Catching up with material from earlier in the week, I discovered a BBC Culture article, Sylvia Plath: the literary icon destined to remain an enigma. Six decades after her death, there still seems a readership for such speculation, (admittedly, by reading the piece, I must be among them).
But isn’t every person an enigma?
Back in the 1990s I had a friend in Northern Ireland who twice attempted suicide. On one occasion someone realized he had taken an overdose and called an ambulance. When they arrived at his house he was still conscious and he sent them away. Without the power to physically arrest him, they had to wait until he had slipped into unconsciousness before re-entering the house and taking him to hospital.
He was eventually to die as a result of an assault by Loyalist thugs who decided to break into his flat and beat him with baseball bats with spikes driven through them because he was gay.
Had he survived, I wondered if he would have again made an attempt on his life. We had once discussed the issue.
“If you are feeling bad, anytime. Just pick up the phone. Just call.”
He had shaken his head. “If I was able to pick up the phone, I wouldn’t need to call.”
Only one person seemed to accept him as he was – his mother. On the eve of his funeral, she phoned. I did not know her, but he must have mentioned me at some time and my odd English name must have remained in her memory.
“I just wanted to talk to someone who knew him,” she said.
We talked – about his love for books, about his constant studies, about his love for films and music, about laughter. What we did not do was to try to analyse, or explain, or rationalise, because neither of us had an understanding of what might have prompted his suicide attempts, nor had we the vocabulary to express how we felt at his murder. He was a quiet, private, gentle soul; it seemed inexplicable that anyone would have attacked him.
For a while afterwards, I would call at the nursing home in which she lived and she would recount some fresh set of memories, some piece of quirkiness from his young days. Mostly the visits were about sitting and listening, sometimes sitting in silence; there was not much that I could contribute.
News stories of tragic deaths seem beset by people needing to comment, as though it were possible to reverse events by some process of lengthy analysis. Should the person dead be prominent, then the comment will endure for years. But who cares what so-and-so says?
Why is there always felt a need to have the answers? Why must there always be a search for significance or meaning or purpose? People are enigmas, and will remain so.