October 19th, 2021
Bartleby in Pullman

I prefer not to, says the football coach at Washington State, and haggadah tell you (Passover pun), UD‘s always had a soft spot for silent machos who canter off and everyone watches them go and says What a man and No one will ever know why and Miss Ellie’s daddy he owns the biggest copper mine in the state and everybody knows she wanted to marry him but.

Nick Rolovich gave up fifteen million dollars and the wild adulation of the entire Evergreen State because he refused to get vaccinated because… because none of your goddamn business is because. Fine. Nuff said.

April 14th, 2021
Bernie …

made off.

January 5th, 2021
“[He] opposed all malicious gossip, stopping all such gossipers with a trademark Tommy line — ‘forgive me, but it’s hard to be a human.’”

The suicide, at 25, of Jamie Raskin’s son Tommy (I’ve met Raskin a few times – he’s my district’s member of congress) prompts a beautiful remembrance essay by his parents.

What to say? UD‘s longtime readers know that her father – an eminent immunologist at NIH who had a good marriage and friends and four healthy kids – committed suicide when he was 58. Ever since that happened, she’s done a lot of thinking and reading and writing about the act, and these words by Elaine Ellis Thomas (her son Seth killed himself) convey a good deal of what UD has concluded about it.

Suicide brings on a very particular and peculiar kind of grief. The guilt and second-guessing and pure horror that someone could end one’s own life cause excruciating pain for family and friends. I have learned more about this than I care to know in the time since Seth died. Although we still know very little about John Miller’s tragic passing [Miller was a music instructor at Yale], I thought it might be helpful to share some of that hard-earned knowledge.

You could not have prevented it. Even if you think that you could have on that particular occasion, there is no guarantee that it would not have happened some other time. If you are wondering why you didn’t go with John or ask him to come over if he seemed out of sorts, don’t blame yourself. Seth’s roommate was in an adjoining room when he died. Having someone nearby made no difference at all.

If you’re trying to make rational sense of how something like this could happen to someone with such talent and such a bright future, you really can’t think about it rationally — there is no rational explanation. Normal people, those who are not sick in some way, do not kill themselves. Our most basic human instinct is for survival, so to cause one’s own demise subverts that in ways our healthy intellects can’t imagine.

If you’re thinking that John made a choice to end his life, I can’t agree. Whatever was tormenting him — depression, mental illness, some event that threw his mental wiring off kilter — that is what took him. As I said before, it isn’t a rational choice. Suicides are committed by people driven by a distorted mental and emotional reality. It isn’t really a choice.

I think a lot of people sensed these truths very strongly a couple of years ago when one of the goldenest of golden boys, Alan Krueger, killed himself at the age of 58 (same age as my father). Brilliant, handsome, courtly and kind, at the very top of his game, Krueger had it all – an Ivy League professorship, high-level positions in the federal government, a seemingly happy personal life, etc. Yet off he went, with not one of his many friends having had an inkling, as they tell it, that something was disastrously wrong inside his head.


Another thing UD has come to understand about suicide – there are several pretty clearly distinct kinds. We have already referred to two here – suicide among the young (Tommy Raskin), and suicide among the middle-aged (Krueger; my father). A third kind – suicide among the elderly – is the easiest to understand, it seems to me. Consider one such that I wrote about not long ago – my Northwestern University professor, Erich Heller. I gather, from reading about it, that Heller’s life sort of tapered to an end and he just got bored and lonely and sad. His younger life had been pretty heady, conducted among the literary and philosophical elite of Europe and America; in old age, with most of his friends dead and Heller frail, unwell, and pretty much alone, the whole existence thing must not have seemed much of a bargain. When things come to an end but you’re still sort of pointlessly hanging around, it can seem a little de trop to keep going through the (increasingly excruciating) motions.

I’ve written a lot, on this blog about universities, about student suicides. These may seem spontaneous, some sort of psychotic break, and can be dramatically – athletically! – enacted, reflecting in a final dark inversion the vitality and impulsivity of the young. But despite their seeming suddenness, most acts of suicide among the young are, as Camus wrote of all suicides, “prepared within the silence of the heart.” Many youthful suicides are carefully planned, and may feature rational, and very apologetic, suicide notes. Once people become, in Thomas’s words, “driven by a distorted mental and emotional reality,” their life becomes intense daily warfare between psychic pain that wants to kill them and doctors/pills/therapists/loved ones who want to save them. In notes like Raskin’s, which his parents released, the writer acknowledges, with what is left of his rational mind, that the war has been lost:

“He left us this farewell note on New Year’s Eve day: ‘Please forgive me. My illness won today. Please look after each other, the animals, and the global poor for me. All my love, Tommy.’”

Depression, to state what I guess is the obvious, kills most suicides. My father, diagnosed bipolar, died with a full load of anti-depressant medication in him, prescribed by a sympathetic and highly qualified psychiatrist. But the depression won that day. The symbolism of the end of the year spoke – insidiously whispered – to Tommy Raskin on his final day. Enough already. You’ve come to the very end.


The pathos of early life suicides lies in the irresistable thought that if somehow the lost could have just been – magically? – carried over the worst, if they could have been somehow sustained through the shocks to their sense of life as ongoing that they had to endure, they would have recovered and lived long lives. Heller we pity and understand; Krueger, like my father, presents as someone who was probably lucky to get 58 years, given what might well have been deep-lying, decades-long struggle against an immovably depressive disposition. But in the case of the young, like Tommy Raskin, I can’t help envisioning … I dunno… an Angels in America intervention that shields them until the storms abate.

Anyway. He was wise. See my headline. Hard to be a human. Ain’t it the truth.

December 1st, 2020
The Last Refuge of a Scoundrel: Nihilism.

It’s not – as Samuel Johnson claimed – patriotism. Months ago we got past whatever muck-sweat heavery the president thought might convey love of country to his rallies. We’re now into the final scenes (which, faithful UD readers know, I believe have a small but real chance of featuring executive self-slaughter), and these begin with institutional nihilism: All of our elections are rigged, including the one I won last time. Every operating part of America is bullshit: The law, the constitution, the FBI, the CIA: It’s all NOTHING. NOTHING! Nothing but global communist interstellar Soros machinations against me and you and there’s NOTHING we can do. None of it means anything. It’s pure murderous malignancy.

Here, Arkansas is the cutting edge. Got there a long time before everyone else.

So now the Republican party is worried that Republican voters will sit out the Georgia run-offs because why not? Why the hell not? Nothing matters. Nothing means anything. It’s all rigged. I don’t want to be a sucker.

Listen to Mitch McConnell lead his fellow Republican senators in singing the national anthem here.

So that’s the institutional final scene. We’re gonna get Trump’s personal nihilistic endgame pretty soon. Hold onto your hat.

November 27th, 2020
Ubu the King has a Few More Things to Say Before Exiting the Stage.

“You’re just a lightweight,” Mr. Trump snapped, raising his voice and pointing a finger [at a journalist] in anger. “Don’t talk to me that — don’t talk — I’m the president of the United States. Don’t ever talk to the president that way.”

Ubus always think that they can talk like gutter trash, but everyone must address them as if they’re the highest of the high. It don’t work that way, babe.


Staging by Alfred Jarry.

October 7th, 2020
Hungarian Requiem

The EU Court of course rules against Hungary’s having hounded out the Central European University.

Hungary long ago decided it wanted to be the Alabama of Europe. Countries are free to be cultural pits, if that’s what they want to be. Nobody writes about Hungary anymore, except for when the EU Court makes its meaninglessness official.

June 24th, 2020
“People imagine it is impossible to run through $600 million, but he did.”

Managed to lose six hundred million dollars; denied paternity of his children; at the end jumped out of a window.


Only in America: “Steve recently sold his jet... and was very depressed.”

June 23rd, 2020
When people like Steve Bing – super rich; tall, blond, and handsome; friend to the great – kill themselves, onlookers can’t help asking why.

Yet even a cursory glance at his demographics – 55 years old, white, living alone, estranged from his children – puts him squarely in the highest risk group for suicide in the United States. Strong silent macho states – Alaska, Wyoming, Montana – consistently top the suicide lists; add an elite education, wealth, privilege, and good looks to that, and transfer it to a luxury high rise in LA, and nothing much changes. Everyone thinks money buys happiness, and maybe for lots of people that’s true; but for lots of people – especially those born to great wealth – it’s not true. In fact, the wealth can be a real burden. Gerald Grosvenor was a depressive.

February 8th, 2019
He did brilliantly with an impossible role.

Albert Finney, the consul in the failed film version of UD‘s beloved Under the Volcano, has died.

January 16th, 2019
‘Many people die in … silence, particularly if they have advanced dementia or Alzheimer’s that robbed them of language years earlier. For those who do speak, it seems their vernacular is often banal. From a doctor I heard that people often say, “Oh fuck, oh fuck.”’

The majesty of final words.

August 20th, 2017
In memory of…

Jerry Lewis, behold my colleague Faye Moskowitz’s niece, Sandra Bernhard, holding a gun to his head.

February 13th, 2015
“After the three-hour executive session, [South Carolina State University President Thomas] Elzey did not respond to calls for him to be removed. Instead, he reinforced his plans to rescue the university.”

Rescue fantasies.

February 13th, 2014
The Graves of Academe

The University of Mississippi keeps discovering mass graves on its property. They seem to have been the unmarked burials of various groups of people. For instance, inmates at a mental asylum that used to be on the land.

“[T]hose buried on the plot could [also] include tuberculosis patients, former slaves, and Civil War casualties.”

It’s a complex, delicate, and expensive problem. The university had wanted to build a parking lot on this land (that’s why they’d been digging); those plans are now shelved as administrators consider how to deal respectfully with the bodies.

February 4th, 2014
In memory of Truman Capote’s best …


Jeet Thayil’s The Heroin Sestina.


What was the point of it? The stoned
life, the chased, snorted, shot life. Some low
comedy with a cast of strangers. Time
squashed flat. The 1001 names of heroin
chewed like language. Nothing now to know
or remember but the dirty taste

of it, and the names: snuff, Death, a little taste,
H — pronounce it etch —, sugar, brownstone,
scag, the SHIT, ghoda gaadi, #4 china, You-Know,
garad, god, the gear, junk, monkey blow,
the law, the habit, material, cheez, heroin.
The point? It was the wasted time,

which comes back lovely sometimes,
a ghost sense say, say that hard ache taste
back in your throat, the warm heroin
drip, the hit, the rush, the whack, the stone.
You want it now, the way it lays you low,
flattens everything you know

to a thin white line. I’m saying, I know
the pull of it: the skull rings time
so beautiful, so low
you barely hear it. Itch this blind toad taste.
When you said, “I mean it, we live like stones,”
you broke something in me only heroin

could fix. The thick sweet amaze of heroin,
helpless its love, its know-
ledge of the infinite. Why push the stone
back up the hill? Why not leave it with the time-
keep, asleep at the bar? Try a little taste
of something sweet that a sweet child will adore, low

in the hips where the aches all go. Allow
me in this one time and I’ll give you heroin,
just a taste
to replace the useless stuff you know.
Some say it comes back, the time,
to punish you with the time you killed, leave you stone

sober, unknowing, the happiness chemical blown
from your system, unable to taste the word heroin
without wanting its stone one last time.


Let’s walk (drift?) through it, thinking about heroin.

First: a sestina! Note the repeated final words from stanza to stanza (with a few variations): heroin, taste, know, low, time, stone. Circling around again and again to those words conveys the obsessive ritual nature of the addiction dance itself, the getting-nowhere, time squashed flat, everything you know flattened to a thin white line recurrency of using. But also: Our sense as we read of the mental burdens the form imposes gives us access to the oppressive intellectual puzzle that generates the poem itself: Why would anyone inject heroin? Low, dirty, Death, junk, wasted…

Or, as Jeff Deeny writes:

The addicting substance is characterized as “cunning, baffling and powerful.” It sounds like a cliché until someone with more than two decades clean, with a beautiful family and a career that is the envy of the world trades it in for a glassine envelope of dope and a set of works.

The speaker of the poem, a former user still drawn – by the mere invocation of the word heroin – to the drug, poses the question. Why trade death for life? So the poem is a typical lyric in that it represents one musing consciousness questioning (insistently, repeatedly, and not very productively; hence the sestina choice) itself. Why did I do that? Why do I still want to?

The bizarre but familiar answer the poem provides is that a lot of people really like – adore – feeling dead. They find irresistibly seductive the idea of Stop the World I Want to Get Off. If you are astounded by something as massive as propofol – a drug “used exclusively by anesthesiologists” being in Michael Jackson’s blood, you should consider that fatal doses of propofol are the logical extension – given enough money and the capacity to find ways around rules – of the I Want to Be Dead idea.

Time squashed flat. Wasted time.

the way it lays you low,
flattens everything you know

to a thin white line. I’m saying, I know
the pull of it: the skull rings time
so beautiful, so low
you barely hear it.

… When you said, “I mean it, we live like stones,”
you broke something in me only heroin

could fix. The thick sweet amaze of heroin,
helpless its love, its know-
ledge of the infinite. Why push the stone
back up the hill?

Sisyphean life is one damn thing after another. Pushing the stone up the hill. A meaningless suffering that simply persists – deepens – until time ends it with our physical deaths. But if we end time? Heroin takes us into a strange micro and macro reality: It reduces everything in the world to itself, its thin white line, the immediacy for the user of the particular works he’s manipulating when he’s using. But heroin at the same time expands the universe out to infinity. It takes away our small painful one stone after another wretchedly individual lives and gives us instead a skull in which the flame of time and the self has been radically lowered, to the point where, subdued as specific suffering time-bound beings, our immortal souls (if you like) rise to the ether of the cosmic, the infinite, the non-human. Heroin isn’t death; it’s the glorious sensation of liberating oneself into non-being. As in Doris Lessing’s story To Room Nineteen:

delightfully, darkly, sweetly, letting herself slide gently, gently, to the edge of the river

So sweet is the thick amaze, the user risks being

unable to taste the word heroin
without wanting its stone one last time

January 28th, 2014
Tom Perkins Was Just One Asshole Too Many.

Captain Kristallnacht kills Pete.

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