The More Immediate Country

Veronica Vega

From Chatterton by Henry Wallis

HAVANA TIMES — In Cuba, where emigration has been a pressing issue for decades, people tend to think that the solution to the most serious problems is to be found in a passport, a visitor’s visa, or a raft.

Death, however, is a country more immediate than any other, and, in certain extreme situations, one can take a plunge off mental precipices and choose the short way out, at least from a materialist point of view.

Months ago, I met a young man who, while in military service (compulsory in Cuba for males), had tried to commit suicide by slashing his wrists.

To consider suicide as a viable option may be a sign of one’s mental health (and this perspective may be questionable). What’s certainly worse is to believe that being able to adapt to the military determines the psychic qualities of a human being and, by extension, their ability to become integrated into society in a healthy fashion.

The military system requires sincere devotion and, even though it is a transitory experience, it demands psychological characteristics that, if anything, coincide with those that allow individuals to pass a basic survival test, an “every man for himself,” a situation in which the features that make a person truly “human” do not come into play.

This young man was uncommonly intelligent. He had been admitted into the chemistry faculty through a contest. He also creates maps of imaginary cities whose complexity and precise design are striking.

He also has an unusually sad gaze, looking fed up or perturbed by the unfolding of a destiny that is many a time uncontrollable. There, in that psychiatry ward, a witness to several similar cases, I wondered by self-immolation is such a sublime artistic motif, despite its violence.

Renowned suicides like those of Romeo and Juliet have become a symbol of society’s failure and not the failure of the individual before the challenge of existence.

In The Waves, Virgina Woolf has Rodha commit suicide, as she would do ten years later, by drowning. “We may sink and settle on the waves. The sea will drum in my ears. The white petals will be darkened with sea water. They will float for a moment and then sink. Rolling over the waves will shoulder me under. Everything falls in a tremendous shower, dissolving me.”

Romeo and Julieta, one of the most famous suicides. This version by Zeffirelli

The real death of the author, who filled her pockets with stones and waded into the Ouse River, must have been a terrifying experience, lacking entirely in romanticism.

There was once an actress (I don’t recall her name) who ingested an overdose of pills. Dressed in fine clothes and lying in bed, she planned to drift into an eternal sleep, being found (and remembered) this way. But her body made her crouch over a toilet and vomit.

We must acknowledge the body’s natural resistance to its own destruction. Even those who opt for euthanasia require assistance, knowledge and specific means to make the transition as pain-free as possible.

Idealization can have dreadful consequences. “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” an epistolary recounting unrequited love that ends in suicide, spawned the so-called “Werther Fever,” a fad in Europe which led people to wear the character’s clothes and made at least two thousand readers commit suicide.

What’s contradictory about the work is that, though it reflects an episode of unrequited love that Goethe experienced in his youth, the author made his character die, while he survived the experience, something which constitutes a far more eloquent lesson.

In his autobiography (“Before the End”), Argentinean novelist Ernesto Sabato writes: “I get many letters from young men who feel they are standing at the edge of the abyss, not only from our country but also from around the world. Like the letter of that sixteen-year-old teenager who had read my novels and wrote me from a town in France. He wrote me of Rimbaud in a hand-written missive, in tumultuous despair. It terrified me, because I felt he could go as far as committing suicide, as this drama is universal. Kids speak to me of their sorrows, their longing to die. They also tell me how they cling to Martin and Hortensia Paz, because they help them endure this atrocious and cruel life.”

Martin and Hortensia Paz are characters in his novel “On Heroes and Tombs”. They resemble flesh-and-blood people so thoroughly that they do not only fear, doubt and suffer but also struggle not to capsize.

I’ve faced depressions as deep as anyone has experienced and don’t know why I have never been tempted by thoughts about the viability of death. However, I have used suicide in my literary fiction, trying to explore why, in certain situations or mental states – or even at certain ages – the option may appear fascinating.

I believe this is so not because of the objective possibility of ending everything that it affords, but precisely because of the opposite. Just as we intuit those mental superpowers that science locates in a brain able to unfold the entirety of its potential, we also intuit that that which infuses us with existence does not die, that it is a form of energy and that this energy, as it is often said, is neither created nor destroyed, that it is merely transformed. Thus, deliberate death is a means of putting this to the test, a way to explore whether there are limits to existence or not, in the way one does playing a first-person videogame.

Millais Ofelia, another famous suicide of literature.

When I spoke about this with the maker of imaginary maps, I told him he can kill his body but that he will never stop thinking, not even in death, and that the essential reason behind our angst is mental. If consciousness is the cause of suffering, it is also the cause of the fullest possible happiness, as both states are perceived through the same psychic senses.

The only useful death is the death of the ego, which constitutes a false identity. This is a mutation achieved through specific disciplines, by voluntarily managing our attention. Such forms of self-control allow us to endure difficult physical or moral suffering without the agony it would bring to a common mind. That is the profound meaning of the Christian invitation of learning to die to begin living.

As this young man doesn’t have an email address or telephone, we used cell phones and regular mail as a means of communication. We planned to see one another when he is able to come to Havana, and I’ve told him I would like to get to know his hometown. He says he has found the friends he needs to go on in us. He writes long and profound letters. I was happy to learn he has taken on the challenge of writing a fantasy novel.

We Cubans are experts in skirting shortages. When I am tormented by the sense he is going through a crisis, I write him a text message. If he has no credit, he replies by ringing once. It is a triumphant signal that he is still there, willing to face life…with life.