Anna Vitale

Suicidal Fantasy and the Life of the Author

Amiri Baraka's 'Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note . . . .'

Cover of 'Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note . . . .'

Amiri Baraka’s Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note . . . . (1961) addresses writing in the context of suicidal fantasy. The title refers to a possible suicide note, one that emerges in concert with what may be a life’s work, manifested in twenty volumes. The voluminous, nearly encyclopedic note is projected into the future.

Amiri Baraka’s Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note . . . . (1961) addresses writing in the context of suicidal fantasy. The title refers to a possible suicide note, one that emerges in concert with what may be a life’s work, manifested in twenty volumes. The voluminous, nearly encyclopedic note is projected into the future. “This is just the preface,” the title flirts.

David Wojnarowicz's 'Arthur Rimbaud in New York'

Rimbaud Icon: a t-shirt
Rimbaud Icon: a t-shirt

e following is an excerpt, with additions and edits for clarity, from the essay Our Rimbaud Mask forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse this fall. 

Between 1978 and 1980, David Wojnarowicz created the Arthur Rimbaud in New York series, several hundred black-and-white photographs of someone wearing a mask of Rimbaud’s face. The photographs say, “he would have visited Coney Island”; “he would have seen porn in Times Square”; “he would have eaten a hamburger and fries.” Spotting the nineteenth-century French poet in the Big Apple is more than delightful.

Sylvia Plath's 'The Bell Jar'

The Bell Jar (Faber & Faber)
The Bell Jar (Faber & Faber)

Sylvia Plath spent the summer of 1953 in New York working for Mademoiselle magazine. In the first sentence of The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood, Plath’s narrator, tells us “I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” Esther’s inability to know — to know what she was doing and whether her life was worth it — is contextualized by the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Their execution is everywhere she turns. “The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers — goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway.” Despite being the one who is free and alive, Esther feels impossibly trapped. When execution is all there is to read about, it is also all one can write about.

Sylvia Plath spent the summer of 1953 in New York working for Mademoiselle magazine. In the first sentence of The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood, Plath’s narrator, tells us “I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” Esther’s inability to know — to know what she was doing and whether her life was worth it — is contextualized by the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.