The Moment of Truth — December 2, 2006

The Art of Suicide

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Almost a month ago, here in Chicago, on the southwest embankment of the Kennedy Expressway heading into downtown, Malachi Ritscher set himself on fire. He did it right in front of a sculpture, an arrangement of chrome ribbons that looks kind of like an airplane or a rabbit. It’s called “The Millenium Flame” or something, something about a flame and a millennium. I have no doubt Malachi chose the site of his self-immolation in order to make a visual pun juxtaposing a phony flame with an actual flame, a phony flame celebrating an idealized millennium contradicted by a an actual flaming human indicting the actual, hardly ideal, millennium. He was pointing out how embarrassingly weak it is to put a flock of chrome ribbons by the side of the highway in order to celebrate this new, Third Millennium, which some of us have been in for nearly six years already, and which is shaping up in a big hurry to be as genocidal as the millennium we just got out of.

Malachi was an active participant in some of the most interesting and dynamic circles of Chicago’s music scene, and its arts scene, and its anti-war scene. He was a listener to This Is Hell, which is my very weak connection to him. He had a lot of friends, but I wasn’t one of them, partly because I’d decided to stop making new friends before I met him.

It’s evident what Malachi meant to communicate by his public suicide, since he left a note and a manifesto or two on the web. He was distressed by the war in Iraq and the blatant and unpunished corruption of the criminals who started the war and the system that protects and rewards them. And he seemed to want to avoid something I was certainly afraid of: getting hopes up about the mid-term election. Malachi was older than I, and had had time to grow a lot sicker of getting his hopes up that replacing one set of crappy legislators with set of slightly more competent, slightly less bigoted ones would change anything. I was of course afraid we wouldn’t make the replacement, but I was equally afraid of the inevitable heartbreak if we did: that it wouldn’t matter enough. Malachi, perhaps wisely, decided to skip the whole farce.

Some would like to label Malachi a crazed loner, like the Unibomber, but hurting himself instead of others, and doing it out in the open instead of in a secluded little outhouse. The Unibomber coerced major media outlets to print his statement; Malachi posted his statement non-coercively on the people’s (relatively) free media. So, if anything, he’s like an inside-out Unibomber.

Malachi was not a loner, but he was lonely, or so he wrote. That to me is an odd detail for him to include in a statement of political protest. He was surrounded by people who felt as he did about the war and the forces that produced and continue to pursue it. So he couldn’t have felt lonely in the sense that no one agreed with him. Perhaps he thought no one felt it as strongly as he did. If so, he may have proven his point.

There’s really only one thing the Unibomber and Malachi Ritscher have in common: they both lived out fantasies of mine. They also have that in common with Jacques Cousteau, Charlie Kaufman, Lizzy Borden, David Bowie, Bonnie and Clyde, Don Rickles, L. Ron Hubbard, Herman Melville, Salma Hayek, and whoever’s screwing Salma Hayek. And, to be honest, whoever’s screwing Don Rickles.

I started considering suicide an option when I was about ten years old. At least every three months I would languish in thoughts of death, the release death would be, and the possible horrors that might lie beyond the world of the living. I was beset by unanswerable questions about the meaning of an existence filled with pain, and the only end I could see to my yearning was to die, thereby either to find the answers or silence the questions.

And of course I thought of many wonderful ways I could kill myself that would make a profound statement. I won’t discuss some of the political ones here because I’m intimidated by the current climate of clandestine pre-emptive law enforcement. I will say I remember learning when I was about six years old about the Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in Saigon to protest the USA’s support of the South Vietnamese government. I was fascinated by such extreme martyrdom. I’m even more fascinated by it now.

I’m a Jew, and Judaism is veined with tales of those who would face death—in a fiery furnace for example—rather than betray their beliefs. The monk was no different; he merely brought the mountain to Muhammad, so to speak. In the Doctor Seuss book, “Horton Hears a Who,” Horton the elephant refuses to deny the existence of the creatures on the dust speck, no matter how direly the Wickersham Brothers threaten him. That book affected me deeply.

It’s all the same thing. It’s what Jesus did. You know, he wouldn’t have gotten nailed up if he’d just denied he was King of the Jews. Should we not emulate Jesus? Why ask What Would Jesus Do if you’re not willing, when the chips are down, to answer Kill Himself. Being stubborn enough to make the Romans crucify you was the old-fashioned version of what we now call “suicide by cop.” If you’ve never heard of that, then you, my friend, haven’t thought enough about suicide.

I stopped considering suicide an option about eight years ago. You see, I’d considered every possible scenario in which suicide could be a positive course of action, and discarded each one as ultimately flawed. It only took me twenty-six years to do it. I’m a fast thinker.

I wonder if any children, hearing of Malachi’s suicide, or having witnessed it, even, will give it much thought. I wonder who besides his friends and family and me are giving it much thought now. I’m haunted by it because I am at a loss to understand it. I can’t accept it as solely a political statement, because it’s suicide, an activity I find very personal, and paradoxically both selfish and selfless. A sixty-seven-year-old Buddhist monk setting himself on fire in Saigon is a political statement, because Buddhism compartmentalizes the self and its concerns and, ideally, allows us to set them aside, in a sense, as motivations for an enlightened person’s worldly actions—Buddhism deals with the paradox of the selfish and the selfless quite nicely and, in the case of suicide, a priori—or it ought to, at any rate; but a politically-minded artist with a sense of humor and a feeling of loneliness setting himself on fire in front of the Flame of the Millennium is something else. It must, ultimately, be judged on its merits as a work of art. And what are its merits as a work of art?

Those who would call Malachi mentally ill miss the point, so I will discount that interpretation out of hand. From what I gather, a lot of people personally connected with him are quite understanding about it, and some even see it in an almost entirely positive light. That in itself is quite a feat: to make people who have real affection for you see something positive in your suicide, besides that you’re out of your misery, if indeed they thought you were in any.

The folksinger Phil Ochs killed himself after Henry Kissinger and his war pigs overthrew Salvador Allende in Chile and sent Pinochet in to massacre and terrorize. I remember sitting with a couple of friends of mine in college, reading the liner notes to a collection of Phil’s songs. And when one of my friends learned Phil had killed himself, he said, “That’s stupid.” And the other friend said, “Not necessarily.”

I find myself able to sympathize, even empathize, with the Phil Ochs who committed suicide. Still, “not necessarily stupid” is not exactly a ringing endorsement of any major life choice, and certainly not of a work of art. But Phil never meant his suicide to be a work of art, or even a political statement per se. It was simply the end of his hope that history might trend toward the good.

Malachi Ritscher clearly hoped that the end of his hope was not all his suicide would represent. That in itself, for me, lifts it above the “not necessarily stupid” level. I also like his mocking of the Millennium Flame. I don’t know who made that sculpture, but you are OWNED, bitch. In fact, whereas I was once indifferent about the sculpture, now I see it for the insultingly lame piece of crap that it is. Still, I guess you gotta make a living.

But any political reading of Malachi’s piece will hinge on the viewer’s attitude toward suicide more than on his or her attitude toward the war. That reveals both an advantage and a flaw in the use of suicide as an artistic medium for expressing a political belief.

I was surprised, as a longtime wallower in suicidal thoughts, and now what you might call a lapsed suicide, to find myself quite affected by Malachi’s political statement through that medium. It has, for one thing, reminded me to be truly embarrassed by my adulation over the Democratic victory in the midterm elections. It’s not that I expected things to change much as a result, and that Malachi brought me to my senses. No, I was already at my senses. I knew I was mainly happy because Bush, Cheney, and Rove were chagrined, and I recognized it as a petty and indirect revenge at best. Nevertheless, even knowing what I knew, I was overjoyed. And I don’t regret being overjoyed.

But I kind of like being reminded that I forgot to be embarrassed. It reminds me of a time when I expected so much more from the collective efforts of human beings, when my standards for happiness were higher—so high, in fact, there were days and weeks nothing was good enough to make me happy at all, days and weeks when I was sure I would never be happy again.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!