductor on the train, none of whom were injured in the incident. Perhaps her note offered insights, but I will only read her words if my cousin determines her words were for everyone, not just him and their son. There will never be an adequate “why,” however, so we can only hope her soul has found the peace she couldn’t find here.
In suicide, some people succumb to context. The most pernicious 3rd-person view of a person can cause the most vulnerable to see themselves in the 2nd-person – as a “you” not an “I.”
Taking your own life is the ultimate act of divorcing yourself from the 1st-person POV on yourself. In the 2nd-person, you don’t kill yourself. That is, you don’t say to yourself, “I’m going to kill me.” You look in the mirror and say, “I’m going to kill you.”
Though the act still confounds me, I understand the ideation of suicide. Every once in a while, who I see in the mirror is so far removed from the me I see with my eyes closed, that there’s seems almost no reconciling the distance. It’s a slinky, cold feeling - disconnecting you from the world and coloring all you sense. I don’t wish that headspace on anyone, and I certainly wish I’d never found it.
Sometimes, however, just getting slightly outside yourself is enough to cast the blues to the outskirts of your perspective. Virginia Woolf wrote of the calm she found meditating on a scuffed wall.
Still, there’s no harm in putting a full stop to one’s disagreeable thoughts by looking at a mark on the wall.
// Virginia Woolf (1921)
Over the years, I learned to write my way out of even the heaviest heavy-mental loops. Ideation is a long way off from execution, and self-awareness of self-destructive patterns is often enough to halt thoughts in their tracks. I never lose sight of the light as long as I’m writing. Oftentimes creating a song is enough to stave off the spiral.
Kurt Vonnegut, in his memoir A Man Without A Country, has an epiphany after a conversation with friend and jazz historian Albert Murray. During the American slave era, Murray told him, the suicide rate among slave owners was higher than the suicide rate among slaves. Murray theorized that in inventing a music to express their depression, “slaves could shoo away Old Man Suicide by playing the blues.” He concluded, “The blues can’t drive depression clear out of a house, but can drive it into the corners of any room where it’s being played.”
In this context, blues was a weapon against the very hopelessness and nihilism its stories convey. Imagine that – music as a weapon of enlightenment.
To externalize pain is to exert some measure of control over it.
Loneliness and alienation are the scourge of our communication age.
Do my tracks deserve trigger warnings? Inasmuch as I am trying to trigger connections between us as I play, maybe. Maybe not all triggers are alienating and lonely…
Art has more meaning without context. At least, that’s my post-modern longview. Maybe I read too much Barthes in college, but the author’s still dead to me. As such, it is not the responsibility of the author (or publisher) to guess what a listener or reader or viewer will bring of their own experiences to a work, and it’s not their liability if a listener/reader/viewer takes offense.
In this way, a trigger warning is just censorship in a different cloak. It is a contextual imposition, providing insight only into the era of the warning, and none into the works themselves.
If the signal doesn’t apply to you, don’t worry, it still applies to you. The underlying caution of content warnings is, “Your reading / listening / viewing this will cause indirect hurt, or dredge up pain in yourself that otherwise wouldn’t appear had we not told you what we think this work of art is really about.”
Freedom comprises the right to control your spirit, such that you may exercise your rights 1) to live in safety and 2) to take your own risks.
The opposite of safety isn’t danger, but fear.
Fear is a weapon. Safety is a space.
Fear is a tactic. Safety is a strategy.
Fear has targets. Safety has goals.
Fear is a feeling. Safety is an environment.
Fear is lonely. Safety is the strength to be alone.
There still is beauty everywhere you look, but the internet is the least safe space ever built by people. That so many people measure their self-worth against their online presence only serves to make the net a difficult place to find spaces that don’t feel like a middle-school lunch table .
Or at least, a difficult place to find kindness that doesn’t have an ulterior motive. Fwiw, there’s nothing ulterior here. This post will always be free. I ask nothing of you, other than to notice things you hadn’t until reading. Just don’t get mad at me if I “offend you,” or don’t “read the room,” or “bring you down.” That’s not me doing that. That’s your context.
And your right to think that way.
The radiating tragedy of suicide and self-harm is the fallout on the parties left behind.
Content warnings are nothing new. MPAA movie ratings are trigger warnings. “Explicit content” stickers on records are trigger warnings. Paper bags on nudie mags are trigger warnings.
Those warnings, however, are more old school. They fire the imagination outward. “Adapt yourself to your surroundings accordingly,” they imply. “Trouble, maybe, ahead, but forewarned is forearmed.” Often, lol those “parental advisory” stickers and “R” ratings were me and my friends’ raison d’être for tuning in (or sneaking in).
The new generation of trigger warnings, however, fire the imagination inward, forcing folks to confront their greatest fears and insecurities, ahead of taking in a work, outside the context of that work. These warnings in essence shame authors for not anticipating how their work would be received by “evolved” readers of the future, and shame these same readers should they find pleasure.
Let’s take a terrible example.
The author of the ubiquitous “Slow Children” sign in school zones was most likely not thinking about a future of changing attitudes towards neurodiversity. So, as cars roll through residential neighborhoods in our current culture, perhaps each of these signs needs to be qualified with a new sign up the block that reads, “TW: The sign ahead was invented in the early 1900s and reflects the attitudes of its time. The DOT’s decision to present it as it was originally written is not intended as an endorsement of cultural representations or language used as fodder for lowbrow humor at the expense of children with mental challenges.”
“Don’t you dare think what we just made you think,” might be a decent sign to follow the “Slow Children” sign.
One paradox of trigger warnings, confirmed by academic observation, is how these warnings inspire, rather than allay fear. “Expect to remember your trauma,” is the subtext of modern trigger warnings. “Your experience is larger than any piece of art. There are no more universals, no more objective points-of-view. You will never escape your pain.”
To the extent trigger warnings force recollections of trauma, they are self-fulfilling prophesies.
In the end, a “TW” or “CW” ahead of a work of art is just a small step away from simply excising the “bad parts,” which is something that can be done with relative ease as art is converted to and served up in binary code. You’ll never miss what you never know, dig?
And in a related story, Scottish university literature course syllabus admonishes that Papa’s The Old Man And The Seacontains “graphic fishing scenes.”
“Never fear again, using this one simple weird trick,” goes the Kindle, as it removes all references to fishing from The Old Man And The Sea…
The Telegraph article from which I learned of the Virginia Woolf warning, sits behind a paywall. I could only read the piece because another internet user archived the page. At some point, I’m sure it will be illegal to access an archive. Or lol archives themselves will be behind their own paywalls. For now, it’s all still under the radar, because most people are too lazy to dig deeper than google’s front page results, so archive sites don’t get much traffic.
Paywalls trigger me, fwiw, though it’s a tightrope walk.
The tension for me isn’t about writers and content outfits wanting to be paid for what they do and provide. Art is worthless if the artist is worth nothing. The WGA and SAG-AFTRA unions remain, as of this writing, on strike over this very principle.
The internet, though, was supposed to be a democratizing, egalitarian creative platform, where information and all of human knowledge flowed accessible and, for the most part, free, for all to consume.
The world was supposed get smarter and less divided as information zipped around the globe faster than it could be suppressed. Lol, fast-forward 20-years or so.
Paywalls are a subset of gatekeeping and censorship. Turns out the internet is a Turnpike, not a freeway. A true “public transport,” like a subway or a trolley, would be free. Still, we accept that to ride, we have to pay a fare. Would that we all jumped turnstiles at the same time. What would the system do?
Why is it so easy to make people feel inadequate? Did Neanderthal suffer depression? At what point in our evolution did we begin to contextualize ourselves, see ourselves in the eyes of others, or measure ourselves against abstract social standards?
Does dying make life paradoxical, or does living make death paradoxical?
The only way to live is despite the world’s apparent absurdity. Or, at least, laughing at the absurdity.
Sometimes the hardest thing is to get a lover shrouded in darkness to notice the sunshine.
Albert Camus wrestled with the concept of free will in the face of absurdity. “Life is meaningless,” was his philosophical underpinning. Any attempt to bring structure and significance to existence is just absurd. You just make choices.
For Camus, the only true philosophical problem (and by extension, the sole threat to civil society) was suicide. All other “societal ills” had the potential to be solved by a common understanding of historical place beyond politics. Killing oneself, however, was an inexplicable moment he could never explain.
Il n’y a qu’un problème philosophique vraiment sérieux : c’est le suicide. Juger que la vie vaut ou ne vaut pas la peine d’être vécue, c’est répondre à la question fondamentale de la philosophie. Le reste, si le monde a trois dimensions, si l’esprit a neuf ou douze catégories, vient ensuite.
There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. The rest, if the world has three dimensions, if the mind has nine or twelve categories, comes next.
—Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942)
Whatever drives someone to the brink of suicide is irrelevant at the penultimate moment of self-execution. Suicide says, “I choose to make myself dead.” You homicide you.
For Camus, suicide represented the highest order problem to civilization because in any free-thinking mind, suicidal thoughts are inevitable. So, too, are the desires and abilities to push others to the brink of madness. The conflict for Camus came wherein to be alive is to make choices. That’s it. No more.
You live, you learn, you love, you share, you die. But you always choose. And though choices are always made in context, your choices are yours alone. Suicide is a choice, but a choice to end all choice. To Camus, it made no sense.
That said, suicide is more and more seen as a justified moral and/or ethical choice. There are plenty of instances when doing yourself in becomes preferable to to an alternative. See: “Falling Man” or Craig Ewert. Even the term “suicide by cop” creates a moral avenue of justification.
These situations, though, like all suicides, still connote free will in the face of insurmountable, terminal adversity. As such, suicide always presents as a philosophical quandary. How does a living being choose not to be at the moment of the choice?
Camus could not answer this, because to him, a simple understanding that life is absurd is the first step to being fully alive. There was no reason not to live until life gave way to death.
“We must imagine Sisyphus happy,” he tells us at the close of The Myth of Sisyphus. In his absurdist parable, Camus posits “the most obvious absurdity” is death, and urges us to “die unreconciled and not of one’s own free will.” In other words, live life without remorse, in clarity and awareness of (and rebellion against) mortality and its limits.
Don’t kill yourself, kid.
It’s that easy, and yet…
‘I am growing up,’ she thought, taking her taper at last. ‘I am losing some illusions,’ she said, shutting Queen Mary’s book, ‘perhaps to acquire others,’ and she descended among the tombs where the bones of her ancestors lay.
// Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1928)
If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or are experiencing a mental health crisis and live in New York City, you can call 1-888-NYC-WELL for free and confidential crisis counseling. If you live outside the five boroughs, you can dial the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention hotline at 988 or go to SuicidePreventionLifeline.org.
Originally published at westyreflector.net on 27 July 2023