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Won’t You Look Down Upon Me Jesus

This is a shout out to my client William Todd Schultz and his new book An Emergency in Slow Motion about Diane Arbus. When I was studying in London for my junior year, I lived in a single room in a dorm in South London. All the girls ditched the dorm in favor of a flat on the King’s Road. But I stayed. I craved solitude more than anything. And this cinder block room was the room of my own I had longed for. It was the year I read Hardy, Dickens, Hopkins, and Larkin. The year I drank red wine and ate peanuts from a cellophane sleeve while I read aforementioned writers. It was the year I started to write academic papers in the first person. The year I saw Truffaut’s Wild Child. It was the year I went hunting for psychedelic mushrooms with a pale young man who looked a little like a mushroom and wore crepe soled shoes. And the year I hung exactly one poster in my room: twin girls  in matching dresses and hairbands.

Thus began my love affair with Diane Arbus. And so it was my great good fortune to connect with William Todd Schultz who was at work on a psychobiography of the photographer. He had even been in touch in a series of long phone calls with Arbus’ last psychiatrist. But more than this extraordinary new window into her life, I loved his approach to understanding this great artist. He looked at each of the central mysteries of her life in a way that I found thought provoking, tempered with common sense and respect, and complex. Ever since I was a teenager, I have always been fascinated by the great artists who took their lives. This book is tremendously helpful in thinking about the making of art and the unmaking of a life.

It’s such a huge topic, artists who take their lives. I don’t know where to begin to ask a question.

56 Responses

  1. I used to read every book about artists who committed suicide and had a death book, where I collected poems and essays about death. Fortunately I never took my life, but came very close. Had an aborted attempt and my sister-in-law made me promise to wait until my 18th birthday. I went into countdown mode. Fortunately a wonderful group of pagans entered my life and their unconditional love caused me to change my mind. I care very much for people who hurt so much that they see death as the only option. My hope is that the memoir I’m writing will help hurting people find a way out. I’m almost done with the rough draft.

    Heather

  2. “An Emergency is Slow Motion” Good God. I love the title.

  3. The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

  4. I admit I’ve never hear of Diane Arbus so I did what any of us do nowadays when we don’t know. I Googled her. Apparently she lived in Westbeth at the time of her suicide. I had many friends who lived down there. It was a strange place. I was always terrified of being alone in the hallways. I remember hearing about a kid who died in the elevator shaft and my friend’s sister, she tried to kill herself there, too. Come to think of it, it was the only time I ever sleepwalked. I don’t usually believe in this sort of stuff but I wouldn’t be surprised if darkness lived in those walls.

  5. Such a big story, filled with many joys and sadnesses, but I was close friends with the playwright Sarah Kane before she took her own life, as she warned us she would do. Her last play, 4.48 Psychosis, was written right before her death and tells a lot of the story, psychiatrists and all. She also lived in South London, in Brixton, and I stayed there with her once. I’ve been telling some funny anecdotes about her lately on Dennis Cooper’s blog, and Dennis really appreciates her work. An amazing artist and very sweet person. I loved her a lot.

  6. Fabulous title. For my MFA thesis, back in ’88, I wrote a sonnet in Arbus’s voice, just after reading Patricia Bosworth’s biography. Yes, you read that correctly. It was my favorite poem in the entire sequence.

  7. It’s cool. I wouldn’t know where to begin to propose an answer.

    • Franzen on Wallace: “He was lovable the way a child is lovable, and he was capable of returning love with a childlike purity. If love is nevertheless excluded from his work, it’s because he never quite felt that he deserved to receive it. He was a lifelong prisoner on the island of himself…. [E]ven after his slow and heroic construction of a life for himself, he felt undeserving. And this feeling was intertwined, ultimately to the point of indistinguishability, with the thought of suicide, which was the one sure way out of his imprisonment; surer than addiction, surer than fiction, and surer, finally, than love.” (Jonathan Franzen, “Farther Away,” The New Yorker, April 18, 2011)

      • Absolutely. I read this piece too. In a lot of ways it applies to the life of the person I’m writing about now, for my next book, Elliott Smith. What’s unusual for Arbus is that suicide took her more or less by surprise. It wasn’t an idea she kept toying with. She tried it just once, and she succeeded (though I don’t believe her intent was to die; in fact, most “suicides” want at once to live and to die).

      • Mr. Schultz, this is ironic. My first thought, after reading the title of your new Arbus biography, was that it was evocative of the title: “The Delicate Sound of an Explosion.” This was the title given to a 1998 interview of Elliott Smith that was conducted by a photographer, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.

        I’ll definitely read your Arbus book, but I will be eagerly awaiting your Elliott Smith biography.

      • To “old school”–very deeply into the Elliott book now. I’ve read the interview you mention. btw, one idea for the ES book title is: “The Reflected Sound Of Everything.”

  8. Not intended as an “answer”, but, perhaps, an observation: It is a value they put on themselves.

  9. Those twin girls, in black and white, and matching outfits? I think I love them.

    I’m fascinated by all of you who knew of these people when you were kids. I can’t imagine having that. I didn’t know of artists until I was in my 20’s. The adults around me didn’t believe in art, and they spoke the word “artists” like it was a cancer.

  10. Actually, that shellfish post a few days ago had me conjuring head-in-the-oven scenarios. That leap, the freedom, the ultimate expression. It’s a sort of enjambment that’s the ultimate enjambment, and hence the fascination.

    Me myself, I’m much too pedestrian to consider such a thing, but it doesn’t stop me from being fascinated by those who do.

  11. I have a photography book by Francesa Woodman who took her life very young, long before she had produced the body of work that Arbus left behind. An Emergency in Slow Motion already sounds like such a painful compelling book. In Woodman’s photographs, despite the beauty weirdness and light, you can see Death seeping in so quickly.

  12. What is it about depression and brilliance that so often seems to join them in lockstep? Such gifts these writers and artists left behind but such a price.

  13. “The thing that’s important to know is that you never know. You’re always sort of feeling your way.”
    Diane Arbus
    An Aperture Monograph

  14. Suicide is the answer to the age-old question, “why me?” The suicide’s answer is to remove “me” from the sentence, leaving the rest of us with “why?” and the pain that was merely discharged, not extinguished, with the slash of a blade, the blast of a gun, the swallowing of pills and alcohol, the single step off of solid matter into nothingness.

    I’m less interested in artists who commit suicide than I am in those who consent to fade into irrelevance in the eyes of the world, living large in a smaller sphere.

    Arbus’ photographs, more than most other kinds of art, are mirrors more than portrayals. A compassionate person will respond compassionately, and with interest, to the real people she frames. Others only see their own pain, inner ugliness, and freakishness laid bare.

    I don’t know what Arbus thought of her subjects, but from where I stand, they’re not freaks—they form a near-majority of human life on this planet. An hour spent at PeopleofWalmart.com will confirm that. Maybe that in itself is too painful for some to live with.

    In my college years, I would alternate between wanting to drive my candy-apple metal-flake ’76 Camaro off a bridge into the Intra-Coastal Waterway or plowing it into the Weejun-shod, Madras-clad students who traversed the campus of the University of Miami. Instead, I fell in desperate love, got knocked-up and dumped, and then campaigned for my own beatification as a martyr over the next 20-odd years. Same mindset as the suicidal one, but this way, at least there’s hope that I’ll grow up and out of it someday. Besides, my life has not been completely devoid of love and goodwill toward others.

    • So much in that comment TP.

      I’ll pick up on this point:

      “I’m less interested in artists who commit suicide than I am in those who consent to fade into irrelevance in the eyes of the world, living large in a smaller sphere.”

      This reminds me of an interview with Paul McCartney on BBC Radio 4 the other day. He was plugging his new ballet and the interviewer asked him if he still thought he could “top” his music from The Beatles days. McCartney acknowledged that the Beatles was “as good as it was ever going to get.” But he said that doing something other than music didn’t feel right, so he stuck with music.

    • Great post, TP. There’s this idea in Buddhism that the energy in those impulses (bridge, Madras), and in their source, that if you can tap into it, will not only be a powerful healing force but also a compass towards enlightenment. When I gave up hoping I would grow out of all the “its”, it was pretty cool what opened up. Of course the next day I went back to hoping and ambivalence.

  15. Well there is some hard science behind the marriage of art and madness. The suicide of artists is so romanticized in our culture but I’ve worked with many mentally ill artists and they are much like anyone else who is severely depressed or psychotic. Suicide is fascinating from afar but close-up it’s sad and messy and incredibly complicated.

  16. She is unique. That is hard.

  17. I was enthralled with Arbus as a teenager and 20-something and it will be great to revisit her with this book. Frankly, her suicide is not something I’ve kept with me all these years …more the haunting eyes of so many of her subjects. Great post, thank you….

  18. suicide is an accident.

  19. I tend to fixate not on what these individuals accomplished, but what more they might have done with their art and their lives if they had continued to pass that open window.

  20. […] reading Betsy’s post on Diane Arbus, my mind trails back to 1977-79. I can’t help but think about Westbeth, the […]

  21. My first encounter with suicide was in high school – I prevented a fellow student from taking her own life. She spent months in a hospital, never returned to our school and it was a forbidden topic in front of the teachers. In the first six months after ‘Katrina, I knew two people who committed suicide. Both were kind, giving people who were just overwhelmed with the stresses from living in that apocalyptic-like environment. Such an ultimate decision to the frightening power of despair leaves me weak-kneed. ‘Don’t know if I’ll be able to read this book.

    • The sad thing is that suicide leaves devastation in its wake. Those left behind have to cope, and the person who caused the pain has fled the scene. Sometimes I think just waiting one more day can bring a change. But those who are hurting so intensely can’t see a way out. I am glad you helped your fellow student. Sad that the teachers didn’t let you talk about it.
      Heather

  22. I don’t know where to begin. Diane Arbus’ black and white photographs are some of the most powerful images I have ever seen. Her suicide disturbs me, as does the suicide of nearly anyone, famous or not. I say nearly anyone because for some people it’s not only an option, but fels like the only option. Anyone who has experienced tremendous depression or pain knows what I’m talking about. Anyone in complete physical pain with only a short time left to live knows more than I do. I’ve known people who have taken their lives and Bobbi’s
    statement above about the sad, messy, incredibly complicated aspects are all too real. I thought my heart had been broken before but it wasn’t until one of my best friends killed himself that I knew what pain really felt like. In some ways, his reasons made sense, but the reality is I don’t know what his reasons were and can only guess. It’s the same with anyone — we can only guess. And even if you come up with a reason, does it really matter? Nothing changes, everything changes.
    My thoughts are: anyone reading this post and thinking of suicide should say something. Talk about it. It might be th hardest thing you’ll ever do, but hopefully it won’t be the last.
    (Kay Redfield Jamison’s book, “Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide” helped me. I don’t know if I’ll read “An Emergency in Slow Motion”, but I do know I’ll find out more about it).
    Peace to all. And much love.

  23. I had a conversation with a colleague this weekend about why writers can be so difficult to work with. In part I think it’s that awful alchemy of extraordinarily sensitive soul meets brutal profession.

    I think this also factors into the prevalence of depression/ suicide/ substance abuse among artists.

  24. But, as Bobbi said, we should not ignore the hard science of it. Romanticizing suicide doesn’t seem right. I think “we” totally did that with Sylvia Plath and maybe Hemingway.

  25. Just bought this book last week after reading about it and haven’t started it yet. Arbus created the kind of images that you can’t look away from, but that are painful to see. Her subjects often have strange, clear, wounded expressions that reveal feelings of mine that I’d never want anyone to see. I didn’t know it was one of yours, Betsy. I’ll appreciate it more.

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