Sampson is a writer-producer based in Cyprus and the UK. His work has appeared in Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, The Scofield, and The Writers’ Magazine, among others. His short story Flames and Shadows was nominated for a 2018 Pushcart Prize. Film projects include Behind the Mirror(writer/producer – winner of Best Thriller in the Manhattan Film Festival 2015), Vita and Virginia and Show Me The Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall(executive producer). He loves Alfred Hitchcock films. And traveling. And the Cloud. And is currently working on a psychological horror script.
BLESSED ARE THE WRITERS
‘Septimus let himself think about horrible things. They went to Hampton Court on top of a bus, and they were perfectly happy. All the little red and yellow flowers were out on the grass, like floating lamps he said, and talked and chattered and laughed, making up stories. Suddenly he said, “Now we will kill ourselves,” when they were standing by the river, and he looked at it with a look which she had seen in his eyes when a train went by, or an omnibus – a look as if something fascinated him; and [Rezia] felt he was going from her and she caught him by the arm.’ ~ MRS. DALLOWAY
It’s frightening to see so much of Virginia Woolf in her writing, buried in the middle of an obscure paragraph – how she mentions the exact manner of her future suicide with effortlessness, almost like a poetic cliché – ‘talk of suicide by the river’ – hiding it in plain sight.
It’s obvious, but only in retrospect. Among so many details in this novel, it’s hard to pick any given one and read the future with it. One could more easily conclude that Woolf was invested in making it through. (Clarissa Dalloway throws the party after all, getting herself together.) The fact that Septimus kills himself in the end was a sign, but again, suicide is a legitimate trope in literature.
Plus, Septimus flung himself from the window rather than the bridge.
Woolf, on the other hand, walked into the river with stones in her overcoat.
Hemingway, too, foreshadowed his suicide – the method, to be precise – in his novel For Whom The Bell Tolls, a war love story where the narrator’s father takes himself out in the same way Hemingway did years later, with a handgun. In Chapter 30 the narrator, Robert Jordan, says: ‘Then after your father had shot himself with this pistol, and you had come home from school and they’d had the funeral, the coroner had returned it after the inquest saying, “Bob, I guess you might want to keep the gun.”’
Bob doesn’t keep the gun. He treks to a lake where he drops it in the deep, watching it sink out of sight. It’s a poetic image that could be interpreted in any number of ways.
One wonders if this was how Hemingway envisioned himself, standing by a lake, tossing the threats to his life in the deep, giving himself another day? Or did he know that guns would come back to haunt him? Was it something he played around with on a number of occasions before finally succumbing to the temptation of shooting a hole in his head for real?
We’ll never know what Hemingway or Woolf had in mind, if they went out exactly as they had intended, or if they had planned on departing this life earlier or later, in some other manner. But it leaves one wondering: was their mention of suicide in such a precise manner a kind of foreshadowing/seeding? Was it a flight of literary fancy that in time grew into a life choice? We can’t tell if they gave themselves ideas, if their characters took over inside their heads, or if the whole arrangement is an enormous yarn, a thread wrapped so tight around its core, it’s impossible to disentangle – author, characters, the canon, life itself, all of it jumbled together in the nexus of a consciousness making sense of the world by writing about it, experimenting with different approaches, toying with various outcomes.
Blessed are the writers, and cursed.
There are many ways to approach the above writings, and we tend to look at things with a sympathetic eye. In the age of modern and post-modern psychology, we’re prone to interpret things in terms of helping others, interceding on their behalf, perhaps even preventing them from harming themselves. Death is a taboo in our society, a source of fear, so we battle everything that embraces it.
To that effect, one might argue that the passages mentioned above were cries for help, and we feel sorry for these tragic authors, wondering if something could have been done to prevent their suicides.
Woolf, for example, may have expected an arm to catch her before she drifted off, hence the way Rezia grabs Septimus at that precise moment in the story.
At the same time, it’s possible that Woolf may have been on the fence about it, hence the obscure manner with which she articulated the helping hand, burying it deep inside the novel, making it inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. It only delays the inevitable.
Or maybe the author was communicating an embrace of the end altogether. Tired of helping hands that didn’t help, perhaps she created a situation on the page where the significant other is privy to the threat of death but unable to act on it. Septimus, the character in question, kills himself in the end, and no one can do anything about it. In fact, his death has a positive outcome. Rezia is crushed (although she may also be relieved – there’s no way of knowing, Woolf doesn’t explore that aspect of the story), but Clarissa Dalloway is jolted into action by it. The news of the man’s suicide has such an impact on her that she assembles, regaining control of her life and surroundings.
Woolf shows us, in so many words, that suicide is not all bad. It hurts a lot, but so do most things worth their mettle.
And she didn’t just show it. She lived and died by it, in the stream, communicating via her own demise, just like the characters in her novel, having tremendous impact on the lives of countless people down the line.
Positive or negative, it’s up to us to make of her impact what we may.
As parting thought, I wonder if the number in Septimus’ name is significant. It has to be. Mrs. Dalloway treated names with deference, as the story title, a name itself, suggests.
What does Septimus refer to, one wonders? The seven hills of Rome? The seven cardinal sins? The seven virtues? Or the seven days of the week, at the end of which everything rests and/or celebrates?
We may never find out, but what makes it through, glinting like a jewel extracted from the deep, is the bittersweet biography in the fiction of the above authors. Their embrace of death educates us, reminding us that the ultimate end has things to offer. Like something we may have gotten rid of, but which somehow finds its way back into our lives, it forces us to confront our mortality. Be it suicide, murder, disease, or any kind of demise, death is part of life, and impossible to get rid of. In fact, life would be meaningless without it, and these authors, and many more, confronted it, helping us confront it in turn so that we may be ready for it.