Only the Good Die Young: Remembering Ill-Fated Icons

Mike Mariani

It has been 50 years since Sylvia Plath killed herself. As the decades go by and we become further removed from her death, the enchantment surrounding her life and work only increases, as if it were a time-release spell on the popular imagination.


There has always been something highly conspicuous about our obsession with the macabre deaths of famous people. There is the aforementioned Sylvia Plath bowing into the oven, playing Gretel to the wicked witches in her head; Kurt Cobain and all the conspiracy theories casting a gaseous haze around that sinister shotgun; even Anna Nicole Smith, who has been immortalized, paradoxically, because the narrative of her life seemed so destined to end in sordid, premature death. The artists, musicians, and ersatz celebrities whose lives end in magnificent denouements of anguish and abjection are the ones we remember, cling on to, beatify.


My personal morbid fascination has always been with Layne Staley, the lead singer for Alice in Chains in the 1990s. After the band released just two albums and a couple of EPs, Staley barricaded himself in his Seattle condo, indulging in a dark, secret, lonely world of crack and heroin use. In 2002, he was found dead, his body a rotting heap of drug-riddled putrescence. Sure, I liked Alice in Chains' music, but Staley's life and death got under my skin. The sonorous fatalism of his voice and lyrics; his scheming, vagrant father, who used his son for quick fixes; the incredibly drawn-out demise, in which Staley turned his condo into a wanton drug den/solitary confinement/grotesque playland of painting, video games, and crack pipes for five years.  Why Staley's story and fate enthrall me I don't know for sure, but I can tell you that is has something to do with Sigmund Freud and one of his less popular theories, the death drive.


There are any number of reasons why the deaths of famous people pique our interest. Schadenfreude quickly comes to mind. There is also, in the case of those who die young, the opportunity to remember an icon at his or her most picturesque. James Dean and Marilyn Monroe have a sense of immortality because they were never subjected to the ravages and vicissitudes of time. Starlets and matinee idols like them were never dragged through old age and imperfection, tainting their immaculate portraits and spoiling the loftiest dreams of posterity. But in contemporary American society, celebrities loom even larger. We treat our stars and luminaries like the Romans treated their gods, living vicariously through the visceral extremes and glimmering extravagances of their love, lust, jealousy, and solipsism. And if, when they die, we deem them martyrs, we remember them, mourn them, and fetishize their anguish. Beneath this surface infatuation, we are projecting our own unconscious desires on the actors, poets, musicians, and painters we adore. What people never consider is that one element in the heterogeneous constitution of those desires that we project—sex, adoration, wealth, greatness—is the death drive.


In Freud's 1920 essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” the psychoanalyst advances the idea that there are two opposing forces, or drives, that vie for supremacy over us. The first, Eros, is responsible for our desire for sexual reproduction, self-preservation, creativity, and productivity. Along with the libido, Eros is essentially our will to live. The second is Thanatos. Briefly, Thanatos is the drive towards death and the compulsion to return to an inorganic, inanimate state—the state before one was born. But Thanatos is far more convoluted and byzantine than that. One of the foundational concepts for the death drive is the repetition compulsion, a phenomenon observed by Freud in which individuals would habitually return to or repeat traumatic events or behavior from their past. Freud postulated that the repetition compulsion represented the patient's latent desire to bind with that unresolved trauma from the past. Using his experiences working with patients presenting the repetition compulsion, which was almost always in opposition to Eros, Freud developed the theory that there is an "urge in organic life to restore an earlier state of things." That earlier state of things is, ultimately, the inorganic state before conception. Thanatos is, then, the drive to a., repeat and bind with the trauma of the past, and, b., to return to an inanimate, pre-consciousness state.


There can be no argument that Sylvia Plath is an inimitable icon. With all the biographies, journal collections, and new editions of her work, we keep her alive, permitting and compelling her to traipse through the corridors of our memory like an ivory specter. Is it really The Bell Jar and Ariel that keeps her so enchanting, so dazzlingly alive? 


The truth is that many of the teenagers, quasi-feminists, and angst-dealers who worship Plath do so not because of her work, at least not primarily, but because of the aura and cult of personality that has been conjured around her for half a century. Plath has been so built up in the decades following her suicide that for millions of Americans her name has a charismatic connotative power. We think of filial heartbreak, mental illness, suicide, infidelity, and above all, an incredible, near-masochistic ferocity to endure life's legion of treacheries. Plath is remembered because she suffered. Her biography is at least as important as her artistic achievements in making her this indestructible, evocative phantasm that still transfixes academics, feminists, and quicksilver teens.

But we do not simply love her story because it is a sympathetic one; if that were true, there would be tens of thousands of other gifted artists throughout history vying for our enduring adoration. It is the trauma we are drawn to. As a culture we experience a collective repetition compulsion, pulling us to revisit Plath's meltdowns and heartbreaks, to keep the desolated one alive as long as we can so that we can bind with her trauma, and in some way become transformed by it.


Plath is only the most pertinent example of this need we have to sanctify certain artists so that we may revisit their traumas. Nirvana only released three albums while Kurt Cobain was alive, and yet it is he who is the undisputed melancholic prince of grunge music, and perhaps all of Generation X. Is this enormous legacy all because of Nevermind? No, it's because of Nevermind and the fact that Cobain was a sensitive, alienated kid who was not just fragile and combustible in his lyrics and performances, but was just that way in real life. Someone who suffered from bipolar disorder, was prone to crippling bouts of depression, and who succumbed to heroin addiction. Someone whose life was a short road of pain and suffering. We anoint him prince of an entire generation because we believe within him was the consolidated angst and disaffection of multitudes of kids who dealt with sh*t and lived in unhappiness belying their youthful age.


So Kurt Cobain is a symbol for all of that—so what? Well, he is a symbol, icon, and/or luminous force that we continue to return to precisely because he suffered so greatly. Millions of Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers (not to mention music labels, publishers, and untold slapdash outfits peddling Cobain merchandise) continue to relive his story. It is our Thanatos in vicarious form: moths swirling around the blue in the flame produced by the luminescent memory of pain and trauma. 


It is not just ill-fated musicians and artists that inspire our death drive. Religious icons can too. Jesus Christ might be the greatest example of how the death drive and the repetition compulsion therein manifest themselves in human behavior. In his final days, Christ was betrayed, tortured, mocked, and crucified. When Christians look at the crucifix—in their homes and churches, under their shirts and on their flesh, hanging in their mind's eye like an apparition of their soul—it is Christ's suffering they remember. For all his miracles and parables, it is Christ's sacrifice that gives Christianity its potency. So while it may at first seem absurd to claim that Thanatos fuels Christian belief, the specifics are more persuasive. What is the Eucharist if not the repetition compulsion in the form of a religious sacrament? We accept the body and blood of Christ during Holy Communion so that we may return to the period directly preceding Christ's capture and death; so that we may bind with his trauma.

While Jesus Christ may be more than simply an icon of suffering for many, he is never less than one. After all, it is he who spawned the term “Christ-like figure” to describe someone who suffers endlessly and typically dies young so that others may be saved and inspired. Christ and all his real and fictional analogues have a spiritual charisma that beckons us to return to them. By habitually, even pathologically revisiting their agonies, we go against all the demands of Eros. The death drive, and more specifically the repetition compulsion, grows out of a need deeper and more enigmatic than procreation and self-preservation; it is a symptom of our search for salvation.


 You may say that Christ has nothing in common with Kurt Cobain or Sylvia Plath; that religion and art are completely separate, and comparing someone whom hundreds of millions of people consider to be the son of the Christian God to poets, guitarists, and those of their creative ilk is polemical whimsy. But they do have something in common: their martyrdom.


Whatever human institution they lived and died for—religious, artistic, political—it is the martyrs we always return to. We admire their courage, conviction, stamina, and willful subjection to affliction and suffering. But mere admiration is not enough to spur us to return to them, again and again, playing out their doomed lives in our hearts and minds like we were attempting some sort of futuristic memory transfer. Their martyrdom gives them that unmistakable spiritual glamour that draws us in, not because we want to die like them, or die at all, but because we secretly believe that dying young means living on. We return to and repeat the life and trauma of those talented, fearless, seraphic individuals because we wish to believe that a life of suffering, integrity, and self-actualization leads not to death but to transcendence. And when we remember and exalt them, we fulfill our own prophecy.


Author Bio:
Mike Mariani is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


Photos: Wikipedia Commons; Penquista Insomne (Flickr); Carlos Andres Restrepo (Flickr).

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