The space next to me bristles with silence. The emptiness is palpable. Loss isn’t an absence after all. It is a presence. A strong presence next to me.
Trumpet, Jackie Kay.
The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.
Infinite Jest (1996), David Foster Wallace.
Victorians were obsessed with death in general and suicide in particular. For women who wanted to take their own lives, drowning was a common choice and the image of a female body floating in the water became a popular one in the Victorian imagination. This idea was heavily romanticised: it was like these women (especially “fallen women”) had been cleansed of their former sins and had found a quiet beauty in the (imagined) quiet serenity of their demise.
Artists and writers depicted women falling out of windows, jumping off bridges, and walking into lakes. Performances of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet were very popular, the painting of Ophelia by Millais (see above) was painted and exhibited in 1852, and in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Lord Henry asks Dorian how he knows that “Hetty isn’t floating at the present moment in some starlit mill-pond, with lovely water-lilies around her, like Ophelia?”
As Foucault noted in Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1988),
when civilization, life in society, the imaginary desires aroused by novel reading and theatergoing [sic] provoke nervous ailments, the return to water’s limpidity assumes the meaning of a ritual of purification; in that transparent coolness, one is reborn to one’s first innocence.