Never send to know
John Donne, a 17th-century English poet and revered dean at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, wrote amorous and erotic poems in his youth, which suggests to me that it wasn’t wasted. Later, he delivered luminous sermons from the pulpit that still thunder down the centuries and echo across cultures from equatorial Africa and the Asian east to the South, Central and North American west.
He told the truth, and it doesn’t take just an Englishman to recognize it.
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” he once said. “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
In his world, men, women and children typically came and went more rapidly than in our world. Bells — the sound of bells made by masters of their music — filled the daily lives of nearly everyone, because nearly everyone lived within their sound, from birth to death. They were an English affect, a European affect that rang out notices of beginnings and endings, of weddings and funerals, of special days and special hours of a day, all the time.
In America, bells existed here and there only for a while. Now mostly they’ve faded into silence, sometimes carrying away with them that peculiar notion Donne took the liberty of branding into our psychic hides — the notion that we don’t walk alone.
Americans, however, seem to walk alone whenever we damn well please, and sometimes when we don’t. We have a capacity for solitude, sorrow, grief, despair, silent anguish and singly-borne loneliness that appears as boundless as our capacity for grinning at nearly everything, and making light of the bleeding.
I’m not averse to grinning or solitude or stoicism. But all of it makes me wonder: What would have happened if we’d never let the bells go? What if we’d let them ring our common humanity into our hearts and minds from matins to vespers — from morning to evening prayers — every day, wherever we presumed to call ourselves family or community or clan or tribe or church?
Would she then have killed herself only days after her 57th birthday, when so much seemingly remained for her to celebrate — especially a family who loved her unreservedly?
The mere act of raising that question is probably an affect on my part, just as the bells themselves were affects (lovely ones, in my opinion) of Western culture.
What we know now about people who remove themselves from the world suddenly — or at least what I know — is that they did their living in a place beyond reason. They did their living in anguish, in pain so extreme that mere words, mere habitual treatment for depression, mere pharmaceutical or psychological interventions, couldn’t alter their determination to quit the world sooner rather than later.
In harder and less palatable terms, perhaps, it comes down to this: Love — contrary to sentimental conviction — may not be enough. It may not conquer all, if all includes the profound anguish that leads to suicide.
Self-doubt is an unforgiving tyrant, of course. We wonder: Perhaps love conquers all if it’s applied precisely and correctly, at the right time and place, in the right way, with the right gravity and force and conviction. Right love, let’s call it.
All of us who loved her once or always — once in my case, and always in the case of her heartbroken family — wonder: Wasn’t mine the right love? Could I have loved more or differently, and thus saved her?
A simpler form of the same question: Is it my fault?
I’m repeating what I believe, and what a friend of mine told me on the telephone last night: One must respect her decision.
That’s not the traditional Western notion, which judges suicide as a sin. It also ignores the traditional inclination to view it as a kind of cowardice.
Instead, my friend insists that no one can determine if the decision was right or wrong, because no one can understand how large the burden was that she had to carry, or why she finally decided it wasn’t worth carrying anymore.
We can only respect her decision — and admit how much it has hurt us. “You have to take care of yourself,” he said, speaking from experience, and for any who have suffered such an inexplicable, incomprehensible loss.
One thing is certain: She loved her family deeply, steadfastly and always, as hard as she was able. That isn’t in dispute by me or them. So her decision to surrender — certainly irrational and misguided, as most decisions made in pain are — must not have been part of her love, only her suffering.
How can we, who loved her, therefore judge it?
But now this for us — this eternal, ringing silence. This absence of bells.
When we were young, she and I lived together, in London. We sat in St. Paul’s one day beneath Christopher Wren’s great dome that survived the Nazis and everything else, and quietly read out John Donne’s sermon.
We heard bells all the time in those days, literally. We even printed a book of poems about bells by hand, on an Albion printing press once owned by William Morris, another English poet and artisan. I still have it.
We believed every word that Donne had said in his most famous sermon, and I believe it more than ever, now — now that I realize all of us are so deeply diminished by her loss.
Which is why I look to something else Donne once wrote.
I no longer believe, but I can still hope: “Death be not proud, thou some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.”